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Originally published February 20, 2014 at 9:22 PM | Page modified February 20, 2014 at 9:35 PM

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Scores die as Ukraine crisis drastically escalates

The shootings followed a quickly shattered truce, with protesters parading dozens of captured police officers through Kiev’s central square.


The Associated Press

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KIEV, Ukraine — Protesters advanced on police lines in the heart of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, on Thursday, prompting government snipers to shoot back and kill scores of people in the country’s deadliest day since the breakup of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago.

The shootings followed a quickly shattered truce, with protesters parading dozens of captured police officers through Kiev’s central square. Despite a frenzy of East-West diplomacy and negotiations, there was little sign that tensions were easing.

President Viktor Yanukovych lost at least a dozen political allies, including the mayor of Kiev, who resigned from his governing Party of Regions to protest the bloodshed.

The European Union (EU) imposed sanctions on those deemed responsible for the violence, and three EU foreign ministers held a day of talks in Kiev with Yanukovych and leaders of the protests seeking his ouster. But it’s increasingly unclear whether either side has the will or ability to compromise.

Yanukovych and the opposition protesters are locked in a battle over the identity of Ukraine, a nation of 46 million that has divided loyalties between Russia and the West. Parts of the country — mostly its western cities — are in open revolt against Yanukovych’s central government, while many in eastern Ukraine back the president and favor strong ties with Russia, their former Soviet ruler.

Protesters across the country are also upset over corruption in Ukraine, the lack of democratic rights and the country’s ailing economy, which just barely avoided bankruptcy with the promise of a $15 billion bailout from Russia.

Despite the violence, protesters seemed determined to continue their push for Yanukovych’s resignation and early presidential and parliamentary elections. People streamed toward the square Thursday afternoon as other protesters hurled wood, refuse and tires on barricades.

“The price of freedom is too high. But Ukrainians are paying it,” said Viktor Danilyuk, 30, a protester. “We have no choice. The government isn’t hearing us.”

In an effort to defuse the situation, the national Parliament late Thursday passed a measure that would prohibit an “anti-terrorist operation” threatened by Yanukovych to restore order, and called for all Interior Ministry troops to return to their bases. But it was unclear how binding the move would be. Presidential adviser Marina Stavnichuk was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying the measure goes into effect immediately but that a mechanism for carrying it out would have to be developed by the president’s office and the Interior Ministry.

At least 101 people have died this week in the clashes in Kiev, according to protesters and Ukrainian authorities, a sharp reversal in three months of mostly peaceful protests. Now neither side appears willing to compromise.

Thursday was the deadliest day yet at the sprawling protest camp on Kiev’s Independence Square, also called the Maidan. Snipers were seen shooting at protesters there — and video footage showed at least one sniper wearing a Ukraine riot-police uniform.

One of the wounded, volunteer medic Olesya Zhukovskaya, sent out a brief Twitter message — “I’m dying” — after she was shot in the neck. Dr. Oleh Musiy, the medical coordinator for the protesters, said she was in serious condition after surgery.

Musiy said at least 70 protesters were killed Thursday and more than 500 were wounded in the clashes — and that the death toll could rise.

In addition, three policemen were killed and 28 suffered gunshot wounds, Interior Ministry spokesman Serhiy Burlakov said.

There was no way to immediately verify any of the death tolls.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, along with his German and Polish counterparts, said after a five-hour meeting with Yanukovych and another with opposition leaders that they discussed new elections and a new government, but they gave no details. The three resumed meeting with Yanukovych late Thursday.

“For now, there are no results,” said an opposition leader, Vitali Klitschko.

Video footage on Ukrainian television showed shocking scenes Thursday of protesters being cut down by gunfire, lying on the pavement as comrades rushed to their aid.

Trying to protect themselves with shields, teams of protesters carried bodies away on sheets of plastic or planks of wood.

Protesters were also seen leading policemen, their hands held high, around the sprawling protest camp in central Kiev. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry says 67 police were captured in all.

A Ukrainian Orthodox priest accompanied the police officers, pleading with their captors not to hurt them. “People are very angry, but we must not act like Yanukovych does,” said the priest, Nikolai Givailo.

Others said later that the officers were taken to a hotel and released; an opposition lawmaker said they were being held in Kiev’s occupied city hall. The Interior Ministry said late Thursday that security forces may use force to free the captured police.

In Brussels, the 28-nation EU decided in an emergency meeting Thursday to impose sanctions against those behind the violence in Ukraine, including a travel ban and an asset freeze against some government officials. It was unclear whether the EU would consider any of the opposition figures to also have a share of responsibility in the bloodshed.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and President Obama about the crisis late Thursday. She briefed them about the trip of the three EU foreign ministers to Kiev, and all three leaders agreed a political solution needs to be found as soon as possible.

Obama urged Yanukovych in a statement to withdraw his forces from downtown Kiev immediately. He also said Ukraine should respect the right of protest and that protesters must be peaceful.

The Kremlin issued a statement with Putin blaming radical protesters and voicing “extreme concern about the escalation of armed confrontation in Ukraine.”

The Russian leader called for an immediate end to bloodshed and for steps “to stabilize the situation and stop extremist and terrorist actions.” He also sent former Russian ombudsman Vladimir Lukin to Ukraine to act as a mediator.

Although the first weeks of the protests were peaceful, radical elements have become more influential as impatience with the lack of progress grows.

In their battles Thursday, those protesters, wearing hard hats and armed with bats and other makeshift weapons, regained some territory on the fringes of Independence Square that police had seized earlier in the week.

One demonstrator, Anatoly Volk, 38, said the protesters had decided to try to retake the square because they believed the truce announced late Wednesday had been a ruse. The men in ski masks who led the push, he said, believed it was a stalling maneuver by Yanukovych to buy time to deploy troops in Kiev.

“A truce means real negotiations,” Volk said. “They are just delaying to make time to bring in more troops.”

Supporters of the opposition this week overran an Interior Ministry garrison near Lviv, in western Ukraine, and captured its armory. It was unclear whether any of the commandeered weapons were being used Thursday in the fighting in Kiev.

The protests began in November when Yanukovych rejected a trade and economic agreement with the European Union and turned instead to Russia for financial aid.

Material from The New York Times is included in this report.



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