Obama says US condemns in 'strongest terms' violence in Ukraine

McClatchy Washington BureauFebruary 19, 2014 

APTOPIX Ukraine Protest

An anti-government protester throws a stone during clashes with riot police in Kiev's Independence Square, the epicenter of the country's current unrest, Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. The deadly clashes in Ukraine’s capital have drawn sharp reactions from Washington, generated talk of possible European Union sanctions and led to a Kremlin statement blaming Europe and the West.

EFREM LUKATSKY — AP

President Obama says the US "condemns in the strongest terms" the violence rocking Ukraine and is calling on the government to peacefully negotiate with the opposition.

Landing in Mexico for a summit, Obama said the U.S. has been "deeply engaged" with its European partners, as well as the Ukrainian government and the opposition to try to end the violence.

"But we hold the Ukrainian government primarily responsible for making sure that it is dealing with peaceful protesters in an appropriate way, that the Ukrainian people are able to assemble and speak freely about their interests without fear of repression," Obama said. "And I want to be very clear as we work through these next several days in Ukraine that we’re going to be watching closely and we expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protestors."

He said the U.S. also expects protestors "to remain peaceful and we’ll be monitoring very closely the situation, recognizing that with our European partners and the international community there will be consequences if people step over the line."

That includes making sure the Ukrainian military does not step into what should be a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians, Obama said.

"Our interest is to make sure the Ukrainian people can express their own desires and we believe a large majority of Ukrainians are interested in an integration with Europe and the commerce and cultural exchanges that are possible for them to expand opportunity and prosperity," he said. "But regardless of how the Ukrainian people determine their own future it is important the people themseves make those decisions and that’s what the United States will continue to strive to achieve."

The White House warned earlier Wednesday that it could impose sanctions on the government if the situation is not resolved.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters aboard Air Force One that Obama is expected to address the violence in Ukraine in private talks with leaders at a summit in Mexico, and in brief public comments.

The U.S. will coordinate with the EU over what if any action will be taken, Rhodes said, adding that its "toolkit,” includes sanctions.

“We have made it clear we would consider taking action against individuals who are responsible for acts of violence within Ukraine,” Rhodes said. “We have a toolkit for doing that that includes sanctions.”

He said the U.S. hopes to use the threat of sanctions to induce better behavior.

“Events like what we saw yesterday are clearly going to impact our decision making,” Rhodes said. If, on the other hand, the government pulls back, releases prisoners and pursues dialogue with the opposition, “that would obviously factor into our calculus as well.”

Vice President Joe Biden called Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych Tuesday to express "grave concern" regarding the violence in Kiev and call on Yanukovych to pull back government forces and "exercise maximum restraint," the White House said.

It said Biden "made clear that the U.S. "condemns violence by any side, but that the government bears special responsibility to de-escalate the situation." And he pushed for dialogue with opposition leaders to address the protesters’ "legitimate grievances and to put forward serious proposals for political reform."

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