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Ukraine police swinging truncheons early Saturday brutally dispersed protesters calling for President Viktor Yanukovych to resign after he refused to salvage an EU deal.
A rally of some 10,000 protesters led by top opposition leaders like world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko had late Friday called for the president to step down after he left an EU summit in Vilnius without signing a key political and free trade deal.
The agreement would have brought ex-Soviet Ukraine closer to the bloc and away from historical master Moscow, which put pressure on the ex-Soviet republic still reliant on Russia for energy and as an export market, to turn its back on the accord.
The scrapping of the EU deal years in the making has sparked the biggest protests in Ukraine since the 2004 pro-West Orange Revolution.
Following Friday's rally at Kiev's Independence Square, the epicentre of the peaceful "orange" revolt, around 1,000 protesters remained overnight and riot police moved in around 4:00 local time, swinging batons and pushing protesters, according to witnesses.
"The Maidan has been brutally mopped up," opposition lawmaker Andriy Shevchenko said on Twitter, using the square's informal name.
"Dozens wounded, dozens arrested. Ukraine has not seen anything like this before."
On Saturday morning police and metal barriers surrounded the square strewn with discarded warm clothes, plastic bottles and plates.
The stage from which opposition leaders addressed their supporters had been taken down and two tractors could be seen hauling away pro-EU placards, blankets and metal barrels which protesters used for makeshift fires to keep themselves warm.
The US embassy in Ukraine condemned the use of violence against peaceful protesters.
"We urge the government of Ukraine to respect the rights of civil society and the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, which are fundamental to the democratic values that are the bedrock of our strategic partnership," it said in a statement.
'They beat everyone'
One of the protesters told AFP that the riot police moved in suddenly on peaceful demonstrators.
"We were dancing, jumping and crying out peaceful slogans," said one demonstrator, Maria Chalykh.
"They started beating everyone indiscriminately. They beat everyone, the elderly, girls, even a child. His entire face was covered in blood," the 17-year-old student told AFP.
"Everyone shouted, cried, some people fainted."
Chalykh said that the Berkut riot police dragged people, kicked them and swore at them.
She herself lost consciousness and came to in an ambulance, she said.
She estimated that several dozen people might have received injuries.
Opposition leader Klitschko said in a statement that "After he did not sign the association agreement, Yanukovych decided that he is allowed to commit any depredations and crimes against his own people."
"If this is not stopped today, Ukraine will turn into a savage police state and the source of instability in the centre of Europe."
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who together with Klitschko attended the Vilnius summit, added that Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko must explain the use of force in parliament.
"We demand the resignation of this government and this minister who broke up a peaceful pro-European demonstration," Yatsenyuk, a top ally of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, was quoted as saying by his party Batkivshchyna.
He said that president Yanukovych was ultimately to blame for the violence.
Preparing for New Year's holidays?
A Kiev police spokeswoman told AFP that 31 protesters had been detained for hooliganism and for resisting police and that most of them have been released.
The spokeswoman, Olga Bilyk, said police cleared the square in order to start preparations for New Year's and Christmas holidays more than a month away.
"When equipment approached the Maidan, the protesters started behaving in an aggressive manner and ignored police requests," she told AFP.
"A decision was taken to push people aside with the help of impact munitions."
Hundreds of riot police were deployed around the square in the run-up to Friday's rally, heightening tensions on day six of mass rallies against Yanukovych's decision to scrap the EU deal.
Opposition parliament member Oleksandra Kuzhel vowed to go ahead with a protest planned for Sunday despite the violence.
"We are not going to retreat," she told AFP.
On Friday former prime minister Tymoshenko, who had hoped to walk out of prison as a result of the EU deal, called on students to keep the protest alive.
"At stake is our life together," she said in a statement. "Just try to defend it like adults through all means possible."