Ukraine's pro-EU forces rally after brutal beating of journalist

KIEV (AFP) - Ukraine's opposition planned another mass rally on Sunday amid swelling anger over the brutal beating of a pro-European reporter who exposed the lavish lifestyles of President Viktor Yanukovych and his ruling elite.

The angry crowd also planned to drive dozens of cars towards Yanukovych's heavily guarded Mezhygirya residence on the banks of the Dnipro River that journalist Tetyana Chornovol accused the Ukrainian leader of illegally "privatising" in one of her exposes.

Chornovol - a prominent member of the pro-EU protests that have rocked Kiev since Yanukovych abandoned a historic agreement with Brussels in favour of closer ties with old master Moscow last month - was pulled out of her car and assaulted on Tuesday night.

The attack and graphic hospital images of Chornovol's bloodied and swollen face have added fuel to the fire of weekly pro-EU protests that intially drew hundreds of thousands of Kiev's Independence Square - called the Maidan in Ukrainian - but began to peter out last Sunday.

The opposition appeared to be taken aback by a US$15 billion (S$19 billion) bailout package that Yanukovych struck with Russian President Vladimir Putin on December 17 that also slashed the price Ukraine had to pay for natural gas imports on which its teetering economy depends.

The deal removed the immediate threat of a painful Ukrainian currency devaluation and debt default but also dimmed the prospects of a so-called Association Agreement being struck with the European Union in the coming months.

EU diplomats said that talks with Ukraine can resume only after Kiev spells out its commitment to the terms of a deal with Brussels that the two sides had agreed through years of painful talks.

But opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk of jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party said Chornovol's beating showed that the authorities were ready to take grievous measures against their rivals and called for still stronger protests.

"We intend to conduct a 'political auto rally' on Sunday. First we will drive to the president's residence. From there, we visit the speaker's residence. And from the speaker's - to the residence of the prime minister," Yatsenyuk said in a statement.

"We have three key demands: to free the innocent (protesters arrested by the police), to jail the bandits and to dismiss the government," he added.

Chornovol said from her hospital bed on Friday that she had been followed by assailants "in a black luxury jeep" after spending the day taking photographs of the residencies of Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko and Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka.

"When you are struck by a luxury car, you understand that a price has been put on your life," the 34-year-old told pro-opposition Channel 5 television.

The Ukrainska Pravda opposition website reporter has published several investigations about Yanukovych's "illegally privatised" luxurious residence around 15 kilometres from Kiev.

Chornovol said Friday that she had recently discovered another dwelling of the president.

A Ukrainian court has issued a warrant for the arrest of five people believed to be linked to the attack.

But police investigators have infuriated the opposition still further by alleging that the suspects had links to boxer turned protest leader Vitaly Klitschko and Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna party.

The attack has drawn explicit condemnation from Western leaders but has been met with silence by Moscow.

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington "expresses its grave concern over an emerging pattern of targeted violence and intimidation towards activists and journalists who participated in or reported on the EuroMaidan protests." "The violent beating of journalist Tetyana Chornovol is particularly disturbing," Psaki said.

The EU delegation to Ukraine also noted "the increasing pressure on civil society activists, political leaders and journalists".

And the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) called on the authorities to improve security for reporters.

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