Gamblers in Ukraine, which is littered with gaming houses, could have to go abroad to place bets under a gambling ban legislators say should safeguard families hit hard by the economic crisis, The Financial Times reported.

More than 2,000 protesters representing gambling operators and their 200,000-plus employees gathered outside the offices of Viktor Yushchenko, the president, to urge him to veto a law passed on Friday. A refusal would mean the the immediate closure of all casinos, slot machine, internet gambling and betting establishments.

The plans are backed by Yulia Tymoshenko, the prime minister, who says more than 100,000 gaming salons are "demoralising Ukraine`s youth and sucking the last savings from families" depressed and squeezed by economic recession.

A light regulatory environment has allowed rapid growth in Ukraine`s gaming business, which ranges from garish city-centre casinos to dingy slot machine halls. Venues are popular with a mix of tourists, businessmen and cash-strapped addicts.

Officials have long debated tightening Ukraine`s lax gaming laws following a legal overhaul in Russia in 2007 that imposed restrictions and pushed some operators to expand in Ukraine.

But the recession, which could see Ukraine`s gross domestic product fall 10 per cent this year, has given the idea new impetus. The authorities have also been stung into action by a fire this month in a slot machine hall in which nine people died.

The proposed laws could yet fall victim to the long-running YushchenkoTymoshenko rivalry. The president said this weekend that he favoured removing gambling from residential neighbourhoods, but hinted he might veto Ms Tymoshenko`s "populist" and poorly drafted law.

Ms Tymoshenko said Ukraine could copy Russia`s plans for limiting gambling venues in non-residential zones. But plans have yet to be revealed and gambling operators are wondering how they will close at such short notice if the law takes effect. "We do need better regulation but this is not the way to do it. In one moment, more than 200,000 people could loose their jobs," said Grigory Trypulsky, vice- president of the Ukrainian Association of Gambling Operators.

Mr Trypulsky said the gaming business posted a turnover of more than $1bn (?740m, £654m) last year, paying several hundred million dollars in taxes.

The Financial Times