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"America stands with you," John McCain tells Ukraine protesters

The EU has suspended historic partnership talks with Ukraine today as 200,000 protesters gathered in Kiev.

imageYanukovych supporters wave flags during a rally today. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

THE EUROPEAN UNION has suspended historic partnership talks with Ukraine today as 200,000 protesters massed in the heart of Kiev demanding that the government recommit itself to the West.

The ex-Soviet nation of 46 million has been at the heart of a furious diplomatic tug of war since President Viktor Yanukovych’s shock decision last month to ditch a landmark EU association agreement and seek closer ties with old master Russia.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele announced in a surprise tweet that the 28-nation bloc was halting all negotiations until it received “a clear commitment” from Yanukovych that Ukraine was serious about the deal.

“Ukraine: Words and deeds of President and government regarding #AssocAgreement further and further apart,” said Fuele.

imagePro EU protesters in Independence Square (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Yanukovych is due in Moscow on Tuesday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin that protesters occupying central Kiev’s iconic Independence Square fear could result in an even firmer alliance between the two neighbours.

Demonstrators have planned another huge rally to coincide with Yanukovych’s meeting with Putin on Tuesday evening. They were warmly reassured of continued US backing today by Republican Senator John McCain — one of Washington’s staunchest critics of Kremlin rule.

imageJohn McCain arrives at the pro-EU rally in Independence Square in Kiev (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

“To all Ukraine, America stands with you,” McCain called out to a cheering sea of people who chanted “Thank you!” in English in return.

Work on hold

Protesters were eagerly awaiting McCain’s appearance amid freezing weather this afternoon when news spread that EU enlargement chief Fuele had said Brussels was halting talks with Kiev after an inconclusive meeting on Friday.

EU officials told Ukraine that further discussions required a “clear commitment (to) sign (but) Work on hold, had no answer,” said Fuele.

image

(AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

A Ukrainian government spokesman quickly responded that Kiev remained serious about the negotiations and did not treat Fuele’s tweet as the formal position of the bloc.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov has requested a €20 billion loan from the European Union before it signs the closer trade and political association deal.

Ukraine says the money would compensate for the losses it would suffer from the trade sanctions threatened by Russia — which has promised cheaper natural gas shipments should Kiev join a customs union championed by Putin instead.

imageA cross in memory of victims of Stalin’s regime is seen over the pro-EU activists in Kiev today (AP Photo/Alexander Zemilanichenko)

EU officials have rejected the loan request and argued that Ukraine stood to benefit over the long term from the removal of EU trade barriers.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt — a strong proponent of Ukraine’s integration who has paid repeated visits to Kiev — said on Sunday that the original terms of the EU deal stood.

imageBarricades made of snow, tyres, wood and fire protect the pro-EU rally from riot police. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

“The door is wide open for Ukraine to sign association and free trade agreement with EU,” Bildt tweeted. “It’s ready. Any time.”

- © AFP, 2013

Read: Ukraine suspends mayor after brutal police crackdown on protesters >

Explainer: What exactly is going on in Ukraine? >

Read: Demonstrators topple Lenin statue in giant Ukraine protest >

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