KIEV – Police clashed with protesters and tore down their tents in the main square of the Ukrainian capital early Wednesday, in an escalation of a weeks-long standoff threatening the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Hundreds of police in riot gear moved on the camp at Kiev’s Independence Square, dismantling barricades and pushing demonstrators who fought back. Scuffles broke out between police and opposition lawmakers who arrived to defend the camp.
Several thousand protesters shouted “Shame!” and “We will stand” while singing the Ukrainian national anthem. An Orthodox priest read prayers.
The protests began in late November when Yanukovych backed away from a pact that would deepen the former Soviet republic’s economic ties with the 28-nation EU — a pact that surveys showed was supported by nearly half the country’s people. The agreement would make Ukraine more Western-oriented and would be a significant loss of face for Russia, which has either controlled or heavily influenced Ukraine for centuries.
The confrontation at the protest camp unfolded as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland were in the city to try to talk to the government and the opposition and work out a solution.
One protester undressed to his waist, got down on his knees and shouted “Stop this. . . . We are one people!”
An opposition lawmaker laid down on the snow try to block a police vehicle from advancing to the camp.
Several protesters were injured. Some policemen helped injured activists up from the ground and moved them away.
Aiming to defuse the crisis, Yanukovych had called Tuesday for the release of the demonstrators previously arrested in the protests and vowed that Ukraine is still interested in integrating with Europe.
His efforts, however, stopped far short of opposition demands that his government resign, and the two sides appeared no closer to a resolution that would chart out a secure future for their economically troubled nation.
Soon after Yanukovych spoke in a televised broadcast, top opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk told demonstrators at the square that the protest leaders were still insisting on their key demands: that Yanukovych fire the government, appoint a new one committed to signing an association agreement with the EU, release all the arrested protesters, and punish the police who beat peaceful demonstrators.
Riot police have twice previously dispersed demonstrators with clubs and tear gas, beating some severely enough to send them to intensive care.
Yanukovych, in a televised meeting with Ukraine’s three previous presidents, said he asked the prosecutor-general to ensure the release of some of the protesters — those who haven’t committed grave crimes and who have children or families.
“Certainly, such people will be released,” the president said.
Investigations into the actions of the freed protesters would still continue, he said.
Yanukovych also vowed to renew talks with the EU on the trade and political agreement. He indicated he was still willing to sign the EU deal at a summit in the spring, but only if the EU can offer better financial terms. He said at present, the EU agreement could cost economically struggling Ukraine billions in lost trade with Moscow, which has used trade threats to try to keep Kiev in its orbit.
“We want to achieve conditions that satisfy Ukraine, Ukrainian producers, the Ukrainian people,” Yanukovych said in the televised meeting. “If we find understanding and if such compromises are reached, the signature will be put” on paper.
The EU’s enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, said Tuesday the bloc was ready to step “up the European Union’s financial assistance programs to help Ukraine implement the agreement, when signed.”
But Yanukovych appeared unreceptive to the criticism voiced by Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first president, who said that beating protesters was simply unacceptable.
“Law enforcement must know that it is forbidden to beat people. And there can be no justification” to do so, a stern Kravchuk said, sitting with Yanukovych and the two other former leaders at a table decorated with blue-and-yellow flowers — the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Yanukovych insisted both sides were guilty.
Kravchuk and his successor, Leonid Kuchma, hinted that Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s resignation could help resolve the crisis, but Yanukovych did not comment on that.
At a separate event, Kravchuk called for a nationwide round table involving both authorities and opposition members, but it was unclear when or how such a meeting would take place.
Ukraine’s dire economic straits have also been a factor in its political crisis. The country of 46 million people has been in recession for more than a year, and the government is in desperate need of foreign funding to avoid a default.
Moscow has worked aggressively to derail the deal with the EU and lure Kiev into its own economic group by offering price discounts and loans as well as imposing painful trade restrictions.
Yanukovych said he would renew talks with the International Monetary Fund about getting a bailout loan.
But some analysts were skeptical that Yanukovych’s pro-EU talk was genuine, believing he was still trying to play off Russia against the bloc.
“I am not sure these comments will be taken that seriously after the fiasco in the run-up to Vilnius,” where the agreement was to have been signed, said Tim Ash, an emergency markets analyst with Standard Bank in London.