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  • 4 December 2013, 3:43

Ukrainian PM Warns Protesters Of More Force

Opposition leaders in Ukraine have vowed to continue mass street protests and blockades of government buildings, as the country's prime minister threatened to respond with force.

During a raucous parliamentary session, at times shouted down by opposition cries of "shame" and "revolution", Mykola Azarov apologised for the riot police action, but warned against continued protests, which he said bore signs of a coup d'etat.

In a pointed speech to the chamber he said: "We have extended our hand to you, but if we encounter a fist, I will be frank, we have enough force."

What started as a reaction to the president's refusal to sign an EU trade deal last week, has evolved into a concerted attempt to overthrow the government, fuelled by allegations of police brutality against protesters.

The country's notorious 'berkut' riot police moved in on what had been a dwindling protest camp in the early hours of Saturday morning, beating protesters and journalists.

Hundreds of thousands have surged onto the streets since in the biggest display of mass discontent since the 2004 Orange Revolution, which forced the current president, Victor Yanukovich, from power.

Protesters, particularly from the younger generation, see President Yanukovich's action as a fundamental shift away from a path towards a modern, European Ukraine, back into the hands of their former soviet masters in Russia.

In short, they believe they are fighting for the future of their country.

Mr Yanukovich has insisted that he remains open to negotiation with the EU, but that Ukraine's battered economy cannot afford the deal in its current form, particularly given the likely punitive trade and gas sanctions that would follow from Russia as an immediate consequence.

Mr Yanukovich left for China on Tuesday in pursuit of much-needed finance agreements, with aides denying it was a strategic mistake as the country descended deeper into political and financial turmoil.

His government survived a no-confidence vote in parliament, but the vast majority of pro-government deputies either abstained or did not vote, in an implicit warning of discontent in the ranks.

At least two members of Mr Yanukovich's Regions Party have already defected over the handling of the protests.

Outside, riot police squared up to protesters who continue to mass outside parliament and the presidential administration buildings.

They have already taken control of Kiev's City Hall, which they have re-named 'Revolution HQ' and the capital's symbolically-important Independence Square, heart of the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Volunteers have built barricades and parked vans draped with the national flag across roads leading to the square, in an attempt to stop police advancing towards it.

Protesters have set up tents and are distributing donations of food, water and warm clothes, in a sign they are digging in for the long haul despite freezing December temperatures.

"The Orange Revolution laid the foundation for this," said self-employed businessman Yegor Kitov, 45. "But this movement is stronger because, while then it was political parties that were organising the people, now we are organising ourselves."

Ukraine's Central Bank, meanwhile, has been forced to reassure people that their savings are safe, as the country's currency, bonds and share prices come under severe pressure.

Ukraine faces gas bills and debt repayments next year of more than $17bn. The cost of insuring its debt against default rose to its highest level since January 2010.

The finance minister issued a recorded message via state television insisting the country could continue to meet its debt repayments.

"Ukraine is a reliable borrower and is flawlessly fulfilling, and will fulfil, all of its obligations on time," Yuri Kolobov said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry declined a visit to Kiev for a ministerial conference this week, but urged Ukraine's government to "listen to the voices of its people".

These protests do not represent all of Ukraine - the view in the Russian-speaking industrial regions to the east is very different - but they have nevertheless exposed a faultline, in a country still deeply divided between east and west.

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