Ukrainian riot police launched a fresh assault on protesters in Kiev's Independence Square early on Wednesday, escalating a standoff that has already left at least 25 people dead in the bloodiest clashes since the start of the demonstrations.
At least seven police officers were among those reported dead in the clashes, as violence continued throughout the night.
A volley of tear gas rained down on protesters and more tents went up in flames as riot squads took up position around a monument in the centre of Independence Square shortly after 4am (2am GMT).
Protesters, who have camped out on the square for nearly three months demanding President Viktor Yanukovich leave power, dug up paving stones and hurled Molotov cocktails in a desperate bid to repel the onslaught after hours of bloody clashes.
Hundreds of people have reportedly been injured in the unrest.
Police warned women and children through loudspeakers to leave the area as the assault began, saying that they were launching an "anti-terrorist" operation.
But Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko urged the some 20,000 remaining protesters to defend the camp on Independence Square, also known as Maidan.
"We will not go anywhere from here,'' Klitschko told the crowd, speaking from a stage in the square as fires burned around him, releasing huge plumes of smoke into the night sky.
"This is an island of freedom and we will defend it,'' he said.
Yanukovich said on Wednesday that protesters had "crossed the limits" by taking to the streets to try to oust him from power, in an address to the nation.
"The leaders of the opposition have disregarded the principle of democracy according to which we obtain power through elections and not on the street ... they have crossed the limits by calling for people to take up arms," he said, adding that those responsible would face the law.
Emergency talks between Yanukovich and Klitschko late on Tuesday failed to result in an agreement of any kind.
"Yanukovich said that there is only one option...to clear Maidan and that everyone has to go home," Klitschko told independent Hromadske TV after meeting Yanukovich.
US Vice President Joe Biden called Yanukovich to express “grave concern” about the assault.
The White House says Biden urged the president to pull back government forces and exercise maximum restraint, saying that while violence should not be tolerated on either side, the government bears ``special responsibility to de-escalate the situation”.
A protester on the square told FRANCE 24 that despite the crackdown the crowds were determined to stand their ground. “A lot of people feel that there is no way back,” Ihor Koval said by telephone. “If we give up now then Ukraine will become an uncivilised country, so we will stay to the end.
“We're prepared for the worst but we hope for the best,” he added.
Protesters and police 'traumatised'
The death toll from the violence climbed on Wednesday, with the Health Ministry announcing that 25 people had been killed in the clashes.
"This is the most violent day in the 23-year history of Ukraine as an independent nation," said FRANCE 24's Gulliver Cragg, reporting from Kiev.
"People are really traumatised by what we've seen – police and soldiers included, some of whom seem completely despondent about the situation and desolate about the fact that they're being asked to continue the crackdown. They realise that among those they're being forced to attack there are also peaceful protesters."
Towards the end of the day law enforcement agencies vowed to bring order to the streets, shutting down metro stations in the centre of the capital and forcing hundreds of Kiev residents to walk home from work.
Meanwhile in the west of the country protesters seized government buildings in at least three cities, local media and the police said early on Wednesday.
Police said in a statement that protesters had seized regional administration headquarters in Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv.
The website of Ukrainska Pravda said that protesters torched the main police station in Ternopil and were trying to seize the headquarters of regional administration.
See below for our coverage of Tuesday’s events.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)
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Date created : 2014-02-18