25 die in escalating Kiev turmoil

2014-02-19 09:41

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Kiev – Riot police launched a fresh assault on protesters in central Kiev early today, escalating a bloody standoff that has already left at least 25 people dead in a dramatic turning point for Ukraine’s three-month political crisis.

A volley of tear gas rained down on protesters and more tents went up in flames as riot squads took up position around a monument in the centre of Independence Square shortly after 4am.

Protesters, who have camped out on the square for nearly three months, dug up paving stones and hurled Molotov cocktails in a desperate bid to repel the onslaught after hours of bloody clashes.

A wall of smoke and flames rose up into the icy night air as lines of police and protesters, both clutching shields and clad in helmets and body armour, faced off in an apocalyptic scene.

The surge in violence, in a country torn between a future allied to the West or to Russia, sparked alarm in the US and Europe.

However, a defiant President Viktor Yanukovych refused calls to halt the ferocious assault on the bloodiest day since protests broke out in November, when he ditched a pact with the EU in favour of closer ties with former Soviet master, Russia.

In an address to the nation as clashes raged, he said the opposition had gone too far and accused them of trying to oust him.

“The leaders of the opposition have disregarded the principle of democracy according to which we obtain power through elections and not on the street ... they have crossed the limits by calling for people to take up arms,” he said, adding that those responsible would face the law.

Kiev was in lockdown as authorities halted the city’s metro system and limited road traffic into the capital.

Police said seven officers had died from gunshot wounds, while authorities and medics counted nine civilian deaths since yesterday morning.

Another two civilians were found dead, but their bodies showed no exterior signs of violence, making it unclear how they had died.

The Ukrainian Health Ministry said this morning that the death toll now stood at 25.

More than 150 people were injured, including dozens of police officers, some with serious wounds.

As the turmoil intensified, US Vice-President Joe Biden phoned Yanukovych to express his concern and urge him to “pull back government forces and to exercise maximum restraint,” said a White House statement.

However opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, fresh from a meeting with the president said: “Yanukovych said there is only one option ... to clear Maidan and that everyone has to go home.”

“This is a small island of freedom,” the former boxing champion said, declaring the protesters were “not going anywhere”.

“The state has launched a war against its own people. Responsible democratic countries cannot stand back and let this happen.”

The violence erupted after the crisis appeared to have abated in recent days, with both sides making concessions which saw protesters vacate Kiev city hall after being granted an amnesty deal.

However yesterday, about 20 000 anti-Yanukovych protesters clashed with police outside parliament as they rallied for legislators to strip the president of a raft of powers.

Running street battles broke out and protesters took back control of city hall and attacked Yanukovych’s party headquarters with petrol bombs.

After threatening “grave actions” if the unrest did not cease, police first stormed the square in the early evening, warning women and children through loudspeakers to leave as they began their “anti-terrorist” operation.

But some 25 000 people, many of them wearing makeshift body protection and wielding iron bars and bats, remained to defy the riot squads.

The violence also spread to the west of the country where thousands of protesters overran public buildings, including the police and special forces’ headquarters in the pro-EU city of Lviv, where they took control of an arms warehouse.

In Ternopil, protesters lobbed Molotov cocktails at a local government building before occupying it while similar scenes played out in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk.

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