Ukraine crisis: Renewed Kiev assault on protesters

The BBC's Daniel Sandford reports from the scene as day breaks in Independence Square

Police in the Ukrainian capital Kiev have launched a fresh attack on anti-government protesters as the death toll in renewed clashes has climbed to 26.

The new attempt to uproot the protest stronghold came as President Yanukovych blamed opposition leaders for the worst violence in months of unrest.

After failed overnight talks, he urged them to distance themselves from radical forces.

The EU says it expects to agree sanctions on those behind "repression".

Analysis

This no longer seems to be a democratic argument over Ukraine's relationship with Russia. It is a violent power struggle.

The violence is contained - and mostly takes place in four square kilometres in central Kiev - but the determination of the most active protesters should not be underestimated, nor should President Viktor Yanukovych's determination to survive.

It's unlikely that any leader of a Western European democracy would still be in post if similar events had happened in their country.

But although the violent protesters, many inspired by far-right politics, are now focused on revolution, their numbers are small. They alone could not overthrow the government.

What makes this crisis so serious is the quiet support that many in western Ukraine, particularly in Lviv, are giving to the violence. It means that a split between eastern Ukraine and western Ukraine is being openly discussed, even though few people say they want that.

Russia, however, has accused opposition protesters of trying to engineer a "violent takeover of power".

Police launched their latest assault on Independence Square, also known as the Maidan, shortly after 04:00 local time (02:00 GMT). Several tents were set ablaze, and water cannon was later used.

The BBC's Daniel Sandford said police had taken control of a corner of the square for the first time since December.

The protests began in late November, when President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a landmark association and trade deal with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia.

Tensions had begun to subside as recently as Monday, as protesters ended their occupation of government buildings in return for an amnesty against prosecution.

But violence erupted outside parliament on Tuesday morning as government supporters blocked opposition attempts to scale back the president's constitutional powers.

Correspondents say it was unclear what sparked the clashes, with each side blaming the other. Protesters accused pro-government agents provocateurs, known as "titushki", of inciting some of the violence while the government said radical Right Sector supporters were involved.

Fighting spread to surrounding streets and police launched a first attack on Independence Square on Tuesday evening.

map Satellite image showing smoke rising during Kiev clashes on 18 February

The number of dead on both sides has risen to 26 and it is feared the death toll could rise further.

  • Ten of those killed were police, the interior ministry says. Two were traffic police officers
  • At least 14 protesters were among the dead: many were killed in the streets around the parliament
  • A journalist working for Russian-language newspaper Vesti, Vyacheslav Veremyi, was pulled from a taxi by masked men and shot
  • Several hundred people have been treated for injuries

As police gained ground in the Maidan, stones and petrol bombs were met with tear gas.

The protesters tried to hold their defence lines, burning tyres on the barricades and more anti-government activists were said to be on their way to join the camp.

Anti-government protesters in Kiev. Photo: 19 February 2014 Protesters have been defending barricades on the Maidan from repeated attacks by riot police
Injured protesters in Kiev. Photo: 18 February 2014 Hundreds of people have been injured on both sides since Tuesday, some of them seriously
Riot police fight protesters in Kiev. Photo: 18 February 2014 Thousands of riot police have been deployed to fight the protesters

A trade union building where many protesters had been sheltering was set alight and people could be seen climbing down the walls to escape the flames.

There were reports of unrest breaking out elsewhere in Ukraine, including the western cities of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil.

Key dates

  • 21 November 2013: Ukraine suspends preparations for a trade deal with the EU, triggering protests
  • 30 November: Riot police first take action against protesters, injuring dozens and fuelling anger
  • 17 December: Russia agrees to buy Ukrainian government bonds and slash price of gas sold to Ukraine, taking wind out of protest movement
  • 25 December: Renewed outcry after anti-government activist and journalist Tetyana Chornovol is beaten
  • 19 January: Protests take a violent turn as demonstrators torch police buses and throw petrol bombs; police respond with rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon. Several died in following days
  • 18 February: Bloodiest day of the clashes sees civilians and police officers killed
'Island of freedom'

Opposition leaders Vitaly Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk met President Viktor Yanukovych for late night talks but failed to come to an agreement.

In a statement broadcast on TV news channels on Wednesday morning, President Yanukovych said: "The opposition leaders have disregarded the principle of democracy according to which one obtains power not on the streets or maidans - but through elections."

"They have crossed the line by calling for people to take up arms," he said, warning that those responsible for violence would face the law.

But the president added that there was a "better and more effective way" to solve the crisis - through dialogue and compromise.

"It is not too late to stop the conflict," he said.

Security forces had given the protesters a deadline of 18:00 on Tuesday (16:00 GMT) to leave the square, the scene of a mostly peaceful protest camp since November.

President Yanukovych: "Separate yourselves from radical forces that seek bloodshed"

When the deadline expired, riot police advanced with an armoured vehicle, dismantling barricades and firing stun grenades and water cannon.

Protesters resisted, throwing missiles from behind piles of burning tyres.

In speeches from the main stage through the night, protest leaders urged people already on the Maidan to stand firm, and called on Ukrainians elsewhere to come to the square.

"This is an island of freedom and we will defend it," said Vitaly Klitschko, the leader of the Udar (Punch) party.

Mr Yatsenyuk, who heads the Fatherland party, appealed to President Yanukovych to "stop the bloodshed and call a truce".

He had earlier accused the president of blocking attempts to reform the constitution in parliament.

But MPs who support the president said the proposals had not been thoroughly discussed, and that more time was needed.

There has been widespread international alarm at the bloodshed in Kiev.

  • European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he expected EU member states urgently to agree "targeted measures" against those responsible for the violence. Foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting on Thursday
  • Russia's foreign ministry blamed the clashes on the "conniving politics of Western politicians and European bodies"
  • Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said Ukraine's president had "blood on his hands"
  • The head of Ukraine's Olympic committee in Sochi, Sergei Bubka, appealed to all sides to stop the violence
  • US Vice-President Joe Biden urged President Yanukovych by phone to de-escalate the situation, the White House said

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