Kiev - Ukraine's embattled President Viktor Yanukovych was on Friday expected to return home after a trip to China as his government seeks to quell the biggest protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
Protesters have since Sunday controlled Kiev's main Independence Square, surrounded government ministries and held pickets outside parliament where opposition deputies have paralysed any work.
The protests have raged for over two weeks after Yanukovych's refusal to sign a historic pact for closer links to the EU under Russian pressure.
In China, Yanukovych met the top Communist Party leadership including President Xi Jinping but it was not clear if he received hope of the urgent financial support Ukraine requires for its ailing economy.
About 1 500 people were still on Independence Square early on Friday, with light snow covering dozens of tents and protesters warming themselves with hot tea, as the city braced for a new mass protest on Sunday.
“People stand as before, no one is going anywhere,” Zynovii, 36, one of the self-styled guards of the tent city.
At a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Kiev the day earlier, the United States urged the Ukrainian government to listen to the protesters.
“We urge the Ukrainian government to listen to the voices of its people who want to live in freedom,” US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said.
Leaving Kiev on Friday, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bidlt said there were “critical days” ahead for Ukraine.
He said on Twitter he feared “that forces wanting Ukraine to abandon European road will not shy away from using violence. Wisdom and leadership required by all.”
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought to portray the crisis as overblown.
“This situation is linked to the hysterics that certain Europeans went into over the fact that Ukraine, using its sovereign right, decided at this stage not to sign certain agreements that Ukrainian experts and authorities found disadvantageous,” the Interfax news agency quoted Lavrov as saying in Kiev.
There was some suggestion Yanukovych could visit Moscow on his way back from China. His Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said last weekend such a stopover would happen “without a question”.
But late Thursday neither Yanukovych's office nor Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman confirmed that would happen.
Yanukovych himself only issued a statement after meeting Xi and signing $8 billion worth of bilateral deals that the two discussed “stepping up our strategic partnership.”
Ukraine's jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko meanwhile called on the West to impose sanctions against Yanukovych and his family.
“Targeted sanctions against him and his family are the only language he understands,” the former prime minister, who has launched a hunger strike in solidarity with the protesters, was quoted as saying by her lawyer.
Nuland in Kiev met the coalition of opposition leaders heading the demonstrators: nationalist Oleg Tyagnybok, politician Arseniy Yatsenyuk and world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko who heads the UDAR (Punch) party.
They have demanded the resignation of the government and snap presidential elections. The opposition has called a new mass protest for Sunday at midday local time (10.00 GMT)
“We are calling on the leadership of the EU and the US to decisively condemn the violent actions of Yanukovych's regime,” Klitschko was quoted as saying by his press service.
“We are also asking them to refrain from official contacts and to apply personal sanctions against those who gave the illegal orders to use force against peaceful demonstrators.” - AFP