Largely peaceful anti-government demonstrations protests in Ukraine have escalated into fierce street battles in the capital Kiev between radical nationalists and security forces, leaving more than two hundred people wounded and prompting warnings of a civil war.
The clashes erupted on Sunday night when hundreds of radical protesters broke off from the main rally against anti-protest laws enacted by Ukrainian Parliament last week and attack police who blocked the road to the Parliament building.
Young people hurled stones and fire bombs at police and set police vehicles on fire. Police responded with tear gas and water cannons.
The Interior Ministry said Monday that about 100 policemen had been injured in the clashes, with more than 60 hospitalised. According to the opposition, more than 100 protesters were also injured, some of them seriously.
The standoff continued on Monday with protesters digging up paving stones and preparing Molotov cocktails a hundred metres away from rows of security forces barricaded behind carcasses of torched buses.
Sunday’s clashes were the worst violence in Ukraine since the breakup of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago and signalled a dramatic radicalisation of the peaceful protests against the Ukrainian government’s refusal to sign an association pact with the European Union two-months ago.
In a statement published on his website late Sunday, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich agreed to set up a working group with the opposition to overcome the political crisis.
Vitaly Klichko, a moderate opposition leader and would-be presidential candidate, warned of a civil war and urged protesters to halt violence, but was wooed and sprayed by a fire extinguisher.
Experts said the peaceful protests had been hijacked by extremists from the “Right Sector,” an umbrella group of right-wing and neo-nazi activists from Western Ukraine.
The “Right Sector” seeks violent overthrow of the government and is opposed both to Ukraine’s integration with Europe and to closer alignment with Russia, favoured by the country’s present government.