KIEV – Ukrainian security forces stormed Kiev's Independence Square on Wednesday, occupying an area protesters had held for over a week and removing their barricades in a move that sparked immediate international concern.
Opponents of President Viktor Yanukovych's rejection of an EU pact were still holding nighttime protests on the square when elite Berkut anti-riot police and interior ministry special forces moved against them at around 2:00am (midnight GMT).
Thousands anti-riot police surrounded the square and then entered the area, using their sheer numbers to force the demonstrators away from the road running through the square.
The police also smashed down the barricades that the protesters had put up around the square and ripped down several of their tents.
However the protesters regrouped around the main stage set up on one sector of the square, with their numbers increasing by the minute as opposition leaders urged people to rush to the square.
Ukraine's pro-opposition Channel 5 said there were now 10,000 protestors on Independence Square after the police actions in what appeared an increasingly chaotic situation.
'Spitting in the face'
Ukrainian opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk called for a millions-strong protest in Kiev after the police actions, predicting that the government of Yanukovych would fall.
Thousands of protesters had been defying sub-freezing temperatures to remain overnight on the square in protests that started almost three weeks ago.
"Kievans rise up! Only together can we win our right to live in a free country," world boxing champion and leader of the UDAR (Punch) opposition party Vitali Klitshcko told the protesters.
Police at the scene said their aim was not to disperse the entire protest but to free up Kiev's main Khreshchatyk Street – that passes through the middle of the square – for traffic.
"Police are working in cooperation with the Kiev municipal services to remove the barricades blocking the passage," a Kiev police spokesperson said.
The leader of the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) movement Oleg Tyagnybok said that several protesters had been injured and the authorities had detained 11 people.
Despite the actions of the police, the demonstration continued as more protesters arrived and Ukrainian pop anthems made famous during the 2004 Orange Revolution blared through loudspeakers.
Ashton in Kiev, EU concerned
The police action came as top diplomats from the EU and United States were in Kiev in a bid to resolve the standoff and hours after Yanukovych had held talks with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
The EU's delegation in Kiev said it was seeking to contact Ukrainian authorities to prevent the use of violence against citizens.
"The authorities didn't need to act under the cover of night," Ashton said in a statement.
In a sign of Europe's support for the demonstrators, Ashton had late Tuesday personally visited the epicentre of the protests on Independence Square, known locally as the Maidan.
"We follow events in and around Maidan at this moment with great concern. Repression is not way forward for Ukraine – reform should be," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter.
US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was also in Kiev and expected to hold talks with Yanukovych.
Yanukovych had on Tuesday convened Ukraine's ex-leaders Leonid Kuchma, Leonid Kravchuk and Viktor Yushchenko for an unprecedented crisis meeting at the presidential administration. AFP