More than 100,000 demonstrators chased away police to rally in the centre of Ukraine’s capital yesterday, defying a new government ban on protests on Independence Square, in the biggest show of anger over the president’s refusal to sign an agreement with the European Union.
Police allowed the rally to proceed peacefully, but when a few thousand protesters tried to storm the nearby presidential administration building, they used tear gas, truncheons and flash grenades to drive them back. Dozens of people with what appeared to be head injuries were taken to hospital.
Prominent opposition politicians, who led the protest rally, called for calm.
Vitaly Klitschko, a world boxing champion and leader of the opposition Udar party, denounced the attempt to storm the president’s office as an effort to provoke the government into declaring a state of emergency.
He called for everyone to stay on the square in a peaceful protest.
The interior ministry said the confrontation was initiated by about 200 people wearing masks, who commandeered a tractor to try to break through police lines.
Speaking at the demonstration from the roof of a bus, the opposition leaders demanded that president Viktor Yanukovich and his government resign. They also called for a nationwide strike and for tents to be set up to allow demonstrators to remain on the square around the clock.
“Our plan is clear: It’s not a demonstration, it’s not a reaction. It’s a revolution,” Yuriy Lutsenko said.
The crowd was by far the largest since the protests began more than a week ago. Many of the demonstrators had travelled to Kiev from western Ukraine, where pro-EU sentiment is particularly strong.
“We are furious,” 62-year-old retired businessman Mykola Sapronov said. “The leaders must resign. We want Europe and freedom.”
Protests have been held daily in Kiev since Mr Yanukovich backed away from an agreement that would have established free trade and deepened political cooperation between Ukraine and the EU. He justified the decision by saying that Ukraine could not afford to break trade ties with Russia.
The EU agreement was to have been signed on Friday and since then the protests have gained strength.
Yesterday’s demonstration was energised by anger over the violent dispersal of several hundred protesters at Independence Square early Saturday.
On Saturday Mr Yanukovich condemned the use of force and promised to punish those responsible.
As the vast column of demonstrators approached Independence Square yesterday and swept away metal barriers from around a large Christmas tree set up in the centre, all police left the square. About a dozen demonstrators then climbed the tree to hang EU and Ukrainian flags from its branches.
Several hundred demonstrators never made it to the square. Along the way they burst into the Kiev city administration building and occupied it, in defiance of police, who tried unsuccessfully to drive them away by using tear gas.
The EU agreement had been eagerly anticipated by Ukrainians who want their country of 45 million people to break out of Moscow’s orbit. Opinion surveys in recent months showed about 45 per cent of Ukrainians supporting closer integration with the EU and a third or less favouring closer ties with Russia.