Ukrainian forces announced the start of an operation to clear the Kiev square occupied by thousands of protesters, after at least 10 people died in the bloodiest day of the country’s three-month standoff.
Police officials said by loudspeaker shortly before 9 p.m. that women and children should leave Independence Square for the start of an “anti-terrorist” action. Thousands of riot police backed by water cannons and military trucks surrounded the compound. Protesters lobbed Molotov cocktails from behind their barricades while waving flags, singing the national anthem and stoking bonfires with anything that burns.
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, a former world boxing champion, arrived at President Viktor Yanukovych’s office for unscheduled talks on the crisis at about 11 p.m. tonight, Klitschko’s spokeswoman, Oksana Zinoveyva, said via Twitter Inc.
The security service and Interior Ministry issued a joint statement earlier today banning further protests, saying they’ll use “all means” necessary to restore order in Kiev. The government closed the subway system, set up checkpoints to limit access to the city of 3 million people and pulled the opposition’s TV5 channel off the air.
“Extremists from the opposition have crossed the line,” the service and ministry said. “They are killing innocents on the streets of the capital, burning buildings and cars.”
At least seven civilians died and more than 150 were injured in fighting between protesters and police, according to City Hall and the opposition. The government said at least three policemen were killed, two by gunfire, and 157 wounded. Yanukovych agreed to meet tomorrow with opposition leaders to discuss their grievances, Speaker Volodymyr Rybak said.
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, a former world boxing champion, also urged women and children to leave Independence Square and called on Ukrainian men to join the 20,000 or so already there to prevent police from destroying the encampment.
“Dissolving the protest camp without casualties will not be possible,” Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Political Analysis Center in Kiev, said by phone. “The violent scenario is a tragic and irreversible decision. Western Ukraine may even declare its insubordination. Any attempt to restore order in western Ukraine by force will start a civil war.”
Klitschko’s partners, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a lawmaker and former central banker, and Svoboda party leader Oleh Tyahnybok, earlier led thousands of demonstrators into Mariyinskyi Park just south of the legislature before police halted the advance. It was their first mass action outside the compound since Jan. 19, when efforts to reach parliament were also repelled.
“I am addressing the Ukrainian president, he is the only person who can be held responsible for what is happening,” Klitschko, 42, said in parliament earlier today as violence raged outside. “Call snap presidential and parliamentary elections. Do it. It’s the only way to solve the issue.”
Police used rubber bullets and stun and flash grenades to stop rock-throwing marchers on Shovkovychna Street, which ends at parliament. Molotov cocktails thrown from the crowd set at least two government trucks on fire. Protesters burned tires on another route, producing plumes of black smoke that covered the area where three activists were shot dead on Jan. 22.
Clouds of mouth-burning pepper gas permeated Mariyinskyi Park, where hundreds of riot police established a line of defense about 200 meters from parliament. They were faced by a similar number of truncheon-wielding protesters, most wearing helmets and bullet-proof vests and some carrying air pistols.
“Today, we face the choice of whether we’ll be a colony of Russia or an independent state,” lawmaker Andriy Parubiy told a swelling crowd before the march. “We are not afraid.”
Russia, which backs Yanukovych and renewed funding to his government this week, blamed the U.S. and the European Union for the violence.
“Western politicians and European structures” and their “policy of connivance” are guilty for the escalation of the violence, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on its website.
The opposition is seeking to overturn constitutional changes that strengthened Yanukovych’s powers and to put Ukraine on a path toward EU membership. The standoff began on Nov. 21, when Yanukovych pulled out of a free-trade deal with the EU, opting instead for President Vladimir Putin’s offer of $15 billion of aid and cheaper gas.
Russia, which stopped buying bonds from Ukraine’s cash-strapped government after Yanukovych’s Russian-born prime minister, Mykola Azarov, resigned on Jan. 28, said yesterday it will resume purchases, including $2 billion this week. Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov made the announcement just as Klitschko and Yatsenyuk were meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin to seek financial and political backing to form a new government.
“Russia is playing hardball,” Alexander Valchyshen, head of research at Investment Capital in Kiev, said by phone. “Russia gave a clear signal that it knows who’ll be the next prime minister, that it’s ready to financially support him, and that no other players are acceptable here.”
Yanukovych, 63, will submit his candidate for prime minister this week, Speaker Rybak told reporters yesterday, after meeting with the president. Yatsenyuk rejected Yanukovych’s offer to become premier on Jan. 25.
Merkel told Yatsenyuk and Klitschko that the EU will “do everything” it can to help end the crisis, according to government spokesman Steffen Seibert. She also expressed sympathy for the “legitimate concerns” of Ukrainians.
The standoff has hurt Ukraine’s currency and helped push its foreign-exchange reserves to a seven-year low. The hryvnia was unchanged at 8.86 per dollar, near a five-year low, while bonds rallied on the resumption of Russian aid, with the yield on dollar notes due June faling 1.04 percentage points to 21.12 percent by 5:15 p.m. in Kiev.
Before the rally, Tyahnybok and other opposition leaders agreed to cede control of five government buildings, including Kiev’s City Hall near Independence Square, prompting prosecutors to drop charges against hundreds of demonstrators as part of an amnesty bill. A fire damaged City Hall today.
“Our plan is to besiege parliament until they come up with a solution, like the way cardinals elect the Pope,” Ihor, a 41-year-old contractor from the industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine, Yanukovych’s power base, said before today’s march. “We don’t want a fight, nothing more than maybe jostling with the police a bit.” Ihor declined to give his surname.
Yanukovych, whose victory in rigged elections triggered the 2004 Orange Revolution, won a five-year term in February 2010 and strengthened the office of president. In 2011, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, his opponent in the 2010 vote, was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for abuse of power -- a case the EU has called politically motivated.
In addition to Yanukovych’s removal, his opponents are seeking to free Tymoshenko and restore the 2004 version of the constitution to give more power to the 450-seat parliament. The president’s Party of Regions and its allies, the Communists, hold 237 seats. Opposition parties have 167 seats, with the rest belonging to independents.
Yanukovych broke two weeks of silence on the standoff on Feb. 14 to insist his opponents curb their demands, including his ouster.
“The calls to struggle without compromise, seize, arm -- are dangerous,” Yanukovych said in an interview broadcast on state television. “Everyone should know that there is a line that nobody can cross, and that line is the law,” the president said. “We have enough force to put anyone in his proper place, but we do not want innocent people to suffer.”