Kiev - Ukraine's three former presidents on Wednesday made an unexpected joint show of support for mass protests against the government's decision to reject a historic pact with the EU.
The move piled pressure on President Viktor Yanukovych as his government tried to stamp out the biggest protests since the 2004
Orange Revolution by warning demonstrators they could be held criminally responsible.
As thousands kept up a permanent presence in the heart of the capital Kiev, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the 28-nation bloc was still keen on Ukraine joining.
“The gates of the European Union are still open. Ukraine has to be on board in Europe and the offers from Europe are still valid,” Westerwelle told reporters, before heading to the heart of the protests on Independence Square.
With Ukraine in need of cash to shore up its finances, Yanukovych pressed on with a three-day visit to China, which could net significant financial deals.
In a blow to the president, former leaders united to voice support for the protests.
“We express solidarity with the peaceful civic actions of hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainians,” said a statement from Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko.
“For the first time, the Ukrainian people have come out on the streets with an apolitical demand that has unprecedented mass support,” said the statement.
Kravchuk, Ukraine's first president, and the staunchly pro-Western Yushchenko have always been broadly supportive of the opposition. However the involvement of the wily Kuchma will be seen as a particular blow for Yanukovych, as he retains close contacts with the nation's powerful oligarchs.
As pro-EU demonstrators blockaded the seat of government, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said the fact he had survived a vote of no confidence the day earlier showed it was time for protests to wind down.
“I am announcing a call to stop an escalation of political tensions,” Azarov said at the first government meeting since the crisis began more than a week ago.
“The reasons for streets protests have been exhausted,” he said.
“I would like to tell people: your leaders are putting you up to a crime,” he said. “They will try to hide behind lawmaker immunity. But you will have no one to hide behind.”
The demonstrations erupted in Ukraine after the government refused to sign a key political and trade agreement with the EU under pressure from Russia. The protesters' fury was amplified by a police crackdown on a rally on Saturday which saw several hundred people take refuge in a monastery.
On Sunday, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Kiev and western Ukraine in protests that degenerated into unprecedented clashes with police.
After the violence subsided, the opposition set up a tent city on Kiev's iconic Independence Square where food and clothing are readily available, pop music blares out round the clock and black-robed priests lead protesters in prayer.
The protestors have effectively seized control of the square, erecting barricades at its main entrances scrawled with anti-Yanukovych graffiti and no member of the security forces in sight.
Seeking to maintain a balance between Russia and the EU, the Ukrainian government said it wanted talks with both Brussels and Moscow.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whose government wants Ukraine to join a Russian-led customs union, on Wednesday received a Ukrainian delegation led Yury Boiko, a first deputy prime minister in charge of gas talks.
Separately, chief of energy state giant Gazprom Alexei Miller said Ukraine still owed Russia more than $2 billion for gas supplied to Ukraine from August to November.
Ukrainian officials were also in talks to send another delegation to Brussels but EU officials appeared to be in no hurry to commit to a firm date.
The political crisis in Ukraine is expected to top the agenda of a two-day meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe that opens in Kiev on Thursday.
Helga Schmid, deputy to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, is expected to meet with both the authorities and the opposition.
Yanukovych arrived on a visit to China which is due to last until December 6, holding talks in Xian with regional officials before moving on for an expected visit to Beijing.
The opposition has vowed to keep up the protests until their demands for the resignation of the government and early polls are met.
Supports of Yanukovych held a counter rally in his home stronghold of Donetsk, mustering around 10,000 people, an AFP correspondent said.
In a boost for the president, the government survived an opposition no-confidence vote in parliament on Tuesday, with the motion mustering just 186 of the 226 votes required to pass.