Last updated: February 19, 2014 10:24 pm

Ukraine protesters dig in fearing bigger crackdown

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Tens of thousands of protesters were digging in for further clashes with Ukrainian security forces in central Kiev, as fears grew of a wider government crackdown against pro-EU demonstrations using the armed forces.

As darkness fell in the Ukrainian capital, the country’s defence ministry announced that the military could be deployed in “antiterrorist” operations and President Viktor Yanukovich replaced the head of the army.

The warning came 24 hours after the most bloody day in Ukraine since pro-EU demonstrators began their occupation of the city’s centre more than three months ago, with 25 people killed.

Earlier thousands of protesters wearing military helmets and bullet proof vests has clashed sporadically with riot police as tens of thousands more sprawled out along Khreshchatyk, the city’s main street and a popular hang-out during peace times.

They acted in a supporting role, funnelling food, supplies and makeshift ammunition while also building fresh barricades to protect against a possible attack by the authorities.

Dozens of citizens - a mixture of youths, middle-aged parents and old-aged pensioners - also dug up cobble stones that were collected in bags and carried swiftly to the front line to be used as ammunition against the police.

“You see what our life has come to?” said Olena, a 46-year-old accountant from Kiev who was one of those prizing the makeshift missiles from beneath her feet. “We are digging up ammunition from the streets we walked on so many times before to use as ammunition against this criminal regime.”

Iryna, a 27-year-old from eastern Ukraine, added: “I could never have imagined myself doing this, but unfortunately we have no other way out, nothing to look forward to for ourselves or our children.

“This bandit president has stolen our EU future”.

We are digging up ammunition from the streets we walked on so many times before to use as ammunition against this criminal regime

- Olena, a protester

Demonstrators who had a day earlier retained control of Independence Square in the city centre in the face of a fierce onslaught from riot police were reinforced by newly arriving protesters from western Ukraine.

Earlier Ukraine’s state security service (SBU) announced it had launched a criminal case against unnamed politicians for plotting a coup to overthrow the government and “seize state power” as police restricted vehicle access to downtown Kiev.

But Ihor Smeshko, who steered Ukraine away from violent confrontation during the 2004 Orange Revolution while in charge of the SBU, warned according to local news reports that “anti-terrorist” operations against protesting citizens was a “direct path towards civil war”.

Ukrainian television also showed anti-government protesters in western Ukraine – where support for EU integration is highest – seizing control of government buildings and forcing governors appointed by Viktor Yanukovich, the Ukraine president, to sign papers confirming their resignation.

In depth

Ukraine political crisis

Ukraine riot police

Kiev faces its most serious crisis during the years since its independence in 1991 following a dispute over trade links with the EU and Russia

The prospect of renewed clashes sparked fresh fears that the country could be on the verge of splitting – or plunging into civil war – although it is not clear whether eastern regions where support for Mr Yanukovich and closer relations with Russia are highest would rally to the president.

After late negotiations on Wednesday evening, Mr Yanukovich’s office and opposition politicians backing the protest movement announced that both sides had agreed to end the bloody street violence, in turn setting the stage for compromise talks. But with stun grenades still heard exploding on Kiev’s main square and protesters expressing lack of trust in Mr Yanukovich’s intentions, the situation remained tense.

Mr Yanukovich was earlier defiant in the face of mounting international criticism.

In a statement addressing citizens about the protests, Mr Yanukovich called on opposition leaders backing the protest movement to disown the “violators of the law”.

Mr Yanukovich said: “I have advisers pushing me to more brute scenarios – to use force. [But] there is a better and more effective method… to seek compromise.

“We need to sit at the negotiating table and save Ukraine. Because future generations will not forgive us if we destroy the nation”.

Kost Bondarenko, a political consultant who has advised Mr Yanukovich in the past, said on Wednesday he did not see any near-term sign of violence abating.

“The hope is that some mediators will arrive from Brussels or Washington,” he said.

“The authorities will only try to resume dialogue from a position of strength. Unfortunately, I think that scenarios in which the army could be brought in is no longer fantasy,” he added.

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