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US Secretary of State John Kerry to meet Ukraine opposition leaders

Restoring calm to capital Kiev will be top of the agenda

The US Secretary of State John Kerry will meet key Ukrainian opposition figures today on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich, a senior US official has said.

The meeting will be Kerry's first with some of the leaders of an anti-government uprising against President Viktor Yanukovich that has raged in the capital Kiev for two months.

Washington has welcomed talks in recent days between Yanukovich and the opposition groups to end two months of protests that began when Yanukovich rejected an EU trade deal in favor of closer ties and a financial bailout with Russia.

Among those attending the meeting with Kerry is Arseny Yatsenyuk, a former economy minister and leader of the party of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko; former boxing champion-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko, who leads the Udar (Punch) party; Petro Poroshenko, a member of parliament; and Ukrainian pop star Ruslana Lyzhychko.

Yanukovich and opposition leaders agreed in talks on Monday to repeal some anti-protest laws, a key demand by the opposition. The sides also agreed that prisoners detained by police in the unrest should be granted amnesty, although Yanukovich has made this conditional on protesters relinquishing control of all premises and roads they seized.

In addition, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned on Tuesday after a sharp escalation in street unrest and calls by the opposition for him to step down.

The senior State Department said the US was "cautiously optimistic" about the negotiations between the government and opposition.

Discussions with Kerry would focus on ways to restore calm and relaunch the political process in Ukraine, including plans to form a new government, according to the official.

Kiev burns: How the protests have unfolded


The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the opposition figures were attending the conference in Munich to discuss the situation in Ukraine with the international community.

While in Germany, Kerry will also meet Germany's new Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Friday in Berlin followed by talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It is Kerry's first meeting with Merkel since leaked documents last year revealed Washington had been spying on EU citizens and bugged Merkel's mobile phone.

Later in Munich Kerry will also meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov before being joined by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who has just led the first round of Syria talks in Geneva aimed at ending the country's three-year civil war.

Kerry pressed Lavrov this week to step up pressure on Damascus to give up its chemical weapons. The United States on Thursday accused Syria of dragging its feet in giving up its chemical arsenal, saying that just 4 percent of its deadliest chemical agents had been shipped out of the country under a UN agreement.

A meeting between Kerry and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is expected to focus on the next round of talks with Iran that could lead to a definitive settlement to a decade-old nuclear standoff. The talks between six world powers and Iran are expected to start within a few weeks.