Clashes rage as Ukrainians protest EU snub

2013-12-01 20:48
(Genya Savilov, AFP)

(Genya Savilov, AFP)

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Kiev - Dozens of police and protesters were injured on Sunday in violent clashes that broke out as 100 000 outraged Ukrainians swarmed Kiev in a call for early elections meant to punish authorities for rejecting a historic EU pact.

The crowd chanted "Revolution!" and "Down with the gang" as it drove dozens of helmeted police off Kiev's iconic Independence Square. Protesters also steered a bulldozer within striking distance of police barricades protecting the nearby presidential adminstration office.

AFP reporters saw security forces outside President Viktor Yanukovych's seat of power fire dozens of stun grenades and smoke bombs at masked demonstrators who were pelting police with stones and what Ukrainian media said were Molotov cocktails.

Kiev police spokesperson Olga Bilyk said by telephone that around 100 officers were wounded in the protest. A mayor's office official told AFP that up to 20 demonstrators had also been treated by doctors for various injuries.

The economically struggling nation of 46 million was thrown into its deepest crisis since the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution when Yanukovych snubbed EU leaders at a summit on Friday and opted to keep Ukraine aligned with its former master Russia.

What the opposition describes as the largest rally since the 2004 uprising also saw a few dozen members of the nationalist Svoboda party take control of an empty Kiev city hall building.

The protesters hung a Ukrainian flag from the one of the building's windows and spray-painted a red sign reading "Revolution Headquarters" near the building's entrance.

"The government and president must resign," world boxing champion turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko told the Independence Square crowd to loud cheers and cries of "Yes!"

"A revolution is starting in Ukraine," added Svoboda party chief Oleh Tyagnybok.

"We are setting up a tent city on Independence Square... and launching a national strike," he said in dramatic scenes aired live on television stations in both Ukraine and Russia.

But both leaders distanced themselves from the violence outside the president's office and issued calls for calm.

"None of our protest members attacked Yanukovych's lair," parliamentary opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk told reporters at the rally.

Ukrainian media said Yanukovych - elected in 2010 with strong backing from the Russian-speaking east of the ex-Soviet sate - spent most of Sunday huddling with his most senior advisers at a secluded suburban residence.

An unnamed government source told the ITAR-TASS news agency that Yanukovych was thinking of imposing a nationwide state of emergency from Monday.

Demonstrators defy protest ban

The government's decision to spurn the EU - first announced a week before Friday's meeting in Vilnius - sparked demonstrations that first turned violent in the early hours of Saturday when hundreds of rubber baton-wielding police drove about 1 000 protesters from Independence Square.

Saturday's unrest resulted in 30 injuries among demonstrators and prompted the resignation on Sunday of the head of Kiev's police.

Opposition leaders such as Klitschko - seen as one of the president's most potent rivals in elections set for March 2015 - are now calling for early elections and an indefinite nationwide strike.

Sunday's rally was held in open defiance of a court ban imposed late on Saturday on all protests on the square and its surrounding streets until 7 January.

US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki called on Kiev authorities to respect Ukrainians' right to free expression and proclaimed that "violence and intimidation should have no place in today's Ukraine".

A joint statement issued on Sunday by Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and his Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt - two leaders spearheading the EU expansion east - also expressed warm support for the rallies.

"We are delighted that so many Ukrainians are braving the cold to protest their president's abrupt decision to withdraw from signing the Association Agreement with the European Union," Sikorski and Bildt said in their statement.

Yanukovych for his part said in televised comments aimed directly at the opposition that Ukraine had already chosen its "historic path" by committing itself to closer EU relations.

Yet he also stressed that these closer ties with the 28-nation bloc would come only when Ukraine was treated as "an equal partner that is respected and whose wishes are taken into account".

Kiev's nuanced approach in which it seeks favour from both Russia and the EU was underscored yet again when the government said Yanukovych would soon travel to Russia to sign a new "cooperation roadmap".

Read more on:    ukraine

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