KIEV - Ukraine's embattled prime minister Mykola Azarov warned protesters on Wednesday they would be punished if they broke the law after he marshalled his ministers for a cabinet meeting despite an attempted blockade by demonstrators.
With a crisis over the government's rejection of closer ties with the European Union piling pressure on the creaking economy, one of Azarov's deputies departed for Moscow for talks including on Russian natural gas, for which Kiev is urgently seeking lower prices.
Tension stayed high in Kiev as black-helmeted riot police sealed off the approach road to the main offices of President Viktor Yanukovich, confronting several hundred protesters from behind steel barriers.
Protesters had threatened to tighten their blockade of key buildings in Kiev on Wednesday. Yanukovich himself flew to China on Tuesday, leaving behind a country in turmoil over his government's policy U-turn. Chinese state news agency Xinhua said Yanukovich was in Xian where he was due to visit the Terracotta Warriors archaeological site and an aircraft factory.
The crisis has exposed once more the East-West tug-of-war playing out in Ukraine, which has oscillated between the EU and former master Moscow since the 2004-5 Orange Revolution overthrew the post-Soviet political order.
Azarov's government survived an attempt to topple it in parliament on Tuesday in a rough encounter with opposition parties at which he apologised for police heavy-handedness in which scores of people were hurt.
But after Azarov and his ministers assembled for a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, he had recovered his poise and warned demonstrators not to take their action too far.
Azarov also said the government had demonstrated tolerance and a readiness for dialogue during the protests and he urged all political forces to avoid a further escalation of tension.
"Everybody must realise that the country's constitution and laws are in force, nobody is allowed to violate them ... All those who are guilty of illegal acts will answer for them," he said.
International markets kept up the pressure, driving the cost of insuring Ukrainian debt against default to a level not seen since January 2010. Ukraine faces gas bills and debt repayments next year of more than $17 billion.
Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Boiko departed for Moscow on Wednesday for talks on bilateral issues including natural gas, the Interfax news agency reported, citing a source in Ukraine's government.
Azarov implored opposition leaders on Tuesday not to try a repeat of 2004-5, when "Orange revolution" mass protests overturned a fraudulent election won by Yanukovich.
Trying to defuse protests, the government has defended its policy move by saying that this is only a "pause" in the moves to integrate further with Europe, rather than an about-turn.
As if to underscore this point on Wednesday, he announced delegations were heading to both Brussels and Moscow very soon.