Video footage on Ukrainian television showed shocking scenes yesterday of protesters being cut down by gunfire, lying on the pavement as comrades rushed to their aid.
Trying to protect themselves with shields, teams of protesters carried bodies away on sheets of plastic or on planks of wood.
Official figures say at least 21 were killed yesterday – bringing the death toll since Tuesday to 67. But a doctor treating the protesters said 70 were left dead from yesterday alone with more than 500 injured.
Television images showed at least one sniper in Ukrainian police uniform firing into the crowds in Kiev. Protesters were also seen leading captured policemen with their hands held high around the sprawling protest camp in central Kiev. Ukraine’s interior ministry says 67 police were captured in all.
An opposition politician said they were being held in the occupied city hall.
“The price of freedom is too high but Ukrainians are paying it,” said Viktor Danilyuk, a 30-year-old protester. “We have no choice – the government isn’t hearing us.”
President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition protesters who demand his resignation are locked in an epic battle over the identity of Ukraine, a nation of 46 million that has divided loyalties between Russia and the West.
Parts of the country – mostly in its western cities – are in open revolt against Mr Yanukovych’s central government, while many in eastern Ukraine favour strong ties with Russia.
The deaths this week are a sharp reversal in three months of mostly peaceful protests.
Now neither side appears willing to compromise, with the opposition insisting on Mr Yanukovych’s resignation and an early election, and the president apparently prepared to fight until the end. One journalist said he saw 21 bodies laid out on the edge of the capital’s sprawling protest camp.
The carnage appears to show that neither Mr Yanukovych nor the opposition leaders is in control of the chaos engulfing Ukraine.
Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke to Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Prime Minister David Cameron by telephone last night and they all expressed “utmost concern” over the deadly violence, the Kremlin said.
In Brussels, the 28-nation European Union decided in an emergency meeting yesterday to impose sanctions against those behind the violence in Ukraine, including a travel ban and an asset freeze against some officials. A truce announced on Wednesday appeared to have little credibility among hardcore protesters at Kiev’s Independence Square campsite.
One camp commander, Oleh Mykhnyuk, said even after the truce, protesters still threw firebombs at riot police on the square.
As the sun rose, police pulled back, the protesters followed them and police then began shooting, he said. The interior ministry warned Kiev residents to stay indoors yesterday because of the “armed and aggressive mood of the people”.
Last night, Mr Yanukovych claimed that police were not armed and “all measures to stop bloodshed and confrontation are being taken”. But the interior ministry later contradicted that, saying law enforcers would get weapons as part of an “anti- terrorist” operation.
Some signs emerged that Mr Yanukovych is losing loyalists. The chief of Kiev’s city administration, Volodymyr Makeyenko, announced yesterday he was leaving Mr Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.
Another influential member of the ruling party, Serhiy Tyhipko, said both Mr Yanukovych and opposition leaders had “completely lost control of the situation”.
“Their inaction is leading to the strengthening of opposition and human victims,” he was reported as saying.
The parliament building was evacuated yesterday because of fears that protesters would storm it, and the government office and the foreign ministry buildings in Kiev were also evacuated.
As the violence erupted and heavy smoke from burning barricades at the encampment belched into the sky, the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland met Mr Yanukovych for five hours after speaking with the opposition leaders. The EU ministers then returned to speak again with opposition leaders.
Last night, city cathedrals and hotel lobbies were being used as makeshift hospitals for the protesters.
The Caritas Ukraine aid group said many of the wounded will need long-term care, including prosthetics for those who have lost limbs.