Pro-European integration protesters on barricades celebrate
at Independence Square after riot police withdrew.
Ukrainian protesters stood their ground after an
overnight sweep by riot police and their leaders dismissed an
offer of talks from a president they say must quit for
favouring ties with Russia over the European Union.
Pressed by Europe and the United States, which condemned the
destruction of a protest camp in central Kiev, President
Viktor Yanukovich offered to meet opposition leaders to find
a way out of a crisis that blew up last month when he yielded
to pressure from Moscow and spurned a free trade deal with
But his opponents, whose supporters continued to occupy the
capital's City Hall, rejected his invitation and stuck to
demands that the president and his government resign.
The authorities had made their most forceful attempt so far
to reclaim the streets, sending in battalions of riot police
with bulldozers to clear Independence Square. There were
scuffles and arrests but police did not enter the nearby City
Hall and by morning they withdrew from the streets.
Within hours, after meetings with U.S. and European Union
officials who had urged him to compromise, Yanukovich asked
his opponents to meet him to negotiate a way out of the
"I invite representatives of all political parties, priests,
representatives of civil society to national talks," he said
in a statement that also called on the opposition not to "go
down the road of confrontation and ultimatums".
One protest leader, Oleh Tyahnibok, dismissed the move as "a
farce and a comedy", while Arseny Yatsenyuk, a leader of a
major opposition party, said there should only be talks once
their demands had been met. These include the resignation of
the president and government and a release of prisoners.
In some of the strongest comments from Washington so far, the
White House spokesman urged Yanukovich to listen to the
people and resume Ukraine's integration with Europe:
"Violence of this sort that we have seen on the streets of
Kiev is impermissible in a democratic state," he added.
At stake is the future of a country of 46 million people,
torn between popular hope of joining the European mainstream
and the demands of former Soviet master Russia, which
controls the flow of cheap natural gas needed to stave off
At the main protest camp on Independence Square, pop stars,
politicians and priests had pleaded with police not to shed
blood. The interior minister called for calm and promised
that the square would not be stormed. But even after the
police left the streets, Vitaly Klitschko, a world boxing
champion who has emerged as one of the main figures of the
opposition, said the overnight action had "closed off the
path to compromise".
"We understand that Yanukovich has not wish to talk to the
people and only understands physical force," he said.
Police had been bussed in to the city centre under darkness
as protesters shouted "Get out, criminal!" - a reference to
Riot police packed roads to Independence Square, where
thousands of people have maintained a vigil in bitter winter
cold. Helmeted officers moved slowly into the camp,
bulldozing tents and barricades with tractors mounted with
shovels. Dozens of demonstrators and police were hurt in
scuffles but several officers said they had orders not to use
The action stalled after day broke, with temperatures in the
snowbound capital stuck well below freezing. Some riot police
left to cheers from lines of protesters holding them back. At
City Hall, demonstrators had sprayed police with water from a
hose and had lobbed a Molotov cocktail from a window into a
police truck before the officers finally withdrew.
On the square, protesters, many wearing hardhats in orange,
the colour that symbolised a successful popular revolt
against a fraudulent election in 2004, said they had feared
they would be stormed. Priests intoned prayers from a stage
on the square and urged police not to use violence. Ruslana,
a Ukrainian pop star, called from a loud hailer: "Do not hurt
Some protesters held mobile phones in the air like candles
and sang the national anthem, while church bells rang out
from a cathedral 2 km (a mile) away, as in times of danger
"He is spitting in the faces of the United States, 28
countries of Europe, 46 million Ukrainians," opposition
leader Yatsenyuk said of Yanukovich during the night. "We
will not forgive him this."
The eventual police withdrawal was greeted with euphoria.
"We are seeing that truth does exist, that it is worth
fighting for. It is a small victory, but these small
victories will lead to big victories," said protester Serhiy
The crisis has added to the financial hardship of a country
on the brink of bankruptcy. The cost of insuring Ukraine's
debt against default initially rose 30 basis points, before
falling back after the police withdrew from the streets. It
now costs more than $1 million a year for five years to
insure $10 million in Ukrainian debt over that term, showing
investors think it is more likely than not Ukraine will
European leaders say the trade pact with Ukraine would have
brought investment. But the country's Soviet-era industry
relies on Russian natural gas, giving Moscow enormous
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said on Wednesday he had told
European leaders they would need to provide Kiev with 20
billion euros in aid for Ukraine to sign the stalled pact
with Brussels. He promised that a meeting with Russian
officials set for Dec. 17 would not include talks on joining
a Moscow-dominated customs union, a major worry for the
European Union officials are discussing with the IMF, World
Bank and other financial institutions how to help Ukraine if
it decides after all to sign an EU deal.
Western countries spoke out strongly against use of force.
"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,"
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. "This
response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and U.S. Assistant
Secretary of State Victoria Nuland were both in Kiev, as part
of an active diplomatic campaign to lure Ukraine back
Nuland visited protesters before meeting Yanukovich on
Wednesday. After two hours of talks with the president, she
said she had complained to him about behaviour that was
"absolutely impermissible ... in a democratic state".
"But we also made clear that we believe there is a way out
for Ukraine, that it is still possible to save Ukraine's
European future and that is what we want to see the president
lead," she said. This would require reopening talks with
Europe and with the International Monetary Fund, which has
offered Ukraine loans on conditions which Yanukovich has
After meeting Yanukovich, Ashton, too, condemned the use of
force against demonstrators as "totally unacceptable". She
said those arrested must be released and all-party talks
There were signs that the authorities were reluctant to order
bloodshed on the square. Interior Minister Vitaly
Zakharchenko issued a statement calling for restraint.
The police action re-energised a protest movement that
activists had feared could lose momentum in the bitter cold.
Thousands of people streamed to the square in the dead of
night, woken by telephone calls and social media messages
from those standing their ground. After the police left,
volunteers rebuilt barricades and poured water on the
cobblestones to turn them into ice sheets in anticipation of
They packed ice-hard snow over metal scraps, logs and benches
while a priest on stage called out: "They broke down our
barricades, but they can't break our hearts!"
"This will freeze and be strong," said Mykhaylo Yichka, 24, a
choir director, who planned to volunteer at the camp until
evening before going home to catch up on sleep.
"I want a normal life, but this government cannot give it to
me and only makes laws to serve itself. So I am here."