Smoke and tensions rise over remains of Kiev protest camp
Thick smoke from burning tyres once again billowed into the blue sky over Kiev's iconic Independence Square on Thursday as a rump of demonstrators still living in the protest camp scuffled with authorities trying to clear the area.
Dozens of demonstrators hurled stones and set debris alight as they halted a short-lived push by municipal workers backed by interior ministry troops to dismantle barricades around the entrance to the central square with bulldozers.
The fate of the symbolic site, the epicentre of months of bloody protests that led to the toppling in February of president Viktor Yanukovych, is a hotly debated topic in the strife-torn country.
"They came from two sides and tried to clear away the tents and everything," said protestor Andriy, clutching an iron bar.
"They want us gone but we are not ready to leave yet."
City workers in orange vests stood to one side shaking their heads as angry protest camp members sung the Ukrainian anthem and banged shields.
"Idiots," said one cleaning woman. "We were told to come and tidy up but they stopped us and set fire to things."
Since Yanukovych's fall, the encampment -- known as "Maidan" -- has dwindled to a fraction of its original size as many activists have either headed back to work or signed up to join government forces battling pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Cafes and even a basketball court have gone up on the square as souvenir stalls selling fridge magnets with rude messages about Russian President Vladimir Putin have sprung up and life has crept back to normal.
But dark rumours -- denied as slander by those still there -- have swirled of rising alcoholism and petty thuggery.
"This Maidan is not the same one as it was in February -- only the people without any hope are left here now," said pensioner Sergey, standing among the debris of a dismantled tent.
"The local authorities need to agree with the leaders to move it somewhere, but it can't be done like this. We have war in the east already and we don't need war in Kiev too."
- 'Revolution not finished' -
Kiev's new mayor Vitali Klitschko, a former world boxing champion who was one of the most prominent leaders of the protest movement, lashed out at those still occupying the square, saying authorities had tried to negotiate with them.
"The majority of people in Kiev want order and security in the city centre but what has been happening here recently is just criminality," Klitschko said in a statement on Thursday.
"The main demands of Maidan have been met," he said. "Today we need to work and not bring shame on the idea of Maidan and the country."
But for many the square is still a potent symbol of people power and lies near sacred ground where some 100 demonstrators were gunned down. They accuse Ukraine's newly elected leadership of inventing excuses to shut it down.
"First we need to drag all the officials who killed people here and stole our money onto the square to judge them, then we can think about moving on," said Mykola, stroking his white moustache.
"What was started has not been finished and the authorities are scared."
Nearby small crowds of local residents gathered to argue with each other, with voices rising and fingers being jabbed into chests.
"This is a betrayal of Maidan and the revolution," yelled blonde-haired Lidia.
"I've heard Russia is behind it and they're trying to bring Yanukovych back," she said.
© 2014 AFP