Violent clashes escalate in Kiev
Hundreds of Ukrainian protesters angry with draconian new laws armed themselves with clubs and baseball bats and tried to storm the Ukrainian parliament, but were turned back after a pitched battle with police.
Early in the confrontation, opposition leader and former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko threw himself between the attackers and police and shouted at the protesters: “What you are doing now is very dangerous! It is a provocation you are being drawn in!”
In response, one protester splashed him in the face with a fire extinguisher, and the crowd resumed its attack with fresh vigor.
The violence proceeded a rally where about 100,000 protesters gathered in Independence Square Sunday (local time), the first demonstration since President Viktor Yanukovych signed a package of laws that restrict free speech, the free press and the right of assembly, as well as internet use.
Looking for a fight, several hundred demonstrators armed with heavy sticks and baseball bats broke away and confronted police on the street leading up to the parliament, or Verkhovna Rada. They shot off fireworks and threw flares and stones at the police, who responded with flash grenades and water cannons, as the temperature dipped into minus 8 Celsius. There were a few pitched fights.
The blasts of stun grenades echoed and plumes of smoke rose above the crowd. Activists chanted ''Shame!'' and ''Revolution.'' The Interior Ministry said more than 70 police were injured, four of them seriously; there were no immediate figures for protester injuries.
The battle pitched strident nationalists - who have been chafing at the lack of direct action - against the forces of authority. A bus was set on fire, a first for Kiev but hardly unusual in the recent history of such clashes elsewhere in Europe and around the world.
A speaker addressing the crowd at the scene of the conflict said they were demanding that parliament - which recessed immediately after passing the new legislation Thursday in a brawling, hurry-up session - be called back from vacation to reconsider the laws.
Klitschko later traveled to President Viktor Yanukovych’s suburban residence and said the president has agreed to negotiate.
‘‘There are only two ways for events to develop. The first one is not to negotiate,’’ Klitschko was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. ‘‘A scenario of force can be unpredictable and I don’t rule out the possibility of a civil war. ... And here we are using all possibilities in order to prevent bloodshed.’’
The ex-boxer has been accused of acting indecisively and without a plan. He is the head of one of the smaller opposition parties and has been unable to unite the opposition with his calls for new elections and a peaceful transfer of power from Yanukovych. Political observers said some of the demonstrators, particularly young protesters, want faster change.
''We need a leader who leads us to victory today, right now,'' said Dmitry Bulatov, who has emerged as one of the leaders of the street protests. ''We need a name.''
The protests began in November over whether Ukraine would ally itself more strongly with the European Union or Russia after the government refused to sign a partnership agreement with the EU. The protesters have since widened their complaints to include poverty, unemployment and corruption.
The demonstrations took on a sharper tone Sunday after last week's passage of new laws that protesters and human rights groups said are designed to stifle dissent. They criminalise libel, establish new penalties for unlawful protests and make it easier to strip legislators of their immunity.
Organisers of the Maidan camp have posted a video online of the last few minutes of Martin Luther King Jr.'s final speech, in Memphis in 1968. Before his famous peroration about having been to the mountaintop, he talks forcefully about not giving in to the police or to the authorities when freedom of speech and assembly are at stake. He also takes a dig at Russia.
''We need such a leader,'' said Inna Halak, a protester from a suburb of Kiev who lost her driver's license Saturday because she was identified by the police as a participant in an auto rally against Yanukovych.