Ukraine opposition hopes for breakthrough in talks

State threatens more force as dozens are killed by alleged sniper fire

The grounds of St Michael’s Cathedral, Kiev, which has become one of several field hospitals and makeshift morgues. There were 13 bodies of protesters, all shot in the head, neck and chest. Other protesters came to identify the bodies and write their identities on their legs in felt-tip pen. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

The grounds of St Michael’s Cathedral, Kiev, which has become one of several field hospitals and makeshift morgues. There were 13 bodies of protesters, all shot in the head, neck and chest. Other protesters came to identify the bodies and write their identities on their legs in felt-tip pen. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Fri, Feb 21, 2014, 01:00

Ukraine’s opposition leaders were hoping for a breakthrough last night in crisis talks with President Viktor Yanukovich to end a political struggle that has spiralled into deadly street fighting.

Dozens of protesters were killed and hundreds injured yesterday by alleged sniper fire, and the interior ministry threatened to use more force to free almost 70 police officers whom it claimed had been captured by demonstrators in central Kiev.

A truce of a few hours collapsed yesterday morning as riot police and protesters fought running battles on Kiev’s Independence Square and surrounding streets.

By midday, demonstrators had retaken all of the territory and buildings they had been forced to give up during another round of fierce clashes on Tuesday, which claimed at least 26 lives.


Sniper fire
Medics were certain the protesters had been killed by sniper fire, while officials accused some demonstrators of shooting at them with hunting rifles. One protester and several reporters confirmed seeing guns in the hands of a small number of activists.

The bloodshed prompted intensified efforts to resolve the crisis, with the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland extending a visit to Kiev to continue talks with officials and opposition leaders.

“I hope there will be a result tonight,” said Vitali Klitschko, the former world heavyweight champion boxer who now leads the liberal Udar (Punch) party.

“The decision depends on the president, and when he does that we can say something.”

Polish foreign ministry spokesman Marcin Wojciechowski tweeted from Kiev: “We face a night of difficult negotiations.”

German chancellor Angela Merkel and US president Barack Obama joined Russian president Vladimir Putin last night in calling for an urgent break in the impasse.

“The chancellor and the presidents have reached an agreement to call for a political solution to the crisis in Ukraine as quickly as possible and for an end to the bloodbath,” the German government said in a statement following phone calls between the western leaders and Mr Putin.

The White House said it was outraged by the violence in Ukraine and urged Mr Yanukovich to withdraw security forces from central Kiev immediately.

Protests started in late November, when Mr Yanukovich abruptly rejected an EU pact that would have moved Ukraine closer to the West and away from Russia.

But foreign relations and geopolitical alignment are now secondary concerns to those rallying in Kiev and other cities across the country of 46 million people.

They want Mr Yanukovich to resign; for officials responsible for violence against protesters to be punished; for snap presidential and parliamentary elections to be called; and for a complete overhaul of the way corruption- and inequality-riddled Ukraine is run.


Relations with West strained
The crisis has also placed further strain on relations between Russia and the West, which accuse each other of interfering in Ukraine’s affairs. Moscow calls the protesters “fascists” and “extremists”, while the EU and US have expressed support for their push for sweeping reform.

Washington has imposed travel bans on 20 officials close to Mr Yanukovich, and has urged the Ukrainian military not to intervene in the country’s current travails.

“At the moment, the fate of almost 70 interior ministry servicemen seized by extremists is not known. The interior ministry of Ukraine notes that to liberate their colleagues the security services have the right to use all means offered by the law, including weapons,” the ministry said.

Support for Mr Yanukovich among politicians and the security services appears to be breaking down, however.

In several pro-opposition regions of western Ukraine, local leaders have taken control and vowed not to follow orders from Mr Yanukovich’s administration. In the town of Lutsk, activists said local police and interior ministry troops had joined protesters and handed over their ammunition.

In Kiev, several members of Mr Yanukovich’s ruling Regions Party resigned from the organisation, including the mayor of the capital, Volodymyr Makeyenko.

“We must be guided only by the interests of the people, this is our only chance to save people’s lives,” he said, adding he would continue in his role if he had the people’s trust.

As the West pressed Ukraine’s opposition leaders to continue negotiations with Mr Yanukovich, jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko denounced talks with the president.

She accused him of killing protesters “in the centre of a European capital, coolly and calmly” and said “there is not and cannot be forgiveness for this.”