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Pro-EU rally in Ukraine turns violent

Protesters clash with police guarding the presidential administration building in downtown Kiev, Ukraine, on Sunday. More than 100,000 demonstrators chased away police to rally in the center of Ukraine’s capital. Police allowed the rally to proceed peacefully, but when a few thousand protesters tried to storm the nearby presidential administration building with a front loader, riot police used tear gas, truncheons and flash grenades to drive them back. Dozens of people with what appeared to be head injuries were taken away by ambulance. AP photo

Protesters clash with police guarding the presidential administration building in downtown Kiev, Ukraine, on Sunday. More than 100,000 demonstrators chased away police to rally in the center of Ukraine’s capital. Police allowed the rally to proceed peacefully, but when a few thousand protesters tried to storm the nearby presidential administration building with a front loader, riot police used tear gas, truncheons and flash grenades to drive them back. Dozens of people with what appeared to be head injuries were taken away by ambulance. AP photo

KIEV, Ukraine — A protest by about 300,000 Ukrainians angered by their government’s decision to freeze integration with the West turned violent Sunday, when a group of demonstrators besieged the president’s office and police drove them back with truncheons, tear gas and flash grenades. Dozens of people were injured.

The mass rally in central Kiev defied a government ban on protests on Independence Square, in the biggest show of anger over President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a political and economic agreement with the European Union.

The protesters also were infuriated by the violent dispersal of a small, opposition rally two nights before.

While opposition leaders called for a nationwide strike and prolonged peaceful street protests to demand that the government resign, several thousand people broke away and marched to Yanukovych’s nearby office.

A few hundred of them, wearing masks, threw rocks and other objects at police and attempted to break through the police lines with a front loader. After several hours of clashes, riot police used force to push them back. Dozens of people with what appeared to be head injuries were taken away by ambulance. Several journalists, including some beaten by police, were injured in the clashes.

Opposition leaders denounced the clashes as a provocation aimed at discrediting the peaceful demonstration and charged that the people who incited the storming of the presidential office were government-hired thugs. Speaking before the vast crowds on Independence Square from the roof of a bus, the opposition leaders demanded that Yanukovych and his government resign.

“Our plan is clear: It’s not a demonstration, it’s not a reaction. It’s a revolution,” said Yuriy Lutsenko, a former interior minister who is now an opposition leader.

Thousands of protesters remained late into the evening and some were preparing to spend the night on the square.

As the demonstrators approached Independence Square and swept away metal barriers from around a large Christmas tree set up in the center, all police left the square. About a dozen people then climbed the tree to hang EU and Ukrainian flags from its branches.

Several hundred demonstrators never made it to the square. Along the way they burst into the Kiev city administration building and occupied it, in defiance of police, who tried unsuccessfully to drive them away by using tear gas.

The EU agreement had been eagerly anticipated by Ukrainians who want their country of 45 million people to break out of Moscow’s orbit. Opinion surveys in recent months showed about 45 percent of Ukrainians supporting closer integration with the EU and a third or less favoring closer ties with Russia. Moscow tried to block the deal with the EU by banning some Ukrainian imports and threatening more trade sanctions.

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