Kiev, Ukraine – Thick black smoke filled the air in Independence Square early Wednesday as a building used as the headquarters for Ukraine’s anti-government protesters continued to burn.
Dozens of men – some wielding bats, others wearing helmets – marched down the capital Kiev’s main street and passed through barricades manned by demonstrators on guard.
Fires raged within sight of parliament as riot police closed in on protest camps in Independence Square on Tuesday. As many as 25 people died as clashes erupted again on the streets after several weeks of relative calm.
This was not what the opposition movement expected Tuesday to be like. It had planned a march in central Kiev from the square, known to Ukrainians as “The Maidan”, to parliament demanding constitutional reform.
“This protest is about the constitution. We are going to change the constitution today and we come for peaceful protest,” said Ascold, a married 24-year-old father who works as a web designer, and who did not want to give his last name.
I once again urge the leaders of the opposition, who argue that they too seek a peaceful settlement, immediately disassociate themselves from the radical forces that provoke bloodshed and clashes with law enforcement.
He wore a navy helmet, a scarf over half his face, a camouflage jacket, black boots and kneepads. He carried two metal rods he said were for “self-defence”.
Demonstrations kicked off in Ukraine in November after President Victor Yanukovich rebuffed a free trade agreement with the European Union and instead signed a $15 billion deal with Russia. Protesters have demanded Yanukovich’s resignation citing the Russia agreement and rampant corruption.
Yanukovich told opposition leaders they had “crossed the limits”.
“I once again urge the leaders of the opposition, who argue that they too seek a peaceful settlement, immediately disassociate themselves from the radical forces that provoke bloodshed and clashes with law enforcement.”
‘Make him go’
Ascold said he has mixed feelings over EU membership but was strongly opposed to getting closer to Russia. For now, his focus is on a change of leadership.
“We’re going to fight just for Ukrainians to let Yanukovich go, to make him go,” he told Al Jazeera. “We have one leader, the Ukrainians, all the Ukrainians … This is the one real leader.”
About 20,000 demonstrators battled security forces on Tuesday armed with rocks, bats and firebombs, singing the Ukrainian national anthem as the main protest camp was engulfed in flames.
|Protesters set barricades ablaze [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]|
At one point the ground shook after a loud bang, when an apparent stun grenade went off. Two women holding the hands of a young boy briskly walked away.
Parliament was out of reach though for demonstrators, who faced swarms of riot police and barricades. Soon, there were fires along the barricades as protesters threw rocks over the billowing smoke.
“I try to help for Ukrainian people. We shall fight for their rights, for their freedom … and I think we will win,” said 18-year-old Nikolai, a university student, who also did not want to give his surname.
Wearing a balaclava and carrying a bat, Nikolai ran off to join a crowd squaring off against a newly formed line of riot police.
Demonstrators, including elderly women, broke up bricks along the road to form barriers and use as ammunition. Lines of protesters formed to pass the bricks to a newly erected barricade.
Men carried away a wounded protester with white bandages wrapped around his head. They passed an ambulance, and at one point stopped and argue with each other. Eventually, a grey SUV filled with tyres in the back and flying a Ukrainian flag arrived. The tyres were quickly taken out to make space for the injured protester.
Activists are afraid they will be arrested if they go to hospitals, and makeshift clinics have been set up to treat the wounded as an alternative.
|A protester flag with the image of former Ukraine prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]|
By 5pm, police in full riot gear edged closer to the square, the heart of the protests. They stood where the protesters’ barricades had been, pushing the crowd further into the square and away from parliament.
“They are tearing down the barricades and they are almost here,” demonstrator Anya Guzavliova said.
The 60-year-old wore a button with a symbol of the pro-EU opposition movement, and a blue-and-yellow scarf – the colours of Ukraine’s flag.
Guzavliova said she lives 500 kilometres away but came to Kiev to protest and has been at the demonstrations for two months. She said her son has been here from the start, and was part of the 2004 Orange Revolution demonstrations.
She broke down and cried saying she did not know where he is. “He was beaten and [I] don’t know if he’s alive,” she said, wiping away the tears.
In the evening at the square, fire at the protest headquarters broke out. During the day, activists were tweeting information and a large screen TV played a live feed of the clashes on the second floor where the press centre is located.
The fifth floor houses the Right Sector, a hardline group representing a small but visible faction of protesters, often wearing helmets, camouflage, and carrying wooden sticks. On Tuesday, Al Jazeera was told members of the group would not talk to the media for the next two days.
The group reportedly told people with weapons to head to the square to defend it against security forces.
Frustration over demonstrations not leading to substantial results has led to some radicalisation, according to Serhii Plokhii, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University. He said the longer the crisis continued, the more space there was for radical elements on both sides to form.
Why isn't Europe helping us? They are just saying they're worried and that's it.
Plokhii said while Ukrainians have little tolerance for violence from either side, they were more likely to think the government was to blame.
Riot police were deployed against the demonstrators hours after Moscow provided Ukraine with $2 billion to help its struggling economy. Russia had withheld the money, demanding that Kiev decisively end the demonstrations.
Plokhii said a lack of compromise was behind much of the violence, adding while the government had made some concessions, such as firing the prime minister, it could have offered more.
The anti-government activists agreed in recent days to take down some barricades and vacate occupied government buildings in exchange for amnesty for protesters. A deal was reached this week, but it failed to stem Tuesday’s violence.
It had been relatively calm over the past couple of weeks and a political solution to the crisis seemed more realistic, after violence escalated in late January when three protesters were killed.
While demonstrations started out as a pro-EU movement, activists are now seeking an early election and constitutional reform that would limit the president’s powers.
Anti-government activists have urged the EU to impose sanctions and as violence erupted on Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said sanctions may be imposed.
However, some protesters are already losing patience with what they see as inaction by the organisation.
“Why isn’t Europe helping us? They are just saying they’re worried and that’s it,” Guzavliova said.