KIEV - Scores of Ukrainian riot police withdrew on Wednesday morning from a protest camp after moving against protesters overnight in the authorities' biggest attempt yet to disburse weeks of protests against President Viktor Yanukovich.
Several columns of police left positions around the protesters' main camp in Independence Square and moved away from government buildings occupied by demonstrators enraged at Yanukovich's decision to pull the plug on an EU trade deal and move Ukraine further into Russia's orbit.
Overnight they had cleared streets near the protest camp and later surrounded the City Hall, where demonstrators who have set up a makeshift hospital in the occupied building sprayed them with water hoses to prevent it from being stormed.
Those moves by hundreds of black-clad police with visors and helmets were the boldest steps the authorities had ordered so far against demonstrators, although it was not clear whether they were prepared to use full force.
At the main protest camp on Independence Square, pop stars, politicians and priests pleaded with police not to shed blood. Opposition politicians called for mass demonstrations to protect the square and predicted that Yanukovich would soon be toppled.
The interior minister called for calm and said the square would not be stormed.
Police had been bussed in to the city centre to shouts of"Get out criminal" - a reference to Yanukovich, who suspended plans to sign a trade pact with the European Union last month and instead embraced closer ties with Russia.
The police moves began in darkness near Independence Square, where thousands of protesters have maintained a vigil in bitter winter cold.
Riot police flooded roads to square and moved slowly into the main camp, tearing down some of the barricades. Dozens of demonstrators and police were hurt in scuffles but several officers said they had orders not to use force.
But the action appeared to stall as day broke, with temperatures in the snowbound capital stuck at minus 8 degrees Celsius (17 Fahrenheit). Some riot police left to cheers from lines of protesters holding them back.
Many protesters said they had feared they would be stormed. Priests intoned prayers from a stage on the square and urged police not to use violence. Ruslana, a Ukrainian pop star, called from a loud hailer: "Do not hurt us!"
Some protesters held mobile phones in the air like candles and sang the national anthem, while church bells rang out from a cathedral about 2 km (about 1 mile) away, as in times of danger centuries ago. "It is the stupidest thing that he could have done," said Vitaly Klitschko, a world heavyweight boxing champion turned opposition politician. "There are laws of physics: the more pressure, the more resistance. I am sure there will be a huge number of Ukrainians here in a few hours."
Another opposition leader, former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk said: "He (Yanukovich) is spitting in the faces of the United States, 28 countries of Europe, 46 million Ukrainians. We will not forgive him this. Tomorrow there will be a million people here and his regime will fall."
U-TURN ON EUROPE
European leaders say the trade pact with Ukraine would have brought investment. But the country's Soviet-era industry relies on Russian natural gas, giving Moscow enormous leverage.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said on Wednesday he had told European leaders they would need to provide Kiev with 20 billion euros in aid for Ukraine to sign the stalled pact with Brussels. He promised that a meeting with Russian officials set for Dec 17 would not include talks on joining a Moscow-dominated customs union, a main fear of the opposition.
Western countries spoke out strongly against use of force. "The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kiev's Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity," US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. "This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy."
With EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland in Kiev, protest speakers urged the West to support them in a struggle which has developed into a campaign to force Yanukovich's resignation.
"Europe, do you hear us? We are standing here for our rights. We want to be independent. We don't want to go to Russia. Please do support us," said Lesya Orobets, a member of parliament.
Nuland visited protesters on the square on Wednesday.
There were signs that the authorities were reluctant to order bloodshed on the square. Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko issued a statement calling for calm. "I want everyone to calm down. There will be no storming of the square. No one will violate your rights to protest peacefully, but do not ignore the rights ... of other citizens."
The EU's Ashton, expecting to meet Yanukovich on Wednesday, said in a statement: "I observe with sadness that police use force to remove peaceful people from the centre of Kiev. The authorities did not need to act under cover of night to engage with society by using police."