Ukraine Sees Largest Protest Since '04 12/08 14:15
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- Angry anti-government protesters toppled a statue of
former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin in the center of Kiev on Sunday and
blockaded key government buildings amid huge street protests, raising the
stakes in an escalating standoff with President Viktor Yanukovych.
The biggest protest in the former Soviet republic since Ukraine's
pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004 led the government to fire back. It
announced an investigation of opposition leaders for an alleged attempt to
seize power and warned the demonstrators they could face criminal charges.
The West pressed for a peaceful settlement.
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians flooded the center of Kiev, the capital,
to demand Yanukovych's ouster after he ditched ties with the EU in favor of
Russia and sent police to break up an earlier protest in the nearly three-week
"Ukraine is tired of Yanukovych. We need new rules. We need to completely
change those in power," said protester Kostyantyn Meselyuk, 42. "Europe can
Packing Independence Square as far as the eye could see, Ukrainians waving
European Union flags sang the national anthem and shouted "Resignation!" and
"Down with the gang!" in a reference to Yanukovych's regime.
"I am convinced that after these events, dictatorship will never survive in
our country," world boxing champion and top opposition leader Vitali Klitschko
told reporters. "People will not tolerate when they are beaten, when their
mouths are shut, when their principles and values are ignored."
As darkness fell, the conflict escalated further with protesters blockading
key government buildings in Kiev with cars, barricades and tents.
The protests have had an anti-Russian component because Russia had worked
aggressively to derail the EU deal with threats of trade retaliation against
About a kilometer (0.6 miles) from the main square, one group of
anti-government protesters toppled the city's landmark statue of Lenin and
decapitated it Sunday evening.
Protesters then took turns beating on the torso of the fallen statue, while
others lined up to collect a piece of the stone. The crowd chanted "Glory to
"Goodbye, Communist legacy," Andriy Shevchenko, an opposition lawmaker,
wrote on Twitter.
The demonstrations erupted last month after Yanukovych shelved a
long-planned treaty with the 28-nation European Union to focus on ties with
Russia. They were also galvanized by police violence and fears that Yanukovych
was on the verge of bringing his country into a Russian-led economic alliance,
which critics say could end Ukraine's sovereignty.
"It's not just a simple revolution," Oleh Tyahnybok, an opposition leader
with the national Svoboda party, told the crowd in a fiery speech from a giant
stage. "It's a revolution of dignity."
Yet a solution to the crisis appeared elusive, with the government making no
concessions and the opposition issuing contradictory statements on how to
Heeding the opposition's calls, thousands of protesters blocked the approach
to key government buildings in Kiev by erecting barricades, setting up tents
and parking vehicles, including a giant dump truck.
"We are extending our demonstration. We are going to fight until victory. We
will fight for what we believe in," opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk told
protesters on Independence Square, which was drowning in a sea of flags.
The West, meanwhile, scrambled to avoid violence and urged dialogue.
In a phone conversation with Yanukovych, European Commission President Jose
Manuel Barroso stressed "the need for a political" solution and dispatched EU
foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to Kiev next week to mediate a solution.
Yanukovych also discussed the crisis with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Valery Chaliy, head of the Razumkov Center think tank in Kiev, said the West
must help resolve the crisis and prevent more violence. "It is evident that
without international mediation this will not be solved in a peaceful way,"
Chaliy said in a telephone interview.
The protest Sunday in sub-zero December temperatures took place on
Independence Square, known as the Maidan, in an echo of the Orange Revolution.
Those protests annulled Yanukovych's fraud-tainted presidential victory in
2004, and ushered his pro-Western opponents into power. Yanukovych returned to
the presidency in the 2010 vote.
During a huge demonstration a week ago, several hundred radical protesters
hurled stones and attacked police as they tried to storm the presidential
office. That prompted a violent breakup by the authorities in which dozens were
beaten and injured, including peaceful protesters, passers-by and journalists.