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EU says door remains open to Ukraine as unity cracks

General view of pro-European intergration protesters gathering for a mass rally at Independence Square in Kiev December 15, 2013. REUTERS/Ma
General view of pro-European intergration protesters gathering for a mass rally at Independence Square in Kiev December 15, 2013. REUTERS/Ma

By Adrian Croft and Justyna Pawlak

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Divisions emerged in the European Union's policy towards Ukraine on Monday as the Dutch foreign minister slapped down a senior EU official for announcing on Twitter that he had suspended work on a trade agreement with Kiev.

EU foreign ministers arriving for talks on the EU's relations with Ukraine and Russia said the door remained open for Ukraine to seal a far-reaching trade and political agreement with Brussels despite Kiev's last-minute decision in November to pull back from signing the deal.

Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans sharply criticized EU enlargement chief Stefan Fuele, the official in charge of negotiations with Ukraine, who announced on Twitter on Sunday that talks with Ukraine were on hold because Kiev had failed to give a clear commitment to sign the trade deal.

"I think making policy on the basis of a Twitter notice by Mr Fuele is perhaps not the best way of approaching this issue," he told reporters. "There was no reason from a Dutch point of view to suspend talks."

"I believe the best signal we can give Ukraine is simply that the door is still open," he said.

Fuele's decision reflected growing frustration among EU officials at what they see as the inconsistent position taken by President Viktor Yanukovich, who sometimes appears to be veering towards Brussels and at others towards Moscow.

Yanukovich's decision to abandon the EU deal last month in favor of closer ties with Russia sparked weeks of mass protests in Kiev.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt accused Yanukovich of "double speak".

"Sometimes he says ... he wants to sign it in the near future. The other day he said he was going to fire those who negotiated the agreement," he said. "If there's a clear message from Kiev, we are ready to sign tomorrow."

STRAINED EU-RUSSIAN RELATIONS

Ukraine sent first deputy prime minister Serhiy Arbuzov to Brussels for talks last week on reviving the pact following reports that Ukraine had asked the EU for 20 billion euros ($27 billion) in aid to offset the cost of signing the deal.

The EU held out the prospect of increased EU aid and help with negotiating an International Monetary Fund loan if Ukraine gave a firm commitment to sign the EU accord, but Ukraine has not replied, Fuele said on Sunday.

A Kremlin aide made clear on Monday that Russia was ready to extend a credit to Ukraine to help Kiev cope with its economic problems and keep the country in Moscow's orbit.

EU foreign ministers were set to hold talks later with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and diplomats said they would try to reassure him that an EU-Ukraine deal would not harm Russia.

Bildt accused Russia on Monday of launching a propaganda campaign "based on misinformation and sometimes outright lies against the (EU-Ukraine) agreement ... It is both a propaganda war and economic pressure that they exert against Ukraine."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Ukraine had strained EU-Russia relations. "But it doesn't have to be seen as a zero-sum game. A more prosperous Ukraine is in the interests of Russians," he said.

(editing by Ralph Boulton)

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