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Bloody Political Protests Erupt in Ukraine

March 11, 2001|From Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine — Demonstrators hurling bottles and stones clashed with riot police using tear gas on Friday in the bloodiest protest in a 3-month-old campaign against Ukraine's president, leaving several injured on both sides.

The protest traveled through the capital and grew throughout the day to as many as 18,000 by evening, police said. At least 20 people were arrested in two clashes, opposition leaders said. The first began with a tribute to celebrate the 187th birthday of Ukraine's most famous poet, Taras Shevchenko.

Thousands of police encircled a small park in the city center to prevent demonstrators from blocking President Leonid Kuchma from laying a wreath at a monument to Shevchenko. Different squadrons, ranging from special riot police to subway security, halted traffic several miles from the site.

The annual ceremony is usually unremarkable but took on extra weight this year because of mounting opposition to Kuchma, whom critics accuse of corruption and involvement in the killing of an opposition journalist.

About 300 demonstrators attempted to break through cordons at the monument but were beaten back by police wielding batons.

Police cordons were put up before dawn, and only several hundred people, mostly security and members of Kuchma's administration, were allowed in the park for the ceremony. Protesters, kept several hundred yards away, shouted slogans demanding his ouster.

After Kuchma departed and the police left, the protesters swept the wreath from the monument in what opposition leader Taras Chornovil called "a symbolical cleaning of the monument from the president."

The demonstrators continued their protest in the park, then marched through the capital to the Interior Ministry, where they threw hundreds of eggs. Then they reached the presidential administration, where they again shouted demands for Kuchma to step down--and another clash broke out, initiated by the UNA-UNSO ultra-nationalist youth movement.

The demonstrators threw bottles and stones at about 200 riot policemen, who used tear gas and covered their heads with shields. At least three policemen caught fire after protesters threw a Molotov cocktail.

Passersby and a European Press Agency photographer were also injured by flying stones. At least six police officers and more protesters were injured in the two clashes.

The protest then moved to central Khreshchatyk Street, where peaceful passersby enjoyed the second day of a two-day International Women's Day holiday, celebrated with national music and karaoke. .

After the wreath-laying, Kuchma left to meet with flood victims in western Ukraine.

Friday's protest was the second in Kiev in two days, and the bloodiest in the capital in years.

"No one expected that people would be beaten," said frazzled campaign organizer Yuri Lutsenko. "We did everything to prevent bloodshed." Lutsenko spoke after organizers' unsuccessful calls for the crowd to pass by the presidential administration peacefully.

On Thursday, about 1,000 demonstrators went to a jail where ex-deputy premier and opposition leader Julia Tymoshenko is being held on charges of corruption. The opposition sees her arrest as a move by Kuchma to suppress their movement.

Since the allegations about the killed journalist emerged in December, protests have roiled the country as anti-Kuchma parties organized demonstrations with demands for the president's ouster over his failure to improve the country's economic ills.

President Bush recently sent a pointed message to Kuchma, warning that a crackdown on protesters is testing his commitment to democracy and human rights. The message carried an implicit warning that Kuchma was risking loss of U.S. aid.

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