KIEV, Ukraine -- The political confrontation between President Viktor Yanukovich and his opposition reached fever pitch Sunday as protesters, armed with flares and bricks, attempted to storm the Presidential Administration building.
But just as the demonstration threatened to veer into hand-to-hand combat between protesters and police, Vitali Klitschko, the 6-foot-7-inch super heavyweight boxing champion and opposition leader, broke through the lines of attackers. Towering two heads over the crowd, he raised his arms and shouted at the top of his lungs for both sides to stop fighting.
“I am telling you, get back!” Klitschko screamed at the crowd, pushing the young men closest to him with such force that they nearly fell down. “You have no business here. Don’t fall into a trap!”
With that, the tense crowd began to reluctantly back up. Other opposition leaders and their followers joined in to stop the confrontation, persuading a majority of youths to return from the presidential headquarters to nearby Independence Square.
That defused a potentially dangerous confrontation during a mostly peaceful mass demonstration, the largest in Ukraine since the 2004-05 Orange Revolution. Opposition activists estimated the crowd at over 200,000. There were an undetermined number of injuries on both sides.
Kiev’s police chief, Valery Koryak, resigned Sunday morning after taking responsibility for violent tactics used Saturday by security forces brought in from outside Kiev. During Sunday’s demonstration, protesters succeeded in taking over the City Council building and two other municipal buildings.
The opposition is protesting Yanukovich’s decision not to join the European Union, turning Ukraine back toward Russia’s sphere of influence.
“We are pressing a clear set of demands and want to resolve the crisis legally and peacefully,” Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire businessman and opposition lawmaker, said in an interview at the demonstration. “But the situation has a potential to get out of control here as the authorities are sending their agents to incite the crowds to attack the police.”
By early afternoon, the crowd filled most of central Khreshchatik Street and Independence Square, where the protesters listened to fiery speeches of opposition leaders. That was when a group of masked youths deploying a bulldozer attempted to break through the ranks of riot police in front of the presidential headquarters less than a mile away from the rally site.
Other demonstrators denounced the aggressive tactics.
“We are holding a peaceful demonstration and have nothing to do with these masked provocateurs,” Oleg Tyagnibok, a radical opposition leader and prominent lawmaker, said in an interview. “They are hired by the authorities to provoke a bloodshed that we are doing our best to prevent.”
The bulldozer stopped short of hitting anyone and the masked young men ran away. Soon after the incident, hundreds of young men, many in hoods and masks, approached the police line and began throwing flares at the officers. The police counterattacked with clubs and tear gas.
The protesters, whose numbers significantly swelled in ranks, responded by dismantling part of a nearby brick wall and throwing bricks at the police. The police, covering themselves with metal shields, refrained from using firearms, using noise grenades instead, to deafening effect.
The confrontation ran for at least a couple of hours, with brief interruptions to allow ambulances to pick up the injured. Klitschko’s intervention finally defused the situation.
A day before, riot police brought in from pro-Yanukovich eastern industrial regions of Ukraine swept away a peaceful protest in Independence Square by beating young men and women with clubs and boots, injuring at least 40. The authorities said the protesters were obstructing the erection of a Christmas tree in the city’s main square.