As many as five protesters die in Ukraine clashes
Prime minister blames ultra-nationalist ‘terrorists’ for violence, writes Dan McLaughlin in Kiev
Ukraine’s opposition has threatened to “go on the attack” tomorrow 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 was abducted by unknown men earlier this week with another activist, who was later released.
Mr Yanukovich had met opposition leaders today in an attempt to defuse the street violence, but tension remained high as his prime minister branded anti-government protesters “terrorists”.
The talks, the first concrete move towards negotiating an end to two months of unrest, ended after about three hours. But there was no immediate word from the presidency.
Opposition leaders said they would give a report on their talks to their supporters rallying on central Kiev’s Independence Square.
The deaths are the first protest-related fatalities since the crisis erupted last November after Mr Yanukovich ditched a trade deal with the European Union in favour of financial aid from Soviet-era overlord Russia to prop up Ukraine’s ailing economy.
The protesters, inflamed by news of the deaths, faced off again with riot police, whom they have battled in bloody clashes near the government headquarters since Sunday night.
Ukrainian media has named one of the victims as Sergei Nigoyan (20), whom they said was a familiar figure on Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan, the heart of anti-government protests.
He reportedly died from bullet wounds to the head and face, but it was unclear what kind of bullets struck him. Riot police fired rubber bullets at protesters in recent days – in response to volleys of rocks, petrol bombs and fireworks – but officials deny that live rounds have been used.
The deaths occurred after another night of fighting, and as dawn broke riot police surged forward and cleared a path through barricades made of burnt-out trucks and buses, dragging away protesters and, according to activists, beating several of them.
Ukraine protests: live stream from Kiev
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said members of its riot police unit had gone on the offensive after “receiving information that people taking part in the protest were ready to use an unknown chemical substance, to cause burns to the police.”
The ministry insists that its men have shown considerable restraint during clashes which have injured more than 100 riot police and hundreds of protesters. Dozens of people have been arrested.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov blamed the violence on “organised ultra-right fighters”.
“The cynicism and amorality of these terrorists has reached a point where they throw Molotov cocktails at people...and last night terrorists from Maidan stormed a hotel, took hostage dozens of people they consider their opponents, and severely beat them,” he added.
The three main opposition parties issued a joint statement blaming Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko for “the dictatorship’s act of terror against citizens.”
“Viktor Yanukovich bears personal responsibility for everything that happens now in the country, for the life and safety of every citizen and for the deaths of protesters,” they added.
The rallies started in late November, when Mr Yanukovich rejected a trade and political deal with the European Union that would have tilted Ukraine away from Russia and towards the West.
But demonstrators now say their priority is saving the nation’s democracy from an increasingly authoritarian regime.
Laws passed last week, which came into force yesterday, ban a vast array of protest activity, from blocking buildings and pitching tents to wearing masks and helmets at mass gatherings. Critics say Mr Yanukovich has effectively criminalised all active dissent against his rule.
The EU and United States have condemned Ukraine’s new laws and Mr Yanukovich’s handling of the protests. Russia, in contrast, has accused the West of fomenting the unrest.
This morning, the US embassy in Kiev said that “in response to actions taken against protestors on the Maidan in November and December of last year, the (embassy) has revoked the visas of several Ukrainians who were linked to the violence.”
It did not give the names of those affected, but senior Ukrainian security officials are believed to be targeted.
Over two months of peaceful rallies in Kiev and other cities, predominantly in central and western Ukraine, opposition leaders have called on Mr Yanukovich and his government to resign, for the punishment of riot police who beat protesters, and for the failed EU deal to be resurrected.
But on Sunday a more radical faction of activists, spearheaded by an ultranationalist alliance called Right Sector, tapped into growing frustration at a lack of decisive action by party chiefs and led demonstrators away from Independence Square to confront riot police blocking a nearby street.
The three main opposition leaders – liberals Vitaliy Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and ultra-nationalist Oleh Tyahnybok – appear to have little influence over the men now facing the riot police, many of whom express contempt for Ukraine’s entire political elite.
“Our mood is good, we’ll be victorious,” said Roman Shurov, holding a shield in the front line of protesters, about 50 metres from a unit of Berkut (“Golden Eagle”) riot police.
“I’m from Donbass and those bastards are from Donbass,” he shouted, referring to a mostly pro-government industrial region in eastern Ukraine that is Mr Yanukovich’s stronghold.
“We’ll make minced chicken out of those ‘golden eagles’” he said,to cheers from fellow protesters who were wearing gas masks to protect from tear gas and a motley array of military, cycling, skiing and builders’ helmets.
Though young radicals are in the vanguard of the confrontation, they are supported by many older and more conservative Ukrainians who are sick of the rampant corruption and growing authoritarianism that they call hallmarks of Mr Yanukovich’s rule.
“Me and my friends and relatives have been here for weeks, sleeping in tents on Maidan. We’re here in shifts - going back home to work for a while, then returning to Kiev,” said Nikolay Shuk (62) from the opposition heartland of Lviv in western Ukraine.
“We have to defeat the dictator and his bandits. They are turning this country into Belarus,” he said, referring to a neighbouring ex-Soviet state that for almost 20 years has been ruled with an iron fist by President Alexander Lukashenko.
“We will fight to the end,” Mr Shuk added. “There is no way back.”
Additional reporting: Reuters