Ukrainian opposition leaders have rejected a call by President Viktor Yanukovych for talks aimed at ending two weeks of protests against his move to step back from a key trade deal with the European Union, in favor of boosting ties with Russia.
Yanukovych issued an invitation late Wednesday for a national dialogue with religious, civic and opposition leaders, while urging protesters encamped in central Kyiv to avoid "confrontation and ultimatums."
In rejecting the president's call, opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk repeated demands that the president first release all prisoners detained since the protests began and that he and his government then resign.
Yatsenyuk spoke hours after police retreated from a huge protest encampment in Kyiv's Independence Square, after trying to dismantle a makeshift tent city erected by swarms of demonstrators.
In Washington Wednesday, The Pentagon said U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke by telephone with his Ukrainian counterpart, Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedyev. He said Hagel called for calm and warned the Ukrainian minister against using the country's armed forces against its civilian population.
A Pentagon statement said Lebedyev told Hagel that the Kyiv government does not intend to deploy troops to quell the protests.
In Kyiv Wednesday, Ukraine's Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said Ukraine is requesting $27.5 billion in financial assistance from the European Union before it will sign an association agreement with the 28-nation bloc.
For its part, Russia is seeking to form a trade bloc of former Soviet republics and satellite countries to rival the European Union, and has in recent months exerted strong economic pressure on its impoverished neighbor to scuttle the EU deal.
Earlier this year, it imposed restrictions on goods from Ukraine, cutting Ukrainian exports by 25 percent and dragging the country into recession.