Ukraine, Russia presidents meet; protests persist

JIM HEINTZ Associated Press Published:

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych met with his Russian counterpart Friday to discuss closer cooperation, while protests clung to the capital over Ukraine's decision to scrap a deal with the EU.

Yanukovych met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian city of Sochi on his way back from a state visit to China. Yanukovych's office said the talks were about trade and economic cooperation and preparations for signing a partnership agreement.

No details were given, but the meeting is a challenge to leaders of the protests that broke out last month after Yanukovych stepped back from signing a long-anticipated agreement to deepen economic and political ties with the European Union. Moscow has been pressuring Ukraine to join a trade bloc that includes Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

After Yanukovych backed out of signing the agreement, officials said Ukraine remained committed to deeper integration with the EU, a statement that opposition leaders met with derision.

"Their attempts to sell Ukraine to Russia have not ended in any way," Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the main opposition party's faction in parliament, said Friday.

A sizeable tent camp for protesters -- including field kitchens for the long haul -- has been set up on Kiev's main square.

Crowds of protesters swell nightly to several thousand. Other protesters have occupied the city administration building and have blocked access to the presidential administration building.

Another top opposition figure on Friday said he was open to talking with officials to find a way out of the crisis, but only if the police who violently dispersed demonstrators are punished.

Oleh Tyanhybok, head of the nationalist Svobooda party, told reporters on Friday that "the opposition is ready to sit down, talk, negotiate change in the situation" to seek "an exit from the current political crisis."

His statement, however, appeared to be only an incremental move toward a resolution of the tensions. Another opposition leader, world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, said the opposition also would demand the resignation of the interior minister, who heads the police, and the freeing of all arrested demonstrators before talks could begin, the Interfax news agency reported.

Police say the dispersal and beating of demonstrators came after provocations.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov reiterated that point Friday, saying police "faced open violence."

In comments released by his office, Azarov said "we are ready for dialogue, we are ready for maximum investigation of the actions of law-enforcement agencies," but noted that "in every country of the world to raise a fist against a police officer is considered a violation of the law."

The protests began after Yanukovych stepped back from the EU association agreement, but their intensity increased after the police violence.

Public opinion surveys in recent months showed around 45 percent of Ukrainians favoring increased integration with the EU and far fewer supporting closer cooperation with Russia, which controlled or dominated Ukraine for centuries.