Ben Aris in Moscow -
Who were the snipers that shot and killed the so-called "Heavenly Hundred" on Kyiv's Independence Square, known as Maidan, on February 20? An investigation by Germany's leading broadcaster ARD TV lends weight to the allegations that some section of the Ukrainian opposition was involved.
The report opens with anchor Georg Restle asking: "Who were the gunmen on Kyiv's Maidan? The western-backed transitional government [in Ukraine] committed itself last week: former president [Viktor] Yanukovych and his special forces were solely to blame for the dead. But in this version there is now considerable doubt, as an investigation by [correspondents] Philipp Jahn, Olga Sviridenko and Stephan Stuchlik shows."
About 100 people were gunned down on that fateful day, including a dozen policemen, only hours after a ceasefire was agreed between the police forces under now-ousted president Yanukovych's regime and the anti-government protestors a day earlier.
Both Ukrainians and the international community were shocked by the brutally of turning professional sharpshooters on unarmed protestors. In an interview with bne's correspondent in Kyiv at the time, doctors at the field hospitals set up in the capital reported that there were few wounded, as most of the victims were already dead on arrival and the majority had either been shot in the head or the heart with high velocity bullets - ie. by sniper rifles.
Clearly a step too far, support for Yanukovych's regime collapsed within hours as its politicians and oligarch backers raced for the airport. By the next day Yanukovych himself had fled into exile in Rostov-on-Don in Russia, where he remains today.
The blame for ordering the shootings was laid squarely at Yanukovych's feet and video footage of snipers in Ukrainian uniform widely available on the internet appeared to back that up. But subsequent reports have muddied the picture somewhat.
Leaked phone calls
According to the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, the special police force (known as the Berkut) and Interior Ministry troops shot at people on Maidan from their positions.
However, this claim is disputed by ex-Ukraine security chief Aleksandr Yakimenko, who said that the snipers who killed the protestors operated from a building controlled by the opposition on Maidan square.
As part of a venal administration, Yakimenko's comments would have been easily ignored but for a leaked phone conversation between EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Estonian Foreign Affairs Minister Urmas Paet that emerged on March 5, which seemed to back up claims that the opposition itself was partly responsible for the shootings.
“There is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind the snipers, it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new coalition,” Paet told Ashton on the call, adding Ukrainians do not trust the Maidan leaders as all the opposition politicians have a "dirty past."
“I think we do want to investigate. I mean, I didn’t pick that up, that’s interesting. Gosh,” Ashton answered, in the call that took place after Paet visited Kyiv on February 25, a few days after the tragic event.
The substance of the call was dismissed as "speculation" by some western media. The Guardian rubbished the idea from the off by running the report under the headline, "Bugged call reveals conspiracy theory about Kiev snipers."
But this ignores the suprising fact it was Estonia, which out of all the 15 former Soviet republics created in 1991 probably resents the Russians the most, that were raising an allegation which clearly bolsters the Russian line the Maidan protests were organised by "fascists".
The evidence is certainly not clearcut. The Guardian gave a full account of the call between Paet and Ashton. During the conversation, Paet quoted a woman named Olga – who the Russian media have identified as Olga Bogomolets, a doctor – blaming snipers from the opposition for shooting the protesters.
"What was quite disturbing, this same Olga told that, well, all the evidence shows that people who were killed by snipers from both sides, among policemen and people from the streets, that they were the same snipers killing people from both sides," Paet said.
"So she also showed me some photos, she said that as medical doctor, she can say it is the same handwriting, the same type of bullets, and it's really disturbing that now the new coalition, that they don't want to investigate what exactly happened."
"So there is a stronger and stronger understanding that behind snipers it was not Yanukovych, it was somebody from the new coalition," Paet says, the Guardian reported.
The Estonian foreign ministry confirmed the authenticity of the call a few days later. However, it backed away from blaming members of the newly installed Maidan government as being responsible. "Foreign Minister Paet was giving an overview of what he had heard the previous day in Kiev and expressed concern over the situation on the ground," the ministry said in a statement. "We reject the claim that Paet was giving an assessment of the opposition's involvement in the violence." A spokeswoman for Ashton declined to comment on the leaked conversation.
An investigation was launched into the claims, but it has failed to produce any conclusive evidence either way and the affair might have languished there if not for top German broadcaster ARD.
ARD raises fresh doubts
Fresh doubts surfaced on April 10 when ARD (the BBC of Germany) on its primetime policy special programme "Monitor", produced by the ARD subsidiary station WDR-magazin, aired an in-depth investigation into the shootings, under the title, "Deathshot in Kyiv: who is to blame for the Maidan bloodbath?" The questions raised in their investigation directly contradict the Maidan government's version of events.
The Germans, like the Estonians, are also a very credible source and the German press has invested a lot more effort into the objectivity of its reporting into the events taking place in Eastern Europe than its English-language counterparts.
The German team from ARD interviewed a senior member of the investigation team who told Monitor: "My findings disagree with the official position of the [Ukrainian] government and the Prosecutor General."
Monitor went on to play a tapped phone communications among Berkut officers on February 20 just after the shooting started on Maidan that was supplied by a Ukrainian amateur radio expert. The recording suggests the Berkut were taken by surprise when the shooing started. One Berkut officer is heard asking his colleagues: "Who fired there? Our people do not fire on unarmed people." Another says a bit later: "He was shot by someone, but not by us... are there more snipers? And who are they?"
