Ukraine Prime Minister Visits Donetsk

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Ukraine's prime minister visited the hostile Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, the country's coal-mining center, and she pledged Friday to pay the workers what they are owed.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (R) embraces Yefim Zvyagilsky, director of the Zasyadko' mine in Donetsk. Tymoshenko on Friday attended the ceremonies marking the national Day of Miners in Donetsk

The visit by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko came days after reform-oriented President Viktor Yushchenko announced his plans to reshape the coal industry, which is plagued by lack of funds and widespread accidents. Nearly 4,300 workers have died in Ukraine's mines since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Some 40 people protested Tymoshenko's visit to the Russian-speaking region, chanting ``Donetsk region is not for you,'' and carrying posters that read ``Ukraine, Belarus, Russia together,'' Interfax news agency said.

Tymoshenko promised that the state would repay its mounting debt to the industry as part of the reforms.

Since Ukraine's 1991 independence, the state has amassed debts totaling $64 million to coal workers, Tymoshenko said in a televised live interview at a local TV station. ``We will pay it back.''

Under former President Leonid Kuchma, in power for a decade before Yushchenko's election in December, the previous authorities had paid part of the debt.

Tymoshenko said a reformed coal sector could be the basis of Ukraine's ``energy independence.''

Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russian gas, and the countries frequently feud over energy issues.

Nearly 4,300 workers have died in Ukraine's struggling mines since the Soviet collapse.

Tymoshenko visited Donetsk eight months ago to try to persuade voters to support Yushchenko in the election, but she was met with hostility. The region overwhelmingly supported Yushchenko's rival, former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who advocated closer ties with Moscow.

Yushchenko is to visit Donetsk on Sunday, the miners' professional holiday, his office said.

Source: AP