KIEV — Police clashed with protesters and tore down their tents in the main square of the Ukrainian capital early Wednesday, in an escalation of a weeks-long standoff threatening the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Hundreds of police in riot gear moved on the camp at Independence Square, dismantling barricades and pushing demonstrators who fought back. Scuffles broke out between police and opposition lawmakers who arrived to defend the camp.
Several thousand protesters shouted ‘‘Shame!’’ and ‘‘We will stand,’’ and sang the Ukrainian national anthem. An Orthodox priest read prayers.
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.
The confrontation at the protest camp unfolded as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland were in the city to try to talk to the government and the opposition and work out a solution.
Several protesters were injured. Some police helped injured activists up from the ground and moved them away.
Aiming to defuse a political standoff that threatens his leadership, Yanukovych had called Tuesday for the release of demonstrators previously arrested in protests sweeping Kiev and vowed that Ukraine is still interested in integrating with Europe.
His efforts, however, stopped far short of opposition demands that his government resign, and the two sides appeared no closer to a resolution that would chart a secure future for their economically troubled nation.
Soon after Yanukovych spoke in a televised broadcast, top opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk told demonstrators at the square that the protest leaders were still insisting on their key demands: that Yanukovych fire the government, appoint a new one committed to signing an association agreement with the EU, release all the arrested protesters, and punish the police who beat peaceful demonstrators.
Riot police have twice previously dispersed demonstrators with clubs and tear gas, sending some protesters to intensive care.
Yanukovych, in a televised meeting with Ukraine’s three previous presidents, said he asked the prosecutor-general to ensure the release of some of the protesters — those who have not committed grave crimes and who have children or families.
Investigations into the actions of the freed protesters would still continue, he said.
Yanukovych also vowed to renew talks with the EU on the trade and political agreement. He indicated he was still willing to sign the EU deal at a summit in spring, but only if the EU can offer better financial terms.