200,000 Ukrainians mass in square as protests stepped up

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About 200,000 anti-government protesters converged on the central square of Ukraine’s capital yesterday in a dramatic show of morale after nearly four weeks of daily protests.

But the rally was overshadowed by suggestions that their goal of closer ties with Europe may be at risk.

A much smaller demonstration of government supporters, about 15,000, took place less than a mile away from Kiev’s Independence Square. Anti-government protesters have set up an extensive tent camp there and erected barricades of snow hardened with freezing water and studded with scrap wood.

US senators John McCain and Chris Murphy joined the anti-government demonstration to express support for them and their European ambitions, threatening sanctions against the government of President Viktor Yanukovych if authorities use more violence to disperse the protests.

The protests began on November 21 after Mr Yanukovych announced he was backing away from signing a long-awaited agreement to deepen trade and political ties with the EU and instead focus on Russia, and have grown in size and intensity after two violent police dispersals.

In the face of the protests, Ukrainian officials last week renewed talks on the EU agreement and promised that they would sign the deal once some issues are worked out.

However, the EU’s top official on expansion issues, Stefan Fuele, cast doubt on the prospect, saying on his Twitter account that work is “on hold” and that the words and actions of Mr Yanukovych and his government are “further and further apart”.

Mr Yanukovych backed off from the agreement on the grounds that the EU was not providing adequate compensation to his economically struggling nation for potential trades losses with Russia. Russia, which for centuries controlled or exerted heavy influence on Ukraine, wants the country to join a customs union, analogous to the EU, which also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan.

The opposition say that union would effectively reconstitute the Soviet Union and remain suspicious that Mr Yanukovych might agree to it when he meets Russian president Vladimir Putin tomorrow.

Arseniy Yatsenyk, a top opposition leader, warned Mr Yanukovych against making such a move.

“If the agreement is signed, he can remain in Moscow and not return to Kiev,” Mr Yatsenyuk told the crowd at the protest on Independence Square.

Yuri Lutsenko, another opposition politician and former interior minister, told the protesters they were fighting for Ukraine’s independence.