KIEV (AFP) - They stood like a unit from a paramilitary army, in camouflage fatigues and clutching baseball bats, their faces concealed underneath helmets and black balaclavas.
Radical activists on Monday blockaded the Ukrainian justice ministry in Kiev, in a provocative move that risked derailing talks to end Ukraine's crisis and was condemned even by some within the opposition.
Activists from the Spilna Sprava (Common Cause) radical group had late on Sunday stormed the building, bursting past the token protection provided by three guards and occupying the building.
They symbolically smashed the official sign of the building, destroyed one of the ground floor windows and set up a table outside with two icons and the Ukrainian constitution.
Two barricades several metres high were set up on the adjacent roads manned by activists with motorcycle helmets whose heads peered over the sacks of snow forming the blockade.
Using methods that would have impressed experts in mediaeval siege warfare, they poured water onto the street's cobbled stones and created an icy surface that made any movement dangerous.
The activists stayed over 12 hours, occupying the elegant late nineteenth century building on what is usually one of central Kiev's quietest streets in an area packed with luxury stores from Gucci to Dior.
They left the premises in the afternoon after the action prompted the Justice Minister Olena Lukash to warn she would recommend the imposition of a state of emergency if they did not leave but they kept up their picket and their barricades.
A harried looking employee of the ministry was allowed in to check there was no major damage and left without making comment.
The activists blockading the front entrance created an imposing spectacle, some with flak jackets with special pockets for a walkie-talkie and a knife.
All carried some kind of weapon, be it a crowbar, wooden stick or baseball bat.
'WE DON'T HAVE FEAR'
"A state of emergency would be a disaster for Ukraine," said one of the activists, protected by a helmet, ski goggles and knee pads and giving his name as Sasha.
"The police would have to choose whether to fire on the protesters or not and I think they would be very divided, not all would agree."
A coordinator of the action who gave his name as Yaroslav said the activists would stay as long as necessary. "We don't have fear and we trust in God," he said.
In a show of force to prevent action by the security forces, hundreds of activists with ad hoc weapons and resembling a rag-tag army marched in front of the building shouting the protest slogans of "Glory to the Heroes!" and "Out with the Gang!".
Spilna Sprava, led by an activist named MrOlexander Danylyuk, is one of several radical Ukrainian groups taking part in the protests against President Viktor Yanukovych whose actions do not always find approval from those in the established opposition.
"If terror is imposed instead of a return to constitutional order then we will blockade every single administrative central organ of the authorities," he wrote on Facebook after the activists left the building.
He said that such tactics were better than "passive standing around" on the protest hub of Independence Square.
"We have shown over the last three days that we are able to take any ministry," he said after similar actions at the energy and agriculture ministries.
Kiev bystanders seemed remarkably untroubled by the surreal theatre being played out in front of the ministry.
Extraordinarily, an entrance to a metro station right next door remained open throughout the episode as startled commuters emerged to see their justice ministry under siege.
"It's the end of this regime," said pensioner Volodymyr as he walked by the scene. "There is no way back for them from here."