Ukrainian activists swarmed central Kiev yesterday, reclaiming the epicentre of anti-government protests after an overnight police raid that left dozens injured.
Thousands of demonstrators, some singing and dancing, crowded in and near Independence Square as police withdrew following clashes to clear barricades and tents from the area and a stand-off at City Hall, seized by demonstrators 10 days ago.
Thirty people had sought medical aid by mid-morning.
"After today's development, the authorities lost the chance to speak to us in a civilised way," opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, the world heavyweight boxing champion, said from a stage in the square. "I address all people of Kiev: please come here. Only together can we defend our rights."
Hundreds of riot police with shields flooded into a camp built by protesters overnight and were met by crowds of people in orange helmets, with some scuffles breaking out. City workers used a bulldozer and chainsaws to help clear makeshift wooden and metal defences set up around Independence Square, which was also the focal point of the 2004 orange revolution.
Police officers were massed at the entrance to the square in the morning after some barricades were removed. Protester tents remained, with soup kitchens operating and distributing food and tea. Officers detained 10 people, according to Klitschko.
The Ukrainian chief of police insisted there would be no attempt to break up the demonstrations.
The police operation in the early hours was only to remove tents and other facilities set up by protesters, the Interior Ministry said.
Demonstrators were erecting new barricades as US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visited Independence Square, offering biscuits to activists and police.
"We need to sit and talk to solve our crisis peacefully," said Igor Tranko, 23, an unemployed protester from Kharkov who had a Ukrainian flag wrapped around his black jacket.
"I'm shocked by what Yanukovych is doing. If he continues to use force Yanukovych's regime will fall. I have no words. It is outrageous."
The US expressed "its disgust" with the crackdown and urged Ukraine's leaders to exercise restraint in dealing with protesters.
On Tuesday, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton visited the square after meeting Yanukovych.
"I observe with sadness that the police uses force to remove peaceful people from the centre of Kiev," Ashton said. "Dialogue with political forces and society and use of arguments is always better force."
The president yesterday sought to switch the focus to the shrinking economy after First Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov said US$10 billion was needed to avoid default.
"Everyone should concentrate on the economy," Yanukovych said yesterday in a televised round-table discussion with three former Ukraine leaders. "These political problems we have now, I will resolve in the coming days."
In search of financial aid, Yanukovych last week visited China and Russia, which had opposed Ukraine's plans to sign EU association and free-trade accords and is offering membership of a customs bloc instead. Speculation over the weekend that a deal with Russia was close fired up a rally that drew 500,000 people.
Ukraine was seeking US$27.5 billion from the EU, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said yesterday. He said Yanukovych had no plans to reach a deal on membership in the customs union during a trip to Moscow on Monday.
Additional reporting by Associated Press