Ukrainian riot police forcefully cleared hundreds of pro-EU protesters from Kiev’s main square early on Saturday morning, reportedly arresting some 30 participants and injuring dozens.
By mid afternoon Saturday, a crowd of angry protesters estimated at 5,000-7,000 by Interfax-Ukraine news agency gathered in downtown Kiev on another square nearby, Mykhaylivska, to protest the violent dispersal of their protest camp. Cars driving by honked their horns in a sign of solidarity.
Yury Lutsenko, an opposition leader and civic activist, called upon citizens to kick-start a nationwide strike on Sunday by flocking to downtown Kiev on foot and in cars, parking them along the main street, Khreshchatyk, to block traffic.
“The capital must be blocked . . . Our strike will sweep out this regime,” he said adding: “Yanukovich must go.”
The police incident which occurred about 4am on Saturday is likely to further test relations between western governments and Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovich.
His last-minute decision this week to back out of signing historic EU integration agreements to focus instead on reviving trade relations with Russia stunned western diplomats. It also sparked week-long protests by tens of thousands of activists, students and average citizens in Kiev and other cities.
Video posted online showed hundreds of riot police first surrounding protesters camped out overnight on Kiev’s Independence Square, site of the 2004 Orange Revolution, and later beating them with batons. Other footage on Ukrainian news websites showed riot police wearing helmets beating protesters who lay on the ground as police cleared the square.
US-funded Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty showed further images of what appeared to be riot police chasing protesters down side streets, catching and beating them with batons.
Opposition leader Arseniy Yatseniuk compared Ukraine’s situation to that of neighbouring Belarus which has been under one-man rule since 1996.
“Ukraine has woken up in a different state after Yanukovich refused to sign in Vilnius. It is no longer Ukraine. It’s closer to Belarus,” he said.
Yatseniuk said a planned rally for Sunday was still on schedule.
EU high representative Cathy Ashton said: “The European Union strongly condemns the excessive use of force last night by the police in Kyiv to disperse peaceful protesters, who over the last days in a strong and unprecedented manner have expressed their support for Ukraine’s political association and economic integration with the EU.”
She added: “We call upon the president and the Ukrainian authorities to carry out investigations into the events last night and to hold responsible those who acted against the basic principles of freedom of assembly and of expression.”
In a statement issued on Saturday, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said the square was cleared to allow city officials to finish erecting a Christmas tree ahead of forthcoming holidays.
“Thirty-five people were detained. As police arrived, protesters began to create disorder, throwing trash, bottles with water,” the ministry said adding that complaints about excessive use of force by police will be investigated.
Hours later authorities said all protesters had been released.
Two eyewitnesses denied claims protesters provoked the police into using force. Reuters news agency reported that its cameraman and photographers were “bloodied by blows to the head by police”.
The incident marks an escalation between Mr Yanukovich’s administration and thousands of pro-EU protesters, who late on Friday adopted a resolution calling for his resignation.
They called for a massive rally to be held this Sunday, one week after mustering a peak crowd of some 100,000.
Addressing Mr Yanukovich, who is under fire at home and abroad for jailing political rivals, they said: “If Yanukovich does not go, we will sweep him out.”
The EU embassy in Kiev said on Friday it had taken “note of the pro-European aspirations shared by a vast part of Ukrainian citizens” but urged “all sides to continue to remain calm and to refrain from any use of force.”
Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Kiev tweeted: “Sad to see Ukraine authorities use force to break up peaceful demonstrations. Yanukovich use of force against protesters is a dangerous turn in events that will further isolate him from the EU and US.”
On Saturday, heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, an opposition leader, called upon the EU and US to impose targeted sanctions against Mr Yanukovich and “representatives of his regime.” A petition on the White House website, calling on US President Barack Obama to impose sanctions, has mustered some 100,000 signatures of support in recent days.
Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister tweeted: “Repression against pro-EU manifestations in Kiev deeply worrying.”
“I fear that Yanukovich has decided on a policy of repression, but still hope that other voices will speak up. Extreme danger for Ukraine,” added Mr Bildt.
In a statement, the foreign ministry of Lithuania, which this week hosted the EU summit at which Ukraine was scheduled to sign the EU integration agreements, condemned “beating of peaceful protesters,” adding: “use of brutal force is unacceptable.”
Stefan Fuele, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, said: “Ukraine authorities refrained from signing the association agreement and deep and comprehensive trade agreement but they should not refrain from respecting freedom of assembly and expression.”
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