Kiev (AFP) - Ukraine's opposition vowed at a mass rally in Kiev on Friday to maintain pressure on President Viktor Yanukovych to step down after he refused to salvage a key deal with the European Union.
Speaking to around 10,000 supporters, opposition leaders said Yanukovych had until mid-March to sign a political and free trade deal with the bloc.
"We are demanding Yanukovych's resignation," said an opposition statement read out at the evening rally by an activist and singer who goes by the stage name Ruslana, in the presence of top leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk and world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko.
"We declare that we are continuing to fight for a European Ukraine," said the flamboyant singer, who won the Eurovision song contest in 2004.
Klitschko told the flag-waving crowd: "Failure to sign the Association Agreement is state treason."
"Today they stole our hope, the hope to live in a modern European country," said Klitschko, speaking shortly after returning from a summit with the EU in Vilnius, together with Yatsenyuk and ultra-nationalist leader Oleg Tyagnybok.
Yatsenyuk, a key ally of imprisoned former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, vowed to keep the protest alive across the entire country.
Yanukovych failed to rescue the deal at the summit in Lithuania, telling EU chiefs his government wanted to sign the pact "in the near future" but needed economic and financial aid.
EU leaders accused Ukraine's old master Moscow of pressuring Kiev, which heavily depends on Russian natural gas, to walk away from the agreement. Yanukovych's aides said the next opportunity to sign the deal may arise at a Ukraine-EU summit in March next year.
Incensed by the snub, thousands of pro-EU protesters turned up on Kiev's central Independence Square, some chanting "Revolution" and others holding flags of the European Union, Ukraine and neighbouring Poland.
Many protesters daubed their faces with blue and yellow paint, the colour of the Ukrainian and EU flags.
The authorities deployed hundreds of riot police to the city centre, creating a tense atmosphere on a sixth day of mass rallies.
A week before the summit the Ukrainian government suddenly halted all preparations for the deal that would have set the country on a path to EU integration, prompting thousands to take to the streets in the largest demonstrations since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004.
A new protest is scheduled to take place on Sunday at which the opposition is expected to determine a further course of action.
Thousands in eastern and central Ukraine have opposed the EU agreement. But their protests have been outnumbered by the pro-EU rallies in the rest of the country.
Some 3,000 pro-Yanukovych supporters massed in Kiev on Friday.
Historic and linguistic fault lines have traditionally divided Ukraine into the Kremlin-friendly Russian-speaking east and the pro-European Ukrainian-speaking west.
'Ukrainians want to be in Europe'
Earlier Friday, thousands of Ukrainians locked hands in a symbolic chain linking their ex-Soviet country to the European Union.
Draped in star-studded blue EU flags and chanting "Ukraine is Europe", protesters formed a human chain that began in the Independence Square and ran along the main Kreshchatyk thoroughfare and other streets.
In the fiercely pro-EU city of Lviv in western Ukraine, some 20,000 locked hands.
"This means that the majority of Ukraine's population wants to be in Europe," Andrii Grytsiuk, a Lviv student, told AFP.
Some 100 people even crossed the Ukrainian-Polish border to extend the chain to the European Union, organisers said.
"Tens of thousands of people locked hands in all the cities from Kiev to the western border," said one of the organisers, Oleksandr Pakhalchuk.
Co-leader of the Orange Revolution, Tymoshenko, who had hoped to walk out of prison as a result of the deal, called on students to keep the protest alive.
"At stake is our life together," Tymoshenko said in a statement. "Just try to defend it like adults through all the means possible."