Talks founder amid clashes between Ukraine protesters, riot police

KIEV, Ukraine -- Promised talks aimed at resolving two months of unrest failed to materialize Monday as antigovernment protesters clashed with riot police in Ukraine's capital, Kiev, for a second day, with more than 200 people reported injured.

The violence follows weeks of largely peaceful demonstrations against President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision not to sign a free-trade and association deal with the European Union, choosing instead to pursue closer ties with Russia.

At least 61 police officers and 42 protesters have been hospitalized since Sunday, officials said. The injured also include at least 15 journalists, news reports said.

Central Kiev’s Grushevsky Street, which leads to the government complex that houses parliament and the Council of Ministers, looked like a scene from an apocalypse movie Monday morning, with charred carcasses of several police buses still smoldering under layers of glistening ice. 

Masked and helmeted protesters, some of them wearing gas masks, took cover behind the destroyed vehicles and threw bricks, cobblestones, flares and Molotov cocktails at lines of riot police protecting themselves with shields about 50 yards away.

When the attackers, who numbered in the hundreds, would temporarily retreat, police would pick up some of the stones and Molotov cocktails and toss them back at the protesters while firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets.

The pattern was repeated, with little variation, throughout the day, as several thousand bystanders looked on and the casualties mounted. Three of those taken to hospital had to have their eyes removed, and one had a hand amputated, Kiev health authorities said Monday.

The security presence grew throughout the day as reinforcements arrived from other cities and towns.

Andriy Parubiy, who heads an opposition self-defense force that is protecting a tent camp in Independence Square, said there were more than 20,000 police and Interior Ministry troops in Kiev, double his previous estimate. He did not rule out the possibility that government forces would go on the offensive against demonstrators in the square, which is about half a mile from the clashes.

Ukrainian media reported that crowds of protesters in cities such as Odessa, Lviv and Ivano- Frankivsk blocked roads in an attempt to prevent local riot police units from going to Kiev.

The clashes erupted Sunday as tens of thousands of opposition demonstrators took to the streets in response to new security measures aimed at curbing protests.

The controversial measures, which Yanukovich signed into law Friday, prohibit the erection of tents, stages, sound equipment and other objects that can hinder movement in public areas. The new laws provide for hefty fines and up to 15 years in prison for violators.

Ahead of negotiations promised by Yanukovich for Monday, the opposition leadership issued several demands, including the resignation of the Cabinet, new parliamentary and presidential elections, prosecution of the interior minister and a repeal of the new security measures. But when it became clear that Yanukovich would not take part in the negotiations himself, opposition leaders refused to participate.

“It makes sense to conduct negotiations only with those who make decisions and take responsibility for their implementation,” opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said in televised remarks. “This is why Yanukovich must take part in negotiations on the part of the authorities.”

Yanukovich did not respond to Kltischko’s comments, but ruling party lawmaker Anna German said such initial consultations did not require the president's presence.

“We need first to define the demands of the sides,” she said in televised remarks. “It is impossible to make the president represent one concrete side, as the president must represent the entire people.”

As the day wore on, neither side appeared to be backing down.

"I urge all citizens and patriots to defend their country and their future,” Klitschko said in a statement posted on his Udar party website Monday afternoon. “Today the place of all concerned is in [Independence] Square in the capital."

“Get into your cars or buses,” the statement continued. “We need you here so that Ukraine, but not Yanukovich, can win!"

Yanukovich later issued a statement warning that the violence was a threat to the entire country.

“When peaceful actions deteriorate into mass disorder accompanied by arson and pogroms, with the use of violence, I am convinced these actions bear a threat not only for the public community of Kiev but for the entire Ukraine,” he said. “I want to stress that we will make every effort to enforce public order … to guarantee public calm and the safety of our fellow citizens.”

The most worrying aspect of the quickly deteriorating situation in Kiev is that opposition leaders apparently can no longer control those protesters who continue to attack the police, said Vadim Karasyov, director of the Institute of Global Strategies, a Kiev-based think tank.

“Some protesters felt frustrated after two seemingly fruitless months of day and night vigils in Independence Square. Some responded to calls coming from provocateurs,” he said. “But the fact remains that the peaceful opposition protest has been seriously compromised and discredited by the recent violence.”

Special correspondent Butenko reported from Kiev and Times staff writer Loiko from Moscow. 

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