Violent clashes have erupted in Ukraine as riot police attempted to storm the occupied Kiev City Hall.
The sudden burst of action this morning came after a night of stand-offs, scuffles and attempts from the authorities to dismantle sections of the protest camp.
Police lines have now fallen back, leaving both the city council's headquarters and the hotly-disputed Independence Square in the hands of protesters claiming victory.
They had been trying to force demonstrators out of the City Hall, where scores of people have barricaded themselves for a number of weeks.
Officers arrived in huge numbers, using buses to block the building off from the wider protest based just up the road in Kiev’s Independence Square.
Live footage showed them approach the City Hall, where they were met with icy water fired by protesters. The steps leading up to the building’s entrance were hosed down in a bid to make the officers slip over in the event of a charge.
The demonstrators, who are calling for the resignation of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in the wake of the government’s decision to reject a deal with the European Union, said officers had been able to enter the building before they were successfully pushed back.
In the wake of the retreat, the Ukrainian chief of police issued a statement saying protesters would not be made to disperse.
“I want to calm everyone down — there will be no dispersal,” Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko said on the ministry's website. “No one is encroaching on the rights of citizens to peaceful protest.”
Earlier, police and protesters clashed in a defiant face-off in the city’s main square. Officers converged on the rally at around 1am, armed with full riot gear and metal shields. They said they wanted to clear a path through the encampment and barricades for traffic, but were met with fierce resistance in a stand-off lasting hours.
Yesterday evening Baroness Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, walked through the embattled Independence Square, and spoke of her support for the protesters’ cause.
“The authorities didn't need to act under the coverage of night to engage with the society by using police,” Ashton said in a statement after the police action started.
“Dialogue with political forces and society and use of arguments is always better than the argument of force.”
The protest has reached a critical stage, with many of those involved having donned orange hard hats to protect themselves from police batons and enduring night-time temperatures dropping to -11C.
The demonstrations began in late November when President Yanukovych backed away from a pact that would have deepened 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.
US 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 Mr Kerry, urging authorities to show “utmost restraint” and protect human life. “As church bells ring tonight amidst the smoke in the streets of Kiev, the United States stands with the people of Ukraine. They deserve better.”
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, who is the reigning WBC world heavyweight boxing champion, urged more Ukrainians to join those in the centre of the capital to defend democracy.
“We will say no to a police state, no to a dictatorship,” he told protesters in the square.Reuse content