Police, protesters wage 'war' in deadly Kiev clashes
Riot police launched a fresh assault on protesters in central Kiev early Wednesday, escalating a bloody standoff that has already left at least 16 people dead in a dramatic turning point for Ukraine's three-month political crisis.
A volley of tear gas rained down on protesters and more tents went up in flames as riot squads took up position around a monument in the centre of Independence Square shortly after 4:00am (0200 GMT).
Protesters, who have camped out on the square for nearly three months, dug up paving stones and hurled Molotov cocktails in a desperate bid to repel the onslaught after hours of bloody clashes.
A wall of smoke and flames rose up into the icy night air as lines of police and protesters, both clutching shields and clad in helmets and body armour, faced off in an apocalyptic scene.
The surge in violence, in a country torn between a future allied to the West or to Russia, sparked alarm in Europe and the United States.
However a defiant President Viktor Yanukovych refused calls to halt the ferocious assault on the bloodiest day since protests broke out in November, when he ditched a pact with the EU in favour of closer ties with former Soviet master Russia.
In an address to the nation as clashes raged, he said the opposition had gone too far and accused them of trying to oust him.
"The leaders of the opposition have disregarded the principle of democracy according to which we obtain power through elections and not on the street ... they have crossed the limits by calling for people to take up arms," he said, adding those responsible would face the law.
- 'Hold on until morning' -
Kiev was essentially in lockdown as authorities halted the city's metro system and limited road traffic coming into the capital.
Police said seven officers died from gunshot wounds, while authorities and medics counted nine civilian deaths since Tuesday morning.
Another two civilians were found dead, but their bodies showed no exterior signs of violence, making it unclear how they had died.
More than 150 people were injured, including dozens of police officers, some with serious wounds.
"If we hold on until morning, we have a chance to make it out," one protester said.
As the turmoil intensified, US Vice President Joe Biden phoned Yanukovych to express his concern and urge him to "pull back government forces and to exercise maximum restraint," said a White House statement.
However opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, fresh from a meeting with the president said: "Yanukovych said that there is only one option... to clear Maidan and that everyone has to go home."
"This is a small island of freedom," the former boxing champion said, declaring the protesters were "not going anywhere".
"The state has launched a war against its own people. Responsible democratic countries cannot stand back and let this happen."
Another opposition leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, told Kanal 5 television: "The president suggested that we surrender. We will stay here with the protesters."
- Russia blames West -
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was "deeply worried about the grave new escalation".
UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for restraint and dialogue, while NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged "all parties to refrain from violence and to urgently resume dialogue, including through the parliamentary process".
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that the violence could lead to EU sanctions against those responsible.
Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted: "Only person who can now stop catastrophe in Ukraine is President Yanukovich. His vacillation and violence responsible for situation."
However a top Russian lawmaker said Ukraine -- which is divided between a pro-EU half and a pro-Russian half -- was on the brink of a civil war that he claimed had been inflamed by the West.
"I consider that a significant amount of responsibility for this falls on the West and Western politicians, who are constantly putting pressure on the Ukrainian authorities," Alexei Pushkov told Interfax news agency.
- Fighting spreads -
The violence erupted after the crisis appeared to have abated in recent days, with both sides making concessions which saw protesters vacate Kiev city hall after being granted an amnesty deal.
However on Tuesday, some 20,000 anti-Yanukovych protesters clashed with police outside parliament as they rallied for lawmakers to strip the president of a raft of powers.
Running street battles broke out and protesters took back control of city hall and attacked Yanukovych's party headquarters with petrol bombs.
After threatening "grave actions" if the unrest did not cease, police first stormed the square in the early evening, warning women and children through loudspeakers to leave as they began their "anti-terrorist" operation.
But some 25,000 people, many of them wearing makeshift body protection and wielding iron bars and bats, remained to defy the riot squads.
The violence also spread to the west of the country, where thousands of protesters overran public buildings, including the police and special forces' headquarters in the pro-EU city of Lviv, where they took control of an arms warehouse.
In Ternopil, protesters lobbed Molotov cocktails at a local government building before occupying it, while similar scenes played out in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk.
Prosecutor-general Viktor Pshonka warned he would seek the "harshest punishments" for those deemed to have been behind Tuesday's violence.