KIEV, Ukraine - Police clashed with protesters and tore down their tents in the main square of the Ukrainian capital early Wednesday, in an escalation of a weeks-long standoff threatening the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Hundreds of police in riot gear moved on the camp at Independence Square, dismantling barricades and pushing demonstrators who fought back. Scuffles broke out between police and opposition lawmakers who arrived to defend the camp.
Several thousand protesters shouted "Shame!" and "We will stand," and sang the Ukrainian national anthem. An Orthodox priest read prayers.
The protests began in late November when Yanukovych backed away from a pact that would deepen the former Soviet republic's economic ties with the 28-nation European Union - a pact that surveys showed was supported by nearly half the country's people. The agreement would make Ukraine more Western-oriented and would be a significant loss of face for Russia, which has either controlled or heavily influenced Ukraine for centuries.
The confrontation at the protest camp unfolded as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland were in the city to try to talk to the government and the opposition and work out a solution.
One protester undressed to his waist, got down on his knees and shouted "Stop this. ... We are one people!"
An opposition lawmaker laid down on the snow to try to block a police vehicle from advancing to the camp.
Several protesters were injured. Some police officers helped injured activists up from the ground and moved them away.
Aiming to defuse the crisis, Yanukovych had called Tuesday for the release of the demonstrators previously arrested in the protests and vowed that Ukraine was still interested in integrating with Europe.
His efforts, however, stopped far short of opposition demands that his government resign, and the two sides appeared no closer to a resolution that would chart a secure future for the economically troubled nation.
Moscow has worked aggressively to derail the deal with the EU and lure Kiev into its own economic group by offering price discounts and loans as well as imposing painful trade restrictions.