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Protesters try to block police with fire in Kiev

Antigovernment activists mount last-ditch effort

Surrounded by fire, antigovernment protesters tried to defend themselves against riot police in Kiev on Tuesday night.

KONSTANTIN CHERNICHKIN/REUTERS

Surrounded by fire, antigovernment protesters tried to defend themselves against riot police in Kiev on Tuesday night.

KIEV — With hundreds of riot police officers advancing from all sides after a day of deadly mayhem here in the Ukrainian capital, antigovernment protesters mounted a final desperate and seemingly doomed act of defiance late Tuesday evening, establishing a protective ring of fire around what remained of their all-but-conquered encampment on Independence Square.

Feeding the blazing defenses with blankets, tires, wood, sheets of plastic foam, and anything else that might burn, the protesters hoped to prolong, for a while longer at least, a tumultuous protest movement against President Viktor F. Yanukovych, a leader who was democratically elected in 2010 but is widely reviled here as corrupt and authoritarian.

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“It is called the tactic of scorched earth,” said a protester who identified himself as Andriy.

The ministry of health says that 25 people have died and over 240 were injured during the clashes, making it by far the worst day of violence in more than two months of protests and, for most Ukrainians, the bloodiest in living memory.

Doctors and nurses treating protesters in a temporary medical center in the Trades Union Building on Independence Square reported a number of gunshot wounds and also evidence that the police had doctored percussion grenades in order to inflict more serious injury. By early Wednesday, the union building had caught fire and the blaze raged out of control, with flames spreading to adjacent buildings.

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With the center of the city engulfed in thick, acrid smoke and filled with the deafening din of the grenades, fireworks, and the occasional round of gunfire, what began as a peaceful protest in late November against Yanukovych’s decision to spurn a trade deal with Europe and tilt toward Russia became a pyre of violent chaos on Tuesday.

The violence, which will resonate for weeks, months, or even years around this fragile and bitterly divided former Soviet republic of 46 million, exposed the impotence, in this dispute, of the United States and also the European Union, which had engaged in a week of fruitless efforts to mediate a peaceful settlement. It also shredded doubts about the influential reach of Russia, which had portrayed the protesters as US-backed “terrorists” and, in thinly coded messages from the Kremlin, urged Yanukovych to crack down.

The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said the United States was appalled by the violence and urged Yanukovych to resume dialogue with the opposition.

Vice President Joe Biden telephoned Yanukovych to “express grave concern regarding the crisis on the streets” of Kiev, the vice president’s office said in a statement.

Yanukovych had repeatedly pledged not to use force to disperse protesters, but after meeting President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, he had clearly changed his mind. The fighting also broke out a day after Russia threw a new financial lifeline to Yanukovych’s government by buying $2 billion in Ukrainian government bonds.

With opposition politicians and other protest leaders vowing defiance late into the night from a stage at the center of their crumbling encampment, it was unclear how long even the greatly feared and detested antiriot police, known as Berkut, could hang on to Independence Square in the event that residents poured into the area once morning broke.

Shortly before midnight, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko headed to Yanukovych’s office to try to resolve the crisis. He returned to the square early Wednesday without reaching any agreement on ending the violence. Klitschko told reporters that he had asked the president to stop the police action to clear the square and prevent further deaths, but Yanukovych’s only proposal was that the demonstrators have to go home and stop the protests.

The attack on Independence Square began shortly before 8 p.m., when police officers tried to drive two armored personnel carriers through stone-reinforced barriers outside the Khreshchatyk Hotel on the road to the square. The vehicles became bogged down and, set upon by protesters wielding rocks and fireworks, burst into flames, trapping the security officers inside one of them and prompting desperate rescue efforts to save those caught in the second vehicle.

A phalanx of riot police officers, backed by a water cannon, had more success in a separate thrust, pushing through protesters’ barricades near the Ukraina Hotel and firing tear gas as they advanced toward the center of the square.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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