UPDATE (Wed., Feb. 9, 9:00 a.m.): After several hours of relative calm, the confrontation between protesters and riot police erupted again Wednesday afternoon in Kiev’s Independence Square, also known as the Maidan. At least 25 people are dead with hundreds injured.
OUR EARLIER REPORT: As Ukrainian riot police stormed Kiev’s massive gathering of anti-government protesters on Tuesday, a new wave of violence underscored the country’s growing divide.
A live feed from an independent Ukrainian news station, Espreso TV, shows Kiev in flames (see below), with smoke billowing from the heart of protester camps that have taken over the city’s Independence Square, known locally as the “Maidan,” for the past three months. Ukrainians watched in horror as tanks moved in, flames grew larger, and at least 13 people, including two policemen, died from gunshot wounds or smoke inhalation in some of the worst violence since the largely peaceful protests began in November.
“I’m in complete shock,” said Jonathan Eide, a church planter with Mission to the World in Kiev. “The center is burning. All day long I could see the smoke from my house and now Maidan is being forcefully cleared.”
Clay Quarterman, president of the Evangelical Reformed Seminary of Ukraine, lives three blocks from the city center and said tensions were high over the weekend. “A group of pro-government protesters gathered outside our apartment at noon today and went to the barricades only to come running back by our windows a half-hour later, chased by protesters with sticks and bats,” he wrote on Facebook. “A smoke bomb and flares were set off, and a few people were beaten and taken off by ambulances. Pray for peace in Ukraine!”
When tens of thousands gathered today to march to the Parliament building in support of a proposed constitutional change that would reduce presidential powers, riot police moved in and clashed with protesters. Authorities gave protesters until 6 p.m. Kiev time to end the conflict but underestimated the determination of the opposition. As a water cannon truck attempted to force its way through the barricades, a Molotov cocktail hit the truck and it burst into flames.
Protesters stood their ground, despite the excessive use of force by riot police. Locals described seeing snipers on rooftops throwing pieces of roofing at protesters, police beating members of the opposition, and security forces arresting those seeking medical treatment at hospitals.
Eide said the city shut down today shortly after his daughter returned home from school. Phone service in the city was spotty, metro lines came to a halt, and all major roads into the city were blocked. A popular app in the country rates traffic in Kiev on a scale from one to 10. Today it’s a solid 10. “I’ve seen it at eight on days before New Year’s Eve when everyone is leaving town and going for last-minute bottles of Vodka,” Eide said. “Today it’s been a 10 since 4 p.m. and is still holding. The city is in chaos.” His family has initiated the first phase of an evacuation plan in case violence worsens in the coming days.
The scene had calmed somewhat by 10 p.m., but thousands continued to gather in the city square and the mood was intense as protesters prepared for the possibility of another government-sanctioned attack. Those leading the protests asked for tire donations for the bonfires that serve as an added barricade between protesters and police.
Patriotic songs and speeches are continually broadcast over speakers in Independence Square, as opposition forces show no signs of leaving.
The protests began when Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych shunned a trade deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. Protesters have demanded nothing less than the president’s resignation, and opposition leaders have turned down offers of Cabinet positions in exchange for an end to the riots.
Russia is blaming the renewed violence on “connivance by Western politicians and European structures” and their unwillingness to address the radical factions embedded in the protest movement.
Those in the heart of the conflict disagree, noting the disproportionate use of force and corruption in the government. “We will not go anywhere from here,” opposition leader and heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko said. “This is an island of freedom and we will defend it.”