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Published: Sunday March 9, 2014 MYT 5:30:02 AM
Updated: Sunday March 9, 2014 MYT 5:30:53 AM

Mickey Mouse and armed men: surreal scenes on Kiev protest square

KIEV (Reuters) - Two weeks after Ukraine's president was overthrown, the cradle of the uprising is a surreal place as children play alongside diehard protesters still dressed in combat gear.

Dozens of people were killed last month defending the barricades and fortified tent camp in Kiev's Independence Square, some of them shot by snipers in bloody clashes.

Their main goal was achieved when President Viktor Yanukovich fell, but hundreds of grizzled protesters are still on the square. Most have taken off their helmets and put away their flak jackets, but some still have their clubs at their side.

"We're not leaving here till all our demands have been met,"

said Andriy Gritsko on Saturday, drawing on a cigarette outside his large tent just off the main square in the heart of the Ukrainian capital.

"We're definitely not going before the presidential election, before May 25."

A comrade-in-arms, dressed in similar green and brown combat fatigues, held a thick metal rod in one hand and beat it menacingly in the palm of his other.

"This new bunch of leaders we've got are just the same as the last ones, and the ones before that. They all think like they're Soviet. We're staying put till we get what we want," he said, declining to say what that was, or to give his name.

As he spoke, a popular Soviet-era children's song blared out of a loudspeaker and parents ushered giggling toddlers onto a carousel nearby.

Someone dressed in a Mickey Mouse costume walked past, hoping to attract custom to a photographer offering instant photos at a good price.

Further down the main avenue leading to the square, men played table tennis in the spring sunshine and a middle-aged man hawked blue and yellow national flags. Another sold souvenirs on a mat he had rolled out on the ground.

By the huge barricade of tyres, furniture and sandbags at the far end of the avenue, children climbed up onto a blue police van, captured during the protests, to have their photos taken by their parents.

HEAVENLY HUNDRED

After three months of protests which began over Yanukovich's decision to spurn a political and trade pact with the European Union, the ordinary is juxtaposed with the extraordinary in many parts of Independence Square - or Maidan, The Square, as it is better known.

On the other side of the square from the long avenue where children played on Saturday, there is a more sombre atmosphere. The steep hill rising up from Maidan has been turned into a memorial with tens of thousands of flowers, where families come on what is akin to a pilgrimage.

The street - now called the Avenue of the Glory of the Heavenly Hundred - is full of makeshift shrines where victims' portraits lie among the flowers above candles. A wall is plastered with children's drawings that honour the dead.

"We're here because we're proud of what these people did. We've come to show respect," said Galina Kupovich, out strolling with her husband Bohdan, and fighting back tears.

Despite the sombre mood on this side of the square, few people show any sign of concern that Ukraine could be about to go to war with Moscow over Russian forces' seizure of Crimea.

It is, however, at the back of some people's minds.

"We've achieved what we wanted, we've got rid of Yanukovich, so we're happy about that. But it's tempered by the fact that so many people died and now we've got Russia to deal with," said Bohdan Kupovich.

Referring to the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, he said: "I never thought our country could ever become like the Balkans, but now I'm not so sure."

In a hotel overlooking the square, one man shared a much gloomier view with reporters.

As the children played down below, and families strolled though the shrines, far-right leader Dmytro Yarosh, one of the protest leaders, issued a warning: "Ukraine is in a state of war with Russia and the danger of a broader occupation remains."

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