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Ukrainian protesters prepare for showdown with police

Anti-government protesters stand on a burnt police bus at the site of clashes with riot police in Kiev on Jan. 24, 2014.


The popular uprising in Kiev's Independence Square has taken an ominous tone as angry protesters taunted police Friday night and made extensive preparations for clashes.

Hundreds of protesters lined the top of a network of expanded and fortified barricades, tossing fireworks at riot police across the street and banging on drums. At one point, the police shone a blinding light back into the crowd as smoke from burning tires filled the sky.

All day, protesters had been preparing for some kind of showdown, ever since they categorically rejected an offer from the government on Thursday to scale back their barricades in return for more lenient treatment from police and the release of the more than 100 demonstrators who have been arrested. The rejected offer had been backed by opposition politicians as well, raising questions about who, if anyone, is in charge of the masses gathering in the square.

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The uprising also spread to more cities outside Kiev, as demonstrators began occupying government offices in six regions and joining the call for the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych. The President has agreed to recall parliament next week to address the protesters' concerns, but there are few indications he plans to step down. Meanwhile, international pressure grew as the United States and European countries demanded Mr. Yanukovych put an end to the crisis peacefully.

The fury and defiance among the protesters is building in Independence Square, particularly since as many as five demonstrators have died this week. A hillside near the square was filled with candles Friday in memory of those who died and several photographs of the victims have been posted.

"People are so frustrated, that even though there is a need for compromise they are rejecting the option of compromise," Alexander Sych, a member of parliament for the Svoboda Party, told a crowd of a couple of hundred activists in the square. "People have absolutely no trust, no belief in the government or the president." His comments were met with chants of "Glory to Ukraine. To the heroes, glory."

While the square had taken on an almost carnival-like atmosphere when the uprising started nearly two months ago, the tone now is far more militant. All day on Friday, scores of young men marched toward the front barricades, wearing helmets and gas masks and carrying clubs and shields. At one point, a group with metal shields taken from fallen riot police officers practised marching in formation. Several makeshift catapults were also hauled to the front barricades, surrounded by piles of rocks and burning tires.

The square has turned into a kind of self-run city state, with no real leadership. Everything is done on a volunteer basis and by requests that come throughout the day from speakers set on a giant stage. "Can someone help in the soup kitchen?" asked one person. "Volunteers are needed to fill bags of snow to fortify the barricades," said another. The whole square seems to function on its own, outside the grasp of government and the wishes of politicians.

There are two medical clinics, filled with donated supplies of every kind and teams of doctors, nurses and medics. There's a makeshift dormitory in a building next to the square that has been donated by a trade union. A press centre has been opened to provide daily updates to hundreds of media from around the world. Hot food is delivered to those who have camped outside in sturdy tents bearing flags from their hometown or region. There's garbage collection, recycling, electricity, rows of portable toilets and a giant television screen that shows documentaries all night, some subtitled in English. There's even a regular newsletter and a help line to a lawyer if someone is arrested.

"The doctors themselves organized this," said Yarema Kaminsky, as he stood outside one of the clinics. Inside there were three other doctors, three nurses and ten medical students, all volunteers. So far, the clinic has dealt with several wounds from rubber bullets, he said, and some people have become sick because of the cold weather.

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He, too, sounded defiant. "We are hoping for a victory, but if we don't win now in the next few days, sooner or later we will overcome," Dr. Kaminsky said. "The nation is ready."

Ulana Suprun, a doctor from the United States, came to the square on Friday to volunteer. She was told they didn't need medical supplies, they needed protective equipment for the doctors.

"They are looking for helmets, gas masks, knee pads, anything that they can put on [doctors and nurses] so that when they are shot at with rubber bullets they don't get injured," said Dr. Suprun who was born in Detroit and has Ukrainian parents. She has been in the country for two months, along with her Canadian husband, and felt compelled to help out. "I feel an affinity for Ukraine and I want it to be free," she said.

Up the road, a small group of people walked to a line of riot police standing in front of the presidential offices. "You have to come to the side of the people," Taras Rudyk said to the officers. "Come to the [square]. The faster you do that, everything will turn out peacefully."

"We're not going anywhere," replied one officer. But their captain, who would only give his name as Alexander, was more conciliatory. "We don't want to see any more blood," he said. "We want it to be peaceful. Everyone wants peace. No one wants a war."

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