By David Brunnstrom and Justyna Pawlak
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged the Ukrainian government on Tuesday to "listen to the voices of its people" after President Viktor Yanukovich's decision to spurn a pact with the European Union sparked mass protests.
Kerry said Ukrainians had demonstrated "in unbelievable numbers" in favor of the accord on closer ties with Europe, which Yanukovich rejected last week in favor of Russian incentives.
"Mr Yanukovich has obviously made a personal decision and the people don't agree with that decision," Kerry said after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.
"Clearly there is a very powerful evidence of people who would like to be associated with Europe … we stand with the vast majority of the Ukrainians who want to see this future for their country," he told a news conference.
"We urge the Ukrainian government to listen to the voices of its people who want to live in freedom and in opportunity and prosperity. We urge all sides to conduct themselves peacefully. Violence has no place in a modern European state."
Earlier, NATO foreign ministers condemned the use of "excessive force" against protesters in Ukraine and urged all sides to refrain from provoking further clashes.
Ukrainian police used batons and stun grenades at the weekend to break up pro-Europe protests.
Kerry said he saw no role for the 28-nation NATO in resolving the crisis, despite the ministers' statement.
"This is really something the people of the Ukraine need to work out with their leadership and the leadership needs to listen to the people," he said.
In a reference to Russia's efforts to lure Ukraine away from the European Union, Kerry said Ukrainians should be allowed to make their own choice without "a bidding war."
"There is some evidence in the last 24 hours that the leadership has responded by saying that the door may in fact remain open, that they may relook at this issue. I don't know," he said.
Kerry chose not to visit Ukraine this week for a ministerial conference and instead will travel on Wednesday to its neighbor Moldova which, like another former Soviet republic, Georgia, initialed an agreement on closer EU ties last week.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland will go to Kiev instead of Kerry for the meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe which Ukraine chairs.
"I personally will be going to Moldova in order to support that country's European choice," Kerry said. "I look forward to visiting Ukraine when it too gets back on the path to European integration and economic responsibility."
Russia has responded to Moldova's moves towards Brussels by cutting off imports of Moldovan wine. Wine sales to Russia have been an important source of revenue for the country of about 3.5 million people, which is the poorest in Europe.
A senior State Department official said Washington was working with the EU to help the Moldovan wine industry find new markets and, to emphasize this, Kerry plans to visit a historic winery on the outskirts of the Moldovan capital Chisinau.
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft; Writing by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)