Security forces clashed with protesters during an overnight stand-off that carried into Wednesday morning in the center of the Ukrainian capital,in an escalation of a crisis that threatens the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Several thousand police in riot gear used their shields to push back protesters and successfully removed some of the tents and barricades at a large protest camp. But thousands of protesters,their ranks swelling through the night,put up fierce resistance for hours,shoving back at the police lines to keep them away from key sites at the camp set up in Independence Square in downtown Kiev.
The protests began in late November when Yanukovych backed away from a pact that would deepen the former Soviet republic’s economic ties with the 28-nation European Union – a pact that surveys showed was supported by nearly half the country’s people. The agreement would make Ukraine more Western-oriented and represent a significant loss of face for Russia,which has either controlled or heavily influenced Ukraine for centuries.
Demonstrators,waving EU and Ukrainian flags and singing the national anthem,shouted “Shame! Shame!” and “We will stand.” Many of the protesters,wearing orange construction hats to protect themselves from police truncheons,locked arms and simultaneously jumped up and down to stay warm in freezing December temperatures that plunged to 12 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 11 Celsius).
Scuffles broke out between police and opposition lawmakers,one of whom laid down on the snow trying to block a vehicle from advancing on the camp. An Orthodox priest sang prayers,and a popular Ukrainian rock song with the lyrics “I will not give up without a fight” blared from loudspeakers over the square. Pop singer Ruslana kept up morale by singing the national anthem and cheering protesters from the stage.
One protester stripped to his waist in the frigid air,got down on his knees and shouted “Stop this…We are one people!”
Several demonstrators and police were injured in the scuffles and ambulances were seen on the square. But police appeared to be under orders to refrain from using excessive force,unlike the violent beatings of protesters in recent weeks. Some policemen helped injured activists up from the ground and moved them away. At least one tent caught fire after a metal barrel where a fire was burning to keep demonstrators warm overturned.
After some of the barricades and tents were dismantled,police and city workers began to remove debris with bulldozers. Policemen used what appeared to be chainsaws to clear the barricades.
Kiev police said authorities were merely trying to clear the streets leading to Independence Square,but not to remove the main encampment,the Ukrainian Interfax news agency reported. Police said that several of the most active demonstrators were detained.
Meanwhile,scores of protesters remained barricaded inside the Kiev city hall building,which they had been occupying for weeks. They hosed down the steps leading to the entrance with water so police would slip on the ice if they attempted to storm the building.
US Secretary of State John Kerry issued a strong statement,expressing the United States’ “disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities continued…