KYIV, Ukraine — Pro-European protesters retained control of the city hall building for a second day along with much of central Kyiv on Monday after erecting barricades to keep police forces out during the night.
The demonstrators are demanding that President Viktor Yanukovych and his government resign for deciding against forging closer political and economic ties with the European Union.
Tensions over police violence on Saturday came to a head on Sunday, when hundreds of thousands of protesters defied a court ban on demonstrations by turning out in the city center.
An estimated 350,000 to 600,000 people demonstrated on central Independence Square and elsewhere, marking the country’s largest protests since the Orange Revolution in 2004. They also stormed government buildings, including city hall.
The protests are shaking the government.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said on Monday that the protest rallies resemble a coup d'etat.
"It has all the signs of a coup," he said at a meeting with ambassadors of EU countries, Canada and the United States. "This is a very serious matter. We take patience, but we would like our partners not to feel a total absence of authority."
Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Rybak has called on the government, opposition parties and civil society representatives to hold roundtable talks on a way out of the political stalemate.
“This situation can no longer last, it is hurting the state,” he said, adding that the government had yet to hold negotiations with opposition leaders.
After Rybak denied a request on Monday by opposition members of parliament to hold a no-confidence vote in the government, legislators stormed out of a parliamentary council meeting. The vote has been rescheduled for Tuesday amid signs the authorities may be taking a harder line.
The protests here began on Nov. 21 after the government announced it would scrap its plans to sign deals last week that would have cemented the country’s ties with the European Union and move it further from Russia’s political orbit.
The surprise decision came after Moscow applied strong political and economic pressure.
The protest movement has grown steadily since.
Oleh Rybachuk, a public activist and leader of the New Citizen public campaign said opposition leaders initially had no intentions of taking to the streets. “Things have changed very quickly,” he said on Sunday.
Protesters are vowing to continue their demonstrations, now in their 13th day, until a new government is set up, while opposition leaders have called for a national strike to begin this week.
“We will not leave the square until the government resigns," boxing world champion and leader of the opposition UDAR (Punch) party Vitaliy Klitchko told the crowd at Independence Square.
Chants of “Out with the gang!” and “Glory to Ukraine!” were heard for blocks.
Former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko — a leader of the Orange revolution who was jailed under Yanukovich until his pardon last spring — told the crowd, "This is no longer a rally, or an action. It is a revolution."
The authorities were busy on Sunday busing in members of the feared riot police along with thousands of other special police forces to protect government buildings, including Yanukovych’s office.
A wall of officers outside the presidential administration was attacked on Sunday by hundreds of masked provocateurs who hurled stones, swung crowbars and tried to break down their barricade with a front loader.
Parliamentarian and businessman Petro Poroshenko briefly attempted to calm the crowd using a megaphone.
Police used tear gas, flash grenades and force to drive the group back. As the crowd retreated, many police pursued the protesters, indiscriminately beating both the provocateurs and onlookers with batons.
Dozens of people, including some 40 journalists, were injured, according to Kyiv media watchdog Telekritika. City officials said more than 100 other people sought emergency medical attention at area hospitals.
GlobalPost witnessed at least three people at the scene being carried to a makeshift medical center, where volunteers assisted them.
This video, shared on social media, shows the clashes between demonstraters and riot police:
Another group of protesters, mostly members of the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) Party, stormed the Kyiv City State Administration building, where they set up a base for negotiations with the authorities.
A banner reading “Revolutionary Headquarters” adorned the outside wall under the official city hall sign. Hundreds remained there overnight despite official warnings that riot police were ready to disperse the group with force.
More protesters went to Yanukovych’s palatial country estate outside Kyiv, where he was rumored to be holed up. However, scores of special police units blocked the road.
Others erected dozens of tents on Independence Square, the center of Orange Revolution demonstrations last decade, as organizers prepared for the long haul.
European leaders were quick to condemn the weekend’s violence and call on Ukrainians to resolve the situation peacefully.
“Differences must be resolved peacefully. Urge immediate dialog,” the EU’s enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele tweeted.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle asked the Ukrainian authorities to protect nonviolent protestors “from any kind of intimidation and violence.”
Yanukovych spoke on the phone with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso today.
Barosso told Yanukovych that "a peaceful and political solution is the only way for Ukraine out of the current situation,” according to the commission's press service.
Sunday’s clashes were spurred by the actions of more than 1,000 riot police who forcibly removed some 500 peaceful protesters from an anti-government demonstration at Independence Square early on Saturday.
Masked police moved in just after 4 a.m., spraying teargas and wielding batons. Dozens were taken to hospitals with concussions and broken bones.
Eyewitnesses said blood spatters could be seen on the square, and numerous videos posted online show police beating demonstrators already been knocked to the ground.
Arseniy Yatseniuk, the head of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivschyna Party in parliament, called the recent events “the Belarusification of Ukraine.”
The Interior Ministry, which controls the country’s police force, blamed protesters for provoking police as they tried to clear the Independence Square.
At the same time, police spokeswoman Olha Bilyk said the authorities needed the square cleared to erect the city’s holiday tree.
Responding to the actions of riot police who attacked peaceful demonstrators on Sunday, Yanukovych said in a statement that he was “deeply outraged” and that an investigation would be opened.
However, opposition leaders laid the blame for the attacks on his government.
The violent response has prompted a split in Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions.
At least four influential politicians have left the party in protest, one of whom also called for the president’s resignation.
Among them, his chief of staff Sergiy Lyovichkin quit hours after the events, reportedly over disagreements in policies of groups close to the president. His resignation is yet to be accepted, although many believe Yanukovych will approve.
On Saturday, Kyiv police chief Valeriy Koriak assumed responsibility for ordering the police action, saying a criminal case had been opened against police who dispersed the demonstration. He resigned on Sunday.
U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt said the use of force against peaceful protesters would have serious consequences for U.S.-Ukrainian relations. The European Union's delegation to Ukraine released a similar statement.
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Tensions are expected to escalate.
By 7 a.m. on Monday, more than 1,000 nationalist Svoboda Party members had gathered in front of the Cabinet of Ministers to demand the government’s resignation. Hundreds of them had quarreled with police overnight, using sticks and stones to attempt to topple a monument to Vladimir Lenin.
They’re prompting worries of a split between opposition groups.
Andreas Umland, a German political science professor at Kyiv Mohyla Academy, warned on Monday that the party and its members are “a possible threat to the further development of the situation and unity of the Ukrainian state.”
“The growing nationalist discourse could encourage separatist tendencies in the East and South, and will find little understanding in the EU and its member states, such as Poland or Germany,” he said.