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Tymoshenko announces hunger strike as protests continue in Ukraine

Ukrainian opposition figure Yulia Tymoshenko has launched a hunger strike to push President Viktor Yanukovych to sign an EU trade agreement. Police dispersed protesters with tear gas on Monday.

Tymoshenko, an Orange Revolution hero and prime minister from December 2007 to March 2010, has sat imprisoned after a conviction for abuse of power charges brought by current ruler Viktor Yanukovych. Many in the international community claim those charges are politically motivated.

"As a sign of unity with you I declare an unlimited hunger strike with the demand to Yanukovych to sign the association agreement," Tymoshenko said in a message read by her lawyer.

Thousands protested in Kyiv Sunday and Monday against a government decision last week to scrap an EU trade treaty seen as a first step toward membership in the union. Ukraine's leaders announced suddenly on Thursday that they were pulling out of the deal on free trade and political association with the EU, saying the country could not afford to risk trade ties with Russia.

'The Russian position'

On Monday, top EU figures attacked Russia's role in Ukraine's decision, and insisted the bloc's offers stood. In a statement, Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso - presidents, respectively, of the EU and the European Commission - suggested Ukraine had acted because of external pressure. The pair said they "strongly disapprove of the Russian position and actions."

"The offer of signing an unprecedented association agreement and a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement is still on the table," Van Rompuy and Barroso said.

Russia wants Ukraine to join its Customs Union, which includes Belarus and Kazakhstan, and threatened retaliation over an EU deal. In a November poll, 45 percent of Ukrainians said the country should sign the EU deal, and just 14 percent supported the Customs Union membership.

EU officials planned to sign both the trade and political association agreements with Ukraine at a summit later this week in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. The meeting remains on the schedule, and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych plans to attend, Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara said Monday.

Protests continue

Van Rompuy and Barroso pointed to pro-Europe protests in Ukraine, arguing that citizens "fully understand and embrace the historic nature" of any potential deal. Since the decision to withdraw from the association agreements, protesters have remained active, including an all-night demonstration Sunday in the center of the capital, where they have built tents around European Square. Over the weekend, around 100,000 people took to the streets of Kiev, forming the country's biggest street protest since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004.

On Monday, police went after protesters outside a government building in Kyiv with batons and pepper spray, ultimately injuring an opposition member of parliament. The main opposition parties - the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, led by boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko and Rymoshenko's Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) - have backed the protests.

Also on Monday, President Yanukovych called his decision to suspend signing the landmark trade deal difficult and forced by economic necessity. In the televised address, Yanukovych also said that he hoped create "a society of European standards" in Ukraine.

mkg/ph (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)