(CNSNews.com) – European Union foreign ministers agreed Thursday to impose sanctions “as a matter of urgency” including an asset freeze and visa ban against individuals “responsible for human rights violations, violence and use of excessive force” in Ukraine.
Urging restraint and dialogue on a day when dozens of protesters were killed during clashes with riot police in Kiev – the deadliest single day since the former Soviet state declared independence – the ministers meeting in Brussels condemned “all use of violence” and said that “those responsible for grave human rights violations should be brought to justice.”
The move marks a shift for the E.U., previously reluctant to impose sanctions against President Viktor Yanukovich’s government over its response to the protests which began last November.
Earlier Thursday the White House called on Ukraine to withdraw security forces from central Kiev and urged the military “not to get involved in a conflict that can and should be resolved by political means.” Up until now the government has relied on civilian riot police units.
“We are outraged by the images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement. “We urge President Yanukovich to immediately withdraw his security forces from downtown Kyiv and to respect the right of peaceful protest, and we urge protesters to express themselves peacefully.”
“The United States will work with our European allies to hold those responsible for violence accountable and to help the Ukrainian people get a unified and independent Ukraine back on the path to a better future,” he said.
The U.S. government has already announced visa bans on 20 individual Ukrainians who according to a senior State Department official were viewed as “responsible for the actions of last night [Wednesday].”
Under U.S. law the individuals could not be named, the official told reporters on condition of anonymity, but added that the list “includes the full chain of command that we consider responsible for ordering the violence.”
The E.U. ministers’ statement pressed both the government and opposition to act.
“We call upon the government to exercise maximum restraint and opposition leaders to distance themselves from those who resort to radical action, including violence.”
E.U. foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton said after the meeting in Brussels that the violence was “completely unacceptable and should stop immediately.”
She called on all sides to seek dialogue, but said “the prime responsibility to get this moving lies with the president.”
The sanctions to be imposed include the suspension of export licenses on equipment that could be used for “internal repression.”
Ukraine’s crisis was triggered by a decision by Yanukovich last November to reverse course on a process leading to closer ties with the E.U., in favor of stronger links to Russia. Opposition groups, angered by that move but also alleging corruption and economic mismanagement, are demanding early elections.
Ashton said the elements for a lasting solution included the “formation of a new and inclusive government, constitutional reform, and the creation of conditions for democratic elections.”
She said the E.U. remains ready to support Ukraine in the process of reform, and reaffirmed that its offer of political association and economic integration – essentially the path Yanukovich turned away from in November – “remains on the table.”
Russia, which has accused Western governments of interference and the opposition of trying to overthrow Yanukovich by force, has offered to send an envoy to try to mediate between the warring sides.
Ukraine's health ministry said late Thursday that at least 75 people have been killed “since the unrest began” on Tuesday.