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The day Ukraine's "Maidan" lost control

Source: Reuters - Sat, 1 Mar 2014 20:29 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Protesters see events slipping out of their hands

* Protests toppled Yanukovich, new leaders installed

* Upper house empowers Putin to deploy forces in Ukraine

By Stephen Grey

KIEV, Ukraine, March 1 (Reuters) - A World War Two movie set in Crimea was playing on a giant screen in Kiev's Independence Square on Saturday when a politician stepped on the stage to break the shocking news.

Yuri Lutsenko, a former interior minister who had gone over to the protesters' side to topple their country's leader, said events in Ukraine had now moved beyond their control.

"It was a peaceful hope that we had," he began his speech.

Their movement, launched last year, wanted to edge Ukraine closer to the European Union to share its free markets and its political rights.

The hundreds who had spent winter in this amphitheatre of protest - in a movement that came to be known simply, like the main square itself, as the Maidan - had survived bitter cold, police assaults, and clashes in which dozens of their number were killed, mostly by police bullets.

A week earlier their nemesis, Viktor Yanukovich, had been deposed as president. And since then the Maidan had continued to play a central role; its approval was sought for a new government before its members were approved by parliament.

But now, Lutsenko said, there was "tragic news". Beneath the darkening evening sky above a soot-stained square lit by the thousands of candles left to remember the dead, he declared that a Russian invasion had begun.

"War has arrived," he said, urging calm. It was no longer the time for people to take an individual stand, as they had in the past weeks, but instead to support the government.

Another more radical speaker, Oleh Lyashko, also a member of parliament, then took the stage. "Russia has declared war and the entire country should mobilise," he said.

As these speeches finished, many looked shocked.

Natalia Kuharchuk, a Kiev accountant, said: "When a Slav fights another Slav, the result is devastating. God save us."

Whether, as the speakers believed, the crisis would escalate into a full-blown war remained to be determined.

But it was still a day when, for the first time, the preoccupations of those in the Maidan - people regarded by at least one part of the country as tyrant-topplers - suddenly seemed completely overshadowed by much greater forces.

BROOMS AND DUSTBIN BAGS

The day had begun in a hopeful mood when, responding to social media, hundreds of residents of Kiev arrived with brooms and dustbin bags to help clean up the square.

And, as troops patrolled the streets of Crimea and military installations, many of those who lived on the square struggled to take in the rumours of war.

Alexei Kuznetsov, a 51-year-old driver, part of a group of protesters from the Donetsk region, had lived in the square for weeks and been wounded in the leg during fighting.

He said it was hard to follow events in Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula which has an ethnic Russian majority.

"Mobile phones are not working down there. We don't know what is happening," he said.

Instead, he was keen to have his photograph taken next to a large blue water cannon which he said he and the others had captured with the aid of "a lot of Molotov cocktails".

One of his group's leaders, Angela Skudar, a court clerk from the city of Mariupol, based in a nearby shop, was better informed about events. The Maidan movement, she said, shared the blame for failing to win over those in Crimea.

"I am afraid we have caused what has happened because our opposition figures have been unwilling to respond to people in Crimea, to go there and make them feel comfortable," she said.

She said four of her group had already slipped away from the Maidan to head for Crimea, but none had reported back yet. If war broke out it would last for years, she predicted, with Chechens coming to assist the Tatar minority in Crimea.

But, she said, her group had its own worries. One of its leaders had been beaten during the night by the Kiev police.

"A lot of the police hate what has happened here. They are afraid for their jobs," she said.

Across the square, another protester, Oleksander Yatskovsky, 49, a train engineer from Dnipropetrovsk, said he hoped the Crimea would be resolved peacefully, but that there were also more prosaic problems in the Maidan.

He said "alcoholics and drug addicts" were moving into the square, eating the food and trying to use protesters' tents.

READY FOR WAR?

The most organised and battle-ready elements of the Maidan are radical groups whose supporters wear military-style uniforms, bullet-proof vests and balaclavas. But it is not clear whether they also have hidden weapons to go with them.

One such militia, in green fatigues and black flak jackets, was marching across the square behind a Ukrainian flag to waiting minibuses. From a nationalist group called Spilna Spravna (Joint Action) they were off to "maintain security" not in Crimea, said one of the militia, but in another part of Kiev, "where the police are no longer keeping order".

Another group, the ultra-radical Right Sector could be found headquartered in two different fashion stores by the Maidan. Among the protesters, these appeared the most focused on Crimea.

"We are on a war footing now," said one guard in front of a shop.

"It's not just the Crimea. Switch on the TV. The Russians are invading many other cities now," said a spokesperson, Andriy Tarasenko, reached by phone, who said he was in a crisis meeting with leaders of the group.

Asked if force would be needed to eject the Russians, Tarasenko replied scornfully: "Yes, we should take a bunch of flowers to defeat the Russians. Putin respects flowers."

As speeches ended in the square, there was a sense of contrasting realities - of mostly peaceful protesters camping out, chopping wood for their camp fires and coping with other daily tasks, of city dwellers settling down for placid dinners in nearby restaurants, and others, more radical and not so far away, calling councils to martial their forces for war. (Editing by Timothy Heritage and Alistair Lyon)

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