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Outraged Ukrainians protest leader's Russia overture

By Olexander Savochenko

KIEV -- Outraged Ukrainians rallied in central Kiev on Saturday after President Viktor Yanukovych discussed a new strategic partnership agreement with Russia's Vladimir Putin upon rejecting a historic EU deal.

Several thousand supporters of Western integration braved swirling winds and a heavy snowfall to maintain control of the capital's iconic Independence Square for the seventh successive day.

Some volunteers wrapped themselves in wool blankets as they handed out breakfast from a makeshift kitchen to the multifaceted crowd. Others swept up garbage around a few dozen tents set up between barricades on the sprawling square.

Protest organizers expect up to 300,000 to turn out on Sunday for the largest demonstration since the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution first nudged the former Soviet nation of 46 million closer to the West.

The embattled Ukrainian president held unannounced talks with Putin in Russia on Friday after completing a mission to China aimed at drumming up backing for his cash-strapped government.

Yanukovych's official website said the meeting at Putin's Black Sea retreat in Sochi — their fourth in just over a month — focused on “trade and economic cooperation ... and preparation for the future treaty on strategic partnership.”

But some reports said the two also talked about Russia providing Ukraine with billions of dollars in loans and cheap gas in return for its decision to spurn an EU trade agreement that would have opened the way to its membership in the 28-nation bloc.

The political crisis has dealt a heavy blow to Ukraine's already struggling economy amid growing speculation that Kiev may fail to service billions of dollars in debt and other payments that come due by the end of 2014.

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An EU flag is waved in front of riot police during a picket held outside the presidential office in Kiev on Saturday. (AFP)

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