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Clashes rage as 100,000 Ukrainians protest in Kiev

The crowd gathered in Kiev’s iconic Independence Square – and steered a bulldozer near to police.

ABOUT 100 POLICE were injured today in clashes that broke out as 100,000 outraged Ukrainians swarmed Kiev in a call for early elections meant to punish authorities for rejecting a historic EU pact.

The crowd chanted “Revolution!” and “Down with the gang” as it took control of Kiev’s iconic Independence Square, while protesters steered a bulldozer within striking distance of police barricades protecting the nearby presidential administration office.

imageProtesters use an excavator during clash with police at the Presidential office in Kiev. Pic: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

AFP reporters saw security forces outside the presidential building fire stun grenades and smoke bombs at a few dozen masked demonstrators who were pelting police with stones and what Ukrainian media said were molotov cocktails.

Kiev police spokeswoman Olga Bilyk said that around 100 officers were wounded in the day-long protest. An AFP reporter saw three protesters covered in blood from head wounds and other injuries.

Two AFP photographers and a local cameraman with the Lyon-based Euronews television news channel also received slight injuries in the unrest.

Kiev police said a few dozen members of the nationalist Svoboda party had also taken control of an empty Kiev city hall building and set up what they described as the new temporary headquarters of the united opposition.

“The government and president must resign,” world boxing champion turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko told the Independence Square crowd to loud cheers and cries of “Yes!”

imageA metal barrier is thrown as protesters clash with police outside the presidential office in Kiev. Pic: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

“A revolution is starting in Ukraine,” added Svoboda party chief Oleh Tyagnybok.

“We are setting up a tent city on Independence Square… and launching a national strike,” he said in dramatic scenes aired live on television stations in both Ukraine and Russia.

But both leaders distance themselves from the violence outside President Viktor Yanukovych’s office and issued calls for calm.

“None of our protest members attacked Yanukovych’s lair,” parliamentary opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk told reporters at the rally.

Ukrainian media said Yanukovych spent most of today with his most senior advisers at a secluded suburban residence.

An unnamed government source told the ITAR-TASS news agency that Yanukovych was thinking of imposing a nationwide state of emergency from tomorrow.

imageA flare is ignited as protesters clash with police outside the presidential administration building in downtown Kiev. Pic: AP Photo/Sergei Grits

The economically-struggling nation of 46 million was thrown into its deepest crisis since the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution when Yanukovych snubbed EU leaders at a summit on Friday and opted to keep Ukraine aligned with its former master Russia.

The government’s decision sparked demonstrations that first turned violent in the early hours of Saturday when hundreds of rubber baton-wielding police drove about 1,000 protesters from Independence Square.

A few hundred of them spent the night at the nearby Mikhailovsky Monastery plotting a pro-European campaign that includes the formation of a “national resistance task force”.

Main opposition leaders such as Klitshcko are now calling for early elections and an indefinite nationwide strike.

Today’s rally was held in open defiance of a court ban imposed late yesterday on all protests on the square and its surrounding streets until January 7.

AFP reporters estimated the size of the crowd at about 100,000 while some protest leaders and Ukrainian media put the figure even higher.

Police chief resigns

Saturday’s police crackdown sparked a new round of Western condemnation of the Ukrainian government but was met with notable silence by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called on Kiev authorities to respect Ukrainians’ right to free expression and assembly, which are “fundamental to a healthy democracy”.

imageA protester uses a chain as he and others clash with police outside of the presidential administration building in downtown Kiev. Pic: AP Photo/Sergei Grits

Ukraine’s leaders appeared to be taking steps to distance themselves from Saturday’s police crackdown by announcing a formal probe to identify and punish those responsible on both sides.

Kiev’s police chief submitted his resignation at a meeting during which Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko vowed to make sure his force acted with “tolerance”.

Yanukovych added in televised comments aimed directly at the opposition that Ukraine had already chosen its “historic path” by committing itself to closer EU relations.

Yet he also stressed that these closer ties with the 28-nation bloc would come only when Ukraine was treated as “an equal partner that is respected and whose wishes are taken into account.”

Kiev’s nuanced approach in which it seeks favour from both Moscow and Brussels was underscored yet again when the government said Yanukovych would soon travel to Russia to sign a new “cooperation roadmap”.

- © AFP, 2013

Read: ‘Dozens’ wounded as Ukraine police break up rally>

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