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Ukraine President Meets with Predecessors, Western Envoys

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has met with three former Ukrainian presidents and the EU foreign policy chief in an effort to diffuse tensions over his refusal to sign a long-anticipated European Union trade deal in favor of closer ties to Russia.

In a televised meeting with his predecessors, Mr. Yanukovych said good relations with both Russia and the European Union are necessary to protect the country's interests.

"I am strongly against opposing relations with Europe in favor of relations with Russia and vice versa. We need to find a way to reunite. I think Europe will sleep peacefully in warmth if Ukraine has good relations with Russia, if there are no such conflicts like when we were shut off from gas. This is unacceptable, so we need to protect our own interests.''

Tuesday's meeting with former presidents Viktor Yushchenko, Leonid Kuchma, and Leonid Kravchuk, were part of national roundtable discussions aimed at diffusing the political crisis.

Mr. Yanukovych also met with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton who is in Ukraine for a two-day visit. EU officials said Tuesday they are willing to give Ukraine financial assistance to if it signs the proposed trade deal.

Meanwhile U.S. assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland met with three top opposition leaders and was scheduled to meet with Mr. Yanukovych later Tuesday. Nuland says the U.S. is cooperating closely with the European Union to resolve the crisis.

"The United States intends to remain engaged, we are working in lockstep with the European Union to try to restore peace, human dignity, a path to Europe and economic stability here."

Hundreds of anti-government demonstrators remain camped out on the streets of the capital, Kyiv, protesting President Yanukovych's decision to scrap key trade and political agreements with the EU. At least 10 protesters were reported injured in clashes overnight as police in riot gear tore down tents the protesters had erected outside government buildings

Mr. Yanukovych said Tuesday he will arrange the release of protesters arrested during the demonstrations.

The political party of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko said riot police stormed its headquarters Monday, seizing computer servers. The Kyiv police denied the claim.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Mr. Yanukovych Monday and told him that violence has no place in a democratic society. He urged the Ukrainian leader to have dialogue with the opposition.

The EU has called for the Ukrainian government to show restraint, saying Europe has "the right and the duty" to support protesters.

Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko called on Ukrainian police to refrain from using force, describing the situation as being "stretched like a string" and capable of switching toward either side.

Russia has exerted strong economic pressure on cash-strapped Kyiv to discourage a deal with the European Union. Russia is Ukraine's largest foreign investor, trading partner and chief natural gas supplier.

Moscow is seeking to form a trade bloc of former Soviet republics and satellite countries. Earlier this year, it imposed restrictions on goods from Ukraine, cutting Ukrainian exports 25 percent and dragging the country into recession.

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