At least 14 demonstrators and seven police officers were killed in street battles in the Ukrainian capital yesterday, with hundreds more injured and several of the dead suffering gunshot wounds. The death toll could rise further.
Clashes erupted outside government buildings in the centre of the city after opposition leaders warned that security forces were planning to clear the sprawling protest camp in Kiev's Independence Square, which is also known as the Maidan.
There is growing international concern about the bloodshed and last night US Vice President Joe Biden rang Ukraine's president to express "grave concern" about the deadly clashes .
The White House said that Mr Biden called on President Viktor Yanukovych to pull back government forces and exercise maximum restraint.
Video showed protesters throwing petrol bombs, fireworks and rocks at riot police, and setting fire to piles of tyres to prevent officers from entering the Maidan, while hundreds of riot police used water cannons on advancing protesters in sub-zero temperatures.
Shortly before midnight the world champion boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko, who heads the opposition party Udar (Punch), arrived at President Yanukovych's office for talks.
Earlier, he called on the president to resign and to call early elections, while in an address to the 20,000 protesters in Independence Square he vowed: "We will not go anywhere from here, This is an island of freedom and we will defend it."
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of Ukraine's largest opposition bloc, also arrived for talks and was similarly defiant: "We see that this regime again has begun shooting people; they want to sink Ukraine in blood. We will not give in to a single provocation.
"We will not take one step back from this square. We have nowhere to retreat to. Ukraine is behind us, Ukraine's future is behind us."
As bodies began to be counted, Olha Bilyk, of Kiev city police, said that six policemen died from gunshot wounds and 159 were wounded, including 39 who were shot.
She also said seven civilians died, including three who were shot. Ukraine's Foreign Minister blamed "radical forces" for the escalation.
The co-ordinator for the opposition's medical response team, Oleh Musiy, said more than 400 protesters were injured and claimed that about 20 had died. The official death toll remained at 18 last night.
Despite the freezing conditions, dozens of tents have been set up in the square since the protests began in November, after Mr Yanukovych spurned a historic trade and political agreement with the EU in favour of a €11bn financial bailout from Russia, used to balance the country's precarious finances.
Russia had since frozen tranches of the aid amid behind-the-scenes pressure for Mr Yanukovych to crush the protest movement.
Hundreds of thousands of people took the streets to demonstrate peacefully against the move, but the protests turned violent when the government introduced sweeping new legislation limiting basic freedoms in a bid to crush the opposition.
Though it was later repealed, the opposition continues to push for early elections (due in 2015) and changes to the constitution. Last night, the White House said it was appalled by the violence, and called on Mr Yanukovych to de-escalate the situation "immediately".
"We continue to condemn excessive use of force by either side. Force will not resolve the crisis," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
"We urge President Yanukovych to de-escalate immediately. We urge him to restart a dialogue with opposition leaders."
European and American officials have been attempting to broker talks between the opposition and the President.
Yesterday's clashes came after Russia's finance minister offered to deliver another tranche of bailout funds on Monday, sparking fears that the move could pave the way for a Moscow loyalist as the new prime minister. Despite Western demands for restraint and dialogue, the state security service first set a deadline for the demonstrators to end disorder or face "tough measures", and then the police advanced into Independence Square, the centre of the protest campaign.
Protesters responded with petrol bombs, fireworks and stones. Live television footage showed police throwing stun grenades at the protesters separated from them by a line of burning tents, tyres and wood. Police steadily gained ground but thousands of protesters held on to the centre of the square. ( © Independent News Service)