Running battles and more deaths in Ukraine as violence continues

By bne IntelliNews January 23, 2014

bne -

The situation in Kyiv continued to deteriorate on January 22 as protestors fought running street battles with the police and the death toll climbed to five, in what was easily the most violent day in the largely peaceful two months of protests. And all this on Ukraine's national unity day.

The troika of opposition leaders met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. They called on protestors to refrain from violence, but gave the president 24 hours, until 20:00 local time, to call snap elections, but haven't made clear what they intend to do once the deadline expires if nothing happens.

Two people were confirmed shot to death by doctors, who said that one was shot in the heart and the other in the chest. Snipers are also reportedly being deployed in the city on roofs. The third man died after falling 13 metres from a wall, but the opposition claims he was dropped by the Berkut riot police.

Another two bodies were found in the woods outside the city, including that of civic activist Yuri Verbitsky, who was kidnapped from hospital several days ago. He was identified by his brother and his body carried signs of torture, according to local reports.

Yanukovych released a statement condemning the violence that was "provoked by political extremists." 50 people were detained overnight and 29 of them were officially charged with taking part in mass unrest, police said, which carries a jail sentence of up to 15 years under the new harsh anti-protest laws passed last week.

Later in the afternoon there was a bid for peace as the troika of opposition leaders - Vitali Klitschko of the UDAR party, Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Fatherland party, and Oleh Tyahnybok of the Svoboda party - met with President Yanukovych, who actually deemed to talk to them after refusing to meet with former boxing champion Klitschko on January 21. Later, the three leaders told the crowd on Independence Square, commonly called the Maidan, that they had come out of the meeting with "nothing."

More than 300 people were reportedly hospitalised during the day and the interior ministry claimed 160 police officers were also hurt. The violence is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

The main action of the day remained on Hrushevskoho Street, the scene of the worst fighting. During the morning of January 22 an enraged crowd swelled and quickly rebuilt the barricades. A tense standoff lasted a few hours until at about 12:30 the elite Berkut riot police came out in large numbers and formed a "turtle" holding riot shields in front of them and over their heads to push the protestors back.

The police quickly dismantled the barricade under a hail of rocks and Molotov cocktails before forming up again on the square at the entrance to the government district. Then in some of the most dramatic events of the protest, they charged the protestors and drove them out of Hrushevskoho and back to European Square.

Bizarrely, in the middle of all this Yanukovych was on TV congratulating Ukrainians on their national unity day that celebrates the unification of the country in 1919. "Our goal is justice, welfare, free life in a free country," Yanukovych said as police fought protesters only a stone's throw from the the presidential administration building. "We're so different, but we're united. Nobody can set us apart."

Jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko thinks differently. In a statement released from her prison cell, she condemned Yanukovych in no uncertain terms. "I mourn all civilians along with their parents, along with everyone who feels this pain [for those that died]. Blood of these Heroes of Ukraine are on the hands of Yanukovych. He personally shot them while he was reading out the greeting on the Day of Unity," Tymoshenko wrote.

The scene turned medieval in the afternoon as police ran protestors to ground and savagely beat them with batons in full view of the press and cameras.

But the police didn't hold their advanced position for long and within hours the crowd returned, bringing rubber tires with them that they quickly set ablaze. The air was soon full of black acrid smoke, which the prevailing wind blew over the police lines.

Over the course of the next few hours the police retreated slowly to their original position and by nightfall they were back at Hrushevskoho Street facing a growing crowd of angry protestors.

Bonfires of rubber tires were lit in front of the police's position, who in turn made futile attempts to extinguish the flames with their water cannons to the sound of protestors drumming on their makeshift shields.

Overnight, thousands of people remain in the -10 degree Celsius temperatures to protect the square from a possible attack by Berkut. But violence continues to rage throughout the city. There were reports of pro-government thugs, known as Titushki after a famous gang leader, attacking a gay nightclub using baseball bats and Molotov cocktails. Other videos posted on YouTube showed police halting opposition cars and smashing them up with batons.

"Berkyt trying to terrorize public. I can't imagine what will happen to them once they fall into protestor hands. Will end badly," tweeted bruce Springnote (@BSpringnote), a local commentator.

The protestors have used the relative calm in the evening to rebuild multiple lines of barricades and stockpile tyres that now form a flaming barrier between the two sides. The Berkut put an

International reaction

The mounting death toll has alarmed the international community and as the day wore on and the fighting became more dramatic, the condemnations became increasingly more vocal.

"I strongly condemn the violent escalation of events in Kiev overnight leading to casualties. The reported deaths of several protesters are a source of extreme worry," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement, drawing wry comments from Ukrainians on Twitter.

"At least 'strongly condemn is better than 'concerned'," wrote one wag.

The US embassy was spurred into action and issued an announcement that it had revoked the visas of "targeted officials connected to the violence" without naming names. "In response to actions taken against protestors on the Maidan in November and December of last year, the U.S. Embassy has revoked the visas of several Ukrainians who were linked to the violence," it said in a statement posted on its website.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso released one of the strongest statements yet from the EU, threatening that "actions" would be taken unless the violence would be stopped. The EU also threatened to "check" the accounts of Ukrainian oligarchs in Europe for money laundering as a preparation for "possible targeted sanctions". "We deplore in the strongest possible terms the use of force and violence and call on all sides to refrain from it and start taking steps to help deescalate the situation," Barroso said.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius was even more outspoken, calling for EU sanctions to be imposed on Ukraine immediately. "The unrolling brutal scenario in Euromaidan calls for a united reaction from the EU. Calls for dialogue are ineffective, time for targeted sanctions?" he wrote on his Twitter feed.

But more tellingly, Ukrainian PM Mykola Azarov was first disinvited from giving a speech at Davos in Switzerland where he arrived on January 21 and then barred from the conference of world leaders entirely, reports Buzzfeed.

Russian lawmakers went the other way and adopted a resolution January 22 slamming foreign politicians for what they say is interference in Ukraine's deepening political crisis.

Opposition response

The three opposition leaders spoke to the crowds at the end of the day to report on their meeting with Yanukovych and all three were clearly furious. With no compromise on offer and no help from the EU, there is little that the protestors can do now but dig their heels in. "Today they [the police] are preparing to clear us out of the Maidan," Klitschko declared. "We must do all we can to stop them clearing us out. Tomorrow if the president does not respond... then we will go on the offensive," he said, without giving any details of what the protestors could do.

The three leaders were clearly incensed by the high-handed treatment they received by the president and were in a fighting mood. "I will not live in shame. Tomorrow we will go forward together. If there will be a bullet in the forehead, so be it. It will be honest, just and brave action," leader of the Fatherland faction Arseny Yatsenyuk told the crowd.

Even if there was a deal struck, it is not clear that the troika could rein in the mobs that are roaming the streets. Protestors have rebuilt the barricades yet again and were stockpiling rocks and Molotov cocktails for the next attack.

Shops and officers around Maidan were ordered to close in the late afternoon and national television and radio offices were closed for the day, leading to speculation that the Berkut would try and storm the main centre for the protestors sometime in the night.

Opposition leaders called on the people to rally to Maidan and accused the government of imposing de facto martial law. As the evening wore on, more and more people were streaming into the square preparing to defend it against the authorities.

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