In an ominous sign of the growing threat of violence in Kiev, Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko is reportedly urging women and children to leave Independence Square on Monday as rumors swirl that government riot police are on the verge of storming the protest encampment where anti-government protesters have converged in increasingly large numbers over the last three weeks.
On Sunday, a crowd estimated at half a million or more gathered in the central square in the largest public protest the country has seen since the Orange Revolution in 2004. Demanding the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, the protest was almost entirely peaceful, according to reports, with those opposed to the government explaining that their demands are simple and resolution firm.
Protest leaders used Sunday's rally to tell Yanukovych that he should fire his prime minister, threatening to march on the presidential headquarters if he refused, and repeated their demands for new presidential and parliamentary elections.
However, the government countered by saying the protesters had until Tuesday to clear the square and relinquish the occupation of government office buildings in Kiev they have held for over a week. As large numbers of riot police were reported moving into central Kiev late in the day Monday, the tensions were clearly on the rise.
As wider tensions grew, government police stormed the headquarters of one of the main opposition political parties in the city. As the Associated Press reports:
A top Ukrainian opposition party says heavily armed riot police have stormed its office in downtown Kiev. The move comes as the Ukrainian capital has been crippled by massive anti-government protests.
Ostap Semerak told The Associated Press that troops broke into the Fatherland Party's offices on Monday evening. He said some troops were walking along its corridors while others were climbing in through the windows. He called the situation "insane."
The action came after Kiev was flooded with hundreds of riot police in full gear. Some police surrounded opposition tents erected outside government buildings and began dismantling the barricades blocking people from city offices.
And the Guardian adds:
As the riot police moved into the centre of town on Monday, a priest conducted a religious service from the stage, accompanied by chanting from the assembled crowd, a fraction of Sunday's masses but still numbering several thousand.
"It's the third time I'm here and I'm not afraid," said Bogdan Tsap, 66, from Stary Sambir in western Ukraine, standing by his tent. Several lines of riot police and interior ministry troops wearing helmets and holding shields blocked the roads leading to Independence square and city hall.
"We are here to keep order, we are not going to apply force," one of the officers near Independence square said, refusing to give his name. However, the Kyiv Post newspaper reported a "top government source" saying a decision had been taken to storm the square. Heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko, one of the three main opposition leaders, called on women and children to leave the square as rumours spread that it could be stormed.