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, Feb. 18 following a day of street battles that left 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 fire bombs. 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.
Speaking over loudspeakers, police urged women and children to leave the square because an “anti-terrorist” operation was underway.
The protesters appeared to sense that Ukraine’s political standoff was reaching a critical turning point. Waving Ukrainian and opposition party flags, they shouted “Glory to Ukraine!” and sang the Ukrainian national anthem.
Shortly before midnight on Tuesday, Klitschko headed to President Viktor Yanukovych’s office to try to resolve the crisis, his spokeswoman said. An hour later, he was still waiting to be received.
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.
In Washington, Vice President Joe Biden expressed his “grave concern” in a telephone call to Yanukovych, urging him to pull back government forces and exercise maximum restraint.
Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged both sides to end the violence, halt their ultimatums and hold high-level talks.
The Russian Foreign Ministry blamed the West for the escalation of the violence and called on the opposition to work with the government to find a way out of the crisis.
“What is happening is a direct result of the conniving politics of Western and European bodies,” the ministry said in a statement.