A contentious bill to boost the status of the Russian language in Ukraine has passed its first hurdle in parliament, in the teeth of strong opposition.
MPs from the ruling Party of the Regions passed the bill in its first reading, with 234 votes in the 450-seat lower house.
Fighting erupted in the chamber when the bill was proposed last month.
The bill grants Russian, mother tongue of most people in east and south Ukraine, "regional language" status.
It will become law if approved at a second reading later this year and signed off by President Viktor Yanukovych, who is seen by his critics as being close to Moscow.
While Ukrainian would remain the country's official language, Russian could be used in courts, hospitals and other institutions in Russian-speaking regions.
Opponents of the bill, notably the Fatherland bloc of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, argue the bill would undermine the status of Ukrainian, the language which predominates in the centre and west.
'Invaders and Russifiers'
On Tuesday, Yanukovych MPs formed a cordon around parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn to allow him to put the bill to a vote.
Noisy, rival demonstrations for and against the bill were held outside the parliament in the capital, Kiev.
Supporters held posters declaring "Two languages - one country" and "Our children have a right to learn in their mother tongue".
"We want medical prescriptions written in Russian, not only in Ukrainian," Donetsk resident Lyudmila Nyronova, 69, told Reuters news agency.
Opponents of the bill chanted "Shame!" and brandished placards which read "One state, one language", "Invaders and Russifiers - get out of Ukraine" and "Stop dividing Ukraine".
According to AFP news agency, each rally attracted about 3,000 people.
Some 24% of Ukrainians consider Russian their first language, according to data from the CIA World Factbook .