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EU reiterates readiness to sign Ukraine trade deal

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Top European Union officials said Friday that the 28-nation bloc was still ready to sign a landmark trade agreement with Ukraine, insisting it wouldn't weaken ties between the country and its neighbor Russia.

The EU late last year offered Ukraine a free trade and association agreement. EU officials said they estimate the deal could yield 20 billion euros ($27.5 billion) in EU loans and grants for Kiev over seven years.

But Ukraine's now fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, at the last minute opted for a $15 billion bailout from Russia instead and refused to sign the deal that would have brought the country closer to Europe, sparking the protests that spiraled into a crisis that left dozens dead.

"If and when Ukraine is ready to sign the deal, then the European Union is ready to sign the deal," EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht told reporters after a meeting of the bloc's trade ministers in Athens.

Brussels says the agreement would open the EU, the world's biggest market, for Ukrainian exporters while shielding them from full competition for years. It would be "beneficial for all Ukrainians," De Gucht said.

"These association agreements ... are not directed toward Russia, or against Russia. It is not because Ukraine will have closer relations with Europe that they won't have economic relations with Russia," he said. "Not at all."

Ukraine's population is divided in its loyalties, with much of western Ukraine advocating closer ties with the EU while eastern and southern regions look to Russia for support. While Ukraine's new government indicated it wants a swift conclusion of the deal with the EU, its more imminent worry is to avoid bankruptcy. It has said it needs $35 billion for this year and next to avoid default and appealed for an international bailout.

Baetz reported from Brussels. AP Writer Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed.

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