KIEV - Russia on Tuesday warned the situation in Ukraine was spiralling out of control after a second night of violent clashes between pro-EU protesters and security forces in the centre of Kiev.
The clashes raged in the centre of the Ukrainian capital until early morning Tuesday, with demonstrators flinging Molotov cocktails and stones at security forces who hit back with stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas.
The situation was tense Tuesday morning, with thousands of protesters still facing down a line of armour-clad security forces blocking access to the Verkhovna Rada parliament.
A deafening din echoed through the devastated Grushevsky Street as protesters banged sticks on metal cannisters. But clashes had paused with some demonstrators even walking up to the police line. The standoff, which has left hundreds wounded, has brought tensions between protesters and the authorities to a new high after two months of rallies over the government’s abandoning of a pact for closer ties with the EU.
A new set of laws, which ban nearly all forms of protest in the ex-Soviet country and have enraged demonstrators, were officially published in the newspaper of the Ukranian parliament after a warning from President Viktor Yanukovych that the violence threatened the entire country.
They 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.
Clashes on Sunday and Monday, which followed two months of protests, turned an area in the centre of the capital Kiev into a veritable war zone as some 10,000 demonstrators battled security forces.
Fireworks and stun grenades lit up the night sky while the deafening drumming of protesters with sticks on metal echoed through the streets.
Demonstrators rigged up a giant catapult behind a barricade of burned out police buses in order to better hurl projectiles at the security forces.
The violence in a country where the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004 peacefully overturned a rigged presidential poll and forced a new ballot is unprecedented.
Russia, which has regarded the pro-EU protests in Ukraine with great suspicion, warned Tuesday that clashes between the opposition and police in Ukraine were getting out of control.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the fact that calls by Ukraine’s pro-EU opposition leaders to refrain from violence failed to calm tensions in the capital meant that the situation was becoming explosive. “They show that the situation is getting out of control,” said Russia’s top diplomat.
Lavrov described the violent protests as “scary” and an “absolute violation of all European norms of behaviour”. He slammed the EU’s “indecent” support of the protest movement against Yanukovych.
On Tuesday, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay called the situation in Ukraine “very worrying” and said the government should suspend the laws.
“I call on the authorities to suspend application of the laws to allow time for a thorough review of their content which must be in full compliance with international human rights standards, in particular Ukraine’s obligations under the treaties it has ratified,” she said in a statement.
Police said 120 policemen sought medical help and 80 were hospitalised. It was not immediately clear how many protesters were injured as many were afraid to seek medical help on fears of getting arrested.
At least 35 journalists were hurt in the clashes and some received injuries to their faces and eyes from rubber bullets, according to the latest estimates.
In a televised address to the nation, Yanukovych warned on Monday that the violence threatened the foundations of the entire country, which is divided between the pro-European west and the pro-Russian east.
“I am convinced that such phenomena are a threat not only to the public in Kiev but all of Ukraine,” he said, indicating his patience was wearing thin.
“I treated your participation in mass rallies with understanding, I expressed readiness to find ways to solve the existing contradictions.”
The opposition led by three politicians including former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko said it was ready for dialogue but stressed it wanted to hold talks with Yanukovych, not his aides.
The government set up a special commission to address the crisis.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka has warned protesters to halt “mass rioting”, describing it as a crime against the state.
The interior ministry added that several dozen people had been arrested for mass rioting.
Police have responded to the protesters by throwing stun grenades and occasionally using rubber bullets and tear gas, while the most radical opposition supporters used lasers to blind security forces.
Opposition leaders, including Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, appeared unable to have any influence on the hard core of radical protesters and stopped short of supporting their actions.
But Ukraine’s jailed former prime minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko came out in support of those clashing with police, saying she would be with them if she could.
“Protect Ukraine and do not fear anything,” she said. “You are heroes.”
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”.