KIEV Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich said the European Union should stop meddling in the fate of his rival former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and said her imprisonment should not hinder Kiev's integration with Europe.
Pouring scorn on the woman who helped engineer the 2004 Orange Revolution that thwarted his first bid at the presidency, Yanukovich said she was part of a ring of criminals and that her fate should lie in the hands of Ukrainian judges.
Tymoshenko's jailing symbolized what Brussels has called Kiev's use of selective justice and his comments effectively dismissed the intense diplomatic efforts by the European Union, in which he has participated, to secure her release.
Yanukovich's promise to attend an EU summit on Friday appears intended to soothe domestic outrage over his government's sudden about face, or focus on Ukraine's economic ties with the bloc without making any political promises.
But his comments over Tymoshenko are sure to cause a tense exchange with EU leaders when he attends a summit on Friday, particularly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"The issue of Yulia Tymoshenko should not be a hindrance to Ukraine's European integration," the statement said.
"The (Ukrainian) courts, which she has been evading and thereby obstructing justice, should give the answer. What does the European Union have to do with this? Is the European Union a court?" Yanukovich said in a televised interview.
Germany was to have accepted Tymoshenko for treatment for chronic back trouble under a compromise deal which was being put together by a two-man EU humanitarian mission. This has now died along with the planned signing.
The signing of the EU deal, which Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said was thwarted by a Russian policy of blackmail and pressure, would have marked a definitive turn towards the West for Kiev and away from its former Soviet master Moscow.
Tymoshenko, whose jailing on abuse of power charges sparked criticism at home and abroad, is on hunger strike over Kiev's decision to renew economic ties with Russia.
Yanukovich has held his fire over Tymoshenko during Ukraine's negotiations with the European Union, but on Wednesday he said she and her "criminal activities" were to blame in part for the state of the country's troubled economy.
Tymoshenko is accused of being behind Ukraine's negotiations with Russia that force Kiev to pay around $400 a month per 1,000 cubic meter of Russian gas, above the $385 average Western Europe pays.
"Today because of Tymoshenko, Ukraine is paying off debts to Russia," he said. "Friends of Tymoshenko are sitting in various prisons in various countries around the world," he said, in a reference to former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko who was accused of money laundering in the United States.
He served his sentence but is still in detention in the United States over immigration issues.
Ukraine, which must find more than $17 billion next year to meet Russian gas bills and debt repayments including $3.7 billion to the International Monetary Fund, has said Europe's financial aid offer to Kiev was 'humiliating'.
Ukraine's soveriegn foreign debt has accumulated to more than $26 billion, or more than 16 percent of the country's $160 billion GDP in 2012.
In the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, President Bronislaw Komorowski said Russia had exploited Ukraine's short-term economic weaknesses to keep it within its orbit, adding to tough statements directed at the Kremlin from various EU officials.
"The problem is the policy of pressure and blackmail employed towards Ukraine by its eastern neighbor," Komorowski said in an interview.
Hundreds of protesters continued demonstrations in Kiev against the decision of Yanukovich's government to suspend the signing of the landmark deal with the European Union.
"We know that Russia holds nothing for us. We cannot allow Putin's Russia to be our future. We will continue to come out on the streets to let our leadership know our place is in Russia," said Igor Panin, 31, an entrepreneur who travelled from his home city of Poltava to demonstrate in Kiev.
Protesters gathered outside the main government building during a cabinet meeting as hundreds of riot police in body armor stood by.
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Writing by Thomas Grove, editing by Jon Boyle)