As thick black smoke rose from the barricades encircling the protest camp in central Kiev on Wednesday, the Ukrainian president blamed opposition leaders for the deadly violence in which at least 25 people died and 241 were injured. The violence on Tuesday was the worst in nearly three months of anti-government protests that have paralysed Ukraine’s capital in a struggle over the identity of a nation divided in loyalties between Russia and the West, and the worst in the country’s post-Soviet history.
Amid cries of “Glory to Ukraine!” and with flaming tires lighting up the night sky, thousands of riot police armed with stun grenades and water cannons attacked the sprawling protest camp in the centre of Kiev. With the boom of exploding stun grenades and fireworks nearly drowning out his words at times, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko urged overnight the 20,000 protesters to defend the camp on Independence Square that has been the heart of the protests.
“We will not go anywhere from here,” Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion, told the crowd, speaking from a stage in the square as tents and tires burned around him, releasing huge plumes of smoke. “This is an island of freedom and we will defend it,” he said. Early on Wednesday, many were still heeding his call. “I am not going to sit and wait while they kill me,” said 32-year-old Anton Rybkovich. “I’m going to attack. The more force the government uses, the more harsh our response will be.”
About 10,000 people remained on the square as piles of rubber tires continued to burn. A large building that the protesters had used as a headquarters caught fire and had been abandoned during the night, as police used loudspeakers to urge women and children to leave the square because an “anti-terrorist” operation was under way. President Viktor Yanukovych said that opposition leaders “crossed a line when they called people to arms.”
“I again call on the leaders of the opposition … to draw a boundary between themselves and radical forces which are provoking bloodshed and clashes with the security services,” the president said in a statement. “If they don’t want to leave (the square) they should acknowledge that they are supporting radicals. Then the conversation with them will already be of a different kind.”
His defiant tone left few with hope of compromise after a night of violence, the worst in the country’s post-Soviet history.