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Europe

Ukrainian police in tense standoff with protesters

© AFP

Video by Gulliver CRAGG

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-12-11

Security forces withdrew from a protest camp and the occupied City Hall building in the Ukraine capital of Kiev on Wednesday following clashes with pro-EU demonstrators at the two sites and condemnations by US and EU officials.

Security forces cleared the streets around a protest camp in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in an overnight operation and entered the City Hall building on Wednesday morning to try to oust occupying demonstrators as the crisis threatening President Viktor Yanukovych’s leadership reached a new pitch.

The security operation at City Hall began early Wednesday, with police using truncheons to try and beat back protesters who responded by spraying water from a fire house, sending many security personnel back to their vehicles on a freezing winter morning.

The attempt to regain control of City Hall came hours after an overnight operation that saw thousands of riot police and elite troops smash down barricades and tents at the main opposition protest site at Independence Square.

Witnesses described a sea of security personnel in riot gear surrounding the protest camp at around 1am local time on Tuesday before storming the site. But protesters, their ranks swelling through the night, put up a resistance, clashing with the police and crying, “Shame” and “We will stand”.

As morning broke, at least 10,000 protesters had massed at the square, forming a human chain to try to prevent security forces from entering the square from adjoining streets.
Television images of the overnight clashes showed protesters singing the Ukrainian national anthem as an Orthodox priest walked up to riot police and asked them not to obey what he called “criminal orders”.

Reporting from Kiev early Wednesday, FRANCE 24’s Gulliver Cragg said the stage at Independence Square was still standing following the overnight clashes. “At the moment, priests are speaking on the stage. The role of Ukrainian Orthodox priests has been very big from the beginning,” said Crag.

By mid-morning, security forces had pulled back from both sides as the Ukrainian police chief issued a statement saying there would be no attempt to break up opposition demonstrations.

Ukraine’s Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko also issued a statement calling for calm. “No one is encroaching on the rights of citizens to peaceful protest,” said the statement posted on the ministry’s website.

The protests began in late November when Yanukovych backed away from a pact that would deepen the former Soviet republic's economic ties with the European Union.

Opposition demonstrators say the Ukrainian leader rejected the pact due to heavy pressure from Russia.

‘A slap in the face’ for Ashton

The clashes came as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was in Kiev to hold talks with Yanukovych. Following the talks on Tuesday, Ashton visited the Independence Square opposition camp, where she was greeted with cheering.

Ashton later issued a statement, which was posted on Facebook, condemning the use of force. “I observe with sadness that police uses force to remove peaceful people from the centre of Kyiv. The authorities didn't need to act under the coverage of night to engage with the society by using police,” said Ashton.

The latest clashes posed a diplomatic challenge for the EU’s foreign policy chief, said Cragg.

“I think it’s going to be very hard for the European Union not to see this as a slap in the face because Catherine Ashton was here precisely in order to avoid this kind of scene. She was here to try and start brokering a dialogue between President Yanukovych’s government and the opposition,” explained Cragg. “Clearly the government has told her tonight what they think of that idea.”

In neighbouring Poland, authorities summoned the Ukrainian ambassador in Warsaw to express concern over the use of force against demonstrators in Kiev.

"We condemn the use of force against peaceful demonstrations and express our earnest solidarity with the Ukrainian society that is peacefully protesting in the name of European values," said a statement issued by the Polish Foreign Ministry.

US Secretary of State John Kerry also criticised the security operation late Tuesday. "The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kiev's Maidan [Independence] Square with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity," he said. "This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy."

‘Out with the gang’

The crisis in the East European nation looked set to spiral with opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk calling for a millions-strong protest in Kiev after the police actions, predicting that the regime of Yanukovych would fall.

"We will not forgive this. Here there will be millions and his regime is going to collapse," Yatsenyuk, the leader of the party of jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko, told the protesters on Independence Square.

"Yanukovych spat in the face of the United States and the EU member states," he said as protesters chanted "Out with the gang.”

World boxing champion and leader of the UDAR (Punch) opposition party Vitali Klitshcko also addressed the protesters, calling on them to, “Rise up – only together can we win our right to live in a free country”.

Pop singer Ruslana kept up morale by singing the national anthem and cheering demonstrators from the stage as scuffles broke out between the police and protesters.

Police said authorities were merely trying to clear the streets leading to Independence Square, but not to remove the main encampment, the Ukrainian Interfax news agency reported. Police said that several of the most active demonstrators were detained.

Protesters have been demanding that Yanukovych dismiss the government and appoint a new one committed to signing an association agreement with the EU.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

Date created : 2013-12-11

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