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Demonstrators topple Lenin statue in giant Ukraine protest

Hundreds of thousands of people turned out in Kiev this afternoon in an increasingly tense stand-off with the government.

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An anti-government protester beats the Lenin statue with a sledgehammer. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

PRO-EU PROTESTERS IN Ukraine have toppled a statue of the Soviet Union’s founder Vladimir Lenin in Kiev after hundreds of thousands massed for a new protest in an increasingly tense stand-off with the government.

The protesters had filled Independence Square in central Kiev and surrounding streets to bursting point to denounce President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of an EU pact under pressure from the Kremlin, in the biggest protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution.

In a hugely symbolic denouement to the rally, dozens of masked protesters tore down the 3.4 metre (11 feet) high statue of the Bolshevik leader after putting a rope noose round Lenin’s neck.


(Video: RT/YouTube)

They then hacked away with axes at the remnants of the monument lying flat on the ground. Parts of the statue were afterwards triumphantly brandished at the main demonstration on Independence Square.

Leading opposition lawmaker Andriy Shevchenko said that the toppling of the statue had not been an initiative of the opposition leaders on Independence Square.

“We can say that people organised themselves,” he added. Several of those who tore down the statue brandished flags of the ultra-nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party.

The protesters installed the Ukrainian state flag and the red and black banner of the wartime anti-Communist Ukrainian Insurgent Army on the empty plinth to the cries of “Thank God” and “Finally” from some 1,500 people at the scene.

Pressure

The size of the protest, the third mass rally in successive weekends, increased the pressure on Yanukovych who further galvanised his opponents by meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in almost total secrecy on Friday.

The party UDAR of world boxing champion turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko claimed “nearly a million” had turned out in Kiev.

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The protest in Kiev today. (AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko)

Police estimated the turnout at 100,000 and AFP correspondents said there were several hundred thousand present.

‘He is no longer president’

Upping the stakes in the confrontation, demonstrators had earlier marched on the government headquarters and erected one-and-a-half metre (five feet) high barricades outside which would make it impossible for ministers to go to their offices.

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Riot police protect government buildings during the protest. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko said the opposition was demanding the “immediate” resignation of Yanukovych, in a no-holds-barred statement read by her daughter.

“He is no longer the president of our state, he is a tyrant who must answer for every drop of blood that has been shed,” Yevgenia Tymoshenko quoted her mother as saying, a giant portrait of the former prime minister sitting next to the stage.

Soon after the rally’s speeches ended, the Security Service (SBU) said it had opened an investigation into alleged attempts by politicians to seize power, in an apparent bid by the state to target key opposition figures.

State of emergency?

Putin has said the protests looked more “like a pogrom than a revolution” but the West has urged the authorities to heed the demands of the opposition.

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Protesters gather around a huge poster of Yulia Tymoshenko (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

In a sign of the West’s growing support for the opposition, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he would meet Klitschko for talks in Paris on Wednesday. Der Spiegel reported that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a group of European conservative parties planned to step up support for the pugilist, including through joint public appearances.

Polls show that Yanukovych would lose to Klitschko in a 2015 presidential poll if that election went into a second round run-off.

Yanukovych discussed the “situation in Ukraine and ways to solve it” with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, his office said.

Trade agreement

The protests in Ukraine have raged for over two weeks after the government announced it was halting the work on political and free trade agreements with the European Union.

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(AP Photo/Efrem Lutasky)

Protesters have seized control of Independence Square, setting up a tent city, and persisted with a blockade of key government buildings.

The leader of Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, claimed the Yanukovych administration planned to impose a state of emergency.

The opposition threatened to also blockade Yanukovych’s luxurious Mezhygirya residence on the banks of the Dnipro River outside Kiev if he did not dismiss the government within the next 48 hours.

The president on Friday incensed protesters further by discussing a strategic partnership treaty with Putin, who wants Ukraine to join a Moscow-led Customs Union.

Analysts believe Russia may have offered Ukraine cheaper gas and billions of dollars in aid in exchange for joining the Customs Union at Yanukovych’s closed-door meeting with Putin on Friday in Sochi.

- © AFP, 2013

Explainer: What exactly is going on in Ukraine? >

Read: Ukraine protesters take over mayor’s office and set up ‘Revolution HQ’ >

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