Police charge Kiev protesters, 18 dead
Ukrainian riot police have charged protesters occupying a central Kiev square after the bloodiest day since the former Soviet republic, caught in a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West, won its independence more than 22 years ago.
At least 18 people, including seven policemen, died today during hours of violence between security forces and civilians who have staged protests against President Viktor Yanukovich since last November.
Many were killed by gunshot and hundreds more were injured, with dozens of them in a serious condition, police and opposition representatives said.
Despite Western demands for restraint and dialogue, the state security service first set a deadline for the demonstrators to end disorder or face "tough measures", and then the police advanced into Independence Square, the centre of the protest campaign.
Protesters responded with petrol bombs, fireworks and stones. Live television footage showed police throwing stun grenades at the protesters separated from them by a line of burning tents, tyres and wood.
Police steadily gained ground but thousands of protesters held on to the centre of the square.
Earlier, one of the opposition's leaders, Vitaly Klitschko, reacted defiantly, telling supporters on the square: "We will not leave here. This is an island of freedom. We will defend it."
The world champion boxer-turned politician later arrived at Yanukovich's office for late night talks, Klitschko's spokeswoman said, but he and another opposition leader, former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, were still waiting to see the president an hour later.
Earlier the State Security Service (SBU), in a joint statement with the interior ministry, signalled the government's intentions. "If by 6 p.m. the disturbances have not ended, we will be obliged to restore order by all means envisaged by law," they said.
The riot police moved in hours after Moscow gave Ukraine $2 billion in aid for its crippled economy which it had been holding back to demand decisive action to crush the protests.
Nationwide demonstrations erupted after Yanukovich bowed to Russian pressure and pulled out of a planned far-reaching trade agreement with the European Union, deciding instead to accept a Kremlin bailout for the heavily indebted economy.
Western powers warned Yanukovich against trying to smash the pro-European demonstrations, urging him to turn back to Europe and the prospect of an IMF-supported economic recovery, while Russia accused them of meddling.