Thick, dark smoke rose above the center of the Ukrainian capital amid the boom of police stun grenades yesterday, as officers in riot gear sought to push demonstrators away from the city’s main square following deadly clashes between police and protesters that have left at least 25 people dead, hundreds injured and raised fears of a civil war.
After several hours of relative calm, confrontation flared up again yesterday afternoon, with hundreds of police amassing on the edges of Independence Square — known as the Maidan — throwing stun grenades and using water cannons in a bid to disperse protesters.
Thousands of activists armed with fire bombs and rocks held their ground, defending the square which has been a bastion and symbol for the demonstrators.
The violence on Tuesday was the worst in nearly three months of anti-government protests that have paralyzed Ukraine’s capital in a struggle over the identity of a nation, and the worst in the country’s post-Soviet history.
It prompted the EU to threaten sanctions against the Ukrainian officials responsible for the violence and triggered angry rebukes from Moscow, which accused the West of triggering the clashes by backing the opposition.
The Kremlin said it put the next disbursement of its bailout on hold amid uncertainty over Ukraine’s future and what it described as a “coup attempt.”
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych yesterday blamed the protesters for the violence and said the opposition leaders “crossed a line when they called people to arms.”
The EU appears poised to impose sanctions as it called an extraordinary meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers today.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso yesterday called for “targeted measures against those responsible for violence and use of excessive force can be agreed ... as a matter of urgency.”
“It is the political leadership of the country that has a responsibility to ensure the necessary protection of fundamental rights and freedoms,” Barroso said. “It was with shock and utter dismay that we have been watching developments over the last 24 hours in Ukraine.”
The center of Kiev was cordoned off by police yesterday morning, the subway was shut down and most shops on Kiev’s main street were closed, but hundreds of Ukrainians still flocked to the opposition camp, some wearing balaclavas and armed with bats, others, in every-day clothes and with make-up on, carrying food to protesters.
Yanukovych was defiant yesterday in a statement: “I again call on the leaders of the opposition ... to draw a boundary between themselves and radical forces which are provoking bloodshed and clashes with the security services.”