KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Police in Ukraine on Wednesday pulled back as protesters claimed victory after an overnight face-off in which authorities removed some 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 saying that 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 the protesters’ shouts of “Shame!” Another group of police that had been stationed outside the Kiev city hall building, which has been occupied by protesters for weeks, departed from the scene.
Several thousand protesters who remained on the square after dawn cheered as police drove away.
“This is a great victory,” Arseny Yatsenyuk, a top opposition leader, shouted from the stage.
Throughout the standoff the police appeared to be under orders to refrain from using excessive force, unlike the violent beatings of protesters in recent weeks. Several demonstrators and police were injured, but the policeman 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.
Demonstrators who gathered during the night waved EU and Ukrainian flags and sang the national anthem.. 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 kept up morale by singing the national anthem and cheering 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.