Pro-EU Ukrainian protesters have toppled a statue of the Soviet Union’s founder Vladimir Lenin in Kiev after hundreds of thousands massed for a new protest in an increasingly tense standoff with President Viktor Yanukovych’s government.
The protesters had filled Independence Square in central Kiev and surrounding streets to bursting point to denounce Yanukovych’s rejection of an EU pact under Kremlin pressure, in the biggest protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
In a hugely symbolic denouement to the rally, dozens of masked protesters tore down the 3.4 metre high statue of the Bolshevik leader after putting a rope noose round Lenin’s neck.
They then hacked away with axes at the remnants of the monument lying flat on the ground. Parts of the statue were afterwards triumphantly brandished at the main demonstration on Independence Square.
Leading opposition MP Andriy Shevchenko said that the toppling of the statue had not been an initiative of the opposition leaders on Independence Square.
“We can say that people organised themselves,” he added. Several of those who tore down the statue brandished flags of the ultra-nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party.
The protesters installed the Ukrainian state flag and the red and black banner of the wartime anti-Communist Ukrainian Insurgent Army on the empty plinth to the cries of “Thank God” and “Finally” from some 1500 people at the scene.
Upping the stakes in the confrontation, demonstrators had earlier marched on the government headquarters and erected one-and-a-half metre high barricades outside which would make it impossible for ministers to go to their offices.
Jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko said the opposition was demanding the “immediate” resignation of Yanukovych, in a no-holds-barred statement read by her daughter.
“He is no longer the president of our state, he is a tyrant who must answer for every drop of blood that has been shed,” Yevgenia Tymoshenko quoted her mother as saying, a giant portrait of the former prime minister sitting next to the stage.
Soon after the rally’s speeches ended, the Security Service (SBU) said it had opened an investigation into alleged attempts by politicians to seize power, in an apparent bid by the state to target key opposition figures.
The size of the protest, the third mass rally in successive weekends, increased the pressure on Yanukovych who further galvanised his opponents by meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in almost total secrecy on Friday.
The party UDAR (Punch) of world boxing champion turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko claimed “nearly a million” had turned out in Kiev.
Police estimated the turnout at 100,000 and AFP correspondents said there were several hundred thousand present.
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