Lenin statue destroyed as huge protest hits Ukrainian capital

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Anti-government protesters have toppled and smashed the statue of Bolshevik leader Lenin in central Kiev amid huge protests gripping Ukraine.

A group of protesters dragged down and decapitated the landmark statue yesterday evening after hundreds of thousands of others took to the streets to denounce the government’s move away from Europe and toward Moscow.

Protesters took turns beating on the torso of the fallen statue, while others chanted “Glory to Ukraine!”

The chaotic protest further raised tensions in the Ukrainian capital.

Earlier, several hundred thousand Ukrainians occupied a central square in the capital, denouncing President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to turn away from Europe and align the former Soviet republic with Russia.

As widespread protests continued for a third week, Mr Yanukovych’s meeting on Friday with Russian president Vladimir Putin raised more fears that Ukraine is on the verge of entering a Russian-led customs union that critics say could end its economic and political sovereignty and place it back under Moscow’s rule.

Ukrainian authorities have said that police will not take action against peaceful demonstrators, but concerns persist that some opposition activists may be goaded into violence.

The opposition branded the demonstration in Kiev the “march of a million”, but the crowd fell short of that goal as some Ukrainians grew tired of the turmoil and others feared violence after riot police brutally beat demonstrators last weekend.

Opposition leaders, meanwhile, addressed the crowd with contradictory messages, underling the lack of a coherent plan forward among organisers.

In a letter read out by her daughter, jailed opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko called for Mr Yanukovych’s ousting and rejected holding any negotiations with his government unless they entailed early elections. Ms Tymoshenko is in jail on abuse-of-office charges that Western nations consider politically motivated by Mr Yanukovych’s government.

“Yanukovych has lost legitimacy as president... he is no longer the president of our state, he is a tyrant,” Ms Tymoshenko wrote. “Don’t give in, not a step back, don’t give up, the future of Ukraine is in your hands.”

But her top ally, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said a day earlier that the opposition might sit down with the government for talks if Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s Cabinet is dismissed.

World boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, another top opposition leader, also called for Mr Yanukovych’s ousting and early presidential elections, even though there is no legal possibility to impeach him.

“We will fight and we are confident that we will win,” Klitschko said.

Mr Yatsenyuk focused more on ousting Mr Azarov, punishing the police who used force against demonstrators and freeing about a dozen opposition activists arrested since last Sunday’s rally. He urged demonstrators to blockade the entire government district in Kiev, the capital, which houses the Cabinet, the presidential administration and the parliament.

“We are extending our demonstration, we are going to fight until victory, we will fight for what we believe in,” Mr Yatsenyuk told the crowd, dotted by Ukrainian and EU flags.

The protest in sub-zero temperatures took place on Independence Square, known as the Maidan, which was the site of the country’s 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution.

The demonstrations began last month after Mr Yanukovych shelved the signing of an agreement to deepen ties with the 28-nation European Union.