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Kiev: Competing demonstrations of the anti-government camp and supporters of President Viktor Yanukovych are taking place Kiev on Sunday as the U.S. and the European Union ratchet up pressure on the administration.

Mass protests sprang up after the government pulled out of a planned co-operation agreement with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia and intensified in response to a police crackdown. The first talks two days ago between the sides failed to ease the crisis in the country of 45 million, a key transit region for Russian gas going to western Europe.

Between 150,000 and 200,000 pro-EU anti-Yanukovych demonstrators gathered at Independence Square, Interfax news service reported, with more pressing into the square covered with blue-yellow Ukrainian flags being waved or wrapped around demonstrators. “Police estimated the crowd at more than 18,000 by noon," spokeswoman Olha Bilyk said by phone. “A pro-government rally at the parliament building drew 15,000 people," she said.

The U.S. has threatened to impose trade sanctions on Ukraine over the crackdown on protests, while European lawmakers urged the 28-nation bloc to consider steps against Russia. EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule said on Sunday on his Twitter Inc. account that the Ukrainian government’s words and deeds on the EU deal are further and further apart and that work is on hold.

McCain speech

U.S. Senator John McCain and Senator Chris Murphy, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs addressed the anti-government rally.

“Ukraine will make Europe better and Europe will make Ukraine better," said McCain in his speech. “The free world is with you, America is with you. I am with you." Protesters responded with cheers and shouts of Thank you USA.

McCain met with opposition leaders and with Eugenia Tymoshenko, daughter of jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko, according to statement at Tymoshenko’s website.

A U.S. Senate resolution introduced by Murphy calls for respecting people’s rights to express their views without use of force, McCain told the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda.

“The EU won’t stop dialog with Ukraine and the 28-nation bloc’s ministers will discuss tomorrow how to approach the talks," Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevicius told the Interfax news service. “The EU’s presence in Ukraine is intended to help restrain confrontation and not to intervene in the country’s internal affairs," Linkevicius, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, told interfax.

‘Hysterical reaction’

The flurry of western diplomatic activity in past days drew Moscow’s ire.

“We are surprised by the almost hysterical reaction of the West to the sovereign decision of Ukraine’s legitimate authorities," Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said as cited by Russia Today television. “Our European partners are first and foremost concerned with losing this inexpensive, if not free, addition to their profits in the times of crisis."

Ukraine’s largest protests in almost a decade are entering a fourth week. While Yanukovych plans to sign a trade agreement with Russia next week, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the head of jailed ex- premier Tymoshenko’s party, said a meeting between the government and the opposition two days ago had been the last chance to resolve the conflict peacefully.

Russia’s friends

Pro-Yanukovych protesters were fewer and more subdued than those at the anti-government rally. Flanked by orderly lines of wood-fired military trailers dispensing stew, the pro-government rally took place in a park on a hill overlooking the Dnieper River that divides Kiev.

“We want to be friends with Russia," said Kyrylo Smyrnov, 32, a construction worker from the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol, holding a flag displaying a red star and the communists’ hammer-and-sickle symbol. “We don’t want to be slaves under Poland and Germany. If Yanukovych will push us to the EU, we will support another person."

Crowds at the anti-government rally about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) away, shouted Resign! Resign and Together we are Strong!

“I am standing here for the freedom of speech," said Oleksandr Ivanyshyn, 45, a businessman from Lviv. “They squeezed everything from business and now all that is left are the ordinary people. Refusal to sign the EU deal and use of force against the protest was the last straw."

Barricades Rebuilt

Anti-government protesters have rebuilt barricades around the square that were removed by police last week. Fortifications include barbed wire, snow-filled sacks reinforced with logs, lumber and old tires. Alcohol is banned on the square.

Yatsenyuk told reporters on Saturday that the opposition is just a few votes short of forcing a new no-confidence vote against the cabinet of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, 64. A similar motion failed on 3 December.

“We will do everything possible to dismiss the government either through a no-confidence vote or by pressing Azarov to sign a letter of resignation," he told

Yanukovych made some concessions, proposing an amnesty for some detained activists and firing four officials including the head of the Kiev city administration, Oleksandr Popov. The four are under house arrest for suspicion of ordering the use of force against protesters on 30 November, prosecutors said.

Those fell short of the demands of the opposition, which wants the government’s dismissal and the punishment of those responsible for violence against protesters. Yatsenyuk on Saturday urged prosecutors to start in independent investigation, which he said would turn up dozens of names.

Neutral line

“Activists, concerned about provocateurs, are planning to create a neutral line between the two demonstrations," Taras Stetskiv, a protest organizer, told Ukraine’s Channel 5 on Saturday.

Hundreds of riot police with shields flooded into a camp built by protesters in the early hours of 11 December. to dismantle makeshift barricades and a tent encampment. They eventually retreated, with activists rebuilding their wooden and metal barriers, shoring them up with sandbags and mounds of snow.

Police presence has been more subdued on Sunday, with officers lining up to keep the two groups of protesters apart and providing security for government buildings.

Moscow meeting

Ukrainian assets gained last Friday as the government said it will sign an accord next week to end trade friction with Russia. Yanukovych is planning to travel to Moscow 17 December to complete a deal to regulate trade relations through 2015.

Pushing back against the U.S. and EU, Russian Ambassador in Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov was cited by Radio Svododa as saying that the 17 December meeting shows Russia’s responsible attitude to Ukrainian ties and the importance of bilateral relations to normalize political situation.

Borys Tarasyuk, an opposition lawmaker, said in a speech at the anti-government rally on Sunday that another protest is planned for that date as a show of strength aimed at preventing Yanukovych from signing the Russian customs union deal.

“The deal will restore trade links after Ukraine’s EU’s plans prompted Russian bans on exports such as chocolate," Azarov told the round-table meeting. Signing the EU accords would have pushed Ukraine into default, according to the premier. Yanukovych also warned that the protests are hurting the country’s economy, going through its third recession since 2008, with foreign-currency reserves at a seven-year low.

Yanukovych walked away from the EU deal after Russia, which supplies 60 percent of Ukraine’s natural gas and buys a quarter of its exports, threatened trade sanctions.

‘Purely economic’

Azarov on 22 November said motivation for backing out of the treaty was purely economic, with the government making the only possible choice. “A decline in trade with Russia has led to falling industrial production, pushing Ukraine to the edge of huge social and economic troubles," he told lawmakers in Kiev a day after making the u-turn.

The EU and Russia have been tussling over Ukraine’s future in recent days. The EU on 12 December offered development funds if Ukraine signs the trade pact with the 28-member bloc and taps International Monetary Fund aid. Russian President Vladimir Putin the same day said its neighbors interest will grow in a rival Moscow-led customs union.

Yanukovych said 10 December that he intends to sign the EU accord at a March meeting and restart talks with the Washington- based IMF if conditions are acceptable. “Ukraine is seeking 20 billion euros ($27.6 billion) in financing from the EU," Azarov said 11 December. Bloomberg

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