KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Defiant demonstrators faced off with thousands of riot police on Kiev's central square as the sun rose Wednesday after an overnight confrontation in which police removed some barricades and tents from the protesters' camp and scuffled with demonstrators.
Squadrons of police in helmets and bearing metal shields converged about 1 a.m. on Independence Square, where anti-government protesters have been gathering around the clock to demand the resignation of the government in a crisis that threatens the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Thousands of protesters, their ranks swelling through the night, put up fierce resistance for hours, shoving back at the police lines to keep them away from key sites at the camp set up in Independence Square.
Several demonstrators and police were injured and ambulances were seen on the square. But police appeared to be under orders to refrain from using excessive force, unlike the violent beatings of protesters in recent weeks. Some policemen helped injured activists up from the ground and moved them away.
At dawn, some seven hours after the police siege began, police cordons stood almost motionless while speakers from the protest stage denounced the government and tried to raise demonstrators' spirits.
The protests began in late November when Yanukovych backed away from a pact that would deepen the former Soviet republic's economic ties with the 28-nation European Union — a pact that surveys showed was supported by nearly half the country's people. The agreement would make Ukraine more Western-oriented and represent a significant loss of face for Russia, which has either controlled or heavily influenced Ukraine for centuries.
Demonstrators, waving EU and Ukrainian flags and singing the national anthem, shouted "Shame! Shame!" and "We will stand." Many of the protesters, wearing orange construction hats to protect themselves from police truncheons, locked arms and simultaneously jumped up and down to stay warm in freezing December temperatures that plunged to 12 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 11 Celsius).
Scuffles broke out between police and opposition lawmakers, one of whom lay down on the snow trying to block a vehicle from advancing on the camp. An Orthodox priest sang prayers, and a popular Ukrainian rock song with the lyrics "I will not give up without a fight" blared from loudspeakers over the square. Pop singer Ruslana kept up morale by singing the national anthem and cheering protesters from the stage.
One protester stripped to his waist in the frigid air, got down on his knees and shouted "Stop this ... We are one people!"
At least one tent caught fire after a metal barrel where a fire was burning to keep demonstrators warm overturned.
After some of the barricades and tents were dismantled, police and city workers began to remove debris with bulldozers. Policemen used what appeared to be chain saws to clear the barricades.
Kiev police said authorities were merely trying to clear the streets leading to Independence Square, but not to remove the main encampment, the Ukrainian Interfax news agency reported. Police said that several of the most active demonstrators were detained.
Meanwhile, scores of protesters remained barricaded inside the Kiev city hall building, which they had been occupying for weeks. They hosed down the steps leading to the entrance with water so police would slip on the ice if they attempted to storm the building.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a strong statement, expressing the United States' "disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest ... with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity."
"This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy," said Kerry, urging authorities to show "utmost restraint" and protect human life. "As church bells ring tonight amidst the smoke in the streets of Kyiv, the United States stands with the people of Ukraine. They deserve better."