Ukrainian protesters clashed with police in Kiev after at least 10,000 people took to Independence Square for an anti-government demonstration. Police retaliation with tear gas and water cannons was prompted by an attempt to storm the government quarter.
What started as a peaceful demonstration on the city’s Independence Square, or Maidan, with heated anti-government slogans being shouted and the announcement that the opposition was creating a“people’s assembly,” turned into violent clashes with the police later Sunday.
Protesters wearing orange helmets and wielding sticks and flares clashed with cordons of security forces surrounding government buildings and attempted to turn over a police bus. According to police, radical activists were also throwing smoke grenades.
Live feeds showed riot police retaliating by throwing flash grenades from behind the cordon, as Twitter exploded with reports of Berkut special police forces readying to forcefully disperse the crowd and water cannon approaching the area.
As tension grew, media reports said police used teargas to push back the crowd.
Some of the protesters started breaking up the pavement, arming themselves with rubble.
The most aggressive group of protesters started throwing stones, debris and Molotovs directly at the police, with some of the petrol bombs landing in the midst of cordons and setting policemen’s uniform on fire.
At least 70 law enforcers have been injured in violent riots and 4 of them are in serious condition, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry spokesperson told Ria novosti.
Witnesses from the scene reported that one of the policemen was dragged out of the cordon and beaten by several masked people, and then taken to a tent in Maidan for medical treatment by other protesters. Police officials later reported that he suffered head injuries, broken ribs and nose and has been taken to hospital in “a state of shock.”
A water canon was deployed to the scene of the clashes by the police, but has so far been used only against those attacking the security cordon. The protesters have particularly been keen to discuss the armored vehicle on the Internet as the temperature in Kiev lowered to a freezing -7 degrees Celsius.
Brutal video: Protesters beating up police officers in Kiev
The footage showed several police buses fully ablaze, with fears voiced that they might explode. Eventually demonstrators formed a human cordon around the burning bus trying to stop people approaching it. A total of six police vehicles were damaged in the unrest.
Others, however, continued to incite the crowd, drumming away with hammers on canisters and shouting slogans like “Revolution!” or “Down with the gang!”
Twitter users and Ukrainian opposition figures decried the most aggressive protesters as “provocateurs”and called on them to stop provoking the police.
Opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko stepped in to try and prevent the clashes, but was sprayed with powder from a fire extinguisher in the process. Photos on Twitter showed Klitschko, covered in foam, trying to calm down the crowd through a bullhorn.
However, protesters did not back off and continued to shower fireworks and other objects on riot police, who protected themselves with shields. As flash and smoke grenades continued to go off, doctors were seen arriving at the scene to treat the injured.
Following a meeting with opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has ordered the country’s Security Council Secretary Andrey Klyuyev to create a working group tasked with resolving the political crisis in the country, Itar-Tass reports citing the press service of the Ukrainian president.
Earlier on Sunday, Klitschko recorded a video message for Yanukovich, in which he urged the President“not to repeat the faith of [Romanian Communist leader Nicolae] Ceausescu and [Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddaffi.” Addressing the President from Maidan, the opposition leader demanded a stop to “pitting the police against the people” and to end “a war against Ukrainian citizens.”
Sunday’s mass protests follow the speedy passing of new legislation by the Ukrainian parliament, which has banned unsanctioned gatherings, imposed multiple restrictions on demonstrations, the media, and internet and toughened penalties for actions like the blocking and seizure of state buildings.
The bill was signed into law by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich on Sunday after getting approval from the parliament on Thursday. This triggered an outcry from the opposition and vigorous condemnation from the Western politicians and media, which branded the laws “undemocratic.”
The new legislation includes authority to arrest protesters who wear masks or helmets, or erect tents or stages without permission from the authorities, criminalization of libel and the distribution of extremist materials, including via the internet, and a ban on motorists to form convoys of more than five vehicles.
The new laws were ostensibly defied by thousands of Ukrainian protesters on Sunday, as some took to Maidan in masks and helmets and others attempted to form a car convoy and reach the city center but were blocked by the police midway.
Washington has threated to impose sanctions against Ukraine as the White House called on the authorities to “de-escalate the situation,” by withdrawing riot police and beginning a dialogue with the opposition.
“The increasing tension in Ukraine is a direct consequence of the government failing to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of its people,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.
“The US will continue to consider additional steps – including sanctions – in response to the use of violence,” Hayden added.
Following Sunday’s riots, the Ukrainian police have opened a criminal case into the mass unrest in central Kiev. The police also said they have footage from CCTV cameras to analyze, warning that the aggressive protesters will be brought to justice. According to the new legislation, perpetrators may face up to 15 years in prison for “mass violation of public order,” as well as large fines.
So far, ten people have been arrested, the Ministry of Internal Affairs said in a statement naming the detainees.
The list includes a 30 -year-old member of “Svoboda” (Freedom) movement. He has a history of being apprehended several times for disorderly conduct. The list also includes a 41-year-old man nicknamed “Skull” who had previously been convicted of murder and served 13 years behind bars.
The Sunday rally also highlighted the frustration shared by many Ukrainian protesters about the lack of a single leader in the opposition movement. Some activists speaking on stage on Maidan urged the opposition parties to come up with a unified leader and criticized them for not being able to do so. Opposition figures asking the protesters to keep calm and refrain from confrontation with the police were also hissed down.