Ukrainian president vows not to use force against ‘peaceful’ protesters

Viktor Yanukovich urges the opposition to sit down for talks after several dozen protesters are injured in fresh clashes with riot police.

Anti-Yanukovych protesters defend their barricades in front of anti-riot police on Independence Square in Kiev. Viktor Drachev / AFP
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KIEV // Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich yesterday vowed not to use force against peaceful protesters and urged the opposition to sit down for talks after several dozen were injured in fresh clashes with riot police.

“For the sake of achieving compromise I am calling on the opposition not to reject (talks), not to follow the path of confrontation and ultimatums,” Mr Yanukovych said, adding that the authorities would “never use force against peaceful protests.”

Earlier in the day the pro-European Union demonstrators had forced riot police to retreat after a predawn raid on their protest camp, in a blow to the authority of Mr Yanukovych, after nearly three weeks of rallies against his rule.

International pressure mounted on the embattled leader, with United States Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visiting the demonstrators and telling Mr Yanukovych the attempted police crackdown was “inadmissible”.

Several dozen people were injured yesterday when security forces moved against the demonstrators who have occupied Kiev’s Independence Square in anger at the rejection of a landmark agreement with the EU.

Protesters managed to regain the upper hand, thwarting a bid by security forces to retake Kiev’s city hall, near to Independence Square, which has been occupied by some 200 opposition activists for over a week.

Police outside the building used truncheons to beat demonstrators, who responded with sticks. Activists in the upper storeys of the building doused officers with freezing water from a fire hose, forcing them to leave.

Activists cheered as police left Independence Square, and the opposition set about rebuilding barricades that were torn down by police.

“We have not won the war yet but we’ve decisively won this battle. The authorities are panicking,” said protester Anton Kulyk. “We will continue to stand up for our country.”

City authorities said 30 people sought medical help and half of them were hospitalised.

The police move sparked unprecedented international criticism of Mr Yanukovych, with the US secretary of state, John Kerry, expressing “disgust” at the crackdown.

In an extraordinary choice of timing, the raid came as Ms Nuland and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton were in Kiev for talks with Mr Yanukovych and the opposition.

Ms Nuland stressed there was still a way for the ex-Soviet country to become part of Europe and in a show of solidarity went to Independence Square to meet the protesters.

The withdrawal of the security forces has left the outcome of the protests even more uncertain, with the opposition vowing to do everything to topple Mr Yanukovych’s regime.

After the latest clashes several hundred volunteers from the western city of Lviv departed for Kiev and more were expected to join them later.

With both the opposition and the authorities showing few signs of compromise, the confrontation risks pitting the Ukrainian-speaking, pro-EU west of the country against the Russian-speaking, largely pro-Yanukovych east.

Mr Yanukovych’s decision to scrap key trade and political agreements with the EU, coupled with police violence against protesters, have plunged the ex-Soviet country into its most acute political crisis since the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution.