Ukrainian opposition leader vows hunger strike

Move comes as country sees biggest street protests since 2004 Orange Revolution over break with EU

Activists clash with riot police on the Square of Europe during a protest in Kiev on Nov. 25, 2013.

Ukraine's imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko vowed an unending hunger strike Monday to support the thousands of protestors who have taken to the streets over President Viktor Yanukovic's decision to suspend moves towards a trade pact with the European Union.

Yanukovic tried on Monday to defuse pro-Europe street protests, saying the decision to suspend moves towards a trade pact with the European Union, announced Thursday, had been difficult.

As some 4,000 demonstrators protested the government's move, Yanukovich said in a television address that the decision had been forced by economic necessity.

"Today I would like to underline this: there is no alternative to the creation of a society of European standards in Ukraine and my policies on this path always have been, and will continue to be, consistent," he said.

Within minutes of his address, fresh clashes broke out involving riot police and protesters just off Kiev's European Square, which is close to government headquarters and where demonstrators have set up a small tent encampment.

Special forces used batons and tear gas against a small group of protesters while other demonstrators listened to speakers denouncing government policy and urging greater integration with the European mainstream. The clashes ended after several minutes and the special forces withdrew.

Yanukovich's government startled European leaders last Thursday by announcing it was suspending preparations for signing an agreement with the EU in Vilnius and that it would revive talks with Russia, which had objected to the deal.

The government's announcement triggered pro-Europe demonstrations on the streets of the capital, Kiev, and isolated clashes with police.

Even as Yanukovich made his TV address, jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who was imprisoned in 2011 after a trial Western governments called politically motivated, declared an "unlimited hunger strike" to push him to sign.

"As a sign of unity with you, I declare an unlimited hunger strike with the demand to Yanukovich to sign the association agreement," the 52-year-old Tymoshenko said in a message to the protesters read out in Kiev by her defense lawyer, Serhiy Vlasenko.

Before the expected signing in Vilnius, EU envoys had negotiated unsuccessfully for Tymoshenko's release, seeing her as a victim of "selective justice" in the country.

The weekend protest was the biggest Ukraine has seen since the peaceful 2004 Orange Revolution, which overturned a fraudulent presidential election result and brought a Western-leaning government to power.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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