Ukraine’s prime minister has branded anti-government demonstrators “criminals” and “terrorists” hours after three died and 300 were wounded during a series of clashes with riot police in the centre of Kiev.
Officials said two protesters died of gunshot wounds while a third apparently fell to his death during fighting with police near the Dynamo Kiev football stadium yesterday.
A medical centre run by protesters reported two other deaths but these were not confirmed by the authorities.
“Participants in this disorder cannot be called peaceful demonstrators and protesters,” Mykola Azarov told a cabinet meeting on Wednesday. “I am officially stating these are criminals who must answer for their actions.”
Mr Azarov also called demonstrators “terrorists,” and accused them of breaking into hotels and attacking suspected opponents.
“The president [Viktor Yanukovich] and government will not allow any anarchy, any chaos and divisions in the country,” Mr Azarov added.
His hard-line stance reflected the rising tension both in Ukraine and abroad triggered by the first deaths in a political crisis that began when Mr Yanukovich walked away from signing a key trade agreement with the European Union at the end of November.
Kiev has since played host to vast demonstrations that had remained peaceful until the weekend when violence broke out after the government pushed through new laws to allow a crackdown, a move deemed unconstitutional by critics. A hard-core group of demonstrators became involved in battles with riot police, attacking them with stones and petrol bombs, and forming barricades with burnt-out buses. In response riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets. The fatalities are thought to have occurred during intense battles as police tried to breach the barricades on Wednesday morning.
Jose-Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, warned of “consequences” for Ukraine’s leadership.
“We are shocked … and deplore in the strongest possible terms the use of force and violence,” he said, adding that it was the Kiev government’s responsibility “to de-escalate this crisis”.
“If there is a systematic violation of human rights, including shooting at peaceful demonstrators or serious attacks to the basic freedoms … then we have to rethink our relationship with Ukraine and possibly [there will be] some consequences,” he continued, telling reporters that it was too soon to say what those consequences might be.
Russia meanwhile has accused the EU of “outside interference”. Moscow regards Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence and was opposed to the proposed EU pact.
“Ukraine’s legitimate authorities face outside interference in its internal affairs,” Grigory Karasin, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said. “The extremist part of the opposition is crudely violating Ukraine’s constitution. It is necessary to find a decision that would allow the situation to normalise. What’s happening cannot be called a normal political process.”
In a step towards a compromise, Mr Yanukovich met three opposition leaders yesterday for talks. But with radical elements in the protest movement appearing beyond the control of the main opposition parties and promising to go “on the attack” if no compromise is found, the prospect of further violence remains.
In a statement, Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed former prime minister and bitter enemy of Mr Yanukovich, said the president “had blood on his hands” and called on the riot police to refuse to fire on protesters regardless of their orders.
In no-man’s land: Orthodox priests try to still the violence at the barricades
Orthodox priests have been at the forefront of attempts to prevent violence between police and protesters in Kiev in the past few days.
In one dramatic scene yesterday – officially Ukraine’s Day of Unity – three black-robed priests, holding crosses and icons, walked in between the police and the protesters, causing the fighting to stop.
One exhausted priest with a huge cross around his neck trudged between the lines, trying unsuccessful to bring calm. “I’m here to placate the violence. My congregation is here,” he said. The church has been careful not anger the authorities by expressing support for those on the streets, but many of the clergy are believed sympathetic to the anti-government activists.
Analysis: Murders in Kiev reveal depth of crisis facing Ukraine
THE killing of two demonstrators – apparently shot dead by security forces – in Kiev on Wednesday morning came as little surprise.
Anti-protest laws rushed through Ukraine’s parliament last week set the ruling cabal on a collision course with a core of protesters determined to take a stand. Violence followed in a series of clashes, dozens of people were left injured and it was only a matter of time before someone died.
Just what long-term effects the shootings will have remains unclear. The circumstances are still uncertain, other than the fact they were shot with live ammunition and not, as some suggested, rubber bullets. So much depends on the results, and the impartiality, of the official investigation.
But in the meantime the deaths appear to have galvanised overseas critics. The United States has imposed sanctions on a number of Ukrainian citizens – presumably members of government or even Viktor Yanukovich, the president – and the European Union, which has so far pussy-footed around the crisis, has spoken about “possible actions”.
These are steps in the right direction. The now bloody confrontation that has sent Mr Yanukovich and his government scuttling to safety behind repressive laws has stripped away the last strand of their credibility. For years the president has fostered and bolstered a system where corruption thrives and rule of law wilts, and all at the expense of Ukraine’s people and economy. Now the nature of those in command is apparent to all in the West and actual pressure, not words, needs to be applied.
The deaths may also, at last, cajole Ukraine’s disparate opposition factions into coming up with a plan of action. While hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have taken to the streets since the end of November, opposition politicians have failed to translate their anger into a coherent manifesto for change. This failure has allowed hard-core factions to take matters into their own hands and leave Mr Yanukovich unchallenged.
Some polls say only 50 per cent of Ukrainians want him to stand down, but with no credible challenger, this percentage may not alter much.