Anti-government protesters detain a policeman (2nd L)
during clashes in the Independence Square in Kiev.
Protesters were holding 67 policemen hostage in the
capital, the country's interior ministry said.
Ukraine has experienced its bloodiest day since Soviet
times with a gun battle in central Kiev as President Viktor
Yanukovich faced conflicting pressures from visiting European
Union ministers and his Russian paymasters.
Three hours of fierce fighting in Independence Square, which
was recaptured by anti-government protesters, left the bodies
of over 20 civilians strewn on the ground, a few hundred
metres from where the president met the EU delegation.
Riot police were captured on video shooting from a rooftop at
demonstrators in the plaza, known as the Maidan or
"Euro-Maidan". Protesters hurled petrol bombs and paving
stones to drive the security forces off a corner of the
square the police had captured in battles that began on two
Kiev's city health department said 67 people had been killed
since Tuesday, which meant at least 39 died in Thursday's
clashes. That was by far the worst violence since Ukraine
emerged from the crumbling Soviet Union 22 years ago.
The foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland met for a
marathon four hours with Yanukovich and extended their stay
to put a roadmap for a political solution to opposition
leaders. Diplomatic sources familiar with the discussions
said it involved a temporary government until fresh
"About to start a meeting with the opposition so as to test
proposed agreement," tweeted Polish minister Radoslaw
Meanwhile their EU colleagues agreed at an emergency meeting
in Brussels to move ahead with visa bans and asset freezes on
those deemed responsible for the violence, Italian Foreign
Minister Emma Bonino said.
In a sign of dwindling support for Yanukovich, his
hand-picked head of Kiev's city administration quit the
ruling party in protest at bloodshed in the streets.
But core loyalists were still talking tough.
Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko, wearing camouflage as
he made a televised statement, said police had been issued
with combat weapons and would use them "in accordance with
the law" to defend themselves - or to free 67 of their
colleagues his ministry said were being held captive.
Russia criticised the European and U.S. actions, calling them
"blackmail" that would only make matters worse. President
Vladimir Putin dispatched an envoy to Kiev to join the
mediation effort with the opposition at Yanukovich's request.
Ukraine is caught in a geopolitical tug-of-war between Moscow
- which sees it as a market and ally and fears protests
spreading to Russia - and the West, which says Ukrainians
should be free to choose economic integration with the EU.
Raising pressure on Yanukovich to restore order if he wants
another desperately needed loan, Russian Prime Minister
Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow would not hand over cash to a
leadership that let opponents walk over it "like a doormat".
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Yanukovich to urge him
to accept the offer of EU mediation in the crisis.
BOTH SIDES USED GUNS
Thursday morning's bloodshed, in which both sides used
firearms, traumatised many Ukrainians, whose 2004-05 Orange
Revolution for democracy passed off largely peacefully.
It heightened concern voiced by Polish Prime Minister Donald
Tusk that Ukraine could descend into civil war or split
between the pro-European west and Russian-speaking east.
Video of the clashes on the edge of the Kiev square showed
"Berkut" riot policemen firing bursts from automatic rifles
on the run as they covered retreating colleagues fleeing past
a nearby arts centre just off the plaza. An opposition
militant in a helmet was filmed firing from behind a tree.
Other protesters used police riot shields for cover, while
some fell wounded as the protest camp became a killing zone.
A presidential statement said dozens of police were wounded
or killed during the opposition offensive, hours after
Yanukovich and opposition leaders had agreed on a truce.
The interior ministry's website advised citizens to avoid
central Kiev because of the danger from "armed and aggressive
individuals". Schools, restaurants and many shops in the
normally bustling city of 3 million were closed, the metro
was shut down and bank machines were running out of cash.
A statement from Yanukovich's office said organised gangs of
protesters were using firearms, including sniper rifles.
Opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko urged lawmakers to convene
in parliament and demanded Yanukovich call an immediate
presidential election. "Today is a crucial day," the former
boxing world champion said. "The authorities are resorting to
bloody provocations in full view of the world."
Legislators gathered in parliament, near the main square, but
it was not clear any significant decisions could be taken.
"COLD WAR CHESSBOARD"
Wounded protesters were given first-aid treatment in the
lobby of the Ukraine Hotel, where many foreign correspondents
are staying. Reporters said there were bullet holes in the
walls and windows of the hotel overlooking the square.
The crisis in the sprawling country of 46 million with an
ailing economy and endemic corruption has mounted since
Yanukovich took a $15-billion Russian bailout instead of
signing a wide-ranging trade and cooperation deal with the
Russia has held back a new loan instalment until it sees
stability in Kiev and has condemned EU and U.S. support of
the opposition demands that Yanukovich, elected in a broadly
fair vote in 2010, should share power and hold new elections.
The United States stepped up pressure on Wednesday by
imposing travel bans on 20 senior Ukrainian officials.
"Our approach in the United States is not to see these as
some Cold War chessboard in which we're in competition with
Russia," U.S. President Barack Obama said after a North
American summit in Mexico on Wednesday.
Some members of Ukraine's team decided to leave Russia's
Winter Olympics in Sochi because of the violence back home,
the International Olympic Committee said.
In Lviv, a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism since Soviet
times, the regional assembly declared autonomy from
Yanukovich and his administration, which many west Ukrainians
see as much closer to Moscow and to Ukraine's
Yanukovich, who replaced the head of the armed forces, has
denounced the bloodshed as an attempted coup. EU officials
said the Ukrainian leader would be left off the sanctions
list for now to keep channels of dialogue open.
THREAT TO OLIGARCHS
Diplomats said the threat of sanctions could also target
assets held in the West by Ukrainian business oligarchs who
have either backed Yanukovich or are sitting on the fence.
Ukraine's hryvnia currency, flirting with its lowest levels
since the global financial crisis five years ago, weakened
again on Thursday. Ukraine's state debt insurance costs rose
to their highest since December 2009.
Possibly due to the risk of sanctions, three of Ukraine's
richest magnates have stepped up pressure on Yanukovich to
hold back from using force: "There are no circumstances which
justify the use of force toward the peaceful population,"
said steel and coal "oligarch" Rinat Akhmetov, who bankrolled
Yanukovich's 2010 election campaign.