Yulia Tymoshenko goes on hunger strike to protest at Ukraine's failure to sign EU deal
Growing demonstrations over the Ukraine government's refusal to sign and EU trade deal are being bolstered by Yulia Tymoshenko's hunger strike
Ukraine's imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko on Monday night went on hunger strike in support of protesters calling on the government to reverse its decision to pull out of talks on a strategic alliance with its Western neighbours.
Mrs Tymoshenko's move came as mass demonstrations continued into a fourth day and supporters of closer links with the European Union called on President Viktor Yanukovych to sign a landmark trade agreement due to be finalised in Vilnius this week.
"As a sign of unity with you I declare an unlimited hunger strike with the demand to Yanukovych to sign the association agreement," said the 52-year-old former prime minister in a message to thousands rallying in Kiev which was read out by her defence lawyer, Serhiy Vlasenko.
Mrs Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year prison term for what her lawyers say were trumped-up charges of abuse of power and embezzlement, needs urgent back surgery and her release for specialist treatment on Germany had been a precondition for a trade deal to be struck.
Instead, after veiled threats that Moscow would push Ukraine into bankruptcy, MPs failed to change the law in order to free her and Mr Yanukovych dismayed Western states by abruptly cancelling the talks.
On Monday European Union leaders backed the protesters calls and condemned Russian meddling in the former Soviet state.
The eruption of street protests has given diplomats some hope that Ukraine's eastward tilt can be reversed, even if it misses the immediate summit deadline. "It is up to Ukraine to freely decide what kind of engagement they seek with the European Union," said a statement from Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Barosso, the EU leaders.
"Ukrainian citizens have again shown these last days that they fully understand and embrace the historic nature of the European association. We therefore strongly disapprove of the Russian position and actions in this respect."
The protests, Ukraine's biggest since the 2004 Orange Revolution, have been met by riot police with tear gas and officials insisted that the government would not bow to popular pressure.
Vitaly Klitschko, the former world boxing champion and leader of the opposition UDAR party, joined crowds at the barricades for the first time and urged supporters to keep up the protest. "We should gather every day," Mr Klitschko said. "We should press the authorities to sign the deal."
A former president of Ukraine who came to power after the Orange Revolution said Moscow had played a dirty political game which Europe must resist.
"Moscow dictated Ukraine's pivot away from Europe with a range of carrots and sticks," Victor Yushchenko wrote in the Financial Times. "Russia is, at the moment, looking to restore the Soviet model through innocuous-sounding projects such as the 'customs union' and the 'common economic space'."
Leonid Kozhara, the Ukrainian foreign minister, said Mr Yanukovych still planned to travel to Vilnius on Thursday to demonstrate that Ukraine was postponing - not cancelling - integration talks.
Diplomats said the door remained open for the country of 46 million that is central to the EU's long-term goal of eastern expansion.
"I would say we are trying very hard to be disappointed not despondent," said one Western European diplomat.
Eugenia Tymoshenko, the daughter of the former prime minister, said her mother's health continued to deteriorate and appealed for her to be released for medical care in Germany.
"Chancellor [Angela] Merkel shouldn't give up," she said. "If my mother isn't freed soon, she will die."