KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — As thousands of anti-government protesters kept their vigil in Ukraine's capital Saturday, officials sought to reduce their anger with assurances that Russian and Ukrainian presidents didn't discuss Ukraine joining a Russian-led customs union at a meeting this week.
But that reassurance didn't seem to mollify the protesters, who braved snow and strong winds to stay at Kiev's Independence Square, home to a round-the clock tent camp. About 10,000 demonstrators gathered at the square on Saturday afternoon.
The protests started after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych backed away from signing a long-expected agreement with the European Union to deepen political and economic ties. Russia has pressured Ukraine to join a trade bloc also including Kazakhstan and Belarus. Protesters denounce attempts to bring Ukraine back into Moscow's orbit and contend Yanukovych aims to sell out Ukraine to Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Yanukovych met Friday in Sochi, the Black Sea resort where the 2014 Winter Games will be held. Details were few, but Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Saturday in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that "the question of Ukraine's possibly joining the customs union was not discussed in Sochi." Yanukovych's office later issued a similar statement.
Peskov said the presidents paid special attention to "cooperation in the energy sphere." Ukraine's dependence on Russian natural gas gives Moscow considerable leverage, and economically struggling Ukraine has sought to negotiate lower prices.
Former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, who was propelled to power by 2003 mass protests that prefigured Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004, met on Saturday with Ukrainian opposition leader Viltali Klitschko and spoke before protesters, wearing a scarf in the colors of Ukraine's blue-and-yellow flag.
"What we are seeing in Kiev is a raider attack on Ukraine by Vladimir Putin, an impudent and unprecedented attempt to steal the country and its future," Saakashvili said. "Putin's Russia says: We can turn your life into hell, we can hit you hard. This is the logic of a bandit, a racketeer."
Alexei Pushkov, the Kremlin-connected head of Russian parliament's lower house, quickly responded on Twitter in blunt language that reflected the high level of Russia-EU tensions: "It's a raider attack, but by Brussels, not Moscow. They take you to paradise by the throat."
Also Saturday, the Interior Ministry said police have placed the Kiev broadcasting center under heavy guard, saying the move was necessary after hearing protesters express intentions to march on the facility and block access to the building.
The center houses the studios of several TV channels, including the national First Channel, which on Saturday was hosting a show featuring an array of government ministers.
Organizers have called for a massive rally on Sunday. A similar call a week ago brought out a throng estimated at more than 300,000.