Ukraine court frees protesters held after Kiev clashes

Protesters in Kiev, 13 December Kiev is getting ready for another big rally on Sunday

A Ukrainian court has freed nine people arrested during clashes between pro-EU protesters and riot police, a key demand of the protest movement.

The nine were arrested during a violent crackdown on 30 November to drive protesters away from the presidential administration in the capital Kiev.

The first round of talks between protesters and President Viktor Yanukovych have made little progress.

Demonstrators are arriving in Kiev ahead of a mass rally on Sunday.

Hundreds of demonstrators remain camped out in freezing temperatures on Independence Square, behind barricades of snow and ice, reinforced with pallets, benches, metal barriers and wire netting.

Start Quote

I have the impression that the authorities today did not listen to a single one of the demands of the opposition”

End Quote Vitaly Klitschko Opposition politician

The protests erupted last month after President Yanukovych pulled out of an association agreement with Brussels, which would have been a crucial step towards the former Soviet republic's integration into the EU.

His government continues to give conflicting signals over whether it will press ahead with the agreement after all.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, which put pressure on Kiev to reject the agreement, has warned of a "tectonic split" threatening the existence of Ukraine as a state.

He described the appearance of EU politicians at the protests as "crude interference" in Ukraine's affairs.

Last man freed

Amid international outrage, US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed "disgust" at the use of force in Kiev last month.

The last of the nine detainees was released on Friday although the criminal cases against them continue.

Protest leaders (from left) Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Oleh Tyahnybok and Vitaly Klitschko attend talks in Kiev, 13 December Protest leaders (from left) Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Oleh Tyahnybok and Vitaly Klitschko attended their first talks with the president in Kiev.
President Viktor Yanukovych (right end of table) attends talks in Kiev, 13 December President Yanukovych did not appear to make any concessions.
Protesters guard a barricade in Kiev, 13 December The protesters have reinforced their barricades.

Yehor Previr, 27, was ordered to remain under partial house arrest.

He had been sentenced earlier to two months in custody on the charge of organising mass riots, which carries a maximum sentence of eight years, Ukrayinska Pravda newspaper reports. Other detainees released earlier were also placed under restrictions or fined.

President Yanukovych proposed an amnesty for detained demonstrators when he met the three main leaders of the protest movement - opposition politicians Vitaly Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and far-right leader Oleh Tyahnybok - at a "round table" on Friday.

But Mr Klitschko later dismissed the talks. "Not a single step was made to meet the opposition," he said. "I have the impression that the authorities today did not listen to a single one of the demands of the opposition."

Rinat Akhmetov, the richest among Ukraine's powerful tycoons and usually seen as an ally of Mr Yanukovych, has added his voice to the calls for negotiations and condemned the use of force.

"The fact that peaceful people took to the streets for peaceful demonstrations means that Ukraine is a free, democratic country," he said in a statement.

On Thursday, First Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov said in Brussels that Ukraine would "soon sign" the pact but on Friday, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov again warned about its negative impact on the economy.

Uncertainty

Protests have gripped Kiev and other cities in western and central Ukraine but President Yanukovych retains support in the east and south.

There is widespread frustration with Ukraine's economic malaise and failure to root out cronyism and corruption.

Closer ties with the EU could make the economy more open and transparent, meeting EU standards on competition, regulation and investor protection. Many Ukrainian protesters want their country to catch up with East European neighbours who have joined the EU.

Map of Kiev

But the EU partnership requires far-reaching reforms - unlike the customs union being advocated by Russia.

The government and its supporters fear that economic liberalisation would put at risk many enterprises reliant on trade with Russia. Moscow has already put economic pressure on Ukraine, with customs delays and a ban on Ukrainian chocolates, and could escalate such measures.

Ukraine relies on imports of Russian gas - and heavy energy-intensive industries in eastern Ukraine are especially anxious to keep the gas price down. Some 75% of Ukraine's engineering exports go to Russia.

In an indication of the continuing uncertainty in Kiev, there has been a sharp fall in corporate restaurant bookings for the traditional New Year holiday period, the Ukrainian news agency Liga reports.

About a third of bookings have been cancelled, according to one catering group.

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