An estimated 70,000 pro-Western Ukrainians thronged the heart of Kiev on Sunday vowing never to give up their drive to oust Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych over his alliance with old master Russia.
Opposition leaders addressed a crowd of supporters wearing blue and yellow ribbons — the colors of both Ukraine and the EU — on Independence Square in a bid to ratchet up pressure on Yanukovych to appoint a new pro-Western government.
“None of the kidnappings and tortures have yielded any results,” said Igor Lutsenko, an activist who survived a severe beating after reportedly being abducted from hospital during deadly unrest last month.
The nation of 46 million people has been in chaos since November last year when Yanukovych ditched an historic EU trade and political pact in favor of closer ties with Moscow, stunning pro-EU parts of the population and sparking violent protests.
Since then, what started out as a localized, domestic bout of unrest has snowballed into a titanic tussle for Ukraine’s future between Russia and the West, as demonstrations continued and spread to other parts of the country.
Ukraine’s state security service SBU announced on Sunday that anti-terrorist units had been placed on high alert due to increased threats against key sites such as airports, stations, pipelines and nuclear plants.
The SBU said the measures were “primarily preventative” and made no explicit reference to the mass protests. However, it mentioned “threats of explosions” at strategic transport hubs and energy installations as well as “calls to occupy sites sheltering large stocks of weapons” and the “blockading of government buildings.”
The protesters, who have been occupying central Kiev for more than two months, have seized several state buildings and repeatedly clashed with police.
After initially ignoring protesters’ demands, Yanukovych has recently yielded ground by dismissing the government, but he also has to appease Russia, which has frozen a sorely needed US$15 billion bailout until the situation clears up.
Moscow has so far issued only one US$3 billion installment of the loan, which it promised to Yanukovych after he rejected the EU pact.
“People must stay on the streets until the end, otherwise there will be reprisals. And the opposition must be more resolved, not limit themselves to speeches on the podium. We need early presidential elections and a new constitution,” Anna Rebenok, a young secretary, said in Independence Square.
The protest — which ended without violence — is the 10th major demonstration since November last year, and the size of the crowds Sunday roughly equaled the turnout last weekend, although it was markedly lower than at the end of last month, when violence left several people dead and hundreds injured.
Protesters have set up row upon row of manned, grimy barricades on all four roads leading to the square, turning it into a pro-Western fortress that leaves riot police on the outside.
On an upmarket avenue near the square, protesters and curious onlookers had clambered onto one of these barricades made slippery by melting snow, facing off with dozens of riot police as a line of burned vehicles stood in between.
One woman wore high-heels, the other carried her baby up, and many took pictures with their smartphones. Nearby, a man in army fatigues read Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons.