KIEV, Ukraine — Anti-government protests in Ukraine’s capital escalated into fiery street battles with police Sunday as thousands of demonstrators hurled rocks and firebombs to set police vehicles ablaze. Dozens of officers and protesters were injured.
Police responded with stun grenades, tear gas and water cannons, but were outnumbered by the protesters. Many of the riot police held their shields over their heads to protect themselves from the projectiles thrown by demonstrators on the other side of a cordon of buses.
The violence was a sharp escalation of Ukraine’s two-month political crisis, which has brought round-the-clock protest gatherings, but had been largely peaceful.
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko tried to persuade demonstrators to stop their unrest, but failed and was sprayed by a fire extinguisher in the process. Klitschko later traveled to President Viktor Yanukovych’s suburban residence and said that Yanukovych has promised to create a commission to settle the crisis. Another opposition leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said that Yanukovych had called him to offer negotiations.
The U.S. Embassy called for an end to the violence. “We urge calm and call on all sides to cease any acts provoking or resulting in violence,” it said in a statement.
The crisis erupted in November after Yanukovych’s decision to freeze ties with the European Union and seek a huge bailout from Russia. The decision sparked protests, which increased in size and determination after police twice violently dispersed demonstrators.
But anger rose substantially after Yanukovych last week signed an array of laws severely limiting protests and banning the wearing of helmets and gas masks.
Many of Sunday’s demonstrators wore hardhats and masks in defiance of the new laws. They set several police buses on fire and some chased and beat officers.
Police responded with tear gas and stun grenades. Water cannons were also fired at the protesters in temperatures of 18 degrees, but the clashes continued.