Obediently holding their flags, supporters of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, many of them bussed in from distant regions, cheered on cue for him in a square close to opposition barricades in Kiev.

Just a few hundred metres (yards) away lies Independence Square, where determined opposition demonstrators have braved numbing winter temperatures for over three weeks in a non-stop protest over Yanukovych's rejection of a broad trade deal with the European Union.

Arriving in buses at the rally point, Europe Square, the orderly groups of government supporters followed guides holding signs marked with their region, while organisers handed out national flags and that of the ruling Regions Party.

But one participant alleged she had been tricked into attending the muted rally, mounted by the Regions Party in support of the embattled president.

"They deceived me today. They said that the demonstration was for unity and for peace, but it turned out to be a Regions Party rally," said Tetiana Skliarenko, a 58-year-old from the eastern Vinnitsa region.

"It's a complete fraud," she told AFP, claiming she was paid a fee to attend.

"They promised to pay. Here they promised us 250 hryvnia ($30, 22 euros), I'll be honest. They haven't paid us yet, they said they'd pay us in the buses."

Some who attended said they did back Yanukovych because he could provide economic stability and jobs.

"I want to have a job and earn, and without stability and calm, it will be impossible to achieve this," said Natalya Bugera, a 49-year-old farmer from the central region of Cherkasy.

The rally came ahead of another mass opposition protest set for Sunday when the movement's leaders will urge Yanukovych not to alienate Ukraine further from the EU by signing up to a Russia-led Customs Union at a meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week.

With their own counter-rally planned for Sunday, the pro-Yanukovych camp set up field kitchens and braziers for supporters staying the night and erected dozens of large army tents in a nearby park. Some participants said they would sleep in their buses.

In a defiant speech from the rally stage Saturday, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov ridiculed the opposition leaders, and urged protesters occupying Independence Square to go home.

"The politicians who promote hatred and division of Ukraine don't belong in today's politics. Their place is at the garbage dump," he said.

"Ukraine doesn't need barricades. They weaken the country," he said.

And, in seemingly homophobic rhetoric, Azarov warned supporters away from closer links with the EU, saying that Ukraine would have to accept gay rights if it joins the bloc.

"We would have to legalise single-sex marriages, we would have to pass a law on the equality of sexual minorities," he said.

Interior troops in helmets formed a cordon and parked buses to prevent opposition protesters from interrupting the pro-Yanukovych rally.

Opposition demonstrators meanwhile goaded their rivals across a nearby barricade of snow packed with sandbags, wooden pallets and tyres.

"Join us! Come to the Maidan!" some shouted, using Independence Square's Ukrainian name.

Organisers said onstage that 200,000 people had turned out to support Yanukovych, while police gave a figure of 60,000. Both figures appeared inflated, according to an AFP correspondent at the scene, who estimated the number to be only around 35,000.

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