KIEV, Dec  : Ukrainian demonstrators on Wednesday forced riot police to retreat after a pre-dawn raid on their protest camp, in a blow to the authority of President Viktor Yanukovych after nearly three weeks of rallies against his rule.

International pressure mounted on the embattled leader, with US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visiting the pro-EU protesters in Kiev and telling the president the attempted police crackdown was “inadmissable”.

Several dozen were injured in the early hours of Wednesday when riot police and interior ministry special forces moved against the demonstrators who have occupied Kiev’s Independence Square in anger at the rejection of a landmark EU pact.

But the security forces were eventually forced into a humiliating retreat amid cheers from the demonstrators after the ranks of protesters swelled.

“We have not won the war yet but we’ve decisively won this battle.

­­The authorities are panicking,” said protester Anton Kulyk. “We will continue to stand up for our country.”

The police move sparked unprecedented international criticism of Yanukovych, with US Secretary of State John Kerry expressing “disgust” at the crackdown.

In an extraordinary choice of timing, the raid came as Nuland and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton were in Kiev for talks with Yanukovych and the opposition.

Nuland stressed there was still a way for the ex-Soviet country to become part of Europe and in a show of solidarity went to Independence Square to meet the protesters.

The withdrawal of the security forces has left the outcome of the protests even more uncertain, with the opposition vowing to do everything to topple Yanukovych’s regime.

Warning of full-scale conflict

With both the opposition and the authorities showing few signs of compromise, the confrontation risks pitting the Ukrainian-speaking, pro-EU west of the country against the Russian-speaking, largely pro-Yanukovych east.

The powerful Ukrainian Orthodox Patriarch Filaret warned Wednesday that continued violence could “slide into a full-scale civil conflict.”

In a sign of the protests’ growing impact, an emergency session by a local legislature in the western city of Ternopil condemned “an escalation of violence” and said city lawmakers would no longer implement the “criminal orders” from Yanukovych and his government.

After the latest clashes several hundred volunteers from the western city of Lviv departed for Kiev and more were expected to join them later.

Lawmakers from Lviv and the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk were considering conducting out-of-town sessions in the capital.

Thousands of armoured police had early Wednesday seized control of Independence Square, tearing down protesters’ barricades.

The crackdown came just hours after three former Ukrainian presidents Leonid Kuchma, Leonid Kravchuk and Viktor Yushchenko called on Yanukovych to protect the rights of protesters.

Protesters managed to regain the upper hand, thwarting a bid by security forces to retake Kiev city hall, which has been occupied by some 200 opposition activists for over a week.

Police outside the building used truncheons to beat demonstrators, who responded with sticks. Activists in the upper storeys of the building doused officers with freezing water from a fire hose, forcing them to leave.

Activists cheered as police left Independence Square, and the opposition set about rebuilding its barricades.

City authorities said 30 people sought medical help and half of them were hospitalised.

A pro-opposition doctor, Olga Bogomolets, said separately 36 were hospitalised.

‘No talks with the gang’

Jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko warned the protest movement against holding any negotiations with Yanukovych, who has backed the idea of holding round table negotiations.

“I am calling on all Ukrainians: rise up!” she said in a statement. “No talks with the gang.”

Yanukovych’s decision to scrap key trade and political agreements with the EU, coupled with police violence against protesters, have plunged the ex-Soviet country into its most acute political crisis since the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution.

EU foreign affairs head Ashton said she was “deeply concerned about last night’s action taken by riot police”, which came just hours after she held talks with Yanukovych.

“I condemn the use of force and violence — which cannot be the answer to peaceful demonstrations — and I call for utmost restraint.”

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said that cash-strapped Ukraine needed a 20-billion-euro ($27.5-billion) loan from the EU before it signs the historic association pact with the 28-nation bloc.

In Brussels, European Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly dismissed the idea of such a loan, saying the EU would not get involved in a bidding war for Ukraine’s future.

A senior delegation led by Ukraine’s First Deputy Prime Minister Sergiy Arbuzov was expected to travel to Brussels for talks on Thursday, a government spokesman told AFP.