Published : 2014-02-19 21:05
Updated : 2014-02-20 09:10
As thick black smoke rose from the barricades encircling the protest camp in central Kiev, a tense calm descended Wednesday over the capital and the European Union threatened sanctions against Ukraine following deadly violence between riot police and protesters in which at least 25 people died and 241 were injured.
Thousands of defiant protesters faced rows of riot police who have squeezed them deeper into the Kiev's Independence Square, known as the Maidan, which has been a bastion and symbol for the protesters, after overnight clashes that set buildings on fire and brought sharp rebuke from both the West and Russia.
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 divided in loyalties between Russia and the West, and the worst in the country's post-Soviet history. 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"; it criticized the West for the escalation of violence.
President Viktor Yanukovych on Wednesday blamed the protesters for the violence and said the opposition leaders "crossed a line when they called people to arms."
The European Union appears poised to impose sanctions as it called an extraordinary meeting of the 28-nation bloc's foreign ministers.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called Wednesday for "targeted measures against those responsible for violence and use of excessive force can be agreed ... as a matter of urgency."
Sanctions would at first typically include banning leading officials from traveling to the 28-nation bloc and freezing their assets there.
"It is the political leadership of the country that has a responsibility to ensure the necessary protection of fundamental rights and freedoms," said Barroso, who heads the EU's executive arm. "It was with shock and utter dismay that we have been watching developments over the last 24 hours in Ukraine," he added.
The protests began in late November after Yanukovych turned away from a long-anticipated deal with the European Union in exchange for a $15 billion bailout from Russia. The political maneuvering continued ever since, with both Moscow and the West eager to gain influence over this former Soviet republic.
The latest bout of street violence began Tuesday when protesters attacked police lines and set fires outside parliament, accusing Yanukovych of ignoring their demands to enact constitutional reforms that would limit president's power -- a key opposition demand. Parliament, dominated by his supporters, was stalling on taking up a constitutional reform to limit presidential powers.
Police responded by attacking the protest camp. Armed with water cannons, stun grenades and rubber bullets, police dismantled some barricades and took part of the Maidan. But the protesters still held their ground through the night, encircling the camp with new burning barricades of tires, furniture and debris.
On Wednesday morning, the center of Kiev was cordoned off by police, 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.
A group of young men and women poured petrol into plastic bottles, preparing fire bombs, while a volunteer walked past them distributing ham sandwiches to protesters from a tray. Another group of activists was busy crushing the pavement into pieces and into bags to fortify barricades.
"The revolution turned into a war with the authorities," said Vasyl Oleksenko, 57, a retired geologist from central Ukraine, who said he fled the night's violence fearing for his life, but returned to the square in the morning, feeling ashamed. "We must fight this bloody, criminal leadership; we must fight for our country, our Ukraine."
Yanukovych was defiant on Wednesday.
"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, the president said in a statement. "If they don't want to leave (the square) -- they should acknowledge that they are supporting radicals. Then the conversation with them will already be of a different kind." He also called a day of mourning for the dead on Thursday.
Yanukovych's tone left few with hope of compromise after a night of violence. He still enjoys strong support in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions, where many want strong ties with Russia. (AP)