Ukraine unrest: PM warns against 'escalating tensions'

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Media captionThe BBC's Daniel Sandford: Government building "is ringed by riot police"

Ukraine's Prime Minister Mykola Azarov has called on the opposition to stop escalating "political tensions".

He warned protesters that anybody found guilty of violating the constitution and laws would be punished.

Mr Azarov was speaking in a live broadcast from the first cabinet meeting since mass street protests began just over a week ago.

The demonstrations were sparked by the government's decision not to sign an association deal with the EU.

The protests are the largest since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004.

'Dangerous situation'

With the help of police, government ministers managed to bypass a blockade of protesters outside government buildings to hold their regular cabinet meeting.

In his address, Mr Azarov called on opposition parties to end the "escalation of political tensions" following his government's survival of a no-confidence vote in parliament on Tuesday.

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Media captionProtesters have crowded into Kiev's Independence Square

He told protesters: "Your leaders are putting you up to a crime. They will try to hide behind lawmaker immunity. But you will have no-one to hide behind."

He said "the reasons for the street protests have been exhausted".

Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara accused "mostly" right-wing European politicians of "inspiring their political partners" in the Ukrainian opposition to continue the protests.

He called on those European politicians to urge the Ukrainian opposition "to sit together with the government to look for ways out of this extremely dangerous situation".

Mr Azarov said earlier this week he would send a delegation to Brussels on Wednesday to renew talks on the deal Ukraine had been expected to sign with the EU.

The office of the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, could not on Tuesday confirm the visit. In a statement, it said it was "ready" to discuss various aspects of the agreement with Ukrainian officials but would not "reopen negotiations on the text".

Ukraine is also reportedly sending a delegation to Moscow, whose customs union it has agreed to join instead.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian and Russian energy firms have reportedly agreed to defer until next spring Kiev's payments for Russian gas imported from October to December.

Russia has in the past cut Ukrainian gas supplies in mid-winter.

Leaving behind his troubles at home, Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych has begun a three-day official visit to China in what is reported to be a bid to forge closer economic ties.

Both he and Mr Azarov are facing calls for their resignation from the protesters.

Mr Yanukovych has called for peaceful protests and both sides to observe the law after violence broke out over the weekend. "Any bad peace is better than a good war," he said.

Before Tuesday's emergency session of parliament Mr Azarov apologised for the use of police force against protesters at the weekend.

The main opposition leaders have alleged the violence was the work of "provocateurs". The newspaper Ukrainska Pravda published a series of videos and photographs which appeared to back up the claims.

Nato also condemned the violence and urged "the government and the opposition to engage in dialogue and launch a reform process".

Thousands of demonstrators remain in Independence Square and outside the government buildings in Kiev.

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