The Ukrainian capital of Kiev exploded into a third night of rioting on Tuesday, with Molotov cocktails and concussion grenades devastating portions of the central city as the nation sinks deeper into civil unrest between the pro-Russian government and protesters seeking greater ties with Europe.
The riots began Sunday in response to restrictive new anti-protest laws, which aimed to curb the anger sweeping through Kiev and the entire western half of the country. Tens of thousands turned out to defy the law, confronting nervous riot police forced to defend government buildings from firebombs and dug-up cobblestones. Hundreds of people have been injured and many hospitalized, including a number of police suffering from beatings and burns.
It’s a massive escalation in the ongoing uprising, which began in November after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych reneged on his promise to sign a much-awaited trade agreement with the European Union. Hundreds of thousands of pro-Western Ukrainians were outraged, taking to the streets of the capital in peaceful protest of the government’s accelerating drift towards Russia.
But those protests were met with violence, with riot police flooding the occupied streets and squares and beating those who failed to disperse. Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly leaned heavily on Yanukovych to suppress the protests and agree to closer economic ties with Russia.
Russia, Ukraine’s powerful eastern neighbor, has long dominated the region. A substantial proportion of Ukrainian citizens are ethnic Russians, and Russia maintains an important naval base in the southern Ukrainian city of Sevastopol. On Tuesday, Russia’s foreign minister vowed his nation would not allow the country to descend into secession or civil war, saying it would do its “utmost” to “stabilize the situation.”
Protesters were able to resist the Ukrainian government’s attempts to remove them in December, and for a moment it appeared as if Yanukovych was close to caving. But the new anti-protest laws showed the government would stick to its hard line, inciting a sudden burst of violence among the most hardcore pro-European protesters. Opposition leaders have had little luck so far in getting their people to calm down; in fact, one was blasted in the face with a fire extinguisher while attempting to talk down a particularly angry group.
The government’s response has been far more cautious. Riot police seem hesitant to even defend themselves, perhaps hoping the protesters will lose steam if left unprovoked. But that strategy seems to be failing, as violence escalates night after night. On Tuesday the Ukrainian president snubbed proposed talks with opposition leaders, instead clearing the way for riot police to use lethal force. And many protesters and bystanders received mysterious messages on their mobile phones informing them they were “registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”
The violence shows no signs of abating. “A revolution is under way in Ukraine,” one protester told the AP. “What revolution takes place peacefully? Each side is showing its strengths. The government, its troops; and we, our fearlessness.”
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