Ukraine opposition gears up for new rally

Ukraine`s opposition on Monday geared up to hold its second mass rally in days to demand President Viktor Yanukovych reject Russian overtures in favour of closer Western integration on a key visit to Moscow.

Kiev: Ukraine`s opposition on Monday geared up to hold its second mass rally in days to demand President Viktor Yanukovych reject Russian overtures in favour of closer Western integration on a key visit to Moscow.

The ex-Soviet nation of 46 million has been at the heart of a furious diplomatic tug of war since Yanukovych`s shock decision last month to ditch a landmark EU association agreement and seek closer ties with its traditional masters at the Kremlin.

On Sunday nearly 300,000 protesters braved freezing temperatures to flood into central Kiev and demand that Ukraine turn away from Moscow and toward the West.

The opposition was planning to hold another mega rally on Tuesday, when Yanukovych is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow for talks on a strategic partnership treaty.

"On December 17, Viktor Yanukovych is flying to Moscow where he is planning to sign an agreement on selling Moscow into the Customs Union in exchange for salvaging his own political fate," opposition lawmaker Borys Tarasyuk said at the Sunday protest, referring to the Moscow-led grouping that Putin wants Kiev to join.

He urged hundreds of thousands to take to the streets again to warn Yanukovych against committing "state treason."

Russia and Ukraine are expected to sign a number of agreements on Tuesday but Kiev has denied a deal on Customs Union will be among them.

Yanukovych`s decision last month to suspend work on key political and free trade agreements with the European Union under threat of economic sanctions from Russia has thrown ex-Soviet into its most acute political crisis in a decade.

Tens of thousands have taken to the streets in the capital and western Ukraine over the past three weeks, in the largest demonstrations since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004.

Analysts say either choice will further split the politically volatile country caught up between a Ukrainian-speaking, pro-EU west and a Russian-speaking, Moscow-leaning east.Yanukovych has tried to placate demonstrators by assuring the EU that he eventually planned to sign the association agreement and sending a delegation to Brussels.

But the bloc abruptly suspended the talks with the delegation on Sunday, saying Ukraine`s leadership was being disingenuous.

"Further discussion is conditioned on clear commitment 2sign. Work on hold," EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele announced in a tweet at the start of Sunday`s rally.

"Ukraine: Words and deeds of President and government regarding #AssocAgreement further and further apart," Fuele said.

Ukrainian leaders however insisted that European integration was still a priority.

Late on Sunday Yanukovych met with US Republican Senator John McCain, assuring him that Ukraine`s "Eurointegration course" remained unchanged, his office said.

First Deputy Prime Minister Sergiy Arbuzov, who met with Fuele for talks last week, said in televised remarks that the discussions between the two sides "speak of the fact that this is very important to us and we are moving toward the signing of the agreement."

McCain, one of the staunchest critics of Putin`s Kremlin, attended the pro-EU rally on Sunday and met with opposition leaders as well as the daughter of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Yevgenia.

Yanukovych has also held talks with opposition leaders, including world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, but these collapsed on Friday.

Yanukovych offered a number of concessions including an amnesty for arrested protesters and dismissal of the Kiev city manager, Olexander Popov, and a national security aide over the use of force against demonstrators.

But the opposition said this was not enough and demanded the resignation of the government and early presidential and parliamentary elections.

The crisis in Ukraine is expected to feature prominently during talks between Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Brussels later Monday.

Ashton, along with several other EU politicians, pointedly visited the protesters` encampment on Independence Square, earning a stinging rebuke from Russia.

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