About 10,000 anti-government demonstrators angry about Ukraine's refusal to sign a pro-European Union agreement converged Saturday on a square outside a monastery where protesters driven away in a pre-dawn clash with police were taking shelter.
Opposition leaders called for nationwide strikes and for Ukrainians to mobilize en masse. Another big demonstration was called for Sunday.
'It was horrible. We were holding a peaceful demonstration and they attacked us. They threw us away like garbage.' - Protester Lada Tromada
The demonstrators outside the St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery were shouting "shame" and "resign." Some vowed to spend the night on the square, as temperatures hovered only slightly above freezing.
"Each of you have to come out and express your own position on what kind of country you want to live in — a totalitarian, police-controlled country where your children will be beaten up or in a European country," said Vitaly Klitschko, a world boxing champion and leader of the opposition Udar party.
Klitschko's call encapsulated the two issues agitating the demonstrators: President Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to sign an association agreement with the EU and the violent dispersal of protests denouncing that decision.
Ukranian president condemns violence
Yanukovych said in an address Saturday evening that he condemned "the actions that led to the forceful confrontation and the suffering of people." He called for an investigation and for those responsible to be punished.
"I confirm that we are united in our choice of a common European future," Yanukovych said.
Yanukovych has said he still hopes that Ukraine will one day sign the agreement with the EU, but that the country was too fragile economically and could not afford to sacrifice trade with Russia.
Moscow regards Ukraine as historically part of its orbit and has tried to block the deal with the EU by banning some of Ukraine's imports and threatening more trade sanctions. A 2009 dispute between Kyiv and Moscow on gas prices resulted in a three-week cutoff of gas to Ukraine.
The association agreement would have established free trade and deepened political co-operation between Ukraine and the EU, but stopped short of membership in the regional bloc.
In the city of Lviv in western Ukraine, where sentiment for European integration is especially strong, 10,000 demonstrators protested the failure to sign on Saturday.
Meanwhile, another prominent protest figure, parliament deputy Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is calling for Yanukovych to be impeached and on his government to resign. Yatsenyuk said opposition leaders were working to organize nationwide strikes.
Clashes in Kyiv
Early Saturday, officers in riot gear moved against several hundred protesters at Independence Square in the Kyiv city centre, beating some with truncheons. Some protesters then went to the monastery about 500 metres away to take shelter in its cathedral.
In the early morning action, police took 35 demonstrators into custody. Some protesters were bleeding from their heads and arms after the clash.
"It was horrible. We were holding a peaceful demonstration and they attacked us," protester Lada Tromada said. "They threw us away like garbage."
'We call upon the government of Ukraine to respect and indeed protect the rights of its citizens to express their opinions freely.' - Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said in a statement that "the information from different sides which I have at the moment does not allow firm conclusions about who is responsible for this provocation," but said it would be fully investigated.
Kyiv police chief Valery Koryak laid the responsibility on the protesters, saying the police were provoked into taking action, the Interfax news agency reported.
The European Union and the U.S. State Department condemned the violence against the protesters.
"We urge Ukraine's leaders to respect their people's right to freedom of expression and assembly," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
"The European Union strongly condemns the excessive use of force last night by the police in Kyiv to disperse peaceful protesters, who over the last days in a strong and unprecedented manner have expressed their support for Ukraine's political association and economic integration with the EU," the EU statement said.
Canada's Foreign Minister John Baird also blasted the use of force against protesters.
"Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are fundamental tenets of any truly democratic country," Baird said in a statement.
"We call upon the government of Ukraine to respect and indeed protect the rights of its citizens to express their opinions freely."
A Canadian government official, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, said the crackdown prompted urgent meetings between Ukrainian opposition leaders and the Canadian, U.S. and E.U ambassadors to discuss what happened.
45% of Ukranians support EU deal
About 10,000 people had rallied on the square Friday evening to protest Yanukovych's backing off from the pact, which had been eagerly anticipated by Ukrainians who want their country of 45 million people to break out of Moscow's orbit and tilt to the West. Opinion surveys in recent months showed about 45 per cent of Ukrainians supporting closer integration with the EU and a third or less favouring closer ties with Russia.
Protests had been held in Kyiv over the past week since Yanukovych backed away from the EU agreement. It was to have been signed Friday at an EU summit in the capital of Lithuania, and the passing of that date sparked an especially large turnout of protesters.
Saturday's harsh action was in contrast to the mass protests of the 2004 Orange Revolution, when tens of thousands came to the square nightly for weeks and set up a vast tent camp on the main street leading to the square. Police had a mostly low-profile presence during those demonstrations.
Those protests forced the annulment of a fraud-tainted presidential election in which Yanukovych was shown with the most votes. A rerun of the election was ordered and Yanukovych lost to Western-leaning reformist Viktor Yushchenko.
Yanukovych was elected president five years later, narrowly defeating then-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the leading figure of the Orange Revolution.
Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in 2011 for abuse of office, a case that the West has widely criticized as political revenge. The EU had set Tymoshenko's release, or at least her freedom to go to Germany for treatment of a severe back problem, as a key criterion for signing the association pact with Ukraine.
The prospect of freeing his archenemy was deeply unattractive to Yanukovych.
Tymoshenko's daughter, Eugenia, read a statement from her mother to the crowd outside the monastery calling on Ukrainians to demonstrate "against the dictatorship and violence of Yanukovych."