Deadly violence shatters Ukraine truce; EU envoys hold crisis talks

Agence France-Presse

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(2nd UPDATE) Armed protesters stormed police barricades in Kiev on Thursday, February 20, in renewed violence that killed at least 26 people

KIEV, Ukraine – (3rd UPDATE) Ukraine’s brittle truce was left in tatters on Thursday, February 21, by raging street battles between baton-wielding protesters and riot police Thursday that left dozens of people dead as the EU was meeting to consider sanctions.

Bodies of anti-government demonstrators lay amid smouldering debris after masked protesters hurling Molotov cocktails and stones forced gun-toting police from Kiev’s Independence Square – the epicentre of the ex-Soviet country’s three-month-old crisis.

More than 60 protesters died from gunshot wounds, according to an opposition medic, making it the bloodiest day of violence since Ukraine’s independence.

Police fired live ammunition “in self-defence” when protesters threatened them, said the interior ministry, which also accused “radical extremists” of seizing 67 officers.

The lobby of the Ukraina hotel overlooking the flashpoint Independence Square was turned into an impromptu morgue. Bodies of seven protesters lay side by side under white sheets on the marble floor in front of the reception desk.

Police said a sniper perched on a hotel roof had injured 20 officers with live ammunition fire, while protest leaders accused the city police of being behind the sniper attacks.

The carnage erupted as three EU foreign ministes were holding talks with embattled President Victor Yanukovych to try to end the crisis.

Ukraine’s three main opposition leaders described the unrest as a “planned provocation” by the pro-Russian government but Moscow blamed it on “extremists and hardliners” bent on sparking a civil war.

The clashes have shattered a truce called by Yanukovych late Wednesday in response to a spurt of violence on Tuesday that killed 28 people.

As Yanukovych held talks with the foreign ministers of EU powers France and Germany along with Poland, in Brussels the EU was meeting to consider sanctions, including a possible arms embargo.

Describing the escalating violence as “utterly unacceptable and indefensible”, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “Helping to stop the violence is the immediate priority.”

Diplomats said the three ministers in Kiev, whose report on events was keenly awaited by their 25 EU counterparts, were staying on in Ukraine.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said on Twitter that they would also hold talks with the opposition “so as to test proposed agreement,” without elaborating.

Ukraine’s former master Russia blasted the possible sanctions as “bullying” and said President Vladimir Putin was sending a representative to Kiev to act as a mediator in talks with the opposition.

The US State Department has already announced travel bans on about 20 senior government figures over the fighting, which turned deadly despite apparent concessions on both sides earlier this week.

Yanukovych has appeared to struggle to formulate a clear policy in the face of the escalating violence and the Cold War-like war of words between the West and Moscow over the country’s future.

RENEWED VIOLENCE. A demonstrator stands on a balcony overlooking Independence square in Kiev, Ukraine. Armed protesters stormed police barricades in Kiev, shattering an hours-old truce as EU envoys held crisis talks with Ukraine's embattled president. Photo by Bulent Kilic/AFP 

Death toll climbs

AFP reporters said they saw the bodies of at least 25 protesters with apparent gunshot wounds around two popular Independence Square hotels and lying outside the central Kiev post office on Thursday.

A medic who works with the opposition gave a higher count. “More than 60 protesters died today. They all have gunshot wounds,” the EuroMiadan Medical Centre coordinator Svyatoslav Khanenko told AFP

Ukraine’s interior ministry said two policeman died from gunshot wounds sustained in the clashes and advised Kiev residents to stay indoors “because the streets of Kiev are occupied by armed and aggressive people.”

Ukraine’s crisis was initially ignited by Yanukovych’s shock decision in November to ditch an historic EU trade and political association agreement in favour of closer ties with Kiev’s historic masters in the Kremlin.

But it has since evolved into a much broader anti-government movement that has swept through both the pro-Western west of the country as well as parts of its more Russified east and exposed the deep historical fault lines between the two.

Yanukovych had appeared determined Wednesday to end the crisis by force after the country’s security services announced plans to launch a sweeping “anti-terror” operation.

He also sacked the army’s top general — a powerful figure lauded by the opposition for refusing to back the use of force against those who had come out on the street.

But he then received three top protest leaders and told them he would take no immediate action against those who have taken to the streets against his rule.

The president was dealt a further embarrassing blow when Kiev mayor Volodymyr Makeyenko resigned Thursday from the ruling Regions Party in protest at the “tragedy” of the unrest.

VIOLENCE. Protesters burn as they stand behind burning barricades during clashes with police on February 20, 2014 in Kiev. Photo by Bulent Kilic/AFP

US and EU sanctions

The crackdown by the authorities has triggered a storm of condemnation from the West and a new war of words with Moscow that carried the diplomatic echoes of the Cold War.

The US State Department announced it was imposing visa bans on about 20 senior Ukrainian officials “complicit in or responsible for ordering or otherwise directing human rights abuses”.

Western pressure was set to mount still further on Thursday when the European Union considers its own measures during a meeting in Brussels.

France said ahead of the meeting that sanctions would be prepared specifically against those responsible for the violence.

Moscow meanwhile has issued a string of outraged comments condemning both the protesters and the West.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told Russia’s cabinet that Moscow intended to follow through on its commitment to issue the next tranche of a $15 billion bailout that Putin and Yanukovych agreed shortly after Kiev rejected the EU pact.

But Medvedev said Moscow needs “partners who are in good shape and for the authorities that work in Ukraine to be legitimate and effective.”

Politics even cast a shadowed over the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi when a Ukrainian alpine skier and her coach pulled out of competition in protest at the authorities’ use of force. –

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