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Protesters clash with police in Ukraine

Protesters clashed with police after tough anti-protest legislation 'which paves the way for a police state'.

Protesters clashed with police after tough anti-protest legislation 'which paves the way for a police state'. Picture: AFP.

KIEV - Protesters clashed with riot police in the Ukrainian capital on Sunday after tough anti-protest legislation, which the political opposition says paves the way for a police state, was rushed through parliament last week.

A group of young masked demonstrators attacked a cordon of police with sticks and tried to overturn a bus blocking their way to the parliament building after opposition politicians called on people to disregard the new legislation.

Despite appeals from opposition leaders not to resort to violence, and a personal intervention from boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko, protesters continued to throw smoke bombs and hurl fireworks and other objects at police.

The police appeared to show restraint during that fracas. The Interior Ministry said 30 police were hurt, including more than 10 admitted to hospital and four in serious condition.

A spokeswoman for Klitschko tweeted that President Viktor Yanukovich had agreed to meet Klitschko immediately at the presidential residence outside Kiev, although there was no confirmation from Yanukovich's side.

Klitschko later tweeted that the president had agreed to set up a committee on Monday to settle the political crisis.

As tensions continued into the night, police used water cannon against demonstrators gathered near the parliament building and the heavily protected government headquarters, eyewitnesses said.

Earlier, some distance away from the clashes, up to 100,000 Ukrainians massed on Kiev's Independence Square in defiance of the sweeping new laws, which ban rallies and which Washington and other Western capitals have denounced as undemocratic.

In Washington, the White House said it was "deeply concerned" about the violence on Sunday in Kiev and urged both sides to "de-escalate the situation."

Urging the Ukraine government to repeal the "anti-democratic legislation," withdraw riot police from downtown Kiev and begin a dialogue with the opposition, Hayden added, "The US will continue to consider additional steps, including sanctions, in response to the use of violence."

The rally, the biggest of the new year, was the latest in a cycle of public protests in the former Soviet republic since Yanukovich made a policy U-turn in November away from the European Union towards Russia, Ukraine's former Soviet overlord.

Several big protests in December attracted hundreds of thousands of people, while thousands maintained a vigil in a Kiev square demanding Yanukovich resign. Since the New Year demonstrations have become smaller, but hundreds of people are still camping in the square and 50,000 turned out a week ago.

COURT BAN

The court ban on protests published on Wednesday, and last Thursday's legislation aimed at prohibiting all form of public protests, have inflamed tensions again.

The laws ban any unauthorised installation of tents, stages or use of loudspeakers in public.

Heavy jail sentences were imposed for participation in "mass disorder" and the wearing of face-masks or protective helmets. Dissemination of "extremist" or libellous information about the country's leaders was outlawed.

The crisis has highlighted a divide in the country of 46 million people between those, particularly in Russian-speaking eastern areas, who identify more closely with a shared past with Russia, and those, especially in the Ukrainian-speaking parts of western and central Ukraine, who look westwards.

Opposition leaders announced an action plan to gather people's signatures expressing no confidence in the leadership of Yanukovich and parliament.

CALLS FOR CONTROL

Opposition leaders were at pains to urge protesters not to resort to action that would provide a pretext for a crackdown.

Arseny Yatsenyuk, another opposition leader, told the crowds on Independence Square, "Our victory is not in using physical violence but in moral and spiritual strength."

Although setting up an alternative power structure may not be realistic, Sunday's turnout suggested it could also be difficult for the authorities to try to solve the crisis by use of force despite the court ban and the new laws.

Russia has since thrown Ukraine a $15 billion lifeline in credits as well as a softer deal for purchases of strategic supplies of natural gas.