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In restive Ukraine, a fortress emerges

Protesters dig in by constructing 'impregnable' stronghold

AFP-JIJI, AP

FOCUS

Building up barricades several meters high guarded by activists in body armor, Ukrainian demonstrators have turned their Kiev protest camp into a fortress they believe will be impossible to conquer without employing massive force.

In a scene recalling the fortified towns of the Middle Ages, protesters have built the barricades to protect their self-contained protest zone centered around the hub of Independence Square in central Kiev.

There have been barricades almost throughout the more than two months of demonstrations against President Viktor Yanukovych that have seen protesters occupy the square, known locally as the Maidan.

But after last week’s deadly clashes, the barricades were strengthened and now stand up to 5 meters high in some places.

Activists worked as quickly as possible at night, scraping up snow from the streets, pouring it into sandbags and then piling them together into massive walls.

“We are here to protect our country from the occupier Yanukovych,” said Leonid Symchuk, 54, from the Vinnytsya region, wearing camouflage, with a mask over his face and a helmet.

“We have one desire — to protect our country.”

He expressed confidence that his barricade on Institutskaya Street leading to the presidency would be able to withstand almost any attack from security forces.

“It will definitely withstand the first hit and then people will come from the Maidan to fight it out.

“Now there is such a gang in power that we have no other choice. Either they stay or we do.”

With temperatures lower than minus 10 degrees Celsius, water was poured onto the “snowbags,” which immediately froze to act as cement.

The entrances have been narrowed and can be rapidly sealed in the event of an attack.

Passers-by still come and go freely but are closely watched by men who stand by the entrances, sometimes wearing ski helmets and balaclavas and even bulletproof jackets.

When events turned violent last week, demonstrators’ weapons also had an antique aura and clashes resembled a medieval assault.

Protesters have armed themselves like Crusaders with plywood shields, often painted with a cross, against the stun grenades and rubber bullets from police lines. They broke up the pavement on nearby streets and squares, lobbing the chunks toward the police.

Many protesters are protecting their heads with helmets and even colanders. One man came in medieval battle armor, and another fashioned himself a bow and arrow for the fight.

Some protesters erected a mock tribunal with an effigy of Yanukovych in a striped inmate’s uniform, sitting in a cage with his arms and neck tied to the metal bars. The opposition has invented a wide variety of chants mocking Yanukovych and his deputies.

Back at the entrance, one of the protest guards, who gave his name as Yevgeny, said a plan has already been worked out about what to do in the event of an attack.

“If there is an assault, if they try to storm the barricade then we will prepare Molotov cocktails with gasoline, oil and glass bottles and we will throw them.

“The security forces will only be able to get to the Maidan with a bulldozer. Otherwise, they won’t be able to.”

During the night, protesters expanded the barricades even closer to the site of the presidential administration on Bankovaya Street, creating a new wall topped with barbed wire.

A lull in clashes Friday created a more relaxed environment after days of heated tensions. Curious onlookers walked through the fortress zone, taking souvenir pictures of themselves by the barricades.

But rumors buzzed that Yanukovych is still planning to introduce a state of emergency and the protest camp could be stormed at any time by the elite Berkut security force.

“Yes, we are scared, but we have no other choice. We will fight. If we give way now, how are we going to live on?” said Mykola Siroshtan, 35, from the Cherkasy region, south of Kiev.