Ukrainian police yesterday pulled back as protesters claimed victory after an overnight face-off in which authorities removed barricades and tents and scuffled with demonstrators occupying Kiev’s main square.
Squadrons of police in helmets and bearing metal shields converged at about 1am on Independence Square, but thousands of protesters put up fierce resistance for hours, shoving back at police lines to keep them away from key sites.
The Ukrainian chief of police issued a statement insisting there would be no attempt to break up the demonstrations.
Protesters have been gathering around the clock to demand the resignation of the government in a crisis that threatens the leadership of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
“I want to calm everyone down — there will be no dispersal,”’ Ukrainian Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko said on the ministry’s Web site. “No one is encroaching on the rights of citizens to peaceful protest.”
Three police buses that had been parked outside the building all night drove away to cheers and shouts of “shame!” from several thousand protesters who remained on the square.
Another group of police that had been stationed outside the Kiev city hall building, which has been occupied by protesters for weeks, also departed.
“This is a great victory,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a top opposition leader, shouted from the stage at Independence Square.
Throughout the standoff the police appeared to be under orders to refrain from excessive force, unlike the violent beatings of protesters in recent weeks.
Several demonstrators and police were injured, but police helped injured activists up from the ground and moved them away.
The protests began late last month when Yanukovych backed away from a pact that would deepen the former Soviet republic’s economic ties with the 28-nation EU — a pact that surveys showed was supported by nearly half the country’s people.
However, police violence has become one of the main catalysts for the growing protest movement and the government has appeared to back off from heavy-handed police tactics.
Western officials issued strong statements as the crackdown unfolded. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton and US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland were on visits to Kiev at the time.
US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed US “disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest ... with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity.”
“The United States stands with the people of Ukraine. They deserve better,’’ he said.
Nuland said yesterday that the US believes it is possible to save Ukraine’s “European future” and Yanukovich must lead the way.
After talks with Yanukovych that lasted more than two hours, she told reporters: “We also made clear that we believe there is a way out for Ukraine and it is still possible to save Ukraine’s European future, and that’s what we want to see the president lead, and that’s going to require immediate security steps.”
Nuland, who spoke to protesters and police in Kiev’s central Independence Square earlier in the day, also said she had complained to Yanukovych about police moves against protesters overnight.
“I made it absolutely clear to him that what happened last night ... is absolutely impermissible in a European state and in a democratic state,” she said, describing talks with Yanukovych as “tough” but “realistic.”
Additional reporting by Reuters