While there is plentiful video footage on YouTube showing snipers in uniform firing on protestors as well as protestors hiding behind wooden shields being gunned down by police automatic weapon's fire, there is also footage that appears to show protestors being killed by shots fired from the Hotel Ukraina, which sits atop the hill at the back of the square and was fully controlled by the opposition on that day.
Monitor reported eyewitness accounts of shots being fired from the hotel. A protestor called Mikola told Monitor he was on Institute Street, home to many government buildings next to the hotel, who also claims he was shot at from behind, with the government forces in front of him. "Yes on the 20th we were shot at from behind, from the Hotel Ukraina, from the 8th or 9th floor also… Almost from the very top [of the building].. They were mercenaries, definitely professionals."
This claim is apparently backed up by one video that shows a person killed by sniper fire who was standing on the terrace that is across the road from the hotel (clearly visible in almost all the footage) and overlooks Maidan; the direction of the shot seems to come from the hotel, while the government forces were at the bottom of the hill with no clear line of fire onto the terrace.
When confronted with the claims of shots from the Hotel Ukraina, new Prosecutor General Oleg Machnitzki only told Monitor: "We are investigating this."
RT (nee Russia Today, a Kremlin-backed TV station) also ran footage of snipers who were not in uniform (although one was in fatigues) shooting out of what appears to be a hotel room using hunting rifles. The Russian broadcaster claims they were members of the opposition. It has been impossible to confirm the veracity of this report.
The Hotel Ukraina turned into first a makeshift medical field station, but by the end of the day it became a temporary morgue as the bodies pilled up. More pertinently the entrance was guarded by opposition Self Defence forces and an ID card control was imposed in the morning of the 20th to allow access to the building. "We talk to eyewitnesses from the Hotel Ukraina - journalists, opposition figures. They all confirm that on February 20 the hotel was heavily guarded by the opposition. It would therefore have been difficult to sneak a government sniper [into the building]," Monitor reported.
More questions than answers have been thrown up by the official Maidan government investigation, which has not been supervised nor does it include EU representatives, despite Ashton's remarks to Paet.
"We arrived six weeks after the events, but it is apparent not even the basic enquiry has been completed," Monitor reported, despite the fact the government has already officially pinned the blame on Yanukovych.
General Prosecutor Machnitzki is a member of the rightwing nationalist group Svoboda and told Monitor: "As of today, the prosecutor has indicted 12 members of the special Berkut forces for the murder of peaceful demonstrators. The former president Yanukovych directly commanded this Berkut unit."
There is a glaring conflict of interest here, as it is the nationalist forces, of which Svoboda is the political representation, that are alleged now to have ordered the shootings, yet they in effect in charge of investigating the claims. This alone should cause concern for the Maidan government's western backers.
Yanukovych has publicly denied the claims of his involvement in the shootings. And Russian President Vladimir Putin also told Russian journalists in February, for what it's worth, that Yanukovych had told him personally he had not ordered the shootings.
Monitor reports that official investigators were unable to answer even the most basic questions about what kinds of weapons were used by the snipers or the results of forensic tests (if any were done) on bullets recovered from the corpses. Given the claims made by Paet's Olga that bullets the medical staff were pulling out of bodies of both policemen and protestors came from the same gun, the last point is particularly important.
Moreover, Monitor reported that the families of those who died on that day have also been given no information. "We haven’t heard anything, nothing about what guns were used or access to the results [of the investigation]. We have not been given information about the actions of the [government special police force] Berkut units, or of the investigation papers," Roman Titikalo, a lawyer for one of the victim's families, told Monitor. "We can't say what happened and can't also confirm the Prosecutor General's comments."
Oleksandr Baschuk, another lawyer for another family, told Monitor: "The Prosecutor is not investigating this properly. I, as a lawyer for one of the victims, tell you, the public prosecutor's office is not investigating this properly and they are biased, like the old days. They want to do it as things were done in the Soviet Union; put the whole blame on Yanukovych and say that is that."
None of the evidence is conclusive, though the various reports do raise a series of important questions, especially when put in the context of the very obvious and violent nationalist element that took part in the pro-EU demonstrations that ousted the Yanukovych government.
To highlight the issue, as recently as the night of April 29 hundreds of rightwing nationalists marched through central Kyiv openly carrying neo-Nazi symbols, who then clashed with the Maidan Self Defence forces in some of the worst street fighting seen in the capital for weeks.
Despite the evidence gathered and looked into by ARD, the story has been almost entirely ignored by the mainstream English-language international press. "They are ignoring it as it doesn’t fit with their narrative," says one western diplomat, who didn’t want to be named talking about such a sensitive subject.
David Johnson, the doyen of Russia-watching, went as far as sending a special email out to his widely read Johnson's Russia List subscribers on April 12 with some of the details of the story and an English transcription of the programme, requesting journalists follow up with more details. Yet even though the JRL is widely read by most of the international correspondents, academics and foreign policy experts and used as a discussion group by many, the ARD report seems to have been largely ignored.
Jason Corcoran in Moscow - Russian banks are disappearing at the fastest rate ever as the country's deepening recession makes it easier for the central bank to expose money laundering, dodgy lending ... more
bne IntelliNews - The Kremlin supported by national sports authorities has brushed aside "groundless" allegations of a mass doping scam involving Russian athletes after the World Anti-Doping Agency ... more
Jason Corcoran in Moscow - Revelations and mysticism may have been the stock-in-trade of Nikolai Tsvetkov’s management style, but ultimately they didn’t help him to hold on to his ... more