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Photos by Konstantin Chernichkin

Following Sunday’s massive rally in Kiev’s Independence Square, the pro-EU, anti-Russia protesters were bracing for a police crackdown. At lunchtime on Monday, that looked likely—there were alerts that the cops had surrounded the square and were about to strike.

However, it wasn’t immediately as bad as all that. The police didn’t stop anyone wandering through their barricades, and volunteers actually positioned themselves in front of the police to block any potential provocateurs who might have been looking to start trouble. Priests in long black robes also stood at the entrances in an attempt to diffuse the tension.

“Today will be decisive,” declared a speaker on the stage, as opposition leaders urged those Ukrainians who are unhappy at their government’s reluctance to move towards full EU membership to flock to the Maidan (the common name for the square).

The police strike never came, but the authorities did a good job of stressing everybody out. On Monday, three central metro stations—Kheshchatyk, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, and Teatralna—were closed to the public, reportedly because someone had called in a bomb threat. In practice, this meant that people wanting to get to the Maidan had to get off at a stop further down the line. This was the case in the evening and the next morning, but locals were undeterred. “The authorities thought it would stop old grannies like us from getting to the Maidan,” said a woman in her 60s, who had come on foot with a friend. “But we came anyway.”

A line of police wearing riot gear in Kiev last night.

Tuesday was peaceful. The thermometer had plunged well below zero and protesters were trying to stay warm. In the occupied city hall, a small crowd watched as President Viktor Yanukovych met with his three predecessors— Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko—to attempt to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, was also in Kiev, and that morning pro-government thugs—known locally as titushky—had blocked the entrance to the EU delegation’s headquarters Still, by the evening, Yanukovych was claiming that Ukraine remained committed to its European path. At that point, no one thought that the authorities would lay a finger on the protesters while Ashton was in town.

But last night, they struck. Riot police launched an onslaught after midnight, trying to break through the barricades on Institutska Street. They were resisted by thousands of protesters, but by using chainsaws to cut down barbed wire the police eventually made it through the barricades into the Maidan. There was a lot of pushing and shoving, but ultimately the police backed out of the confrontation, refusing to draw their batons and retreating sometime near dawn.

“I’m still in Kiev. I was among you on Maidan in the evening,” Ashton wrote on the EU website. “The authorities didn’t need to act under the coverage of night to engage with the society by using force.” Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his “disgust” at the police’s attempted disruption of what remains an overwhelmingly peaceful protest.

Demonstrators spraying police with water this morning.

At 9 AM this morning, the police moved on from the Maidan to the nearby city hall, which has been occupied by protesters since December 1. Everyone was terrified that attempts to remove them by force could have tragic consequences, much like recent attempts to shift protesters in Turkey and Thailand. However, the demonstrators defended the building, hosing police down from an upstairs window and sealing the entrance. Eventually, the police—now covered in ice from the hosing—gave up and left. The crowd parted to let their buses leave.

The Ukrainian authorities have said last night’s events were aimed at easing traffic congestion in the capital. “No force will ever be used against peaceful demonstrators,” said Prime Minister Mykola Azarov this morning in a cabinet meeting. “We are talking about clearing the roads to ensure the capital’s regular functioning.”

For many, last night’s attempts to oust the protesters from the Maidan may signal the beginning rather than the end. According to reports, more people are heading to Kiev from other cities in Ukraine.

The government’s tactics remain unpredictable. On Wednesday afternoon, the Ministry of the Interior announced that Kiev’s two airports and the city’s train station, would be closed. The reason? Someone had called in another bomb threat.

Follow Annabelle on Twitter: @AB_Chapman