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Ukraine's PM Warns Protesters Not to Escalate Tensions

Ukraine's prime minister has warned anti-government protesters to stop escalating tensions, as other nations and a human rights group express concern about the police crackdown on the demonstrators.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said during a Cabinet meeting Wednesday the government is demonstrating tolerance and warning that lawbreakers will be punished.

Later, at a meeting with representatives from the Council of Europe, Azarov accused the opposition of trying to provoke violence.

"The picture of all of the events that have happened is quite clear now. We face very clear provocations. There were no students on the square. They were well-prepared provocateurs."

Thousands of protesters remain camped out on a central square in the capital, Kyiv, continuing calls for the resignation of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

The demonstrations have been growing since November 21, when Mr. Yanukovych backed out of a European Union trade deal, saying the country needed to continue close ties with Russia.

Prime Minister Azarov has said Ukraine wants to further integrate with the EU, but cannot afford trade losses with Russia, which is Ukraine's largest foreign investor and trading partner and opposes closer Ukraine-EU relations.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a NATO news conference in Brussels Tuesday that Mr. Yanukovych has "obviously made a personal decision" that the Ukrainian people do not agree with.

NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels issued a statement Tuesday condemning the "use of excessive force" against the demonstrators.

While on Wednesday, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch called on Ukrainian authorities to investigate reports of police using excessive force to control the crowds and to hold those responsible accountable.

The Ukrainian opposition failed to force out the government Tuesday with a parliamentary no-confidence vote. The measure won the support of 186 mainly opposition lawmakers, 40 short of the majority needed to pass.

But opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko called on supporters to continue to fight. He said if the people do not stop police abuses, "it will happen every time, and nobody will be protected." President Yanukovych, meanwhile, has left Ukraine for a state visit to China.

European news reports say the EU-Ukraine deal began unraveling in late October, when Moscow demanded that cash-strapped Kyiv immediately make full payment of a nearly $1 billion natural gas bill, or face a gas cutoff as winter hits the region.

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