Police storm Kiev square to break up protest camp
Clashes come despite attempts to defuse stand-off in recent weeks
Riot police deploy on the street in front of barricades built by pro-European integration protesters at Independence Square in Kiev. Photograph: Reuters
Hundreds of Ukrainian riot police stormed an anti-government protest camp in central Kiev early today, defying calls from the European Union and United States for a peaceful solution to the stand-off.
Riot police and other security service units marched towards Kiev’s Independence Square at about 1 am local time, facing off against flag-waving protesters across makeshift barricades plastered with anti-government graffiti.
After bringing forward bulldozers and dump trucks, the police started dismantling barricades and dragging out protesters at about 1.45 am, despite appeals from people over loudspeakers not to attack the camp, where hundreds of people have been sleeping for more than a week.
The security forces pressed forward into the heart of the camp, but halted outside a trade union building that protesters occupied and vowed to defend. From inside the building, protesters sang songs including their national anthem and chanted slogans of defiance at the approaching police.
The raid came on the coldest night since the camp was created, with the temperature dropping to around -15 degrees.
It took place just hours after President Viktor Yanukovich held crisis talks with visiting EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland.
Mr Yanukovich has refused to make major concessions to the protesters who have demanded sweeping reforms, amid deepening divisions between regions that favour closer ties with the EU or Russia.
In talks with three former presidents, Mr Yanukovich said he would ask the prosecutor general to free some protesters arrested last week, but he condemned demonstrators for occupying Kiev city hall and a trade union building on the city’s Independence Square.
“Such actions are unacceptable in any country,” he said. “And calls for revolution, for a change of power and the constitutional order – these are threats to national security.”
Mr Yanukovich said “people on both sides” must take the blame for violence in which riot police beat up protesters and journalists, injuring hundreds of people and inflaming public anger against the authorities.
Thousands of people now converge on Independence Square every day to demand the resignation of Mr Yanukovich and his government and punishment of all those responsible for the violence, and to support Ukraine’s integration with the EU.
The protests began at the end of November, when Mr Yanukovich scrapped plans to sign a deal with the EU that would have aligned Ukraine with the West rather than Russia. He said threatened trade retaliation from Moscow would have wrecked Ukraine’s ailing economy.
The president reiterated yesterday that he wanted to reach agreement with the EU and IMF, but only on terms acceptable to Kiev. He also insisted that it was pointless for Ukraine to discuss economic questions “without restoring normal trade relations with Russia”.
Supporting the protests
Mr Yanukovich and opposition leaders also met top EU and US diplomats for talks to resolve a crisis that has reopened divisions among Ukraine’s 46 million people, with western regions supporting the protests and integration with the EU, and eastern and southern areas backing the authorities and stronger ties with Russia.
In the major western city of Lviv, senior local official Vasili Pavlyuk said the council was forming “self-defence” groups largely made up of military and security service veterans.
Earlier, Lviv’s mayor said local police would join the protesters to defend the city if units from other parts of Ukraine were deployed there.
In the neighbouring region of Ivano-Frankivsk, council members voted yesterday to disband the local state administration because “the president, government and parliament don’t want to listen to the voice of the people . . . so the time for requests, appeals and statements is over.”