BRUSSELS, Feb 19 (Reuters) - NATO leaders echoed the United States on Wednesday in urging Ukraine's armed forces to stay out of the crisis there, warning Kiev that its relations with the Western alliance would suffer if the military did intervene.
"I strongly urge the Ukrainian government to refrain from further violence. If the military intervenes against the opposition, Ukraine's ties with NATO will be seriously damaged," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement.
Rasmussen's warning came after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich appointed a new head of the armed forces general staff after street clashes between protesters and police in which at least 26 people have been killed since Tuesday. [ID:nL6N0LO4I}
Ukraine's defense ministry also said that the armed forces might take part in a countrywide anti-terrorist operation organised by the state security service. It has previously said that troops could only be used domestically if a state of emergency were declared.
Separately, NATO's top military commander appealed to Ukraine's leaders on Wednesday to avoid using military force against their people and called for dialogue with the country's new military leadership.
In Twitter messages, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, asked that "responsible leaders avoid the use of military force against the people of Ukraine."
"I am calling upon the new military leadership in Ukraine to open a dialogue with us to bring this situation to a peaceful resolution," Breedlove said.
Earlier, U.S. President Barack Obama had called on Ukraine's armed forces to stay out of the country's political crisis while the Pentagon renewed warnings for Ukraine to keep its military away from anti-government protests.
While Ukraine is not presently seeking membership in the Western military alliance, it does cooperate with NATO in a number of areas. Twenty-eight of its soldiers participate in the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.