KIEV, Ukraine — Weeks of calm were shattered Tuesday when protesters clashed with police outside parliament over the delay of a reform measure, leaving nine dead and the police promising "severe measures" if demonstrations do not halt.
Government troops attacked a protest camp and fired stun grenades and gunshots at thousands of marchers, killing at least nine people, said opposition lawmaker Lesya Orobets.
The pop of grenades could be heard and clouds of tear gas and smoke from burning cars and trucks filled the streets. Tents from the camp were set on fire.
"This is crazy, it's like a real war – they are going to kill each other," said protester Liudmila Mazur, 50, as she watched about 100 protesters attack a police barricade that blocked the way to parliament.
"I don't know if there is another way now as the government understands only force. When we were protesting peacefully, they didn't hear us. I just hope people won't get hurt," Mazur said.
The clash began after parliament delayed Tuesday's session scheduled to take up the issue of constitutional reform that would limit presidential powers. Thousands of people marched toward the parliament building to put pressure on lawmakers, shouting, "Shame!"
The violence followed a compromise reached over the weekend in which protesters agred to vacate a city hall they had occupied for more than two months in exchange for the release of jailed protesters.
Ukrainian authorities issued an ultimatum threatening "severe measures."
"If the troubles here don't stop by 6 p.m., we will be obliged to restore order by any legal means," the government stated.
"This is the most dramatic period in the history of Ukraine since independence," opposition leader Arseni Jazenjuk said. "The Ukrainian people are fighting for their freedom and liberty and we will fight until victory."
On Monday, opposition leaders met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to appeal for support to end the crisis.
"It is in the interest of the European Union and the European states that Ukraine is political and economically stable because instability in Ukraine could lead to instability in the entire region," said Vitali Klitschko, an opposition leader.
Protesters say they are angry over new attempts by Russia to influence events in its former republic. Russia announced Monday it would grant $2 billion in aid to the government, which has been leaning toward an alliance with Moscow.
The protesters say they want to move closer to Europe and strengthen trade ties with the European Union.
Anti-government, pro-Western street demonstrations have been taking place in Kiev since Nov. 21 after President Viktor Yanukovych shelved a long-planned political and economic treaty with the EU and instead accepted a bailout from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Jazenjuk described Yanukovych as a man trying to buy time with "never-ending negotiations."
"We want have transparent pro-European policy in Ukraine as well as a clear and transparent policy from Russia in its dealings with Ukraine," he added, saying the EU has pledged millions of dollars in aid as well.
Contributing: Luigi Serenelli