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By Luke Baker
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union must be ready to impose sanctions on Ukraine if it persists in using violence against protesters, the Czech foreign minister said on Monday as he warned against Soviet-style authoritarianism.
Speaking ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, where Ukraine is to be discussed, Lubomir Zaoralek said it was unacceptable to see human rights being blatantly violated on the borders of the European Union.
Protesters, now in their third month of street action against President Viktor Yanukovich, blame security forces for abductions, attacks on protesters and torching of their cars.
Protest organizer Dmytro Bulatov says he was kidnapped, tortured and held for a week by unknown assailants. After his release on January 29, he flew to Lithuania for medical treatment.
"It's something totally unacceptable, this violence and the role of the authorities in intimidation. It's something that is very close to our experience in the socialist past," Zaoralek told Reuters.
"I am absolutely convinced that if there is an escalation of violence, I see no chance to avoid sanctions. The EU must use all tools at our disposal," he said.
At least six people have died in occasional clashes between radicals and riot police in Kiev since protests erupted over Yanukovich's decision in November to drop a trade pact with the European Union and form closer economic ties with Russia.
The United States and its European allies back opposition calls for constitutional reform that aim to create a technocrat government controlling the economy and security forces and acting independently of the presidency.
But the question of possible sanctions on Ukraine have become a point of divergence between the EU and the United States.
In secret recordings released on the Internet last week, Victoria Nuland, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European affairs, was heard complaining to the U.S. ambassador to Kiev that the EU was too soft, and she suggested the United States should adopt a "fuck the EU" attitude.
In a separate recording, one of the EU's top foreign policy experts, Helga Schmid, was heard telling the EU ambassador to Ukraine that she was worried about Europe's perceived weakness and the criticism being leveled at it.
But while the United States is keen to pressure Yanukovich and a possible sanctions package is being prepared in Congress [ID:nL2N0L32P1], EU member states are far more hesitant.
Diplomats indicate that Germany, Britain and France are among the major countries opposed to such a move, which they argue will further complicate efforts to bring Yanukovich on side and will ultimately play into Russia's hands.
The crisis has become a proxy battle between the EU and Russia over influence in Ukraine.
Zaoralek, who held talks with Nuland last week, said the key moment for the EU would be mid-February, when an amnesty offered by Yanukovich to the protesters is due to expire.
The amnesty, already rejected by most of the demonstrators, calls on pro-EU protesters to leave occupied public buildings in exchange for some detainees being set free.
"If after February 17 the current government uses violence to suppress the opposition, the Maidan and the people, maybe that will be a concrete reason to use all possible tools which we have in the EU," said Zaoralek, referring to the central square in Kiev that is the focal point of the protests.
Asked if there were gaps between the EU and U.S. policy on Ukraine, the minister acknowledged this was the case, but said it was up to Europe to shape its own approach.
"I would like to see a Europe that would be able to manage these programs and not have to wait for another friend or power to solve it," he said.
(Writing by Luke Baker in Brussels and Richard Balmforth in Kiev; Editing by Tom Heneghan)