KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian police on Wednesday pulled back as protesters claimed victory after an overnight face-off in which authorities removed barricades and tents and scuffled with demonstrators occupying Kiev’s main square.
Squadrons of police in helmets and bearing metal shields converged at about 1 a.m. on Independence Square, but thousands of protesters put up fierce resistance for hours, shoving back at police lines to keep them away from key sites.
The Ukrainian chief of police issued a statement insisting there would be no attempt to break up the demonstrations. Protesters have been gathering around the clock to demand the resignation of the government in a crisis that threatens the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych.
“I want to calm everyone down — there will be no dispersal,” Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko said on the ministry’s website. “No one is encroaching on the rights of citizens to peaceful protest.”
Three police buses that had been parked outside the building all night drove away to cheers and shouts of “shame!” from several thousand protesters who remained on the square. Another group of police that had been stationed outside the Kiev city hall building, which has been occupied by protesters for weeks, also departed.
“This is a great victory,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a top opposition leader, shouted from the stage at Independence Square.
Throughout the standoff the police appeared to be under orders to refrain from excessive force, unlike the violent beatings of protesters in recent weeks. Several demonstrators and police were injured, but police helped injured activists up from the ground and moved them away.
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 European Union — a pact that surveys showed was supported by nearly half the country’s people.
But police violence has become one of the main catalysts for the growing protest movement and the government has appeared to back off from heavy-handed police tactics.
Many of the protesters, wearing orange construction hats to protect themselves from police truncheons, locked arms and simultaneously jumped up and down to stay warm in freezing temperatures that plunged to 12 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 11 Celsius).
Scuffles broke out between police and opposition lawmakers, one of whom lay down on the snow trying to block a vehicle from advancing on the camp. An Orthodox priest sang prayers, and a popular Ukrainian rock song with the lyrics “I will not give up without a fight” blared from loudspeakers over the square. Pop singer Ruslana sang the national anthem and cheered protesters from the stage.
One protester stripped to his waist in the frigid air, got down on his knees and shouted “Stop this … We are one people!”
At least one tent caught fire after a metal barrel where a fire was burning to keep demonstrators warm overturned.
After some of the barricades and tents were dismantled, police and city workers began to remove debris with bulldozers. Policemen used what appeared to be chain saws to clear the barricades.
But as the sun rose over Kiev in the morning, the police had not been able to drive back the protesters on the square or to storm the city administration building, where demonstrators poured water on the freezing building’s steps and on policemen from open windows.
“We want to cool Yanukovych down a little bit,” said 35-year-old Oleg Stri, who was among those throwing water. “Hotheads have to understand that the use of force will call for an equally strong reaction from the Ukrainians, who are capable of sweeping away this government.”
The police eventually retreated into a van. “They had to leave, there were just too many people here,” said Andrei Govdun, a protester.
Western officials issued strong statements as the crackdown unfolded. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed U.S. “disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest … with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity.”
“The United States stands with the people of Ukraine. They deserve better,” he said.
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, who is a reigning world heavyweight boxing champion, urged Ukrainians to rush to the center of the capital to defend democracy.
“We will say no to a police state, no to a dictatorship,” he told protesters in the square.
The confrontation 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 to work out a solution.
“The authorities didn’t need to act under the coverage of night to engage with the society by using police,” Ashton said in a statement after the police action started. “Dialogue with political forces and society and use of arguments is always better than the argument of force.”
The protests are the biggest since Ukraine’s pro-democracy Orange Revolution. Those protests, also centered on Independence Square, succeeded in forcing the annulment of Yanukovych’s fraud-tainted presidential victory in 2004, and ushered his pro-Western opponents into power. Yanukovych returned to the presidency in the 2010 vote, drawing on support from heavily industrialized eastern Ukraine where there are many Russian speakers.
Aiming to defuse the latest crisis, Yanukovych had called earlier Tuesday for the release of the demonstrators previously arrested in the protests and vowed that Ukraine is still interested in integrating with Europe.
Yatsenyuk told demonstrators at the square that the protest leaders were still insisting on their key demands: that Yanukovych dismiss the government, appoint a new one committed to signing an association agreement with the EU, release all the arrested protesters, and punish police who beat peaceful demonstrators.
Tim Ash, an emerging markets analyst with Standard Bank in London, said that Yanukovych’s decision to use force against demonstrators on Wednesday would only escalate the crisis.
“The result of today’s actions will be an even more confrontational situation on the ground,” Ash said. “The opposition will dig in even more, demanding real changes in the administration.”
By Jim Heintz and Maria Danilova. Yuras Karmanau in Kiev, John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels, and Laura Mills in Moscow contributed to this report. Follow Danilova at https://twitter.com/mashadanilova.