TOLUCA - US President Barack Obama called on Ukraine's government on Wednesday to avoid resorting to violence to deal with peaceful protesters, warning of "consequences if people step over the line."
Obama made his remarks during a visit to Mexico as the European Union scheduled urgent talks to mull sanctions in the wake of clashes between police and anti-government protesters in Kiev that left at least 26 people dead.
The White House also warned that it was considering possible sanctions against those behind the unrest.
"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.
"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 protesters," he said alongside Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
While helmeted demonstrators were locked in a tense standoff with riot police across burning barricades on Wednesday, Obama said the United States also expected protesters to remain peaceful.
"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," the US leader said.
"And that includes making sure the Ukrainian military does not step into what should be a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians."
The crackdown on anti-government protests by security forces on Tuesday triggered a storm of international condemnation, with the 28-nation EU bloc convening urgent talks for Thursday.
The unrest was the deadliest since protests erupted in November after President Viktor Yanukovych rejected an EU pact in favor of closer ties with former master Moscow.
- US sanctions warning -
The United States also warned of potential sanctions.
"We've made clear that we consider taking action against individuals who are responsible for acts of violence within Ukraine," US Deputy National Security Advisory Ben Rhodes said.
"We have a toolkit for doing that that includes sanctions."
US senators John McCain and Chris Murphy, who visited Kiev in December, said in a joint statement that they have begun work on legislation to apply "targeted sanctions."
They said the punitive measures would apply on "government officials and other persons who have committed, ordered, or materially supported acts of violence against peaceful citizens in Ukraine, or who are complicit in the rollback of Ukraine's democracy."
US Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, said "the time is now to apply sanctions against the Ukrainian government for gross human rights violations."
"I expect the administration with congressional support to act swiftly on this issue of critical importance," Menendez said in a statement.
Obama said the United States would continue to engage with all sides in the dispute.
"Ultimately 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," he said.
The Pentagon for its part called on Ukraine's army to stay out of the conflict, warning that it would have consequences with their defense ties.
"The Department of Defense is encouraged that the Ukrainian armed forces have not been brought into this crisis," spokesman Colonel Steven Warren told reporters.
Yanukovych replaced his army chief, Volodymyr Zamana, without providing an explanation on Wednesday.
Zamana is a powerful figure lauded by the opposition for refusing to back the use of force against those who had come out on the street.
On Tuesday, US Vice President Joe Biden called Yanukovych, telling him that security forces that stormed a protest camp on Kiev's Independence Square should withdraw and that the government "bears special responsibility to de-escalate the situation," the White House said.