KIEV, December 9 (RIA Novosti) – Ukrainian security forces moved into Kiev on Monday prompting fears among anti-government protesters that the authorities plan to use force to clear tent camps and barricades in the city center.
Interior Ministry troops, who declined to say where they were going or why, were moving toward Independence Square, according to a RIA Novosti reporter.
Opposition leader Arseny Yatsenyuk said riot police were preparing to storm Independence Square, which has become the focus of the protests against President Viktor Yanukovych after his government backed off from signing a deal on closer integration with the European Union.
“We will defend Independence Square,” Yatsenyuk told reporters during a hastily-called briefing.
Three subway stations in central Kiev were closed Monday while they were checked by law enforcement officials for explosives, temporarily stopping underground traffic in the area of the capital located at the heart of the ongoing anti-government protests, the local UNIAN news agency reported.
Riot police used trucks to block off roads in central Kiev, and cordons of riot police were in place opposite barricades manned by activists, according to media reports.
There was some speculation that police movements may just have been designed as a show of force. Local newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda cited a senior Interior Ministry troop commander as saying that the security forces did not intend to clear Independence Square.
Heavyweight boxer-turned-opposition leader Vitali Klitschko urged protesters to rally on Independence Square, although he warned women and children to quit the area, Ukrainskaya Pravda reported.
“The authorities are trying to crush and psychologically scare us, but people are not going to go and will stand,” he said, according to the press service of Klitschko’s Udar party.
Klitschko has previously said that if the government uses force to clear Independence Square it could escalate demonstrations and cause a country-wide rising.
The movement of police in the Ukrainian capital Monday coincided with a statement from President Yanukovych in which he expressed his support for an initiative by former Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk to hold a roundtable with representatives from both the opposition and the authorities.
Yanukovych also said he would meet with Kravchuk and fellow former Ukrainian presidents Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko on Tuesday. Yanukovych’s three predecessors issued a statement last week expressing their support for peaceful rallies.
Protesters in Kiev have built a tent camp in Independence Square and barricaded public buildings in an attempt to stall the work of the government as part of rolling demonstrations.
Hundreds of thousands flooded the center of the Ukrainian capital Sunday in a mass rally calling for snap elections and the resignation of Yanukovych. The protesters blocked off the government quarter of the city, and a group of nationalists toppled a statue of Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin.
Street protests have been taking place in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities since the government announced on November 21 that it would postpone signing free trade and association agreements with the EU in favor of strengthening ties with Moscow.
Recast throughout and updated with Yanukovych statement.