The European Union was preparing on Thursday (local time) to impose sanctions on those responsible for deadly violence in Ukraine as well as to impose an arms embargo on the country, according to a draft ministerial statement obtained by Reuters.
However, EU officials cautioned that the text was subject to revisions and that the final decision will be taken by EU foreign ministers who will hold an emergency meeting in Brussels later on Thursday.
Foreign ministers want to hear from their French, German and Polish colleagues who are due to report back to them on their talks in Ukraine on Thursday with President Viktor Yanukovich.
The EU's decision on sanctions could be swayed by Yanukovich's response to its demand that he compromise with pro-EU opponents after days of fierce fighting on the streets of Kiev that have killed more than 50 people.
"In light of the deteriorating situation, the EU has decided as a matter of urgency on targeted measures against those responsible for violence and use of excessive force," the draft statement said.
The "has decided" phrase was in parentheses which, in diplomatic language, means it is not yet agreed, suggesting it could be toned down to simply threaten sanctions.
"At the same time, member states have decided to implement an arms embargo and a ban on equipment used for internal repression," it said.
The draft text said the EU was "appalled and deeply dismayed by the deteriorating situation in Ukraine."
It called for an immediate end to the violence, full respect of human rights and for urgent independent investigations into human rights violations.
"Any further escalation, including the introduction of a state of emergency, or the use of the armed forces against protesters must be avoided," it said, calling on all sides to engage in a meaningful dialogue.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, arriving for the EU meeting, condemned the killing of more protesters in Kiev, calling it "utterly unacceptable and indefensible."
"By permitting such actions to take place, the Ukrainian government is putting itself at odds with reasonable opinion all across the world," he told reporters.
On sanctions, Hague said it was important there was a strong international response, but also that "we promote ultimately a peaceful settlement of these issues and retain our capability to do so."
EU diplomats have said sanctions could potentially be imposed on protest leaders who called for violence, as well as on government and security officials, but that Yanukovich himself is unlikely to be targeted for now. It is expected to take some days to draw up a detailed list of names.
Just three months ago, EU officials had hoped Ukraine would sign a far-reaching trade and cooperation deal with Brussels, provided certain conditions were met, including the release of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
But Yanukovich stunned the EU in late November by spurning the EU trade deal and instead winning a US$15 billion bailout deal from Russia.
That move sparked weeks of street protests that escalated this week, causing alarm in world capitals.
Until now, the EU has sought to promote dialogue between the government and opposition and a peaceful settlement to the crisis.
The bloody assault on protesters occupying Kiev's Independence Square spurred a dramatic change of heart by EU governments, which until then had been largely sceptical about the effectiveness of sanctions on Ukraine.
The United States on Wednesday imposed visa bans on 20 senior Ukrainian government officials believed to be responsible for the violence against protesters.
One EU diplomat said on Thursday that a group of countries, including Greece, Portugal, Spain, Britain and the Netherlands, were cautious about going ahead with sanctions because of concern about breaking off dialogue with the Ukrainians.
Some officials worry that sanctions have not been effective in the past, notably in Belarus, Ukraine's northern neighbour.