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Ukraine: Demonstrators rally against new law curbing protests

By Victoria Butenko and Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
updated 11:42 AM EST, Thu January 23, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The President's office says a working group will meet with the opposition
  • 30 police officers were injured in clashes, the Interior Ministry says
  • Interior Ministry says some protesters tried to march on government buildings
  • The new law was passed by lawmakers loyal to Ukraine's president in a show of hands

Kiev, Ukraine (CNN) -- Demonstrators packed Kiev's Independence Square in freezing temperatures on Sunday, rallying in defiance of new laws that set limitations on the right to protest.

Protesters and police accused each other of attacks during the large demonstration, which stretched into the early morning hours.

Ukraine's Interior Ministry said protesters, wearing masks and helmets, used flares, tear gas, baseball bats and stones in clashes with police, breaking doors and windows on police buses and trying to take over government buildings.

Video from the scene showed protesters and police squaring off, with demonstrators hurling Molotov cocktails toward officers.

The ministry said 30 police were injured, and one was taken hostage by the protesters and later released.

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A post on a Facebook page for Olesia Orobets, an opposition lawmaker, said she had been attacked by police and her phone had been taken away.

Estimates of the number of protesters in the capital's square varied widely. At least four of them were detained by police, the Interior Ministry said.

Negotiations possible

Sunday's protest marked the latest fallout over legislation that was approved Thursday by lawmakers loyal to Ukraine's pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, who signed it into law soon afterward.

Amid the clashes, there were some signs that the opposing sides might soon sit together at the negotiating table.

Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Sunday that he had received a call from Yanukovych saying the government was prepared to negotiate with the opposition.

The President's office said he was creating a working group to overcome the political crisis and had ordered it to meet with the opposition.

The clashes and possible move toward talks come in the wake of weeks of public protests after Yanukovych's decision in November to spurn a planned a trade deal with the European Union and turn toward Russia instead.

The new law includes provisions barring people from wearing helmets and masks to rallies and from setting up tents or sound equipment without prior police permission.

Opposition politicians have objected to the way that Yanukovych's Party of Regions pushed the bill through the parliament, the Verkhovna Rada.

Vitali Klitschko, an opposition leader and former heavyweight boxing champion, said the law -- which was adopted by a show of hands -- was "invalid," according to his UDAR party's website.

He stood between the police and the crowd in the square, trying to prevent violence.

The far-right Svoboda Party said in a news release that people were "outraged by the Party of Regions actions at the Verkhovna Rada and their recently adopted draconian laws. Protesters are demanding resignation of the government and asking the authorities to stop the persecution of activists."

Kerry: 'Anti-democratic' steps

The U.S. Embassy called for an end to the violence in the streets Sunday.

"We further urge the Government of Ukraine to immediately start negotiations with all sides to resolve the political standoff, address protestors' concerns, and prevent violence from spreading," the embassy said Sunday. "Violence only serves to foster fear and confusion, and distracts from the need for a political solution, which is the best way to carry out the will of the Ukrainian people."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also criticized the new legislation in remarks Friday, saying it was "rammed through" the parliament "without transparency and accountability" and that it "violates all the norms" of the European Union.

"We believe deeply that the people of Ukraine want to affiliate and want to be associated with Europe and they want to turn in that direction," Kerry said.

"And the steps that were taken yesterday are anti-democratic, they're wrong, they are taking from the people of Ukraine their choice and their opportunity for the future."

In December, despite weeks of protest by anti-government protesters, Yanukovych agreed to a deal with Russia's President Vladimir Putin for Moscow to buy Ukrainian debt and slash the price Kiev pays for its gas.

The tumult in Ukraine goes to the heart of its future ties with Russia and the rest of Europe. Ukraine is split between pro-European regions in the west and a more Russia-oriented east.

The protests have unfolded since November 21, when Yanukovych changed his stance on the EU trade pact, which had been years in the making.

The demonstrators say an EU agreement would open borders to trade and set the stage for modernization and inclusion. Ukraine's government said the terms needed to be renegotiated to better protect Ukrainians.

READ: Tense standoff in Kiev as Ukraine leader orders talks following clashes

READ: Beaten Ukrainian journalist says she was targeted

READ: Ukraine protests: 5 things you need to know

Journalist Victoria Butenko reported from Kiev and Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London. CNN's Joseph Netto contributed to this report.

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