THE WHITE HOUSE
— President Obama is considering a range of sanctions options in response to mounting violence and deaths in Ukraine.
The White House Thursday expressed outrage at what it called "images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people."
A White House statement called on President Yanukovych to immediately withdraw security forces and respect the right of peaceful protest. Washington also is urging protesters to express themselves peacefully.
There are strong indications the Obama administration will announce additional steps, including possible financial sanctions, which the president would impose through executive order.
WATCH: Related video from VOA's Zlatica Hoke
This would be on top of visa restrictions announced on Wednesday targeting 20 Ukrainian government officials.
Deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said the latest violence in Ukraine added a sense of urgency.
"Making a decision about sanctions, it can't just be knee-jerk action. It is important for us to consider the range of consequences that could ensue from applying sanctions. But again, there is a sense of urgency that is being felt because of the terrible violence we saw overnight," said Earnest.
Obama discussed the situation in Ukraine with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. They agreed, according to a statement, that it is critical for the United States, Germany and EU to stay in close touch on steps to support an end to the violence and a political solution.
Earnest indicated Obama would be having conversations with other world leaders "with a vested interest in peace and stability in Ukraine." He said the U.S. and Russia share a common interest in this. So far, Obama has not called Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation.
EU Efforts Continue
Three foreign ministers from the EU are in talks again with President Viktor Yanukovych on finding a way out of Ukraine's crisis.
France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius described the talks in Kyiv as "very difficult."
Fabius, along with the foreign ministers of Germany and Poland, arrived in the Ukrainian capital earlier on February 20 for talks with both the opposition and government.
After meeting with opposition leaders, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said progress was being made on a proposed road map to ease the crisis, which diplomats say would include forming a temporary government.
Late Thursday Ukraine parliament voted for all Interior Ministry forces to withdraw from Independence Square return to their bases but there was no indication of when the measure would take effect because it would have to be implemented by the president's office and the Interior Ministry.
The EU foreign ministers will continue negotiations on Friday.
The European Union announced sanctions, including visa bans, asset freezes and restrictions on the export of anti-riot equipment, aimed at those who ordered or were involved in orchestrating violence.
Russia has criticized the European and U.S. moves, calling them “blackmail.”
The call came amid reports that dozens of people were killed in a new escalation of clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces in central Kyiv on Thursday.
Quoting the protesters' top medic, the Associated Press is reporting that up to 70 activists have been killed and 500 injured so far. Some of those killed were reportedly shot by government snipers.
Ukraine's Interior Ministry, meanwhile, reported that three police officers were killed Thursday. It said more than 50 police personnel had been hospitalized during the day, 30 of them with gunshot wounds. The ministry also said that protesters had captured 67 policemen.
Elsewhere, television footage from the western city of Lviv showed scenes of chaos, as anti-government protesters firebombed government buildings and some police declined to intervene.
Thursday's violence erupted just hours after President Viktor Yanukovych announced a truce with opposition leaders.
Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko said Thursday that police have been issued "combat weapons" to protect citizens and property from attacks, and for self-defense.
He called on "extremists" among the protesters to hand over their weapons and called on opposition leaders to "disassociate themselves" from "the radicals."
WATCH: US/Europe Condemn Ukraine Violence
In Moscow, the Kremlin announced that President Vladimir Putin was sending his human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, to Ukraine to mediate talks between President Yanukovych and the opposition. According to the Kremlin, the step was taken at the Ukrainian president's request..
President Yanukovych and the leaders of anti-government protests had agreed on a truce Wednesday. A statement on President Viktor Yanukovych's website said it is aimed at "ending the bloodshed and stabilizing the situation ...in the interests of social peace." It did not provide details. The opposition claims Yanukovych was trying to use the truce to allow for more security forces to be moved into Kyiv.
Army chief replaced
Hours before Wednesday's truce had been announced, the president fired his army chief and Ukraine's military declared a nationwide crackdown on what it called "extremist groups." Yanukovych - the target of the protests - offered no explanation for the dismissal.
Separately, the Security Service of Ukraine announced an "anti-terrorist" operation, saying "radical elements" in the country had overrun government arms depots and seized weapons and munitions. Local media quoted officials as saying they fear those stockpiles are being transported to the capital for use by protesters trying to force Yanukovych from power.
Security Service chief Oleksandr Yakymenko said municipal buildings, security offices and arms depots had been raided around the country. He said 1,500 firearms and 100,000 rounds of ammunition had wound up "in the hands of criminals" over a 24-hour period.
Call to switch sides
Meanwhile, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko has called on police and soldiers to join the protesters.
"All who will switch sides and join the people, will have security guarantees," said he.
In a YouTube video statement
, the former world boxing champion-turned politician also called on those in uniform to remember the oath they took.
"Don't allow yourselves to be used as tools in this war against the people, whom you swore to serve and protect. Show your human side! Refuse to execute unlawful orders by the authorities, against whom the country has risen up," said Klitschko.
He added that Yanukovych is not worth such sacrifice.
In an apparent sign of Yanukovych's eroding support, his hand-picked acting mayor of Kyiv, Volodymyr Makeyenko, announced Thursday that he was resigning from Yanukovych's ruling Party of Regions in protest over the 'bloodshed' in the capital.
Anti-government protests have been rocking Ukraine since late November, with activists calling for Yanukovych's ouster after he backed away from a trade deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov condemned the deadly Ukraine protests as a "coup attempt." He denied claims President Vladimir Putin was giving advice to Ukraine's president on how to handle the crisis and reiterated Moscow would not interfere with Ukraine's internal affairs.
With reporting by RFE/RL, Reuters, AP and AFP.