Mystery over identity of snipers who caused city bloodbath

IT IS the mystery hanging over the mayhem that drove Ukraine’s president from power: who was behind the snipers who sowed death and terror in Kiev?

A Ukrainian officer stands outside the gate of a military base at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. Picture: AP

That riddle has become the latest flashpoint of feuding over Ukraine – with the nation’s fledgling government and the Kremlin giving starkly different interpretations of events that left dozens dead and hundreds injured.

Ukrainian authorities are investigating the 18-20 February bloodbath and have shifted their focus from ousted President Viktor Yanukovich’s government to Vladimir Putin’s Russia – pursuing the theory that the Kremlin was intent on sowing mayhem as a pretext for military incursion.

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Russia suggests the snipers were organised by opposition leaders trying to whip up local and international outrage against the government.

The new government’s health minister Oleh Musiy – a doctor who oversaw treatment for casualties during the protests – said this weekend that the similarity of bullet wounds suffered by protestors and police indicates the shooters were trying to stoke tensions on both sides and spark even greater violence, with the goal of toppling Yanukovich.

“It wasn’t just a part of the old regime that [plotted the provocation], but it was also the work of Russian special forces who served and maintained the ideology of the [old] regime,” Musiy said.

This much is known: snipers firing powerful rifles from rooftops and windows shot scores of people in the heart of Kiev. Some victims were opposition protesters, but many were civilian bystanders clearly not involved in the clashes.

Among the dead were medics, as well as police. A majority of the more than 100 people who died in the violence were shot by snipers; hundreds were also injured by the gunfire and other street fighting.

On Tuesday, interior minister Arsen Avakov signalled that investigators may be turning their attention away from Ukrainian responsibility. “I can say only one thing: the key factor in this uprising, that spilled blood in Kiev and that turned the country upside down and shocked it, was a third force,” Avakov said. “And this force was not Ukrainian.”

Police marksmen deployed on those days have denied to investigators that they had given orders to shoot anyone.

Musiy said that on 20 February around 40 civilians and protesters were brought with fatal bullet wounds to the makeshift hospital set up near the square. He said medics also treated three police officers whose wounds were identical.

On Tuesday, Putin suggested that the snipers in fact “may have been provocateurs from opposition parties”.

That theory gained currency a day later when a recording of a private phone call between Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was leaked and broadcast by the Russian government TV network, Russia Today. In the call, Paet said he had heard from protesters during a visit to Kiev that opponents of Yanukovich were behind the sniper attacks.

One of the victims was Alexander Tonskikh, 57. He said that at around 10am on 20 February he and dozens of opposition fighters moved south out of the main battleground.

Riot police withdrew suddenly, he said, and an instant later snipers began firing from at least two different directions, from what seemed to be the rooftops of government buildings, between 200 and 300 yards away.

He said dozens of people were “mown down like grass” as he and others crouched behind a waist-high stone wall, holding wooden clubs and metal riot shields.

At least 10 people, he said, were killed instantly, and many others wounded. The bodies piled up on top of each other like fallen tree branches.

Shooting then began from a third direction, he said. As he crouched with his back to a tree, he was hit by a bullet that entered his right arm, went through his right side, punctured his lung and lodged just below his heart. He then lost consciousness.