Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has unexpectedly taken sick leave from work, stepping aside from a crisis that still has no end in sight.
Mr Yanukovych’s falling sick with an acute respiratory infection is the latest twist in a crisis that has already seen him accept the resignation of the prime minister in a bid to placate protesters.
The sudden announcement in Kiev came after the pro-EU opposition vowed further protests in the ex-Soviet country’s worst political crisis since its 1991 independence.
The outcome of the crisis remained unclear, with thousands of demonstrators still occupying Kiev’s Independence Square, key streets and municipal buildings in the centre of Kiev.
International concern has grown, with Russian President Vladimir Putin urging the European Union not to meddle in the crisis but Western states under pressure from protesters to consider sanctions against Ukrainian officials.
The protests started in November as a push for EU integration after Mr Yanukovych under Russian pressure ditched a deal for closer integration with the bloc, but have now become an all-out drive to unseat the president who until now has defiantly refused to budge.
“The president is on sick leave,” Mr Yanukovych’s office said in a statement, without saying how long the leave would be for.
Citing deputy head of the State Directorate for Medical Affairs, Olexander Orda, the statement said Mr Yanukovych had gone down with an “acute respiratory infection accompanied by an elevated temperature.”
While many Kievans have fallen sick in recent days amid frigid temperatures that have plunged to -20C, the sick leave will allow Mr Yanukovych a break from increasingly frenzied negotiations to end the crisis.
The parliament with backing from the ruling Regions Party late on Wednesday passed a bill that would give amnesty to arrested protesters. But the opposition rejected its conditions and refrained from voting.
In an extremely rare move, Mr Yanukovych personally visited parliament and threatened early parliamentary elections if the Regions Party did not support the bill. According to unconfirmed Ukrainian media reports, some 40 Regions Party MPs were ready to side with the opposition.
Mr Yanukovych has granted several concessions to protesters, including accepting the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and allowing the annulment of anti-protest laws. But the protest movement wants early elections that could replace the head of state.
A total of 232 deputies voted for the bill and 11 against, but 173 MPs present in the parliament did not vote in a session which ended in chaos.