A portrait of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich burns
near the destroyed building of the security service in
Lviv. REUTERS/Marian Striltsiv
Western powers have threatened sanctions over the death
of 26 people in the worst violence since Ukraine's independence
from the Soviet Union, pressuring President Viktor Yanukovich
to compromise with his pro-European opponents.
Yanukovitch, backed by Russia, denounced the overnight
bloodshed in central Kiev as an attempted coup and his
security service said it had launched a nationwide
"anti-terrorist operation" after arms and ammunition dumps
In the western bastion of Ukrainian nationalism, a regional
assembly declared self-rule and crowds seized public
European Union leaders condemned what they called "the
unjustified use of excessive force by the Ukrainian
authorities" and said they were urgently preparing targeted
sanctions against officials responsible for the crackdown.
EU officials said Yanukovich himself would not be on the list
to keep channels of dialogue open. The foreign ministers of
Germany, France and Poland will visit him on Thursday, hours
before an emergency EU meeting to decide on the sanctions.
The United States, going head to head with Russia in a
dispute heavy with echoes of the Cold War, urged Yanukovich
to pull back riot police, call a truce and talk to the
Neighbouring Poland's prime minister, Donald Tusk, said
Ukraine faced civil war, even partition, if dialogue fails:
"What if no compromise is achieved?" he asked in parliament.
"We will have anarchy and perhaps division of the state or
civil war, the beginning of which we may now be witnessing."
Protesters have been occupying central Kiev for almost three
months since Yanukovich spurned a far-reaching trade deal
with the EU and accepted a $15-billion Russian bailout
The sprawling nation of 46 million, with an ailing economy
and endemic corruption, is the object of a tug-of-war at a
global level between Moscow and the West. But the struggle
was played out at close quarters, hand to hand, in fighting
through the night on Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan.
After night fell, fires blazed along the barricaded frontline
between the protesters and riot police but there was no
immediate sign of a repetition of Tuesday's violence.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Yanukovich spoke by
telephone during the night and both denounced the events as
an coup attempt, a Kremlin spokesman said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed the West for
encouraging opposition radicals "to act outside of the law".
Moscow announced on Monday it would resume stalled aid to
Kiev, pledging $2 billion hours before the crackdown began.
The money has not yet arrived and a Ukrainian government
source said it had been delayed till Friday "for technical
Ukraine's hryvnia currency, flirting with its lowest levels
since the global crash five years ago, weakened to more than
9 to the dollar for the second time this month.
After a night of petrol bombs and gunfire on Independence
Square, a trade union building that protest organisers had
used as a headquarters stood blackened and gutted by fire.
Security forces occupied about a third of the square - the
part which lies closest to government offices and parliament
- with protesters reinforced their defences on the remainder
of a plaza they have dubbed "Euro-Maidan".
In a statement posted online in the early hours, Yanukovich
said he had refrained from using force during three months of
unrest but was being pressed by "advisers" to take a harder
line: "Without any mandate from the people, illegally and in
breach of the constitution of Ukraine, these politicians - if
I may use that term - have resorted to pogroms, arson and
murder to try to seize power," the president said.
He declared Thursday a day of mourning for the dead. The
state security service said it had opened an investigation
into illegal attempts by "individual politicians" to seize
One opposition leader, former world champion boxer Vitaly
Klitschko, walked out of a overnight meeting with Yanukovich,
saying he could not negotiate while blood was being spilt.
When fighting subsided at dawn, the square resembled a
battle-zone, the ground charred by Molotov cocktails.
Helmeted young activists used pickaxes, and elderly women
their bare hands, to dig up paving to stock as ammunition.
The Health Ministry said 26 people were killed in fighting in
the capital, of whom 10 were police officers. A ministry
official said 263 protesters were being treated for injuries
and 342 police officers, mainly with gunshot wounds.
The interior ministry said five of the dead policemen were
hit by identical sniper fire in the head or neck. Journalists
saw some hardline protesters carrying guns at the barricades.
EU WEIGHS SANCTIONS
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said the
28-nation EU, at an emergency meeting on Thursday, would
impose asset freezes and visa bans on those blamed for the
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on a visit to Paris, said
Washington was ready to impose similar sanctions.
The European Investment Bank, the EU's soft-loan arm, said it
had frozen its activities in Ukraine due to the violence.
The leaders of Germany and France said after talks in Paris
that the sanctions were only part of an approach to promote a
compromise leading to constitutional reform and elections.
"What is happening in Ukraine is unspeakable, unacceptable,
intolerable," French President Francois Hollande told a joint
news conference. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said
targeted sanctions against Ukraine's leaders would show the
EU was serious in pressing for a political solution. She made
clear they were talking to all sides in the crisis, including
Diplomats cautioned that any sanctions would be largely
symbolic, noting that similar Western measures had long
failed to sway or unseat the rulers of Belarus or Zimbabwe.
In staunchly pro-European western Ukraine, opponents of
Yanukovich declared political autonomy after seizing regional
administrative buildings in Lviv overnight and forcing police
to surrender. Protesters also took over regional offices in
Ivano-Frankivsk, blocked a road to a border crossing to
Poland and torched the main police station in the city of
Many in the west, parts of which were first ruled from Moscow
in World War Two, view Yanukovich as a corrupt ally of Russia
and of business oligarchs in the Russian-speaking east.
On the central Kiev square, opposition speakers harangued
thousands of protesters, some masked and in combat fatigues.
Priests intoned prayers from a stage while young protesters
in hard-hats improvised forearm and knee pads to protect
themselves against baton blows. Others prepared petrol bombs.
"They can come in their thousands but we will not give in. We
simply don't have anywhere to go. We will stay until victory
and will hold the Maidan until the end," said a 44-year-old
from Ternopil who gave only his first name of Volodymyr.
Traffic entering Kiev were restricted and the capital's metro
was closed to prevent protesters getting reinforcements.
Demonstrations erupted in November after Yanukovich bowed to
Russian pressure and pulled out of a planned far-reaching
association agreement with Brussels. Western powers urged him
to turn back to the EU and the prospect of an IMF-supported
economic recovery, while Russia accused them of meddling.
Ukraine has been rocked periodically by political turmoil
since independence from the Soviet Union more than 22 years
ago, but it has never experienced violence on this scale.