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Pro-EU Ukrainians mass in biggest rally since Orange Revolution

26 november 2013, 10:01
0
Pro-Western Ukrainians on Sunday held the biggest protest rally in Kiev since the 2004 Orange Revolution, urging the government to sign a historic pact with the European Union and clashing with police, AFP reports.

Tens of thousands filled the Square of Europe in central Kiev to demonstrate against the decision of President Viktor Yanukovych's government to scrap a plan to sign an Association Agreement that would have deepened ties with the European Union.

Hundreds of protesters attempted to storm the government building, letting off smoke bombs. Some used the sticks from their protest signs against policemen and shouted "Revolution!".

But riot police forced them back with batons and tear gas, an AFP correspondent said. Police said that one member of the security forces was injured.

Police put attendance at the main rally at 23,000 people. The opposition gave a higher estimate, saying more than 100,000 turned out.

The centre of Kiev was covered in a sea of protesters waving EU and Ukrainian flags who marched on the Square of Europe from the statue of Ukraine's national poet Taras Shevchenko.

The rally was by far the biggest in Kiev since the Orange Revolution nine years ago, which resulted in the annulment of presidential election results initially claimed by Yanukovych.

Opposition leaders vowed to keep a continuous protest in the square to force the government to sign the EU deal at a summit in Vilnius next week. Several thousand were still in the square listening to live music late in the evening and some put up tents to stay on.

'We are not the USSR'

The Kremlin, which wants Ukraine to join a Russia-led Customs Union, had threatened trade retaliation if Ukraine signed the deal. Yanukovych made a trip to Moscow earlier this month for secret talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Some at the rally held posters saying "We are not the Soviet Union, we are the European Union" and "I Love EU". The crowd also chanted calls for releasing ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko from jail.

Tymoshenko, still a symbolic leader for the opposition, issued a statement read at the rally by her daughter Eugenia urging people to stay on central squares and "force Yanukovych to change his humiliating decision and sign".

Tymoshenko has been in jail since 2011 on an abuse of power conviction seen by the West as politically motivated. She says the charges were ordered by Yanukovych as part of a vendetta against her.

"We feel that we are Europeans," said 19-year-old protestor Alexandra Prisyazhnyuk. "We hope to show our force, to show that we mean something in our own country."

Many Ukrainians also wanted to show that "Yanukovych is not Ukraine," said another protester, Artyom Vashkevich, 31, who came to the rally from eastern Ukraine.

But in an interview with Russian television, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said the European Union had not offered enough help for Ukraine's embattled economy. "They said Ukraine could count on a billion euros. This is like giving to a beggar in a church porch," he scoffed.

Klitschko 'prevented from' appearing

The main speakers at the rally were the fiery leader of the nationalist Svoboda movement, Oleg Tyagnybok and pro-Tymoshenko leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who sought to rouse the crowds with pledges to oust the government.

However opposition party UDAR (Punch) said authorities tried to keep its leader and world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko from the rally by refusing to grant landing permission to his plane at the Kiev airport as he was returning from elsewhere in Europe.

Klitschko was finally able to address the rally late in the evening after a delayed arrival. "We are not going to be patient and we are going to fight for the Association Agreement to be signed," he said.

Ukrainian border authorities accused Klitschko of failing to pass through customs controls at the airport on his return, although it was unclear if this would have legal consequences.

Rallies also took place in several other Ukrainian cities, in what the opposition billed as a nationwide day of protest.

The biggest was in the western city of Lviv, which is one of the strongholds of the pro-EU movement, where over 10,000 people turned out, an AFP correspondent said.


By Oleksandr SAVOCHENKO

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