KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Thousands of protesters crowded into the center of the Ukrainian capital on Friday night to demand the president's resignation after he shelved a landmark agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.
An estimated 2,000 police in helmets and riot gear surrounded the demonstrators on Independence Square, who numbered more than 5,000. The square was the iconic epicenter of the 2004 mass protests known as the Orange Revolution, which forced the rerun of a fraud-tainted presidential election.
Authorities are unlikely to allow another such huge demonstration of discontent. There were several small scuffles with police, but no major clashes as the crowd waited for main opposition figures to arrive.
Many protesters holding Ukrainian and EU flags tore pictures of President Viktor Yanukovych, who ditched the free trade pact with the EU at Friday's summit in Vilnius.
Yanukovych abruptly changed course for integration with the EU last week when his government announced it was suspending preparations for signing the agreement. The move angered many in Ukraine, where nearly half of population favors closer ties with the EU.
Yanukovych argued that Ukraine can't afford to sacrifice trade with Russia, which has tried to block the deal by banning some of Ukraine's imports and threatening more trade sanctions.
"Millions of Ukrainians don't want to return to the Soviet past ...," said Olga Shukshina, a 46-year-old doctor from Lviv, near the border with Poland.
World boxing champion and opposition leader, Vitaly Klitshcko, and opposition politician, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, are flying back home to speak to protesters. Both attended the summit.
The demonstrations in Kiev revived memories of the 2004 Orange Revolution which overturned Yanukovych's fraud-tainted victory and helped bring a pro-Western president to power.
On Friday, about 10,000 Yanukovych supporters rallied at another central square just a few hundred meters (yards) from the site of the protests to voice support of his move.
"We will go bankrupt without Russia and what shall we eat then? European slogans?" said 40-year-old Pyotr Novodkov.
- Politics & Government
- Unrest, Conflicts & War
- Viktor Yanukovych
- European Union