Kiev (AFP) – Ukrainian demonstrators on Wednesday forced security forces to retreat after a failed pre-dawn raid on their protest camp, in a blow to the authority of President Viktor Yanukovych after nearly three weeks of rallies against his rule.
International pressure mounted on the embattled leader with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visiting the protestors in Kiev and telling the president the attempted police crackdown was “inadmissable”.
Several dozen were injured in the early hours of Wednesday when riot police and interior ministry special forces moved against the demonstrators who have occupied Kiev’s Independence Square in anger at the rejection of an EU pact.
But rather than dispersing, thousands more protesters arrived to outnumber the security forces who were eventually forced into a humiliating retreat amid cheers from the demonstrators.
“We have not won the war yet but we’ve decisively won this battle. The authorities are panicking. We will continue to stand up for our country,” said protester Anton Kulyk.
The police move sparked unprecedented international criticism of Yanukovych, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressing “disgust” at the crackdown.
In an extraordinary choice of timing, the raid came as Nuland and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton were in Kiev for talks with Yanukovych.
Nuland stressed there was still a way for the ex-Soviet country to become part of Europe and in a show of solidarity went to Independence Square to meet the protesters as the police retreated.
The withdrawal of the security forces has left the outcome of the protests even more uncertain, with the opposition now vowing to do everything to topple Yanukovych’s regime.
Protesters douse police with water
Thousands of armoured police had seized control of Independence Square by forming a human chain, and tore down the barricades that protestors erected there in anger at Yanukovych’s rejection of the EU pact under Russian pressure.
But the demonstration persisted, with thousands of protesters arriving as morning broke.
Protestors finally massed in enough numbers to regain the upper hand, thwarting a bid by security forces to retake Kiev city hall, which has been occupied by some 200 opposition activists for over a week.
Police outside the building used truncheons to beat protestors, who responded with sticks. Activists in the upper storeys of the building doused the police with freezing water from a fire hose, forcing them to leave.
Activists cheered as police left Independence Square, and the opposition set about rebuilding its barricades.
City authorities said 30 people including protesters and police sought medical help and half of them were hospitalized.
A pro-opposition doctor, Olga Bogomolets, said separately 36 including 13 police were hospitalized.
The powerful Ukrainian Orthodox Patriarch Filaret warned Wednesday that continued violence could “slide into a full-scale civil conflict.”