By Michael Shields
VIENNA, March 10 (Reuters) - Ukraine has asked the Council of Europe human rights watchdog to help investigate the clashes that led to President Viktor Yanukovich's overthrow and to monitor minorities in Crimea, now controlled by pro-Russian forces.
Austria said on Monday that the Council, which it chairs until May, had also agreed with Ukraine to review the legitimacy of a planned Moscow-backed referendum on whether Crimea should join Russia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday that the referendum was illegal and violated Ukraine's constitution.
Council of Europe experts will try to reach Crimea this week to observe problems experienced by minority groups, a spokesman for Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said in Kiev.
An unarmed military observer mission of the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had to turn back on Saturday after warning shots were fired when it tried to cross into Crimea.
The OSCE, a pan-European security forum set up in the Cold War, is trying to form a "contact group" of leading players in the crisis and arrange a broader monitoring mission for Ukraine.
Kurz's spokesman said the Council of Europe would monitor a panel with representatives from both sides of the conflict to investigate violence in recent weeks in Maidan, the Kiev square that became the cradle of the anti-Yanukovich revolt.
Ukraine's health ministry has said about 100 people died in the clashes. The dead included police, but witnesses said the vast majority were protesters killed when riot police charged or attacked them, and that some were killed by sniper bullets.
In talks in Kiev, the Ukrainian government and the Council of Europe agreed that legal experts from the Council and the so-called Venice Commission - its advisory body on constitutional matters - would review the validity of the March 16 referendum on whether Crimea should revert to Russia.
In the longer term, the 47-nation Council will also advise Ukraine on judicial, legislative and constitutional reform.
"We are glad the Ukrainian government accepted the Council of Europe's offer, which is a further contribution to attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully," Kurz said.
The Council of Europe is best known for drawing up the European Convention on Human Rights, which entered into force in 1953 and established the European Court of Human Rights. (Editing by Alistair Lyon)
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