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Ukrainian protesters besiege government buildings

KIEV, Ukraine — Thousands of protesters besieged government buildings in Ukraine's capital on Monday to demand the ouster of the prime minister and his Cabinet, as anger at the president's decision to ditch a deal for closer ties with the European Union gripped other parts of the country and threatened his rule.

Local officials in western Ukraine have openly sided with the protesters, while the major national television channels have scaled back their support for the government. In Parliament, President Viktor Yanukovych's party has suffered defections, potentially putting the government at risk of losing a no-confidence vote that could come as early as Tuesday.

With protesters blocking entrances to the Cabinet and central bank buildings, Yanukovych called European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and asked if he could send a delegation to discuss some aspects of the association agreement, Barroso said in a statement. Barroso said he agreed. The commission refused to say when such a meeting might take place.

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said that the EU dialogue with Ukraine was being put back on track with the participation of Ukraine's first deputy prime minister, Serhiy Arbuzov, and that it included possible financial support.

The protests began more than a week ago, but were galvanized when riot police used force to disperse demonstrators early Saturday. A protest rally the next day drew hundreds of thousands, who filled a huge central square.

It was unclear whether the opposition would get the 226 votes it needs in the 450-seat parliament to oust Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his Cabinet. The opposition controls about 170 seats, but independents hold 35 more and the governing Party of Regions was shedding support. At least three of its lawmakers quit in protest and one of them, Inna Bohoslovska, previously a vocal government supporter, called on other legislators to leave the party. A top Agriculture Ministry official also resigned Monday.

Oleksandr Yefremov, head of the Party of Regions faction in Parliament, said lawmakers would discuss the situation Tuesday morning and might then put a no-confidence motion up for a vote. At the same time, he said there were no grounds to dismiss the government because of the protests, which have centered on Kiev's Maidan — or Independence — Square.

"Our goal is to make sure that the people on Maidan calm down," Yefremov said.

Opinion surveys conducted before the protests began showed about 45 percent of Ukrainians supporting closer integration with the EU, with a third or less favoring closer ties with Russia. But the protests, and the police violence, appear to have unleashed anger against the government and tipped the balance more strongly in favor of Europe.

In addition to the Cabinet's resignation, opposition leaders were calling for early presidential elections.

The turbulent situation doesn't bode well for Ukraine's troubled economy, which has been in recession for more than a year.

"The blockade of government offices and the National Bank of Ukraine, and the risk of a general strike, leaves me concerned now over Ukraine's ability to pay its way in the very short term," said Tim Ash, chief emerging markets economist at Standard Bank in London.

Opposition calls for a strike were being headed by local governments in western Ukraine, where most people speak Ukrainian and lean toward the EU. In the industrial east of the country, most people tend to speak Russian and have a closer affinity for Russia.

Officials in the western cities of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil announced they were going on strike and called on their residents to turn out for protests. The mayor of Lviv warned that police in his city would take off their uniforms and defend the city if the central government sent reinforcements. Scores of protesters from Lviv and elsewhere in western Ukraine have headed to Kiev by train and car to take part in the rallies.

"Yanukovych is now fighting for his political survival, and time is no longer on his side," Ash said.

The opposition also was getting support from Ukraine's main television channels, which are owned by the country's wealthiest businessmen. Instead of largely toeing the government line, the channels have begun to give a greater platform to the protesters.

This was a sign that the channels' owners were unhappy with the government's refusal to sign the EU deal and pursue better trade ties with Russia instead, said Natalia Ligacheva, head of media watchdog Telekritika.

"They have become more daring and are letting their newsrooms work the way journalists should work," Ligacheva said.

In Kiev, thousands returned to Independence Square, where several hundred people spent the night in a protest camp that has been cordoned off by barricades made of metal bars and wooden planks.

Hundreds of others held ground inside Kiev city hall, where some protesters slept on the floor, while others lined up to receive hot tea, sandwiches and other food brought in by Kiev residents. Other volunteers sorted through piles of donated warm clothes and medicines.

"You can also fight for freedom and independence by giving out sandwiches," said Yulia Zhiber, a 21-year-old philology student from Kiev.

Protests have been held daily in Kiev since Yanukovych on Nov. 21 backed away from the EU agreement, which was to have been signed Friday. He justified the decision by saying that Ukraine couldn't afford to break trade ties with Russia.

Yanukovych was also reluctant to liberate his top rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose imprisonment the EU called political revenge and whose freedom it set as a condition for signing the deal.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman reaffirmed the willingness of Berlin and Brussels to sign the association agreement.

"It is very impressive to see how many people in Ukraine are ready to stand up for their conviction, for their dream of a Ukraine that shares Europe's ideas of the rule of law and its values, and seeks closer relations with Europe," spokesman Steffen Seibert said.

"For the German government, these demonstrations send a very clear message," he said. "It has to be hoped that ... Yanukovych will hear this message."

Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin, Monika Scislowska in Warsaw and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.

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