Ukraine's capital Kiev gripped by huge pro-EU demonstration

The BBC's Steve Rosenberg spoke to some of the protesters on both sides

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in the Ukrainian capital Kiev seeking the resignation of the government for refusing a deal on closer ties with the European Union.

Protesters, who oppose a customs union with Russia, toppled a statue of Lenin and smashed it with hammers.

President Viktor Yanukovych has said he shelved the EU deal because it would put trade with Russia at risk.

Protest leaders have given him 48 hours to dismiss the government.

Analysis

As another big crowd calls for closer relations with Europe, no resolution to the stand-off between the pro-EU protesters and the Ukrainian government is in sight.

The country's opposition is sticking to its demand for the replacement of what amounts to the entire ruling structure: the president, parliament and cabinet.

But President Viktor Yanukovych is not moving an inch either, forging ahead with plans for a "strategic partnership with Russia".

The government has state power on its side, but the protesters have a no less potent weapon: people power.

Tensions continue to mount, with two events on Sunday only adding to the strained atmosphere: an announcement by state security service officials that they are looking into an alleged attempt to seize power, and the toppling of Kiev's Lenin statue.

Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy head, will have her work cut out when she arrives in Kiev later this week to try to defuse the situation.

As darkness fell, protesters were blockading key government buildings with cars, barricades and tents.

Witnesses said a group of protesters toppled the statue of Soviet leader Lenin at the top of Shevchenko Boulevard using metal bars and ropes. Then they began smashing it up with hammers.

Others stood by chanting "glory to Ukraine".

Correspondents say the statue has symbolic importance as it underlines Ukraine's shared history with Russia.

One opposition MP, Andriy Shevchenko, tweeted: "Goodbye, Communist legacy!"

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov compared the toppling of the statue to the Taliban's destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported.

"War on monuments is always barbarity," he said.

The BBC's David Stern says the attack on the statue has heightened tension in Kiev.

'A razor's edge'

In another development on Sunday, the Ukrainian Security Service said it was investigating some politicians on suspicion of what it called "actions aimed at seizing state power".

It did not name the politicians.

The European Commission has said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will travel to Ukraine this week "to support a way out of the political crisis".

Waving EU and Ukrainian flags, protesters on Sunday congregated on Kiev's Independence Square - the scene of previous clashes with police.

Ukraine's special police force, Berkut, has been widely condemned for beating protesters in the square - known as Maidan.

Statue toppled from plinth. 8 Dec 2013 The statue of Lenin was toppled from its plinth
Demonstrators on Independence Square The protests are now in their third week
A man on a horse at the rally on Independence Square. The main demand of the demonstrators is the resignation of the government
A man plays on a piano decorated with EU flag in front of riot police outside the presidential office Outside the presidential office, a man was playing an EU-decorated piano in front of policemen
People wear helmets and masks as they attend the rally. Some demonstrators have come out prepared after clashes with police last week left many injured

Russia-Ukraine ties

  • 1991: Independence from the Soviet Union declared
  • 1997: Friendship treaty with Russia and agreement on Black Sea fleet.
  • Nov 2004: Moscow-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych declared president after poll, despite reports of massive fraud. Opposition launches mass protests, dubbed the Orange Revolution
  • Dec 2004: Opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko wins re-run
  • 2009: Russia briefly stops gas supplies to Ukraine in row over pricing
  • 2010: Yanukovych wins presidential election
  • July 2013: Russia restricts imports from Ukraine, as Kiev seeks closer EU ties
  • Nov 2013: President Yanukovych reverses decision to sign EU deal, triggering mass protests

The opposition party of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has urged people to "chase" the president "until he falls".

"We are on a razor's edge between a final plunge into cruel dictatorship and a return home to the European community," Mrs Tymoshenko said in a message to the crowd read out by her daughter.

"Don't give in, not a step back, don't give up, the future of Ukraine is in your hands," the message read.

Another opposition leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, said: "It's not just a simple revolution. It's a revolution of dignity."

Opposition MP Serhiy Pashynskyy said that "starting from today and until our demands are met, the government quarter will be blocked with protest rallies".

Analysts say that although the protests were sparked by President Yanukovych's U-turn on the EU deal, many on the streets want rid of what they believe is a corrupt system.

The protests are the largest since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004.

A smaller pro-government rally was held close to the opposition march with police separating the two.

Energy dispute

Both Russia and Ukraine denied that the issue of Kiev joining the customs union along with Belarus and Kazakhstan came up during the Putin-Yanukovych meeting in Sochi, in southern Russia, on Friday.

Correspondents had earlier speculated that an agreement on Ukraine joining the customs union might be reached in return for reduced energy prices.

The two neighbours have also been trying to resolve a long-running dispute over energy supplies.

Ukraine depends on imports of Russian gas, but the supplier, Gazprom, has recently complained that Kiev had fallen behind in payments.

Disputes over supplies to Ukraine before 2009 saw Gazprom temporarily cutting off supplies.

Pipelines passing through Ukraine also pump Russian gas to many EU member states.

"Any signature to a deal on forming a new Soviet Union means the breakup of the country," said Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a prominent opposition member.

Satellite map of central Kiev.

More on This Story

More Europe stories

RSS

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.