Ukrainian riot police withdraw from protest camp in Kiev
Columns of police abandon positions earlier occupied by demonstrators
A line of Ukranian riot police marches past pro-European integration protesters on barricades at Independence Square in Kiev today. Photograph: Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters.
Battalions of Ukrainian riot police withdrew today from a protest camp after moving against demonstrators overnight in the authorities’ biggest attempt yet to reclaim streets after weeks of protests against President Viktor Yanukovich.
Columns of police abandoned positions around a protest camp and state buildings occupied by demonstrators enraged at Yanukovich’s decision to spurn an EU trade deal and move Ukraine further into Russia’s orbit.
Overnight the police had cleared streets near the protest camp, bulldozed tents and skirmished with demonstrators. They later surrounded the City Hall, where protesters who have set up a makeshift hospital in the occupied building sprayed them with water hoses to prevent it from being stormed.
Those moves by hundreds of black-clad police with visors and helmets were the boldest steps the authorities have ordered so far against demonstrators, although the sudden withdrawal suggested they were not prepared to use full force.
At stake is the future of a country of 46 million people, torn between popular hope of joining the European mainstream and the demands of former Soviet master Russia, which controls the flow of cheap natural gas needed to stave off bankruptcy.
At the main protest camp on Independence Square, pop stars, politicians and priests pleaded with police not to shed blood. Opposition politicians called for mass demonstrations to protect the square and predicted that Yanukovich would soon be toppled.
The interior minister called for calm and promised that the square would not be stormed. But even after the police left the streets, Vitaly Klitschko, a world boxing champion who has emerged as one of the main figures of the opposition, said the overnight action had “closed off the path to compromise”.
“We had planned to have talks with Yanukovich. We understand that Yanukovich has not wish to talk to the people and only understands physical force,” he told a news conference.
The police moves energised the protests, drawing thousands of people back out into the streets to defend the camp, many wearing plastic hardhats in orange, the colour that symbolised a successful popular revolt against a fraudulent election in 2004.
Police had been bussed in to the city centre under darkness to shouts of “Get out criminal” – a reference to Yanukovich, who suspended plans to sign a trade pact with the European Union last month and instead embraced closer ties with Russia.
Riot police flooded roads to Independence Square, where thousands of people have maintained a vigil in bitter winter cold. Helmetted officers moved slowly into the camp, bulldozing tents and barricades with tractors mounted with shovels. Dozens of demonstrators and police were hurt in scuffles but several officers said they had orders not to use force.
The action stalled after day broke, with temperatures in the snowbound capital stuck at minus 8 degrees Celsius (17 Fahrenheit). Some riot police left to cheers from lines of protesters holding them back. At City Hall, demonstrators lobbed a Molotov cocktail from a window into a police truck before the officers finally withdrew.
On the square, protesters said they had feared they would be stormed. Priests intoned prayers from a stage on the square and urged police not to use violence. Ruslana, a Ukrainian pop star, called from a loud hailer: “Do not hurt us!”