Kiev riot police retreat after storming protest bastions

 
Riot police leave Independence Square in central Kiev on Wednesday Riot police retreat from Independence Square on Wednesday, after clashes and a stand-off overnight

Police have abandoned an attempt to dislodge anti-government protesters from their strongholds in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

Clashes erupted at the occupied city hall hours after riot police tried to clear nearby Independence Square - prompting the US to express "disgust".

The president said force would not be used against peaceful protesters.

The demonstrations were sparked by the government's refusal to sign a deal on closer ties with the European Union.

The U-turn followed pressure from Russia, which has said Ukraine's free trade deal with the EU would flood the Russian market.

Analysis

With each attempt to solve the problem posed by the Ukrainian "Euromaidan" demonstrators, President Viktor Yanukovych seems to dig himself into an even bigger political hole.

Interior ministry officials said the reason why scores of riot police swept into the Independence Square protest camp was to "clear the street" for traffic. To many observers it seemed that the overwhelming show of force was instead an attempt to drive out the protesters once and for all.

Whatever the reason, the mass civil disobedience movement, which was sparked when Mr Yanukovych unexpectedly decided to put on hold an historic trade agreement with the EU, has received yet another major boost.

Protesters on Wednesday were inspired and defiant as they stood in Independence Square and recounted how they had turned back the police with an impregnable human wall, and, at the mayor's office, with water hoses and barricades.

The elite Berkut riot police have since retreated, as if to lick their wounds. And protest organisers are promising an even bigger rally this weekend than even last Sunday's historic gathering. But so far, neither gigantic demonstrations, nor attempts to force the protesters out have broken the political deadlock.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov on Wednesday said Ukraine wanted 20bn euros ($28bn; £17bn) in aid from the EU in return for signing the agreement.

Authorities 'panicking'

President Viktor Yanukovych again invited all parties, including the opposition, for talks on resolving the political crisis.

"For the sake of achieving compromise I am calling on the opposition not to reject [talks], not to follow the path of confrontation and ultimatums," the president said in a statement published on his website.

He added that the authorities would "never use force against peaceful protests".

It comes hours after police withdrew from city hall following an abortive attempt to oust occupying protesters.

Protesters used hoses to fire icy water at the police, said reports, with events carried live on local television.

Police then pulled back from the main camp in Independence Square, which they moved on in the early hours of Wednesday.

Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko called for calm, saying there would be "no storming of the square. No-one will violate your rights to protest peacefully, but do not ignore the rights... of other citizens."

Overnight, riot police and interior ministry officers had dismantled some barriers and tents, with police saying they were trying to free up a passage through the square for traffic.

Protesters in hard hats locked arms to form human walls to try to resist the police push. At least nine people were detained.

There were some reports of police using violence - with the KyivPost saying it had witnessed police clubbing protesters.

There were calls for restraint from priests, intoning prayers, and pop singer Ruslana - urging "Do not hurt us!" - on a stage in the square. More people flooded into the square in response to pleas for solidarity, eventually forcing the police into their retreat.

Daniel Sandford reports from Independence Square

Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said President Yanukovych "has spat in the face of America, EU countries and 46 millions of Ukrainians and we will not forgive that".

He demanded the president's resignation.

US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the authorities' move on the protests.

"The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kiev's Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity," he said.

"This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy."

Riot police officers clash with pro-European Union activists near the entrance of city hall in Kiev, Ukraine, on Wednesday Protesters mounted fierce resistance to police attempts to dislodge them from city hall
US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland (R) and US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt (2nd R) distribute bread to riot police near Independence square in Kiev on Wednesday Earlier, US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland (R) and US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt (2nd R) distributed bread in Independence Square - to protesters and police.
Riot policemen block Pro-European Union activists camping out in their tents on the Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013 It came after hundreds of police tried to dismantle protest barricades in nearby Independence Square overnight
An Ukrainian priest speaks to Riot police as they block Pro-European Union activists camping out in their tents on the Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013 Priests attempted to mediate, calling for calm

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is in Kiev, and held talks with President Yanukovych on Tuesday.

Baroness Ashton, who was cheered by crowds when she visited Kiev's main protest site on Tuesday, later said she was "deeply concerned" that police had used force to try to remove protesters.

US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland is also in Kiev, and held talks with President Yanukovych on Wednesday, at which she said she had told him that the crackdown on protesters was "absolutely impermissible in a democratic state".

Ms Nuland visited Independence Square on Wednesday morning, handing out bread, biscuits and buns, and talking to protesters.

President Yanukovych said on Monday that government officials could visit Brussels this week to resume talks on the EU association agreement.

His statement came after hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out in Kiev on Sunday, demanding the resignation of the government within 48 hours.

Government buildings were blockaded with cars, barricades and tents.

Map of Kiev
 

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