Clashes in Ukraine between police and anti-government activists killed at least 18 people and left hundreds injured in the bloodiest episode of the country’s three-month standoff.
Eleven civilians and seven policemen were confirmed dead during clashes yesterday and through the night as security forces moved to clear out the main protest camp in Kiev. Thousands gathered on central Independence Square, with burning barricades ringing protesters hurling firebombs at officers backed by water cannons and military vehicles.
Ukraine’s Russia-backed President, Viktor Yanukovych, is seeking to end the crisis that has destabilized the country of 45 million, a key energy route. The government yesterday banned protests and vowed to use “all means” necessary to restore order. The U.S. and European governments condemned the violence, some diplomats urging sanctions against the country’s leaders.
“The violent scenario is a tragic and irreversible decision,” Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Political Analysis Center in Kiev, said by phone. “Western Ukraine may even declare its insubordination. Any attempt to restore order in western Ukraine by force will start a civil war.”
The violence has spread throughout Ukraine. Protesters stormed the police department in Ternopil and Ivano Frankivsk, both in western Ukraine. In Lviv, the country’s fourth-largest city, the anti-government regional council declared “total mobilization” and called all adult males to drive to Kiev.
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.
“Extremists from the opposition have crossed the line,” the security service and the Interior Ministry said in a joint statement. “They are killing innocents on the streets of the capital, burning buildings and cars.”
The government closed the subway system, set up checkpoints to limit access to the city of 3 million people and pulled the opposition’s Channel 5 off the air. Schools and kindergartens in central Kiev will remain closed today, the city administration said. Lights went out over Independence Square after midnight.
Opposition leaders met Yanukovych for unscheduled talks. The president “doesn’t see the situation adequately” and his only demand was that protesters leave the camp on the square known as Maidan, UDAR party Chairman Vitali Klitschko, said on Hromadske TV.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t bring any good news from the talks,” said Klitschko, the former boxing world champion. “I went to see him as I suggested to stop the confrontation before ending talks. The president said that there is one way out: everyone should leave Maidan and go home. That’s it.”
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Yanukovych to express “grave concern” over the violence and urge the government to exercise restraint, according to a White House news release on their conversation.
Biden told Yanukovych that while the Obama administration condemns violence by any side, the government bears “special responsibility” to defuse the crisis, the White House said.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius in an interview yesterday warned that Ukraine risks sliding into civil war and urged the EU to weigh targeted sanctions against government officials.
Yatsenyuk and Svoboda party leader Oleh Tyahnybok earlier led thousands of demonstrators into Mariyinskyi Park just south of the legislature before police halted their 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 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 (656 feet) from the parliament building. They were faced by a similar number of truncheon-wielding protesters, most wearing helmets and bullet-proof vests and some carrying air pistols.
A trade union building on Independence Square, which the protesters had seized and used as their headquarters, was on fire after midnight.
“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.”
As of 11 p.m., 221 protesters sought medical help and 114 were hospitalized, the city administration said. Police said 272 officers were injured. As many as 20 activists died and 400 were hurt, according to the Internet feed of off-air Channel 5, which cited the head of the medical center at the protest camp.
Russia, which backs Yanukovych and renewed funding to his government this week, blamed the U.S. and the EU 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 Feb. 17 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.
Yanukovych, 63, will submit his candidate for prime minister this week, Speaker Rybak told reporters Feb. 17 after meeting the president. Yatsenyuk rejected Yanukovych’s offer to become premier on Jan. 25.
“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.”