Opposition threatens to go on ‘attack’ after Kiev deaths
Opposition demands immediate concessions following talks with President Yanukovich
Riot police and interior ministry members stand in formation during clashes with pro-European protesters in Kiev yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Stringer
Ukraine’s opposition has threatened to “go on the attack” today unless president Viktor Yanukovich makes concessions, after as many as five protesters were killed in fierce clashes with riot police.
The deaths opened a dark new phase in a two-month-old confrontation between protesters and authorities led by Mr Yanukovich, whom they seek to oust for his perceived corruption, growing authoritarianism and desire to take Ukraine towards Russia rather than Europe. Ukraine’s prosecutor general confirmed that two demonstrators had died from gunshot wounds during fighting in the early hours of yesterday – Ukraine’s Unity Day – but did not say who had fired the shots.
Oleg Musiy, co-ordinator of the opposition protest camp’s medical service, said two more people had also been shot dead and another had fallen to his death. Activists claimed riot police severely beat that man and threw him off a 13-metre-high colonnade beside the street where fighting took place.
Ukrainian media reported another ominous development last night: the discovery of the body of opposition activist Yuri Verbitsky in woods outside Kiev, bearing signs of torture. He had been abducted by unknown men earlier this week with another activist, who was later released.
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Government officials yesterday denied that police had used live rounds against protesters, and blamed ultra-nationalists for sparking the street violence, labelling them “terrorists”. Jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko said that the deaths meant Mr Yanukovich “has stopped being our president and has become a murderer”.
The EU and US condemned the shootings and placed most of the blame for the violence on Mr Yanukovich and his government, while Moscow denounced “extremist” elements and accused the West of interfering in Ukraine’s affairs.
After a three-hour emergency meeting with Mr Yanukovich, leaders of the main opposition parties – who in recent days have been shown to have no control over more radical protesters – took to the stage on Kiev’s Independence Square to demand concessions.
They want early presidential and parliamentary elections, the dismissal of the government and punishment of those responsible for violence against demonstrators, and the annulment of sweeping new laws banning most protest activity. “If you won’t listen to the people, they will do everything they can to make you listen,” said opposition leader and former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaliy Klitschko.
“Tomorrow, if the president doesn’t move in our direction, we will go on the attack. There is no other way,” he added.
The leader of Ms Tymoshenko’s party, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, urged Mr Yanukovich to meet opposition requests and prevent more bloodshed. “We only have another 24 hours to take that path. If that path is not taken, then I can say for myself that I will not live in shame. Tomorrow we will move forward together, and if that means a bullet in the head, then let there be a bullet in the head – honestly, fairly and bravely.”
Tens of thousands of protesters packed Independence Square last night to defend their camp from an anticipated raid by riot police. As speeches and the national anthem boomed from the square, an infernal scene took shape 500 metres away on Grushevsky Street, which leads uphill past Dynamo Kiev’s football stadium to parliament and government headquarters.
A wall of fire blazed across the road, as mounds of burning tyres sent clouds of acrid black smoke billowing into the freezing air. Silhouetted against the flames, hundreds of men in helmets, goggles and gas masks dragged whatever they could find through the snow and dumped it on a growing barricade: concrete blocks, doors, barrels, metal sheets.
Behind shuttered kiosks that sheltered them from a biting wind, other men huddled down to make Molotov cocktails, pouring petrol into empty vodka and beer bottles and stopping them with rolled up rags.
Occasionally a bluish-white light burst through the black smoke, as riot police massed on the far side of the inferno switched on a powerful spotlight.
Protesters responded with a light show of their own: a volley of fireworks launched towards the riot police, erupting in a shower of red and green stars. The crowd roared defiance, then got back to work on the barricade.