CHISINAU - Western leaders are coming out more strongly in support of Ukrainian opposition demands, as mass protests persist in Kiev after the government abandoned a planned accord with the European Union.
In a declaration Tuesday, foreign ministers of the 28 NATO member states, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, took a moderate line urging the government and the opposition "to engage in dialogue and launch a reform process".
But on Wednesday Kerry weighed in personally during a visit to neighbouring Moldova, saying Ukrainians had the right to "choose their own future" without external pressures, in an apparent reference to Russia which Kiev said forced its hand in backing out of the deal.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle flew into Kiev on Wednesday for a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and headed straight to Kiev's Independence Square where he spoke to protesters in person.
He travelled to the square - the centre of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution - on foot, accompanied by opposition leader and boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who trains in Germany.
"The gates of the European Union are still open. Ukraine has to be on board in Europe and the offers from Europe are still valid," Westerwelle told reporters after the meetings.
President Viktor Yanukovych dropped the association accord just before a high-profile summit with the EU last week after Russia made clear the former Soviet republic would pay a high price for deserting Moscow's fold.
The decision sparked street demos in Kiev and dismay in Brussels, which had seen the association deal as a major achievement in bringing Eastern Europe closer to the EU.
The OSCE's Secretary General Lamberto Zannier and the organisation's Chairperson in Office, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara, discussed the crisis on the eve of its ministerial council meeting.
Zannier said he welcomed assurances from Kozhara that "Ukraine would respect citizens' right to peacefully protest and that recent incidents of excessive force were being investigated".