KIEV - Radical opposition protesters Monday battled Ukrainian police in new clashes after bloody fighting the day earlier wounded more than 200 people amid mounting fury over draconian new anti-protest laws.
The clashes, the worst in Kiev in recent times, marked a spiralling of tensions after two months of demonstrations against President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a pact for closer integration with the EU.
A special commission set up by Yanukovych was due to meet representatives of the opposition on Monday for emergency talks, but it was unclear if this could help ease the crisis, with parts of central Kiev resembling a battlefield.
After a night of violence that continued into the early hours, thousands of protesters returned to the streets Monday despite temperatures of minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit).
In the epicentre of the clashes outside the entrance to the iconic Dynamo Kiev football stadium in central Kiev, both sides hunkered down behind barricades in an increasingly explosive standoff.
The protesters lobbed stones dug up from the cobbled road and flung Molotov cocktails over a 20 metre (65 foot) no-man’s land at police lines. Police responded by throwing stun grenades and occasionally using rubber bullets and tear gas.
The burned-out wrecks of half a dozen police vehicles torched and destroyed the day earlier were used by the protesters as a barricade. “We are going to stay here until our demands are met on the annulment of the laws” restricting protests, said protester Yaroslav Putilin, 46.
According to the Kiev health authorities, more than 100 protesters were wounded in Sunday’s clashes, with four people sustaining serious injuries to eyes and limbs. The interior ministry said more than 100 members of the security forces had been wounded.
Protesters equipped themselves with ad hoc shields made of metal sheeting and wooden sticks in anticipation of further clashes with police. The area echoed with the thud of stun grenades and the deafening drumming of groups of mostly elderly protesters with sticks on metal.
The ministry added that 20 people had been arrested for mass rioting. US-funded Ukrainian radio station Radio Svoboda said two of its journalists had been arrested Monday morning while filming at the scene.
The White House urged an end to the violence, with US National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden saying that Washington was deeply concerned and urging “all sides to immediately de-escalate the situation”.
The spokeswoman warned that Washington was still considering sanctions against Ukrainian officials, a step urged by the Ukrainian opposition.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday deplored the violence, saying the government was at fault for adopting the repressive laws.
The new laws allow for jail terms of up to five years for those who blockade public buildings and the arrest of protesters wearing masks or helmets. Other provisions ban the dissemination of “slander” on the Internet.
The laws were passed last week in a chaotic show of hands in parliament and then signed into law by Yanukovych.
The curbs on protests were “the most solid package of repressive laws that I have seen enacted by a European parliament in decades,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said in Brussels.
Ukrainian opposition television broadcast pictures of two young men who it said were stripped naked by the security forces and then peppered with rubber bullets. Police said they were checking the claim.
Opposition leaders, including former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, appeared unable to have any influence on the hard core of radical protesters.
“We are seeing what for all Ukraine’s independence was until now just a bad dream - fighting in the centre of the city,” said Klitschko, blaming the government.
It was not clear who was behind the radicalisation of the protest, which appeared to have been a well-organised move. Ukrainian media linked the action to a hitherto little-known right-wing youth group called “Right Sector”.
In an apparent attempt to find a compromise, Klitschko on Sunday travelled to the president’s luxurious Mezhygirya residence outside Kiev to meet Yanukovych in person.
The president promised to create a special commission of officials set up by national security council secretary Andriy Klyuyev to solve the crisis, the presidency announced.
The presidency said the new commission would meet the opposition on Monday but there was no sign of this yet taking place.
Given that Klyuyev was seen as a prime figure behind the violent dispersal of previous protests, the move was greeted with derision by many in the opposition.
On Sunday afternoon, some 200,000 people had filled Kiev’s Independence Square and surrounding streets for a new mass rally in defiance of the protest curbs.
Protesters at the rally whistled and heckled the opposition leaders for their perceived inability to mount a stronger challenge.
Yanukovych’s arch nemesis Yulia Tymoshenko remains in jail, while the protest leadership appears riven by rivalries ahead of presidential election next year.