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Police, protesters wage ‘war’ in Kiev after deadly clashes

Agence France-Presse

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(UPDATED) Tuesday is the bloodiest day since protests started against President Viktor Yanukovych in November, when he infuriated a large part of the population by ditching a pact promising closer ties with the EU

KIEV, Ukraine (5th UPDATE) – Flames engulfed the main protest camp in Kiev late Tuesday, February 18, as police stormed it during the deadliest day of violence in three months of demonstrations, in which at least 11 people were killed and alarm rippled across Europe and beyond.

Helmeted protesters hurling rocks, fireworks and Molotov cocktails fought back against black-armored riot squads targeting them with stun grenades and water cannon.

Smoke from burning tires billowed up into the chill night air, while laser lights, flags and the glare of several fires from tents sent alight flickered over the riled-up crowd.

Kiev was in essential lockdown as authorities halted the city’s metro system and said they would limit road traffic coming into the capital from midnight (2200 GMT).

The apocalyptic scene in the capital’s Independence Square was broadcast live globally by TV news crews.

Police said 6 officers died from gunshot wounds, while authorities and demonstrators said 5 civilians were also killed in the clashes, bringing the death toll to at least 11.

Another two other civilians were found dead, but their bodies showed no exterior signs of violence, making it unclear if they died from the violence.

More than 150 people were injured, including dozens of police officers, some with serious wounds.

It was the bloodiest day since protests started against President Viktor Yanukovych in November, when he infuriated a large part of the population by ditching a pact promising closer ties with the EU in favor of staying in Russia’s orbit.

The European Union, United States and United Nations were among the international voices calling for calm after Tuesday’s conflagration.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was “deeply worried about the grave new escalation”.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for restraint and dialogue, while NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged “all parties to refrain from violence and to urgently resume dialogue, including through the parliamentary process”.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that the violence could lead to EU sanctions against those responsible.

KIEV BURNING. Smoke from exploding fireworks and fires billows into the night sky as Ukrainians gather on the Independence Square during continuing protest in Kiev, Ukraine, 18 February 2014. Igor Kovalenko/EPA

But a top Russian lawmaker said Ukraine – which is divided between a pro-EU half and a pro-Russian half – was on the brink of a civil war that he claimed had been inflamed by the West.

Alexei Pushkov, the head of the lower house’s foreign affairs committee, described the violence as an attempt to “seize power through chaos and lawlessness” in comments to the Interfax news agency.

“I consider that a significant amount of responsibility for this falls on the West and Western politicians, who are constantly putting pressure on the Ukrainian authorities,” Pushkov said.

Protesters defiant

Police had warned women and children through loudspeakers to leave the square in Kieve area as they began their assault, which they described as “an anti-terrorist” operation.

But some 25,000 people, many of them wearing makeshift body protection and wielding bars and bats, remained to defy the riot squads.

Exhorting the crowd from a stage in the square where protest leaders continued to speak as the assault was continuing, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko declared the protesters “are not going anywhere”.

“This a small island of freedom,” the former boxing champion said. “The state has launched a war against its own people. Responsible democratic countries cannot stand back and let this happen.”

Afterwards, Klitschko went to Yanukovych’s residence for a meeting, his spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, around 500 protesters seized control of a regional administrative building and the police headquarters in the pro-EU western city of Lviv.

In a statement, influential oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and the ruling party’s main sponsor, condemned the violence.

“The loss of life on the side of both the protesters and the law enforcement agencies is an unacceptable price to pay for political mistakes that have been made,” the tycoon said.

Ukraine’s neighbor, Poland, called for restraint. Premier Donald Tusk said he was “very much depressed by the footage” from Kiev.

As long as the violence persisted, “no Ukrainian authorities can count on any dialogue with us, anything … this must be painfully clear,” Tusk said.

Running street battles

UNREST. Anti-government protesters throw rocks during clashes with police in front of the Ukrainian Parliment in Kiev on February 18, 2014. Photo by AFP/Sergei Supinsky

Tuesday’s violence put an end to what had seemed a de-escalation in recent days.

Protesters had agreed to evacuate the city hall as part of an amnesty deal with the government.

But on Tuesday, after a 20,000-strong anti-Yanukovych rally in front of parliament clashed with police, running street battles ensued.

Protesters seized back control of Kiev’s city hall, with around 30 activists setting up a first aid point inside the building, which the opposition had left on Sunday, February 16, as part of an amnesty deal with the authorities.

They also briefly seized Yanukovych’s party headquarters, after several hundred attacked it with petrol bombs, and smashed their way inside before retreating as smoke billowed from the windows.

Yanukovych’s ruling Regions Party said that an employee at its headquarters was found dead after the seizure of the building.

Prosecutor-general Viktor Pshonka warned he would seek the “harshest punishments” for those deemed to have been behind Tuesday’s violence. –

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