VIDEO: Dozens injured in Ukraine protests

Jan 20 2014 - 1:43pm

KIEV, Ukraine -- Street violence flared up in Ukraine Sunday night as protesters battled police in defiance of new laws aimed at subduing anti-government demonstrations that started two months ago.

Officers used rubber bullets water cannons in subzero temperatures against protesters hurling Molotov cocktails at them as the two sides exchanged smoke and sound bombs, with police vehicles burning nearby. More than 100 people were injured, according to Hromadske TV. The battles continued as of 3 a.m. Monday in the capital, Kiev.

Opponents of President Viktor Yanukovych have held out on Kiev's central Independence Square for two months as protests against the government pulling out of a European Union co- operation deal got a boost from police crackdowns in November and December. Parliament passed a slew of legislation last week to curb the protests, drawing criticism from the EU and the U.S.

"They wanted to frighten people but they gathered again -- people showed their readiness to fight with the authorities, ignoring the laws," Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Political Analysis Center in Kiev, said by phone. "There's a radical mood and the authorities aren't pleased. If they put more pressure on, there could be powerful resistance."

The latest clashes broke out when protesters, who'd gathered on Independence Square for an eighth Sunday, tried to march on the parliament building about 1,600 feet away. People wearing orange helmets attacked buses used by police to block a street on the way, setting several on fire.

More than 100,000 people turned out for the rally on Sunday, according to Ukrainian TV. The subsequent clashes are the first since Dec. 1, when at least 109 people were hospitalized. Police also invaded the protesters' camp on Dec. 11 before withdrawing.

As the U.S. embassy in Kiev urged the government to hold talks involving all sides, Yanukovych set up a commission to "resolve the political crisis," according to a statement on the president's website. The group will meet with the opposition on Monday, it said.

Yanukovych met Sunday with Vitali Klitschko, the leader of the opposition UDAR party. The anti-government protesters have been seeking the departure of Yanukovych and the government as well as snap elections.

"The nation's temperature has reached boiling point," Klitschko, the former boxing world champion, said on Hromadske TV last night. "I told Yanukovych that the government's dismissal and the president's resignation are needed to resolve the crisis. Yanukovych pretended not to hear."

Ukraine, a nation of 45 million people and a key Russian natural gas pipeline transit hub to the West, is struggling with its third recession since 2008 and dwindling foreign reserves. Yanukovych last month obtained a $15 billion Russian bailout and a cut in the price of imported natural gas.

The U.S. embassy called for an end to the the confrontation, urging "all sides to cease any acts provoking or resulting in violence," according to an emailed statement.

"I condemn the violence," Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the Batkivshchyna party of jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, told protesters. "The authorities want clashes. Using them, they will adopt more laws that will give more rights to police and judges. We are for only peaceful protest."

A statement on the Interior Ministry website warned demonstrators that "all illegal actions are recorded by cameras" and that the ministry calls on "all organizers and protesters not to break laws as they'll bear administrative and criminal responsibility."

It said it has opened criminal proceedings because of the public disorder and detained four activists. Protesters face as long as 15 years in prison, according to the statement.

Pro-Yanukovych lawmakers passed legislation on Thursday to restrict protesters' activities. Yanukovych signed the laws the next day, ignoring calls to veto them from international organizations and the opposition.

People wearing masks or helmets during protests or putting up tents risk arrest and anyone blocking state buildings can be imprisoned for five years under the new laws. Drivers of cars traveling in convoys of five or more face fines and confiscation of their driving licenses for as long as two years after activists arranged mass outings to the homes of officials including Yanukovych.

Some protesters were wearing cooking pots and strainers on their heads instead of helmets and costume party's masks at a peaceful rally at noon.

"The situation has escalated," Fesenko said. "If they stop the escalation in the near future, if there's some mediation, talks maybe start, it may still be possible to find some compromise. Otherwise, the country may be divide into two and force may be used."

 

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