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Ukraine opposition leader heads for talks with president amid round-the-clock street clashes

Opposition supporters, left, and, second from left, escort people believed to be government-hired thugs away from an opposition camp in central Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. About thirty young men believed to be hired by the government to instigate violence were detained by opposition activists last night. Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko accused the government of paying thugs to delegitimize the protests through violence. He said that the thugs, who were tasked with smashing windows and burning cars, were chased away by protesters. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

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Opposition supporters, left, and, second from left, escort people believed to be government-hired thugs away from an opposition camp in central Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. About thirty young men believed to be hired by the government to instigate violence were detained by opposition activists last night. Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko accused the government of paying thugs to delegitimize the protests through violence. He said that the thugs, who were tasked with smashing windows and burning cars, were chased away by protesters. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

KYIV, Ukraine - A top opposition leader headed for talks with the Ukrainian president on Tuesday after yet another night of violent street clashes between anti-government protesters and police.

Ukraine's two month-long political crisis has shifted into a new phase after President Viktor Yanukovych pushed through harsh anti-protest laws last week that were widely seen as an attempt to quash the demonstrations calling for his ouster. The massive protests in Kyiv, the capital, erupted after Yanukovych spurned a pact with the European Union in favour of close ties with Russia, which offered him a $15 billion bailout.

Seeing the government ignore their demands and opposition leaders unable to present a coherent plan or even select a single leader, radical protesters have clashed with riot police in Kyiv since Sunday, hurling stones and fire bombs at police and getting hit with tear gas and rubber bullets in return.

"A revolution is under way in Ukraine," said Petro Denkovets, 34, an entrepreneur. "What revolution takes place peacefully? Each side is showing its strength. The government —its troops — and we our fearlessness."

Despite heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures, some 2,000 people confronted riot police Tuesday outside a government district in Kyiv. The protesters had managed to hold their ground overnight even as police moved in to dismantle some barricades.

Still, nearly 1,500 activists sought medical help after the clashes, according to Oleh Musiy, who runs the protesters' medical team.

Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who had previously condemned violent protests, said the situation has changed.

"People have received the right to switch from peaceful to non-peaceful protest because the deafness of the authorities and their disregard for the people," he said Tuesday.

His ally, the jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, also urged Ukrainians to go to the barricades.

"There is no other way for the people to deal with the mafia. Those standing on the front lines for Ukraine are heroes!" Tymoshenko said in a statement.

Heeding the call, young women worked Tuesday to clear the protest site of debris, where burnt-out police buses stood covered in thick layers of ice after being sprayed by water cannons. Nearby, middle-aged men and women used sticks to produce protest noises. In one dramatic scene, three black-robed Orthodox priests, holding crosses and icons, walked in between the police and the protesters, causing the fighting to stop temporarily.

During the clashes Monday night, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko claimed that groups of young men had been hired by pro-government forces to smash shop windows and set cars ablaze in Kyiv to create a pretext for the government to introduce martial law.

Protesters chased the men around, captured them and took them to be questioned. In a video broadcast by several Ukrainian media, the activists showed a hammer and other tools used by the assailants. The protesters then marched the captives down the street and forced them to apologize.

Klitschko, meanwhile, headed to Yanukovych's office for another round of talks to try to solve the crisis. Talks between government and opposition representatives on Monday yielded no results.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, accused the West of instigating the protests and some EU politicians of joining them.

"We would prefer that our European colleagues, at least some of them, don't behave in such an unceremonious way in connection with the Ukrainian crisis," he said. "It's simply unseemly and this is what heating up the situation."

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