Security forces are pulling back from crowds of protesters around a central square in Ukraine’s capital after a night of clashes between police and pro-European Union demonstrators.
Scuffles between the two groups took place early Wednesday in Kyiv’s city hall, as police wielding batons tried to drive protesters out of the building.
Reports say the protesters fought back by spraying water from fire hoses at the security forces. Police buses were later reported to be leaving the area.
Hours earlier, security agents stormed a protest encampment in the square and ripped down a tent city erected by the demonstrators.
The US State Department issued a statement expressing “disgust” with the actions of Ukrainian authorities for introducing bulldozers and riot police to the scene, rather than exercising what Secretary of State John Kerry termed, “respect for democratic rights and human dignity.”
Kerry said that “respect for democratic principles, including freedom of assembly,” is fundamental to the United States’ approach to Ukraine. He said these values are universal, not just American. He also called for the “utmost restraint” and said human life must be protected.
The protests began in late November, after the Ukrainian president backed away from a long-anticipated trade deal with the European Union in favor of repairing and improving economic and political ties with Russia.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov announced that Ukraine is requesting $27.5 billion in financial assistance from the European Union before it signs an association agreement with the 28-nation bloc.
Azarov said Ukraine is inviting the European Commission to consider under what conditions Ukraine’s industry and economy will work.
On Tuesday, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met in the capital with senior government and opposition leaders in a push to ease the crisis. Later, Ashton walked through the square to view the protests and speak with reporters.
Also on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych met with three former Ukrainian presidents, launching so-called round table talks reportedly aimed at the same objective.
In a nationally televised address following his meeting with his predecessors, Yanukovych called for the release of protesters arrested after a violent police crackdown November 30. He also said that good relations with both Russia and the European Union are necessary to protect the country’s interests.
Moscow is seeking to form a trade bloc of former Soviet republics and satellite countries to rival the European Union, and has in recent months exerted strong economic pressure on its impoverished neighbor to scuttle the EU deal.
Earlier this year, it imposed restrictions on goods from Ukraine, cutting Ukrainian exports by 25 percent and dragging the country into recession.
Russia is Ukraine’s largest foreign investor, trading partner and chief natural gas supplier. Moscow is reported to be attempting to reach a deal with Ukraine that would include a $9 billion annual discount on gas pipeline shipments.
Analysts say Kyiv, which has also secured recent investment deals with China, still needs about $18 billion in outside help to pay government debt and meet energy payments to Russia by early 2014.
(Ukrainian prime minister Mykola Azarov. Photo: nato.int)