KIEV - Battalions of Ukrainian riot police withdrew on Wednesday from a protest camp after moving against demonstrators overnight in the authorities' biggest attempt yet to reclaim streets after weeks of protests against President Viktor Yanukovich.
Columns of police abandoned positions around a protest camp and state buildings occupied by demonstrators enraged at Yanukovich's decision to spurn an EU trade deal and move Ukraine further into Russia's orbit.
Within hours, after meetings with U.S. and European Union officials who had urged him to compromise, Yanukovich asked his opponents to meet him to negotiate a way out of the impasse:
"I invite representatives of all political parties, priests, representatives of civil society to national talks," he said in a statement that also called on the opposition not to "go down the road of confrontation and ultimatums".
There was no immediate response from opposition leaders.
Overnight the police had cleared streets near the protest camp, bulldozed tents and skirmished with demonstrators. They later surrounded the City Hall, where protesters who have set up a makeshift hospital in the occupied building sprayed them with water hoses to prevent it from being stormed.
At stake is the future of a country of 46 million people, torn between popular hope of joining the European mainstream and the demands of former Soviet master Russia, which controls the flow of cheap natural gas needed to stave off bankruptcy.
At the main protest camp on Independence Square, pop stars, politicians and priests pleaded with police not to shed blood. Opposition politicians called for mass demonstrations to protect the square and predicted that Yanukovich would soon be toppled.
The interior minister called for calm and promised that the square would not be stormed. But even after the police left the streets, Vitaly Klitschko, a world boxing champion who has emerged as one of the main figures of the opposition, said the overnight action had "closed off the path to compromise".
"We had planned to have talks with Yanukovich. We understand that Yanukovich has no wish to talk to the people and only understands physical force," he told a news conference.
Police had been bussed in to the city centre under darkness to shouts of "Get out criminal" - a reference to Yanukovich, who suspended plans to sign a trade pact with the European Union last month and instead embraced closer ties with Russia.
Riot police packed roads to Independence Square, where thousands of people have maintained a vigil in bitter winter cold. Helmeted officers moved slowly into the camp, bulldozing tents and barricades with tractors mounted with shovels. Dozens of demonstrators and police were hurt in scuffles but several officers said they had orders not to use force.
The action stalled after day broke, with temperatures in the snowbound capital stuck well below freezing. Some riot police left to cheers from lines of protesters holding them back. At City Hall, demonstrators lobbed a Molotov cocktail from a window into a police truck before the officers finally withdrew.
On the square, protesters, many wearing hardhats in orange, the colour that symbolized a successful popular revolt against a fraudulent election in 2004, said they had feared they would be stormed. Priests intoned prayers from a stage on the square and urged police not to use violence. Ruslana, a Ukrainian pop star, called from a loud hailer: "Do not hurt us!"
Some protesters held mobile phones in the air like candles and sang the national anthem, while church bells rang out from a cathedral about 2 km (about 1 mile) away, as in times of danger centuries ago.
"He is spitting in the faces of the United States, 28 countries of Europe, 46 million Ukrainians," an opposition leader, Arseny Yatsenyuk, said of Yanukovich during the night. "We will not forgive him this. Tomorrow there will be a million people here and his regime will fall."
The eventual police withdrawal was greeted with euphoria.
"We are seeing that truth does exist, that it is worth fighting for. It is a small victory, but these small victories will lead to big victories," said protester Serhiy Chorny.
U-TURN ON EUROPE
The crisis has added to the financial hardship of a country on the brink of bankruptcy. The cost of insuring Ukraine's debt against default initially rose 30 basis points, before falling back after the police withdrew from the streets. It now costs more than $1 million a year for five years to insure $10 million in Ukrainian debt over that term, reflecting high default risk.
European leaders say the trade pact with Ukraine would have brought investment. But the country's Soviet-era industry relies on Russian natural gas, giving Moscow enormous leverage.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said on Wednesday he had told European leaders they would need to provide Kiev with 20 billion euros in aid for Ukraine to sign the stalled pact with Brussels. He promised that a meeting with Russian officials set for Dec. 17 would not include talks on joining a Moscow-dominated customs union, a major worry for the opposition.
Western countries spoke out strongly against use of force.
"The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kiev's Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. "This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy."
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland were both in Kiev, part of an active diplomatic campaign to lure Ukraine back westwards.
Nuland visited protesters before meeting Yanukovich on Wednesday. After two hours of talks with the president, she said she had complained to him about behaviour that was "absolutely impermissible ... in a democratic state".
"But we also made clear that we believe there is a way out for Ukraine, that it is still possible to save Ukraine's European future and that is what we want to see the president lead," she said. This would require reopening talks with Europe and with the International Monetary Fund, which has offered Ukraine loans on conditions which Yanukovich has rejected.
After meeting Yanukovich, Ashton, too, condemned the use of force against demonstrators as "totally unacceptable". She said those arrested must be released and all-party talks begun.
There were signs that the authorities were reluctant to order bloodshed on the square. Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko issued a statement calling for restraint: "I want everyone to calm down. There will be no storming of the square," he said.
"No one will violate your rights to protest peacefully, but do not ignore the rights ... of other citizens."
The police action re-energized a protest movement that activists had feared could lose momentum in the bitter cold.
Thousands of people streamed to the square in the dead of night, woken by telephone calls and social media messages from those standing their ground. After the police left, volunteers rebuilt barricades and poured water on the cobblestones to turn them into ice sheets in anticipation of another assault.
They packed ice-hard snow over metal scraps, logs and benches while a priest on stage called out: "They broke down our barricades, but they can't break our hearts!"
"This will freeze and be strong," said Mykhaylo Yichka, 24, a choir director, who planned to volunteer at the camp until evening before going home to catch up on sleep.
"I want a normal life, but this government cannot give it to me and only makes laws to serve itself. So I am here."