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Ukrainian rally erupts into chaos

Pro-EU protesters demand resignations

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Demonstrators wave flags as they gather during a rally in downtown Kiev, Ukraine, on Sunday. As many as 100,000 demonstrators chased away police to rally in the center of Ukraine's capital on Sunday, defying a government ban on protests on Independence Square, in the biggest show of anger over the president's refusal to sign an agreement with the European Union.

KYIV, Ukraine -- A protest by about 300,000 Ukrainians angered by their government's decision to freeze integration with the West turned violent Sunday when a group of demonstrators besieged the president's office and police drove them back with truncheons, tear gas and flash grenades. Dozens of people were injured.

The rally in central Kyiv defied a government ban on protests on Independence Square, in the biggest show of anger over President Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to sign a political and economic agreement with the European Union.

The protesters also were infuriated by the violent dispersal of a small, opposition rally two nights before.

While opposition leaders called for a nationwide strike and prolonged peaceful street protests to demand the government resign, several thousand people broke away and marched to Yanukovych's nearby office. A few hundred of them, wearing masks, threw rocks at police and tried to break through the police lines with a front loader. After hours of clashes, riot police used force to push them back. Dozens of people with what appeared to be head injuries were taken away by ambulance.

Opposition leaders denounced the clashes as a provocation and said the people who incited the storming of the presidential office were government-hired thugs.

Several opposition leaders, including world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, walked over to Yanukovych's office to urge protesters to return to Independence Square. Order appeared to have been restored by Sunday night, with rows of riot police standing guard behind metal fences.

Some protesters headed to Yanukovych's residence outside Kyiv, but police stopped their cars.

Speaking before the vast crowds on Independence Square from the roof of a bus, opposition leaders demanded Yanukovych and his government resign. "Our plan is clear: It's not a demonstration, it's not a reaction. It's a revolution," said Yuriy Lutsenko, a former interior minister who is now an opposition leader.

Chants of "revolution" resounded across a sea of yellow and blue Ukrainian and EU flags on the square, where the government had prohibited rallies starting Sunday. Thousands of protesters remained late into the evening and some planned to spend the night.

The demonstration was by far the largest since the protests began more than a week ago. The opposition leaders urged Ukrainians from all over the country to join the protests in the capital. "Our future is being decided here in Kyiv," Klitschko said.

Ukrainian lawmakers meet today for consultations and planned to hold a parliament session Tuesday. The opposition is hoping to muster enough votes to oust Prime Minister Mykola Azarov's cabinet after several lawmakers quit Yanukovych's Party of Regions in protest.

Protests have been held daily in Kyiv since Yanukovych backed away from an agreement that would have established free trade and deepened political co-operation between Ukraine and the EU. He justified the decision by saying Ukraine can't afford to break trade ties with Russia. The EU agreement was to have been signed Friday and since then the protests have gained strength.

"We are furious," said 62-year-old retired businessman Mykola Sapronov. "The leaders must resign. We want Europe and freedom."

The EU agreement had been eagerly anticipated by Ukrainians who want their country of 45 million people to break out of Moscow's orbit. Moscow tried to block the deal with the EU by banning some Ukrainian imports and threatening more trade sanctions. A 2009 dispute between Kyiv and Moscow on gas prices resulted in a three-week cutoff of gas to Ukraine.

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 2, 2013 A12

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