KIEV, Ukraine — Thousands of anti-government demonstrators clashed for hours with riot police in Ukraine’s capital Sunday, attacking officers with sticks, stones and flares after new laws were passed to stifle protests. Dozens of people were injured.
The protesters, many wearing hard hats and gas masks in defiance of the new legislation, also used stun grenades and fire extinguishers on officers. A police bus was set on fire, and some activists were seen breaking the pavement into stones.
Police responded by using tear gas and stun grenades of their own. Water cannons were also fired at protesters despite temperatures of 18 degrees.
The violent scenes further escalated Ukraine’s political crisis, which erupted two months ago after President’s Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to freeze ties with the European Union and seek a huge bailout from Russia.
Yanukovych caused uproar at home and abroad Friday when he approved a number of laws that limit Ukrainians’ rights to protest, civic activism and free speech. The U.S. called that legislation “undemocratic.”
The laws prohibit demonstrators from wearing masks or hard hats at rallies. Several opposition leaders addressed the crowds from a giant stage, wearing bright construction workers’ hats. Other provisions of the controversial legislation restrict the activity of non-governmental groups funded by the West and seek to equate critical reporting with defamation.
A group of radical activists marched toward a police cordon blocking a city district housing government offices and began attacking riot police with sticks to push their way toward Ukraine’s parliament building. The crowd then swelled to thousands.
The blasts of stun grenades could be heard and plumes of smoke rose above the crowd. Activists chanted “Shame!” and “Revolution.” Dozens of police and protesters were injured in the violence, but it wasn’t immediately clear how serious the injuries were.
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko spent hours attempting to stop the protesters from attacking police, but he himself was sprayed with a fire extinguisher.
Klitschko’s top allies, who stood by his side at a large peaceful rally earlier in the day, didn’t show up at the site of the clashes. Instead, they called for a peaceful means of protest from nearby Independence Square and condemned the clashes.
“No power in the country is worth losing at least one human life,” protest leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said from the stage as the clashes dragged late into the evening. “That is why I condemn the violence that took place just now.”
Scores of opposition leaders and journalists have been attacked, harassed and prosecuted, since the anti-government protests started Nov. 21.
Yanukovych’s government has ignored previous demands made by the opposition.
Opposition leaders denounced Yanukovych’s legislation as unconstitutional and called for the formation of parallel governing structures in the country.
“The power in Ukraine belongs to the people,” Yatsenyuk said.