KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Police in Ukraine on Wednesday pulled back as protesters claimed victory after an overnight face-off in which authorities removed some barricades and tents and scuffled with demonstrators occupying Kiev's main square.
Squadrons of police in helmets and bearing metal shields converged at about 1 a.m. on Independence Square, but thousands of protesters put up fierce resistance for hours, shoving back at police lines to keep them away from key sites.
The Ukrainian chief of police issued a statement saying that there would be no attempt to break up the demonstrations. Protesters have been gathering around the clock to demand the resignation of the government in a crisis that threatens the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych.
"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."
Three police buses that had been parked outside the building all night drove away to the protesters' shouts of "Shame!" Another group of police that had been stationed outside the Kiev city hall building, which has been occupied by protesters for weeks, departed from the scene.
Several thousand protesters who remained on the square after dawn cheered as police drove away.
"This is a great victory," Arseny Yatsenyuk, a top opposition leader, shouted from the stage.
Throughout the standoff the police appeared to be under orders to refrain from using excessive force, unlike the violent beatings of protesters in recent weeks. Several demonstrators and police were injured, but the policeman helped injured activists up from the ground and moved them away.
The protests began in late November when Yanukovych backed away from a pact that would deepen 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.
The agreement would make Ukraine more Western-oriented and represent a significant loss of face for Russia, which has either controlled or heavily influenced Ukraine for centuries.
Demonstrators who gathered during the night waved EU and Ukrainian flags and sang the national anthem.. Many of the protesters, wearing orange construction hats to protect themselves from police truncheons, locked arms and simultaneously jumped up and down to stay warm in freezing temperatures that plunged to 12 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 11 Celsius).
Scuffles broke out between police and opposition lawmakers, one of whom lay down on the snow trying to block a vehicle from advancing on the camp. An Orthodox priest sang prayers, and a popular Ukrainian rock song with the lyrics "I will not give up without a fight" blared from loudspeakers over the square. Pop singer Ruslana kept up morale by singing the national anthem and cheering protesters from the stage.
One protester stripped to his waist in the frigid air, got down on his knees and shouted "Stop this ... We are one people!"
At least one tent caught fire after a metal barrel where a fire was burning to keep demonstrators warm overturned.
After some of the barricades and tents were dismantled, police and city workers began to remove debris with bulldozers. Policemen used what appeared to be chain saws to clear the barricades.
But as the sun rose over Kiev in the morning, the police had not been able to drive back the protesters on the square or to storm the city administration building, where demonstrators poured the building steps with ice to make seizing it more difficult.
There were no police left near the building or on the square by mid-morning, as a crowd of several thousand still lingered on the street.
"They had to leave, there were just too many people here," said Andrei Govdun, a protester.
Western officials issued strong statements as the crackdown unfolded. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a strong statement, expressing U.S. "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 Kerry, urging authorities to show "utmost restraint" and protect human life. "The United States stands with the people of Ukraine. They deserve better."
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, who is a reigning world heavyweight boxing champion, urged Ukrainians to rush to the center of the capital to defend democracy.
"We will say no to a police state, no to a dictatorship," he told protesters in the square.
The confrontation unfolded as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland were in the city to try to talk to the government and the opposition to work out a solution.
"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 protests are the biggest since Ukraine's pro-democracy Orange Revolution. Those protests, also centered on Independence Square, known as the Maidan, succeeded in forcing the annulment of Yanukovych's fraud-tainted presidential victory in 2004, and ushered his pro-Western opponents into power. Yanukovych returned to the presidency in the 2010 vote, drawing on support from heavily industrialized eastern Ukraine where there are many Russian speakers.
Aiming to defuse the latest crisis, Yanukovych had called earlier Tuesday for the release of the demonstrators previously arrested in the protests and vowed that Ukraine is still interested in integrating with Europe.
Yatsenyuk told demonstrators at the square that the protest leaders were still insisting on their key demands: that Yanukovych dismiss the government, appoint a new one committed to signing an association agreement with the EU, release all the arrested protesters, and punish police who beat peaceful demonstrators.
Riot police have twice previously dispersed demonstrators with clubs and tear gas, beating some severely enough to send them to intensive care.
Tim Ash, an emerging markets analyst with Standard Bank in London, said that Yanukovych's decision to use force against demonstrators on Wednesday would only escalate the crisis.
"The result of today's actions will be an even more confrontational situation on the ground," Ash said. "The opposition will dig in even more, demanding real changes in the administration."
The crisis was deepened by Ukraine's troubled finances. The economy is teetering on the brink of default and Yanukovych has been scrambling to get funding either from the International Monetary Fund or From Russia.
Yuras Karmanau in Kiev, John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels, and Laura Mills in Moscow contributed to this report.
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