KIEV, January 20, 2014 (AFP) – New fighting rocked the capital Kiev on Monday, and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych warned bloody clashes between protesters and police threatened all of Ukraine.
The clashes, the worst in Kiev in recent times, marked a spiraling of tensions after two months of demonstrations against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a pact for closer integration with the EU.
Amid growing fears the police could act to violently disperse the protest, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka warned protesters to halt “mass rioting,” describing it as a crime against the state.
In a second day of clashes after 200 were injured in Sunday’s fighting, thousands of Ukrainians braved temperatures of minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) to take part in the standoff with police.
In the epicenter of the clashes outside the entrance to the iconic Dynamo Kiev football stadium in central Kiev, both sides hunkered down behind barricades.
The protesters lobbed stones dug up from the cobbled road, flung Molotov cocktails and threw fireworks over a 20-meter (65-foot) no-man’s land at police lines.
Police responded by throwing stun grenades and occasionally using rubber bullets and tear gas.
Yanukovych’s first public comments
“I am convinced that such phenomena are a threat not only to the public in Kiev but all of Ukraine,” Yanukovych said in an address to the nation broadcast on state TV.
“I urge dialogue, compromise and calm in our native land,” he said in his first public comments on the violence.
Showing increasing impatience with the events, he added: “I ask you not to follow those who urge violence, who are seeking to provoke a split between the state and society.”
But even after his comments, some 10,000 protesters remained around the center of the clashes, with the most radical using lasers to blind police firing stun grenades.
“Who, if not us, and when, if not now,” read a banner carried by one group of protesters.
Tymoshenko backs radical protesters
The burned-out wrecks of half a dozen police vehicles torched and destroyed the day earlier were used by the protesters as a barricade.
According to the Kiev health authorities, more than 100 protesters were wounded in Sunday’s clashes, with four people sustaining serious injuries to eyes and limbs.
The interior ministry said more than 100 members of the security forces had been wounded. The ministry added that 30 people had been arrested for mass rioting.
US-funded Ukrainian radio station Radio Svoboda said two of its journalists had been arrested Monday morning while filming at the scene.
Opposition leaders, including former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, appeared unable to have any influence on the hard core of radical protesters and stopped short of supporting their actions.
But Ukraine’s jailed former prime minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko came out in support of those clashing with police, saying she would be with them if she could.
“Protect Ukraine and do not fear anything. Ukraine has no defense other than you. You are heroes,” she said in a statement read by her spokeswoman to AFP.
‘The most repressive laws’
The White House urged an end to the violence, with US National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden warning that Washington was still considering sanctions against Ukrainian officials.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday deplored the violence, saying the government was at fault for adopting the repressive laws.
The new laws allow for jail terms of up to five years for those who blockade public buildings and the arrest of protesters wearing masks or helmets. Other provisions ban the dissemination of “slander” on the Internet.
The laws were passed last week in a chaotic show of hands in parliament and then signed into law by Yanukovych.
The curbs on protests were “the most solid package of repressive laws that I have seen enacted by a European parliament in decades,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said in Brussels.
It was not clear who was behind the radicalization of the protest, which appeared to have been a well-organized move. Ukrainian media linked the action to a hitherto little-known right-wing youth group called “Right Sector.”
Special commission meets opposition
In an apparent attempt to find a compromise, Yanukovych ordered the creation of special commission headed by national security council secretary Andriy Klyuyev to solve the crisis, the presidency announced.
Given that Klyuyev was seen as a prime figure behind the violent dispersal of previous protests, the move was greeted with derision by many in the opposition.
Pro-Yanukovych lawmaker Anna German said the commission had already started its work and Monday evening met with representatives of the opposition.
They included former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko and Tymoshenko’s right-hand-man Olexander Turchinov. However Yanukovych was not involved and there was no word on any immediate progress.
On Sunday, some 200,000 people had filled Kiev’s Independence Square and surrounding streets for a new mass rally in defiance of the protest curbs.
Protesters at the rally whistled and heckled the opposition leaders for their perceived inability to mount a stronger challenge with impatience mounting over conventional methods of protest.—Oleksandr Savochenko, Stuart Williams