EU vows help to Ukraine in gaining IMF loan

A key European Union envoy says the 28-member trade bloc is ready to provide more financial aid to Ukraine, if Kyiv agrees to sign the trade cooperation agreement with the bloc it backed away from last month.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele, speaking Thursday in Brussels, said the EU help will include helping the cash-strapped Kyiv government negotiate a key loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Fuele did not provide details or a timetable for the assistance. But it has been widely reported that Kyiv is in need of more than $20 billion to meet immediate foreign obligations, including natural gas payments to Moscow.  Ukraine Prime Minister Mykola Azarov on Wednesday placed the figure at $27.5 billion.

Fuele and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met with a key Ukrainian delegation as protests continued in Kyiv against the decision by President Viktor Yanukovych to scrap the EU deal in favor of strengthening economic ties with Russia.

By late Thursday, protesters in central Kyiv were reported to have begun rebuilding barricades torn down by police earlier this week.

Opposition leaders on Wednesday rejected a call by Yanukovych for talks aimed at ending the protests, which began late last month.  They also repeated demands for the release of jailed protesters, as well as the resignation of Yanukovych and his government.

For its part, Russia is seeking to form a trade bloc of former Soviet republics and satellite countries to rival the European Union, and has in recent months exerted strong economic pressure on its impoverished neighbor to scuttle the EU deal.

In his annual address to parliament Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was hopeful that a political solution to Ukraine’s political crisis would soon be reached, adding that Russia was not forcing Ukraine to join their customs union.

(Photo of Stefan Fuele: Council of the European Union)