Deadly clashes engulfed Ukraine’s capital for the second time this week as European Union negotiators held hours of talks with President Viktor Yanukovych and his rivals to try to end the bloodshed.
A truce agreed on last night was shattered this morning as skirmishes broke out at the protest camp on Independence Square. While the Health Ministry reported seven killed, including two policemen, the opposition Svoboda party said more than 60 were dead. EU foreign ministers were locked in talks for most of the day as police were given the green light to fire live rounds.
Violence in the country of 45 million, a key east-west energy route, has snowballed this week amid frustration among protesters that demands for snap elections and governance changes were being ignored. Russian-backed Yanukovych ordered a nationwide anti-terrorism sweep to end the three-month uprising. Russia and the West blame each other for the escalation. The EU imposed sanctions against those it deems responsible.
“The main task today is to stop the bloodshed, shooting at people on the streets, which the authorities are responsible for,” opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, the ex-world boxing champion, said today in parliament. “First of all, the army must be pulled back so brothers aren’t attacking brothers.”
A sniper killed demonstrators on the square, the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper reported on its website. The Interior Ministry claimed a sniper in the activists’ camp wounded 20 policemen with gunfire. Sixty-seven officers are being held hostage by demonstrators, according to ministry.
As the clashes escalated, parliament was evacuated and a meeting between Yanukovych and foreign ministers from Germany, France and Poland was switched to the presidential palace. After six hours of talks, the ministers left to meet the opposition.
Yanukovych interrupted the gathering to make a phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied speculation the Ukrainian leader was seeking safe haven. He said crisis mediation was discussed and Russian human-rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin was sent to Kiev.
EU foreign ministers met in Brussels and agreed on sanctions against Ukrainian individuals responsible for this week’s deadly clashes. They include visa bans and asset freezes, Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said.
The threat of sanctions encouraged opposition to take an intractable position and is similar to “blackmail,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Baghdad today. Ukrainian extremists are trying to provoke a civil war, he said.
The U.S. is “outraged” by the actions of Ukraine’s security forces, White House spokesman Jay Carney said today in a statement. President Barack Obama warned yesterday against the involvement of the military, which budget cuts have reduced to 182,000 people from 800,000 at the 1991 Soviet fall.
The violence prompted Kiev Mayor Volodymyr Makeyenko to quit Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, while 12 fellow deputies called on police to stop using guns and urged lawmakers to switch Ukraine back to a system of parliamentary, rather than presidential, governance, a key opposition demand.
Yanukovych yesterday fired army chief Volodymyr Zaman and replaced him with the head of the navy without explanation. Ukraine also boosted security at its natural gas pipelines.
During an anti-terrorism operation, soldiers can legally search civilian vehicles and stop car and pedestrian traffic, according to the Defense Ministry. Security forces can used combat weapons and live ammunition to protect civilians, recover hostages and guard property, the Interior Ministry said today.
Activists have seized more than 1,500 guns and 100,000 rounds of ammunition from military bases, depots and state buildings, the security service said, without elaborating.
The unrest isn’t limited to Ukraine’s capital.
Lawmakers in Lviv on the Polish border yesterday ousted their Yanukovych-appointed governor, set up an autonomous government and declared allegiance to the opposition. Protesters seized government and security headquarters in at least four other regions. Polish Premier Donald Tusk warned of civil war.
Ukrainian bonds have slumped. The yield on the government’s $1 billion of notes due June jumped to a record 41.6 percent yesterday before pulling back to 29.9 percent today. The cost to insure Ukraine’s debt for five years against non-payment using credit default swaps rose to the highest since 2009.
The standoff began Nov. 21, when Yanukovych pulled out of a free-trade deal with the EU, opting instead for $15 billion of Russian aid and cheaper gas. The opposition is seeking to overturn constitutional changes that strengthened Yanukovych’s powers and to put Ukraine on a path toward EU membership.
It also wants Yanukovych, who was elected in 2010 with 49 percent of the vote and whose party controls a majority in parliament together with the Communists and individual deputies, to call early elections. His term is due to end in March 2015.
While the burning tires that ringed Independence Square last night weren’t evident this evening, the mood among the protesters remained defiant.
“We’re here to defend our Kiev homeland from gangsters and mobsters in police uniform,” Yasha, a 28-year-old masked protester who declined to give his last name for fear of reprisal, said today.