Europe

Opponents of Kiev protests gather at barricade

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Thousands of people angered by months of anti-government protests in the Ukrainian capital converged on one of the protesters' barricades Saturday, but retreated after meeting sizeable resistance.

Although the confrontation ended without violence, it underlined the tensions that persist as the protests slog through a third month with no sign of concession from either side. The anti-government protesters have set up an extensive tent camp on downtown Kiev's main square and occupy three nearby buildings, including the city hall, that they use for operations centers, sleeping quarters and even an improvised library. They have also built extensive barricades of earth, bags of ice and refuse on the fringes of the area.

About 2,000 people streamed toward the barricade near city hall at midday, blocking traffic on the capital's main avenue and placing tires in the roadway. Igor Polishchuk, one of the men placing the tires, said the crowd intended to show its peaceful opposition to the protests that have pushed the country into a political crisis and complained that police had done little against the protesters.

"It's a critical mass in there, without control," he said. "The authorities aren't anywhere inside." Protesters from the anti-government side stood atop the three-meter (10-foot) barricade and members of the protest camp's self-defense marshaled, many of them carrying metal shields and protecting their heads with cycling or hockey headgear.

After about two hours, the protesters' opponents pulled back, with the self-defense volunteers following, banging their shields with rods in an eerie imitation of the technique used by the country's feared riot police.

After riot police violently dispersed two of the early protest rallies, crowds swelled — sometimes exceeding 100,000 people — and the protest issues expanded to denunciation of police brutality and calls for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych.

The protests began in late November after Yanukovych backed away from an agreement to deepen ties with the European Union and pursue closer relations with Russia. A wide swath of Ukrainian society resents Russia's long dominance or influence on Ukraine and avidly supports integration with the EU as a way to bolster democracy and human rights.

Many of the demonstrators who challenged the protesters' barricade on Saturday wore St. George's ribbons, a traditional Russian military emblem. Yanukovych's strongest support is in the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country.

Yanukovych met Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday on the sidelines of the opening day of the Sochi Olympics. No details of the meeting were made public. After Yanukovych shelved the EU deal, Russia agreed to a $15 billion financial aid package to Ukraine; his opponents fear that was a prelude to joining a trade bloc that Moscow is leading as a counterweight to the EU.

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