KIEV, Ukraine — Defying a government crackdown, tens of thousands of opposition demonstrators took to the streets of the Ukrainian capital on Sunday, clashing violently with police.
With protesters throwing stones, flares and Molotov cocktails, riot squads fought back with water cannons, tear gas and noise grenades in an attempt to put down the demonstration, which lasted well into Monday morning. Many demonstrators protected themselves with helmets and shields.
Dozens of people were reported injured on both sides. At least six police vehicles were set on fire.
The crowd, the largest at a demonstration so far this year, gathered around noon at a protest tent camp in Independence Square. The dramatic boost in the number of protesters was a response to new security measures aimed at curbing protests that were signed into law Friday by President Viktor Yanukovich.
The controversial bills, hastily adopted in parliament by a simple hand vote, prohibit the erection of tents, stages, sound equipment or other objects that can hinder movement on public streets and venues. The new laws provide for hefty fines and up to 15 years in prison.
One of the provisions banned the use of construction helmets popular among protesters since Nov. 30, when riot police violently dispersed a rally of Kiev students protesting Yanukovich's refusal to sign a free-trade and association agreement with the European Union.
On Sunday, responding to the ban, an overwhelming majority of protesters wore helmets, and those who didn't have them wore kitchen pots.
After a rally ended in the early afternoon with opposition leaders again demanding that Yanukovich resign and that new elections be held, thousands of protesters marched toward the government complex less than a mile away that houses parliament and the Council of Ministers.
Early along their route on central Kiev's Grushevsky Street, they were met with police buses blocking their way and several thousand riot police officers armed with clubs and shields. As the first rocks and bricks flew across the line of buses at the heads of the helmeted police, the officers responded with icy blasts from water cannons — the air temperature was in the teens — as well as tear gas and noise grenades, which resounded with deafening thuds.
The protesters started throwing flares at police and set fire to four police buses and two police trucks, authorities said.
During the confrontation, opposition leader and former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko threw himself between the attackers and police and shouted at the protesters: "What you are doing now is very dangerous!" and warned them against being drawn into a provocation.
In response, one protester sprayed him in the face with a fire extinguisher, and the crowd resumed its attack with fresh vigor.
Later Sunday night, Klitschko said he met with Yanukovich at the president's country residence near Kiev, where Yanukovich promised negotiations would be held Monday. However, Klitschko said, the president wouldn't promise the elections demanded by the opposition.
"I told the president the situation needs urgent parliamentary and presidential elections," Klitschko said in televised remarks. "The president pretended he did not hear that."
"I don't rule out the possibility of civil war," Klitschko added.
It appeared that the opposition leaders had little leverage over the crowd, as the violent confrontation intensified through the night with more injuries on both sides. One protester had his hand torn off by an exploding noise grenade fired by the police, a witness said.
Late Sunday, the Interior Ministry reported that more than 70 police officers had been injured, with about 40 hospitalized. No casualty figures for protesters were given, but many were hurt.
One police officer was taken prisoner and severely beaten by the attackers, the Interior Ministry said in a report on its website, adding: "Upon his release the policeman was hospitalized and diagnosed with a ... brain injury, broken ribs and nose."
Many protesters in Independence Square criticized the rioters who attacked the police.
"I agree that we should sabotage the authorities' decisions and actions, but without resorting to violence," said Alexei Peterchuk, a computer programmer wearing a red plastic helmet. "My friends and I decided not to go to Grushevsky [Street] because by our presence we can only aggravate the provocation which is taking place there now."
Special correspondent Butenko reported from Kiev and Times staff writer Loiko from Moscow.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times