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Ukraine leader set to return to protest crisis

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(KIEV) - Ukraine's embattled President Viktor Yanukovych was expected Friday to return home after an aid-seeking visit to China as his government tries to quell the biggest protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Unnamed sources told Ukraine's Unian news agency that Yanukovych would first stop over in Sochi for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- his third in less than two months -- but there was no confirmation of this from the Kremlin.

Protesters have since Sunday controlled Kiev's main Independence Square in response to Yanukovych's decision to bow to Russian pressure and reject a historic deal with the European Union that would have pulled Ukraine out of Moscow's orbit for the first time.

Thousands have surrounded government ministries and held pickets outside parliament where opposition deputies have paralysed work. Demonstrators have also seized and occupied the Kiev city hall, with dozens spending the night there.

The authorities on Thursday gave the protesters five days to halt their blockade of government buildings amid fears of possible clashes when the deadline runs out early next week.

The political crisis has also dealt a heavy blow to Ukraine's already-struggling economy amid fears that the government may default on billions of dollars in debt and other payments that come due by the end of 2014.

The yield investors seek on Ukrainian government bonds has soared along with the price Kiev must pay for insurance against a possible default.

Yanukovych -- his economic assistance options dwindling with the rejection of the EU deal -- met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing and other Communist Party leaders during a four-day visit that was criticised heavily by the protest leaders.

It remained unclear if he received hope of the urgent financial support Ukraine requires for its ailing economy.

About 1,500 people occupied Independence Square on Friday afternoon amid signs from officials that they were prepared for talks but not the protesters' main demand of the government's dismissal and snap presidential and parliament polls.

"People stand as before. No one is going anywhere," said 36-year-old Zynovii as he guarded the square's tent city against a feared push from the police.

Concern among protesters rose Friday when the body of an elderly man was discovered near the square.

Medics determined that the unidentified man died of consumption. But opposition leaders fear that authorities could accuse them of resorting to deadly violence and then use this as an excuse to disperse the protest by force.

Russia fumes at the West

Many protesters said they have been emboldened by the strong support of US and EU officials they received during a two-day meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) group that began in Kiev on Thursday.

US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland urged "the Ukrainian government to listen to the voices of its people who want to live in freedom" while German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle personally visited Independence Square late Wednesday.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt also warned as he was leaving Kiev on Friday that there were "critical days" ahead for Ukraine.

Bildt tweeted "that forces wanting Ukraine to abandon European road will not shy away from using violence."

The West's blunt response to Ukraine's U-turn has outraged Moscow amid Kremlin efforts to reassert influence over former Soviet territories -- a region many Russians call "the near abroad".

"How would our German partners feel if the Russian foreign minister went to some gathering that was being held against German rules," Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Friday in reference to Westerwelle's visit to Independence Square.

"I doubt that they would view this as a friendly step or that this step would be proper."

Sanctions against Yanukovych?

Ukraine's jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko -- entering the 11th day Friday of an indefinite hunger strike -- has called on Washington and the European Union to impose sanctions against Yanukovych and his family.

"Targeted sanctions against him and his family are the only language he understands," the former prime minister was quoted as saying Thursday by her lawyer.

Tymoshenko party ally Arseniy Yatsenyuk and his two opposition protest co-leaders -- the nationalist Oleg Tyagnybok and world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko of the UDAR (Punch) party -- have demanded the resignation of the government and snap presidential elections.

The opposition has called a new mass protest for Sunday at midday local time (1000 GMT).

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