Ukrainian riot police have pulled back after an overnight confrontation in which they attempted to remove barricades and tents from a protest camp Kiev.
Buses carrying police drove away from Kiev’s Independence Square early Wednesday to cheers from protesters.
Another group of officers that had been stationed outside the Kiev city hall building, which has been occupied by protesters for weeks, also left.
Arseny Yatsenyuk, a top opposition leader who has called for millions to come out in protest, said: “This is a great victory.”
Protesters have been gathering around the clock to demand the resignation of the government in a crisis that threatens the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Interior minister Vitaly Zakharchenko had said there would be “no storming of the square” as he appealed for calm.
He said: “No one will violate your rights to protest peacefully, but do not ignore the rights … of other citizens.”
Thousands of officers had moved in on the anti-government protesters’ camp in the centre of the Ukrainian capital at around 1am on Wednesday.
There were clashes as the protesters put up fierce resistance for hours, pushing back at the police lines to keep them away from key sites in the camp.
Protesters shouted “Shame!”, ”We will stand!” and sang the Ukrainian national anthem. Ukrainian singer Ruslana, who is with the protesters, was heard appealing to police through a loud hailer: “Don’t hurt us.”
By dawn the police had regained control of a large section of the square, reportedly using heavy equipment to bulldoze tents and put them in a rubbish truck.
US Secretary of State John Kerry voiced the country’s “disgust” at Ukraine’s repression of demonstrators.
“(Washington) expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kiev’s Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity,” he said.
“This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy.”
Later Victoria Nuland, the US Assistant Secretary of State, handed sandwiches to both protesters and riot police in Kiev’s Independence Square, along with US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey R Pyatt.
Ms Nuland said she had held “tough but realistic” talks with Mr Yanukovych, and said she had told him that police action against demonstrators was “absolutely inadmissible”.
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, who is a reigning world heavyweight boxing champion, had urged Ukrainians to rush to the centre of the capital to defend democracy.
“We will say no to a police state, no to a dictatorship,” he told protesters in the square.
Protesters have been demonstrating against the government’s decision to pull out of negotiations on a trade pact with the European Union and rebuild economic ties with Russia.
European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had earlier visited the camp after first meeting Mr Yanukovych and then opposition leaders.
She issued a statement in response to the police’s actions, saying: “I observe with sadness that police use force to remove peaceful people from the centre of Kiev.
“The authorities didn’t need to act under the coverage of night to engage with the society by using police.
“Dialogue with political forces and society and use of arguments is always better than the argument of force.”
Mr Yanukovych had previously attempted to calm the situation by calling for the release of the demonstrators arrested in the protests and vowing 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 out a secure future for their economically troubled nation.
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