By Richard Balmforth
KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine's jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, whose plight in prison has soured relations between the country's leadership and the West, was moved to a local hospital on Wednesday in a high-security police convoy.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has faced growing criticism over the conviction of Tymoshenko - and the authorities' refusal to let her travel abroad for treatment for chronic back pain.
Her transfer from prison in the eastern city of Kharkiv to a nearby hospital for treatment under the supervision of German doctors was worked out last week in a compromise.
But Wednesday's early morning transfer seemed unlikely to relieve pressure on Yanukovich who has been thrown on the back-foot by sharp Western criticism of his treatment of his rival.
Tymoshenko, 51, a former prime minister, was jailed last October for seven years for alleged abuse of power while in office, a charge she denied.
She says she is the victim of a vendetta by Yanukovich who narrowly beat her for the presidency in February 2010. The European Union and the United States have condemned her trial and sentencing as politically motivated and called for her to be released.
Outcry in the West intensified after Tymoshenko said she had been beaten in jail and went on hunger strike on April 20 in protest against alleged ill-treatment. Authorities have denied she was mistreated.
Her daughter, Yevgenia, said on Tuesday her mother had agreed to end her hunger strike under the supervision of a German doctor in a local hospital.
Reuters eyewitnesses in Kharkiv said Tymoshenko was brought to a side entrance of the hospital by ambulance on Wednesday morning in a heavily guarded convoy that included several police cars.
Two lines of white-coated hospital staff shielded her as she was carried into the hospital on a stretcher, preventing journalists and onlookers catching a glimpse of her.
A few supporters nearby shouted out "Freedom for Yulia!"
The state prison service, in a statement, confirmed she had been moved to hospital "for the course of rehabilitation recommended by the international medical commission".
YANUKOVICH UNDER PRESSURE
Tymoshenko appeared placid and untroubled at World War Two Victory Day celebrations on Wednesday, despite the growing political pressure.
Addressing war veterans in Kiev, he spoke of the need to defend world peace by shunning "populism of all types", but remained silent about Tymoshenko.
In an embarrassing setback on Tuesday, he called off an informal summit meeting in Yalta of Central and Eastern European leaders after several of them said they were staying away because of the Tymoshenko affair.
He quickly drew fire for this from other opposition figures.
Arseny Yatsenyuk, leader of the Front of Change party, said cancellation of the Yalta meeting amounted to a "shameful failure" for Ukraine.
"This leadership is dragging the country and its people with it into international isolation," Interfax news agency quoted Yatsenyuk as saying.
Vitaly Klitschko, world heavyweight boxing champion who heads the Udar party, said: "The leadership clearly has no wish to change the situation and meet calls by Kiev's European partners to respect human rights and democratic standards."
Western outrage over the treatment of the charismatic Tymoshenko, who led the 2004 Orange Revolution street protests which doomed Yanukovich's first bid for the presidency, has led to threats by European politicians to boycott the European soccer championships which Ukraine co-hosts next month.
The prestigious, month-long Euro-2012 tournament which Ukraine is co-hosting with Poland from June 8 to the final in Kiev on July 1, is meant to showcase the former Soviet republic as a modern European nation with its heart set on joining the mainstream.
Some individual Western government ministers now say they will not attend Euro-2012 matches. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has said he has no plans to visit Ukraine and the other 26 commissioners are following suit.
An EU diplomat said he expected EU foreign ministers to "harmonize and coordinate" strategy towards Ukraine at a meeting in Brussels on Monday.
The row over Tymoshenko has already led to the indefinite shelving of the signing and ratification of landmark political and free trade agreements with the EU.
(Additional reporting by Sergiy Karazy in Kharkiv; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Heavens)