A test of nerves was under way on the streets of Kiev on Monday night as riot police dismantled opposition barricades and encampments manned by pro-European protesters. As heavy snow blanketed the Ukrainian capital, opposition leaders summoned supporters to their main camp on Independence Square, reinforcing barriers and stretching barbed wire across underpass entrances in anticipation of an assault by the police.
Platoons of "self defence" volunteers in workmen's hard-hats and a mix of military uniforms massed in an attempt to face down interior ministry troops and the feared Berkut riot police. "Yes, we are ready to fight if we have to. We stand until the end," said Alexander, the 28-year-old commander of a unit of some 200 volunteers - including some 60 trained "professionals" - who had placed themselves between groups of security forces to the east of Independence Square. Wearing an infantryman's helmet and home-made body armour, the Kiev insurance man admitted that he was nervous about how the night might play out.
"There have been a lot of provocations. We'll see what happens," he said. Vitali Klitschko, the world boxing champion and opposition leader, urged police to avoid escalating tensions with the protesters, who have taken to the streets in anger at the government's refusal to sign an integration deal with the European Union.
"The demonstration is peaceful. These people could be your mothers, your sisters, your daughters. They came here because they want the country to be a better place," he told officers at the barricades. Meanwhile, reports emerged that armed riot police had raided the headquarters of the Fatherland party led by Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed opposition leader, removing computer servers. With confrontation brewing, Viktor Yanukovich, the embattled Ukrainian president, agreed to talks with the pro-European opposition, announcing he would hold a meeting today with Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko, his three former post-independence predecessors who have offered to broker dialogue.
Baroness Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, is to fly into Kiev in an attempt to find a solution to the crisis. Ruling party MPs have said that "reasonable force" may be used to clear the occupied city hall, and rumours continued to swirl among protesters that Mr Yanukovich may declare martial law or launch an underground riot police attack from metro stations.
The interior ministry troops last night maintained their position on Khresyatik Street, about 500 yards from Independence Square and a stone's throw from city hall. With snow accumulating on their helmets, some of the troops chatted with protesters who offered them sandwiches and milk and biscuits and formed a cordon around them to prevent attacks by "provocateurs".
The arrival of riot police follows a huge opposition rally in Kiev on Sunday that ended with some protesters toppling a marble statue of Lenin in the city centre. Protesters including members of the nationalist Svoboda party have been demanding that Yanukovich either fire his government or resign for backing out of the EU deal last month.