Ukraine’s brittle truce was shattered yesterday in fierce clashes between baton-wielding protesters and riot police that claimed at least 27 lives just as EU envoys were holding crisis talks with the embattled president.
Bodies of anti-government demonstrators lay amid smouldering debris after masked protesters hurling Molotov cocktails and stones forced gun-toting police from Kiev’s iconic Independence Square — the epicenter of the ex-Soviet republic’s three-month-old crisis.
The retreating police unleashed a hail of rubber bullets on protesters as plumes of acrid smoke billowed into the air amid the explosions of stun grenades. The lobby of the Ukraina hotel overlooking the square was turned into an impromptu morgue. Bodies of seven dead protesters lay under white sheets on the marble floor in front of the reception desk. An Agence France-Presse photographer saw spent live cartridge shells littering the ground on the square. It was unclear who had used the ammunition.
The main government building nearby was evacuated as lawmakers ended a session of parliament early after the violence.
Ukraine’s three main opposition leaders called the unrest a “planned provocation” by the pro-Russian government, while Moscow blamed it on “extremists and hardliners” who were bent on sparking a civil war.
The clashes left in tatters a truce that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had called late on Wednesday in response to a spurt of violence that killed more than two dozen people in less than two days.
Yanukovych was holding crisis talks with the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland ahead of an emergency meeting in Brussels where the EU was expected to impose sanctions against Ukrainian government officials for the unrest.
The US Department of State has already announced visa bans on about 20 senior Ukrainian government figures over fighting that killed at least 28 people on Tuesday.
Yanukovych has appeared to struggle to formulate a clear policy in the face of Ukraine’s deadliest violence since independence and an escalating Cold War-like war of words between the West and former master Moscow over the future of the country sandwiched between Russia and the EU.
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 yesterday.
Ukraine’s interior ministry said two policemen 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.”