US and Europe denounce raid on Kiev protesters
Riot police stormed Kiev protest camp in early morning raid, writes Daniel McLaughlin, in Kiev
Dawn broke over an extraordinary stand-off in Kiev today, as thousands of Ukrainian anti-government protesters resisted riot police efforts to drive them from their camp in the heart of the city, and the European Union and United States fiercely denounced the unexpected raid.
Several thousand riot police tore down barricades around the camp on Independence Square in the early hours of today, dragging away protesters who are demanding the resignation of their leaders over a perceived bid to move Ukraine away from the EU and back towards Russia. Wearing body armour, balaclavas and black helmets, the riot police surged onto a square that protesters declared the hub of their “revolution” earlier this month, after President Viktor Yanukovich halted plans to sign a historic deal with the EU and security forces brutally beat dozens of peaceful demonstrators and journalists.
Protesters flying the blue-and-gold flags of Ukraine and the EU retreated into the centre of the square, as pop star and Eurovision Song Contest winner Ruslana from a large stage implored people to stay calm and to not be scared or provoked into violence by the black wave of riot police. As tents plastered with cartoons and graffiti deriding Mr Yanukovich and his government were ripped down, Ruslana and other speakers urged the security forces not to hurt the “peaceful crowd” and led chants and renditions of the national anthem.
A priest said prayers over the tumult, as protesters occupying a trade union building beside Independence Square roared defiance at the police and lit a fire between the opposing lines, throwing fireworks into flames that exploded in flashes of green and bright red. As riot police moved onto the square from two sides, trapping what activists said were more than 10,000 demonstrators, clashes broke out on adjacent streets, leading to several reported injuries to both police and protesters. On at least one side-street, a large group of protesters spent all night preventing a special forces unit reaching Independence Square. A stalemate soon gripped the square itself, however, as demonstrators formed a solid mass of people around the main tent camp and stage, where Ruslana led songs, chants and calls for calm, and opposition leaders and activists appeared to rally protesters and denounce Mr Yanukovich.
A cordon of riot police several men deep encircled the protesters but, after some time, tension gave way to a stand-off and occasional shoving match. “This is a peaceful demonstration. We are Ukrainians like you, don’t attack us. There are women here – do not attack us, we do not want any violence,” Ruslana called over the microphone, as smoke drifted above the jostling crowd and the temperature dropped towards minus 15 celsius. A roar erupted as a towering figure appeared alongside Ruslana on stage — Vitali Klitschko, world heavyweight champion boxer and now an increasingly influential opposition leader. “We will be victorious, we have all 46 million Ukrainians with us,” he told the crowd. “I appeal to the riot police, please do not use force. This is a peaceful protest. We do not want to live in a police state. We will not live in a dictatorship.”
Just a few hours earlier, Mr Klitschko and other opposition leaders had met EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland for talks on resolving the crisis, and Ms Ashton had been cheered during a visit to Independence Square. The two diplomats also met Mr Yanukovich, who has insisted that he still wants to sign an EU association agreement when the terms are right for Ukraine. He claimed that signing now would have invited Russian trade retaliation that could have wrecked Ukraine’s fragile economy. His opponents fear, however, that he has actually decided to turn away from the EU and its demands for tough reforms, less corruption and more transparency, in favour of urgent financial help and a closer long-term relationship with Moscow, Ukraine’s Soviet-era master.
The besieged crowd never lost its voice, aiming chants of “Resign, resign!” at Mr Yanukovich and his government and “Shame, shame!” at the riot police encircling them. “Yanukovich must have lost his mind to do this — to send in special forces to clear away this peaceful protest. And with top EU and US officials here in Kiev. It’s crazy,” Mr Klitschko said later, as he moved through the crowd with his brother Vladimir – another huge world champion boxer. “I just don’t know what will happen now,” he told The Irish Times. But when asked if he believed Mr Yanukovich had personally ordered the storming of the Maidan – as Ukrainians call Independence Square – he was adamant. “Of course this was his decision,” he said. “It could not have happened without him.” The EU and US – as well as many Ukrainians – were shocked that the authorities had conducted the raid, especially while top diplomats from Brussels and Washington were in Kiev.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of US “disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest...with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity.” Ms Ashton spoke of her “sadness that police use force to remove peaceful people from the centre of Kiev.” By first light, the protesters’ main barricades on Independence Square had been flattened by bulldozers and carted away in dump trucks. But the main camp was intact on the Maidan, and Kiev city hall and a trade union building were still occupied by demonstrators who had armed themselves with basic weapons – chair legs, broomsticks and iron rods — and were pouring water on the freezing pavement to make it treacherous for police to approach their strongholds. From the Maidan stage and on social media, opposition leaders were calling on residents of Kiev and other cities to head for the heart of the capital to support their protest and protect it from further attack. On a barricade outside the trade union building, Valeri Borovik recalled how, just a fortnight ago, he had been in Dublin launching a new business. “We are feeling fine here,” he said, giving a thumbs-up sign. “And we will win.”