Archive for Saturday, March 10, 2001

Poet’s tribute turns violent

March 10, 2001


— A tribute Friday to Ukraine's most famed poet turned into the bloodiest protest in a three-month campaign against President Leonid Kuchma, with several injured as demonstrators hurled bottles and a Molotov cocktail and riot police using tear gas.

Snaking across the capital, the protests grew throughout the day, swelling to as many as 18,000 people, police said a huge gathering for this usually quiet city. Dozens were arrested and thousands of police were deployed throughout the city. The injured included six police, several protesters and a photographer.

The violence took protest leaders by surprise, after a series of peaceful rallies demanding Kuchma's ouster. The campaign was sparked in December by accusations that Kuchma was involved in the killing of a journalist, but has been fueled by anger at his failure to solve Ukraine's economic ills.

"No one expected that people would be beaten," said frazzled campaign organizer Yuri Lutsenko, who called repeatedly for calm. "We did everything to prevent bloodshed."

Friday's protest was the bloodiest in Kiev since 1995, when police outside St. Sofia Cathedral beat demonstrators trying to bury Orthodox Patriarch Volodymyr at an unauthorized site.

Last week, President Bush sent a message to Kuchma warning that pressure on protesters was testing his commitment to democracy. The message carried an implicit warning that Kuchma was risking loss of U.S. aid.

The protesters have united Ukrainians from across the political spectrum, but Friday's unrest was largely started by hard-line nationalists.

It began with Kuchma's traditional wreath-laying at a monument in a small park to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko a hero of nationalists on his 187th birthday.

The ceremony took on extra weight this year because of the mounting opposition to Kuchma. Thousands of police encircled the park to prevent demonstrators from blocking the president. Squadrons halted traffic several miles from the site.

About 300 demonstrators shouted at Kuchma when he arrived, then attempted to break through police cordons at the monument, but were beaten back by police wielding batons.

After Kuchma departed and the police left, the protesters swept the wreath from the monument in what opposition leader Taras Chornovil called "a symbolic cleaning of the monument from the president." The protesters marched to the Interior Ministry, where they threw hundreds of eggs. When they reached the presidential administration, a clash broke out.

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