Ukraine's riot police storm protest camp after deadly clashes

At least nine killed as anti-government demonstration descends into chaos

Smoke from exploding fireworks and fires billows into the night sky as Ukrainians gather on Independence Square during continuing protests in Kiev yesterday. Photograph: Igor Kovalenko/EPA

Smoke from exploding fireworks and fires billows into the night sky as Ukrainians gather on Independence Square during continuing protests in Kiev yesterday. Photograph: Igor Kovalenko/EPA

 


Riot police and raging fires surrounded besieged protesters on Kiev’s Independence Square last night, as Ukraine’s security forces closed in on their three-month-old camp after an anti-government rally erupted into violence that killed at least nine people.

Opposition leaders and activists sang Ukraine’s national anthem and made defiant speeches on the square’s stage, as riot police with loudspeakers announced an “anti-terrorist operation” and ordered an estimated 20,000 people to leave the area, which was ringed by burning barricades.

Through sheets of flames and clouds of smoke, black-helmeted riot police fired stun grenades and aimed water cannon at protesters, who responded with rocks, fireworks and petrol bombs.

Eyewitnesses said at least one armoured personnel carrier was on the scene. Riot police forced protesters back into Independence Square after hours of running battles in the heart of Kiev, which began when columns of demonstrators marched from the square towards parliament to demand constitutional reform that would weaken Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich.


Paralysed by crisis
Pro-government officials refused to debate the proposed changes, further infuriating protesters who accuse Mr Yanukovich of refusing to seek compromise and a way out of a crisis that has paralysed Ukraine.

In chaotic and bloody scenes, protesters mostly wielding wooden clubs and iron bars clashed with riot police firing rubber bullets and stun grenades. Though they were driven away from parliament, demonstrators stormed the Kiev offices of Mr Yanukovich’s ruling Regions Party. Six protesters, one Regions Party worker and two policemen were reported killed. It is not clear how the civilians died, but officials said the police officers were shot.

The ultra-nationalist revolutionary movement Right Sector posted pictures on its social media page of a priest saying prayers over three corpses.

Two other bodies, including one of an apparently elderly woman, lay near the entrance to a major metro station. “We see that this regime again has begun shooting people; they want to sink Ukraine in blood. We will not give in to a single provocation,” opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk told protesters. “We will not take one step back from this square. We have nowhere to retreat. Ukraine is behind us, Ukraine’s future is behind us.”


‘Island of freedom’
Beside him on the stage on Independence Square, fellow opposition chief and former world champion heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko said: “Everyone here should be brave. We are not going anywhere. This is an island of freedom, and we are going to defend it.”

Other speakers denounced Mr Yanukovich and his allies, their Russian supporters and the security forces, whom they accuse of killing several protesters during clashes in Kiev last month. Rallies that started in late November, when Mr Yanukovich rejected a historic EU pact in favour of closer ties with Moscow, spiralled into protests in many regions demanding his resignation and an end to the corruption, crime and social inequality that bedevil Ukraine, a country of 46 million people.

“Extremists from the opposition have crossed the line. They are killing innocent people on the streets of the capital of Ukraine,” Ukraine’s interior ministry said yesterday, accusing opposition leaders of “directing” the violence and warning that “harsh measures” would be used if fighting continued. The defence ministry said the armed forces may also step in to restore order.

Regions Party deputy Anna German insisted that Mr Yanukovich “does not want to fight. The president wants peace, calm and development in Ukraine.”

She blamed opposition leaders for the unrest and said crisis talks would only resume when “the opposition calls people with weapons off the streets”.

The EU, US and major European countries denounced the violence and called for negotiations. “To restore peace and stability, we urge President Yanukovich to de-escalate immediately the situation and end the confrontation . . . We also urge him to restart a dialogue with opposition leaders today,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said last night.

Ukrainian officials announced that traffic into Kiev would be restricted today “to prevent human casualties and the escalation of conflict”, and a broadcaster that is critical of the government went off-air.


Gun owners
Opposition groups including Right Sector, which has almost 200,000 followers on social media, called people from across Ukraine to go to Kiev to help resist the authorities. Right Sector urged registered gun owners to gather on Independence Square to form an armed self-defence unit.

In Kiev and at least one region of pro-opposition western Ukraine, protesters re-occupied administration buildings that they left over the weekend as part of a compromise deal.