KIEV, Ukraine – Amid cries of “Glory to Ukraine!” and with flaming tires lighting up the night sky, thousands of riot police armed with stun grenades and water cannons attacked the sprawling protest camp in the center of Kiev on Tuesday, after a day of battles that left at least 18 people dead and hundreds injured.
The violence was the deadliest in nearly three months of anti-government protests that have paralyzed Ukraine’s capital in a struggle over the nation’s identity, and the worst in the country’s post-Soviet history.
With the boom of exploding stun grenades and fireworks nearly drowning out his words at times, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko urged the 20,000 protesters to defend the camp on Independence Square that has been the heart of the protests.
“We will not go anywhere from here,” Klitschko told the crowd, speaking from a stage in the square as tents and tires burned around him, releasing huge plumes of smoke. “This is an island of freedom, and we will defend it,” he said.
As police dismantled some of the barricades on the perimeter of the square and tried to push away the protesters, they fought back with rocks, bats and firebombs. Against the backdrop of a soaring monument to Ukraine’s independence, protesters fed the burning flames with tires, creating walls of fire to prevent police from advancing.
A large building the protesters had used as a headquarters caught fire, and many struggled to get out. Many of the protesters were bleeding.
Tensions had soared after Russia said Monday that it was ready to resume providing the loans that Yanukovych’s government needs to keep Ukraine’s ailing economy afloat. This raised fears among the opposition that Yanukovych had made a deal with Moscow to stand firm against the protesters and would choose a Russian-leaning loyalist to be his new prime minister.
The protests began in late November after Yanukovych turned away from a long-anticipated deal with the European Union in exchange for a $15 billion bailout from Russia. The political maneuvering continued, however, with both Moscow and the West eager to gain influence over this former Soviet republic.
Until Monday, the government and the opposition had appeared to be making some progress toward resolving the political crisis peacefully. In exchange for the release of scores of jailed activists, protesters on Sunday vacated a government building that they had occupied since Dec. 1.