KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine's political crisis escalated sharply Tuesday, with at least nine people killed and scores injured in violent, often fiery battles between anti-government demonstrators and police in Kiev.
The clashes outside parliament erupted after the opposition accused the government of ignoring its demands even after nearly three months of protests that have paralyzed the capital. It was the worst violence since the protests began in late November.
As darkness fell, opposition leaders warned that security forces may be preparing to clear the sprawling protest tent camp on Kiev's Independence Square. Law enforcement agencies vowed to bring order to the streets and shut down subway stations in the capital — yet an evening deadline to end street clashes passed with no immediate police action.
Thousands of protesters streamed to the square to defend the camp, where Orthodox priests prayed for peace.
"We see that this regime again has begun shooting people; they want to sink Ukraine in blood. We will not give in to a single provocation," opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk told the protesters. "We will not take one step back from this square. We have nowhere to retreat to. Ukraine is behind us, Ukraine's future is behind us."
Monuments to Kiev's founders burn as anti-government protesters clash with riot police in Kiev's Independence Square, the epicenter of the country's current unrest, Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
The clashes dimmed hopes for an imminent solution to the political crisis and fueled tensions that began soaring following new steps by Russia and the European Union to gain influence over this former Soviet republic.
Earlier in the day, thousands of angry protesters shouting "Shame!" hurled stones at police and set trucks blocking their way on fire. Riot police retaliated with stun grenades and fired what appeared to be small metal balls, as smoke from burning tires and vehicles billowed over Kiev.
Olha Bilyk, spokeswoman for the Kiev city police, told The Associated Press that two policemen were killed, likely by gunshot wounds, in Tuesday's clashes and seven civilians died, including three who were shot.
In addition to the deaths, the Interior Ministry and medics for the protesters said 40 police and about 150 protesters were injured.
The protests began in late November after President Viktor Yanukovych froze ties with the EU in exchange for a $15 billion bailout from Russia, but the political maneuvering continued and Moscow later suspended its payments. On Monday, however, while opposition leaders were meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia offered a fresh infusion of the billions of dollars that Ukraine needs to keep its ailing economy afloat.
An anti-government protester runs during clashes with riot police in Kiev's Independence Square, the epicenter of the country's current unrest, Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Justice Minister Olena Lukash, a close Yanukovych aide, accused the opposition of violating earlier agreements with the government and blamed protest leaders for the violence.
But Yanukovych's representative in parliament sought to ease tensions, suggesting Tuesday evening that the authorities were not planning to use more force against protesters.
Earlier in the day, protesters stormed the office of the president's Party of Regions, but police pushed them away. When firefighters arrived to put out a fire, they discovered the body of an office employee, Kiev's emergency services said in a statement.
Tuesday's confrontations came two days after the government and the opposition reached a shaky compromise, with protesters vacating a government building in Kiev they had been occupying since Dec. 1 after the government released of scores of jailed activists.
But tensions rose after Russia's finance minister offered to resume financial aid to Ukraine on Monday, just as Yanukovych was expected to nominate a new prime minister, prompting fears among the opposition that he would tap a Russian-leaning loyalist.
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said that Yanukovych has agreed to meet with opposition leaders early Wednesday, but admitted that there was little trust in the government left. He called on Yanukovych to agree to the reforms and to call an early election or face a serious escalation of the crisis.
"We are talking minutes, not hours," Klitschko told reporters.
[sharequote align="center"]"We are talking minutes, not hours."[/sharequote]
Yanukovych still remains popular in the Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, where economic and cultural ties with Russia are strong. But western Ukraine is keen to pursue closer ties to the 28-nation EU and move away from Russia's orbit.
Russian President Vladimir Putin promised Yanukovych $15 billion in loans in December, but after purchasing Ukrainian bonds worth $3 billion Russia put the payments on hold. The Russian finance minister said Monday that $2 billion more would be purchased this week.