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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Protesters, Police Do Battle in Ukraine

KIEV — Ukrainian riot police clashed with scores of protesters over the holiday weekend as thousands of people took to the streets in the biggest march yet to demand that President Leonid Kuchma step down.

Police wielding heavy truncheons beat back around 200 people who tried to confront the president in a park where he laid a wreath at the statue of a national hero Friday.

Thousands of people later swarmed down Kiev's main street to demand Kuchma quit over alleged links to the murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze. Kuchma denies the allegations.

As the march, the latest in two months of hitherto peaceful street protests, reached the presidential administration building in the early afternoon, some 100 demonstrators fought a pitched battle with riot police.

Reuters correspondents witnessed police firing tear gas into the crowd, mainly young men who repeatedly charged the lines of riot officers using crowd control barriers as battering rams.

Scores of demonstrators suffered head and back injuries as police lashed out with batons, defending themselves against attack from bottles, stones and heavy wooden sticks. Several officers were hit by a Molotov cocktail.

"Fascists! Fascists! Kuchma out! Kuchma out!'' the crowd chanted as a 100-strong core of demonstrators hurled themselves over and over at police lines.

The crowd cheered as a policeman's tear-gas gun exploded in his hands.

"Look, look, look at this, Ukrainian blood spilled by Ukrainians,'' one woman wailed, brandishing a bloodstained handkerchief at police during a lull in the 30-minute battle.

One man stood still as the fight raged around him, urging police not to retaliate. He was clubbed to the ground.

Police later arrested around 100 members of the radical right-wing UNA-UNSO party, a spokeswoman for the party said.

Several policemen tried to arrest Reuters photographers and a Reuters television crew and seize their equipment as they filmed the action. A senior officer intervened to free them.

Ukraine's opposition parties denounced the arrests Saturday and vowed to stage new rallies to press their campaign to oust Kuchma.

On Sunday, about 100 students demonstrated outside the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, demanding the release of protesters arrested Friday.

Interior Ministry spokesman Olexander Zarubitsky said 67 of the 206 people held after the clashes had been freed. Another 52 would be held 15 days and 87 were awaiting a court decision.

The student picket was peaceful — in contrast to Friday's incidents, which marked the first serious violence in the protests against Kuchma. Friday's march was the largest yet. Officials from the Ukraine Without Kuchma movement estimated more than 10,000 people had joined the protest. Reporters estimated 5,000 to 10,000 people were involved.

Opposition parties have mobilized the marches, demanding Kuchma resign over allegations he was linked to the disappearance of Gongadze, whose headless body was found near Kiev last year.

The students protesting Sunday carried signs reading: "Students are in jail, but where are Gongadze's killers?"

The opposition campaign has been one of Kuchma's biggest challenges since he came to power in 1994.

Despite the protests, political analysts doubt he will be toppled soon, citing his tough grip on the government and skill at exploiting and facing down a less-than-united opposition.

Kuchma argues that 16 million people voted for him in the last election in 1999 and has likened some of the marchers to Nazis. He says external forces are trying to destabilize Ukraine.

Friday morning, Kuchma had a near brush with 200 protesters who tried to surge into the park where he was laying flowers at the statue of 19th century nationalist poet Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine's most powerful symbol of resistance against oppression.

Reuters correspondents saw police clash with protesters, who were beaten back after they charged in two well-organized columns at police and soldiers.

Kuchma, who arrived earlier than expected, laid the flowers and left. Protesters trampled the bouquet.

Kuchma said later Friday that reports by Western news agencies about the morning's violence were wrong.

"It's the most untrustworthy lie. I was there,'' he said.

Tent Camp Cleared

Ukrainian authorities on Wednesday swept away a tent camp set up by students protesting against Kuchma.

Students said around 30 men dressed as municipal workers removed four tents from the park where Kuchma laid flowers Friday.

On March 1, police removed a larger camp of 50 tents from Kiev's main street, which had become the focus of protests.

Olena Horodetska contributed to this report.