US and Nato tell Ukraine to keep military out of crisis

President Yanukovich and opposition agree a 'truce' as West toughens line against Kiev

An amateur video shows a Ukrainian protester shot on the street during the late night clashes in the capital Kiev on Tuesday (Febr 18). The sound of gunfire is heard, then one of the protesters drops to the ground, said to be hit by a bullet.

 

The United States and Nato have warned Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich not to involve the military in his country’s spiralling crisis, after deadly clashes in Kiev and growing unrest in pro-opposition regions. The warnings came as Ukraine’s security service threatened to launch a national anti-terrorist operation against “extremist” protesters, a move that could involve Ukraine’s military.

That would be a dramatic escalation of a crisis that started three months ago, when Mr Yanukovich rejected a historic EU pact to tilt the country away from Russia and towards the West. Protesters are now demanding his resignation and a complete overhaul of how the state is run.

The security service made its announcement within hours of Mr Yanukovich replacing the head of the armed forces general staff, and the military saying that paratroopers were being deployed to enhance protection of weapons arsenals and bases around the country. “We hold the Ukrainian government primarily responsible in making sure it is dealing with peaceful protesters in an appropriate way,” US president Barack Obama said. “That includes making sure the Ukrainian military does not step in to resolve issues that could be resolved by civilians.”

Meanwhile, Nato’s supreme allied commander in Europe, US Air Force general Philip Breedlove, asked that “responsible leaders avoid the use of military force against the people of Ukraine...I am calling upon the new military leadership in Ukraine to open a dialogue with us to bring this situation to a peaceful resolution.”

Ukraine’s security service said more than 1,500 firearms and 100,000 rounds of ammunition had “fallen into the hands of criminals” over the previous day, when at least 26 people died in fierce fighting in Kiev between riot police and protesters. “The actions of radical and extremist groups carry a real threat to the lives of millions of Ukrainians,” the agency said. Oleksiy Melnyk, an analyst at the Razumkov Centre in Kiev, said an anti-terrorist operation would give the security services “the right to arrest people, search homes and whole range of other things in a way that would otherwise be illegal. The (operation) leader’s name is secret and everyone involved gets immunity.” Along with comments from EU officials suggesting the bloc’s foreign ministers could back the imposition of sanctions against senior allies of Mr Yanukovich, the statements from Mr Obama and Gen Breedlove may signal greater Western engagement in  Ukraine.

“We’ll be monitoring very closely the situation (in Ukraine), recognising that with our European partners and the international community, there will be consequences if people step over the line,” Mr Obama said. Russia accuses Brussels and Washington of interfering in Kiev’s affairs and fomenting unrest, and President Vladimir Putin threw Mr Yanukovich a financial lifeline in December when he agreed to lend cash-strapped Ukraine $15 billion and to slash the price it pays for gas. “In the president’s opinion, all the responsibility for what is happening now in Ukraine lies specifically with extremists,” Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said today. “Their actions can be seen, and are seen, in Moscow exclusively as an attempted coup d’etat.”

Tonight, barricades separating protesters and riot police were burning in central Kiev, but there were no major clashes between the two sides. Mr Yanukovich said earlier yesterday that opposition leaders had “resorted to pogroms, arson and murder to try to seize power.” “I call once again on the opposition leaders ... to quickly distance themselves from those radical forces who are provoking bloodshed and clashes with police. Or, if they do not want to do this, they should recognise that they are supporting the radicals. And then there will be a different sort of conversation with them.”

Western provinces of Ukraine close to Poland have renewed their defiance of Mr Yanukovich’s authorities, and demonstrators in several cities have re-occupied local government buildings. Officials in the major western city of Lviv effectively declared independence from Kiev, saying that their “people’s council” had taken on all executive power in the region, with the support of most of its police departments. “We may be witnessing the first hour of a civil war,” said Polish prime minister Donald Tusk.

“If people are dying and being injured during protests, it’s the authorities who are responsible. There are no doubts about that in Kiev.”