Ukrainian President Condemns Violence
VIDEO: Several Western governments have condemned Ukraine’s crackdown Saturday on pro-European protesters in the capital. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more from Kyiv.
KYIV — Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Saturday condemned what he calls "actions" that have led to violence during opposition demonstrations in Kyiv, saying he was "deeply outraged" by the violence at the capital's Independence Square, without directly blaming police.
Riot police in Ukraine used batons and stun grenades to break up an opposition demonstration early Saturday, after the president failed to sign a free trade pact with the European Union. Numerous injuries were reported.
He called for an immediate investigation in order to punish those responsible.
Protesters say the police attack was unprovoked. Ambulances treated dozens of injured demonstrators — mostly for wounds to the head and arms — as police used batons, stun grenades and tear gas to clear the square.
By dawn several hundred protesters — many of them bandaged and still covered in blood — had sought refuge at a monastery a short distance from Independence Square. Police say 25 people were arrested.
The Interior Ministry said riot police moved in after protesters threw trash and flares at uniformed officers.
Western nations critical
The U.S. State Department also condemned the attack against the demonstrators, saying "violence and intimidation should have no place in today's Ukraine."
The rights group Amnesty International called the violence a "shameful disregard for peoples' rights." It called for an independent investigation into the allegations.
On Friday, the European Union criticized Russia for pressuring Ukraine into abandoning the landmark free trade deal with the European bloc.
The snub, announced last week by Yanukovych, reverberated through an EU summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel was captured Friday on video telling the Ukrainian leader, "We expected more."
Yanukovych responded by telling the German leader, "The economic situation in Ukraine is very hard. And we have big difficulties with Moscow."
The summit, which ended Friday, had been expected to showcase the signing of the agreement.
As last-minute negotiations failed, thousands of opposition protesters in Kyiv gathered for a second time this week in the center of the city to demand the president's resignation.
European news reports say the EU-Ukraine deal began unraveling in late October, when Moscow demanded that cash-strapped Kyiv immediately make full payment of a nearly $1 billion natural gas bill, or face a gas cutoff as winter braces the region.
Moscow has also in recent months imposed restrictions on Ukrainian imports, dragging the Ukrainian economy into recession and triggering a warning from Moscow of more economic difficulties if Kyiv signed the EU pact.
Last week, as the Ukrainian president scuttled the EU deal, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said the country's top priority now is to repair relations with Moscow.
Calls for mass strike
Opposition leaders have called for a nationwide strike in response to the crackdown - and say they are uniting to form a national resistance headquarters until new elections are held.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the Motherland party, blamed President Yanukovych for the violence, saying he "has the blood of our children, the blood of students, the blood of youth on his hands, and he has to be held responsible for it."
"It was his order, and Viktor Yanukovych, who is guilty of this, will be forced to resign," said Yatsenyuk.
The chair of the European Union Presidency, Lithuania, condemned the police crackdown, while the US embassy urged Ukraine to "respect the rights of civil society."
Protestors are re-grouping in Kyiv ahead of a big rally planned for Sunday.
Jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has urged the demonstrators to overthrow the government.
VOA correspondent Henry Ridgwell contributed to this report from Kyiv. Some information was provided by AP and AFP.