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'Afghan Vets' Take To Barricades To Defend Ukraine's Protesters

  • Tom Balmforth

"We know how to defend ourselves and how to strike back. They sensed this the other night on the barricades," says Oleg Mikhyuk.

"We know how to defend ourselves and how to strike back. They sensed this the other night on the barricades," says Oleg Mikhyuk.

KYIV -- In a grimy canvas tent in the nerve center of the protest encampment against Ukraine's president, Oleg Mikhyuk barks orders like the commander of an army.

In the last 24 hours, hundreds of former soldiers have filed into the tent to enlist their services with Mikhyuk, 48, who sits in jeans and a green shirt festooned with medals from his time as a paratrooper in the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan.

Mikhyuk's brigade -- which he says numbers thousands of Afghan war veterans -- is one of four security divisions designated to defend the opposition encampment tooth-and-nail if the authorities attempt to break up what protesters say is a peaceful demonstration.

"We are peacekeepers here, foremost, but just because we are keeping the peace does not mean that if they beat us, we're going to stand around silently," Mikhyuk says.

"We know how to defend ourselves and how to strike back. They sensed this the other night on the barricades. They took away the barricades, but they couldn't force the people out."

Mikhyuk was among the mass of protesters who repelled hundreds of riot police in the early hours of December 11, when they tried to bring an end to the "Euromaidan" demonstrations against President Viktor Yanukovych for scuttling a landmark deal with the EU.

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After laying siege to Independence Square, where the opposition has established a protest camp, police moved in -- clearly on orders not to swing truncheons -- and tried to physically push the opposition off the square.

But without using more aggressive tactics, they appeared unable to dislodge the swarm of men in hard hats and body armor fashioned out of sticks and tape. And as the sun rose over Kyiv, the police withdrew.

Mikhyuk has been on high alert since, but says the attempt to clear the square has actually galvanized the protesting forces.

'Defend The People, Not The Authorities'

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been flooding into the snowbound capital, mainly from the west of the country, in anticipation of a weekend of huge antigovernment demonstrations.

Barricades, bulldozed by police days ago, have been reerected twice as big as before, while green and brown canvas tents have sprung up again.

PHOTO GALLERY: As mass antigovernment protests continue in Kyiv, volunteers have taken on the job of feeding the activists in the streets. The main kitchen supplying the protests, located at the dining hall of a labor-union building, is in operation 24 hours a day, making meals and hot drinks with supplies donated by supporters.

Police are again a rare sight near Kyiv's Independence Square, which sometimes has the incongruent feel of the sprawling million-dollar film set of some medieval epic.

Smartly dressed lawyers talking on phones rub shoulders with mustachioed Cossacks in full garb, while bearded priests in black gowns lead prayers over speakers to murmuring old women crossing themselves. Men in orange hard hats carry planks of wood to beef up barricades made from scrap, barbed wire, and bags packed with snow.

The fear is that this scene is the calm before the storm. But Mikhyuk is defiant. "We don't fear anyone -- not the Berkut [riot police] nor anyone else," he says. "We went through Afghanistan. We saw bloodshed, we understand the worth of life. We want the people in epaulettes to understand that they took an oath to defend the people of Ukraine and not the authorities."
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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at