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Kiev - Jailed Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, whose plight has soured relations between the country's leadership and the West, was moved to a hospital for treatment for back pains on Wednesday and ended her hunger strike.
President Viktor Yanukovich has faced growing criticism over the conviction of Tymoshenko and the authorities' refusal to let her travel abroad for treatment for chronic back trouble.
Her transfer from prison in the eastern city of Kharkiv to a nearby hospital for treatment under the supervision of German doctors was worked out last week in a compromise.
But it seemed unlikely to relieve pressure on Yanukovich, who looks increasingly isolated as Ukraine prepares to co-host Europe's biggest soccer tourament.
Tymoshenko, 51, a former prime minister, was jailed last October for seven years for alleged abuse of power while in office, a charge she denied.
She says she is the victim of a vendetta by Yanukovich who narrowly beat her for the presidency in February 2010. The European Union and the United States have condemned her trial and sentencing as politically motivated and want her released.
Outcry in the West intensified after Tymoshenko said she had been beaten in jail and went on hunger strike on April 20 in protest against alleged ill-treatment. Authorities deny she was mistreated.
German doctor Lutz Harms of Berlin's Charite hospital, who is supervising her treatment, said she ended her hunger strike after being admitted to the Kharkiv clinic on Wednesday morning.
“We have begun to start a normal process of feeding,” Harms told reporters.
She will take fruit juice at first and then begin to take solids. Therapy for her back pains will take at least eight weeks, he said.
Reuters witnesses said Tymoshenko was brought to a side entrance of the hospital by ambulance in a convoy which included several police cars. A few supporters nearby shouted out “Freedom for Yulia!” as she was carried in on a stretcher.
Yanukovich appeared untroubled at World War Two Victory Day celebrations on Wednesday, despite the pressure. Addressing veterans in Kiev, he spoke of the need to defend world peace by shunning “populism of all types”, but remained silent about Tymoshenko. In a setback on Tuesday, he called off a meeting in Yalta of Central and Eastern European leaders after several said they were staying away because of the Tymoshenko affair.
Arseny Yatsenyuk, leader of the Front of Change party, said cancellation of the Yalta meeting was a “shameful failure” for Ukraine. “This leadership is dragging the country and its people with it into international isolation,” Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.
Vitaly Klitschko, world heavyweight boxing champion who heads the Udar party, said: “The leadership clearly has no wish to change the situation and meet calls by Kiev's European partners to respect human rights and democratic standards.”
Western outrage over the treatment of Tymoshenko, who led the 2004 Orange Revolution protests which doomed Yanukovich's first bid for the presidency, has led to threats by European politicians to boycott the European soccer championships which Ukraine co-hosts next month.
The month-long Euro-2012 tournament which Ukraine is co-hosting with Poland from June 8 to the final in Kiev on July 1, is meant to showcase the former Soviet republic as a modern European nation.
Some Western government ministers now say they will not attend. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has said he has no plans to visit Ukraine and the other 26 commissioners are following suit.
An EU diplomat said he expected EU foreign ministers to “harmonise and coordinate” strategy towards Ukraine at a meeting in Brussels on Monday.
The row over Tymoshenko has already led to the indefinite shelving of the signing and ratification of political and free trade agreements with the EU.
Poland, which has spearheaded efforts to bring its neighbour closer to the EU, sought to mediate in the confrontation.
Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski urged Ukraine to drop law allowing politicians to be jailed for decisions taken while in office.
“In my view, this would not have happened if outdated regulations that contradict European standards by allowing prison sentencing for political decisions had been phased out in time,” he told reporters. - Reuters