Nervy truce breaking down in Ukraine

By bne IntelliNews February 20, 2014

bne -

A truce agreed between Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition leaders on February 19 seems to be breaking down already, with reports of renewed clashes.

There are already reports of fighting on Independence Square, known as Maidan. "Protesters, police on Independence Square seem not to have gotten truce memo. Violent clashes continue this morning amid fire, smoke," the Kyiv Post's Christopher Miller wrote on Twitter at 9:30 a.m. local time.

Events appear poised to overtake the truce announced by Yanukovych late on February 19, and confirmed by the opposition. In a statement, the president said "negotiations" would now start to end the bloodshed and stabilise the situation.

"What seems to have pulled Yanukovych back from the brink was perhaps uncertainty as to whether he had the critical mass of security services to deliver the final blow," suggests Tim Ash at Standard Bank, "and perhaps nervousness over threats from the West that sanctions would be imposed. The latter perhaps made some oligarchs in the Regions camp falter."

Yanukovych appears to want to send in the army, but it seems the military is reluctant. Ukraine's defence minister earlier declared the army would remain neutral in the conflict, and it is widely believed that the president cannot count on the loyalty of the armed forces, which could well split if ordered to fire on their fellow countrymen.

These tensions came to the surface as Yanukovych sacked the head of the armed forces, Colonel General Volodymyr Zamana, replacing him with commander of the navy, Admiral Yuriy Ilyin, by presidential decree. The speculation on the street is Zamana had refused orders to send in the troops. If true, this shows that the president is becoming increasingly desperate as control of the situation slips from his hands.

The government meanwhile warned that troops had been called in to protect government buildings, and that anti terrorist measures were ongoing. The authorities used an unconfirmed report that 1,500 guns and a stockpile of ammo has been seized by the opposition in Lviv as the pretext for calling in the military.

Clashes through the day were limited on but extremely violent. The Berkut riot police do not have the numbers to maintain control of the streets and were beaten back by crowds hurling cobblestones and beating them with clubs. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. A video circulating on the internet showed the walking wounded after the street battle as protestors and Berkut united to get victims to ambulances.

International pressure

Meanwhile, international calls for calm continue, and the threats of possible sanctions increased. However, it seems late for the international community to make any real difference to what is happening on the streets of Ukraine.

US President Obama warned the Ukrainian military to stay out of what he called a political crisis, and said the United States would hold the government responsible for further violence. "We have been watching very carefully and we expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters," Obama said during a visit to Mexico. "There will be consequences if people step over the line... And that includes making sure that the Ukrainian military does not step into what should be a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians."

Later the same day, the state department announced it has imposed visa bans on 20 members of Ukraine's government. A senior state department said all those were civilians whom Washington held responsible for the violence, but similar to announcements of earlier US sanctions, the official declined to provide any names.

Poland and France meanwhile led calls for the EU to finally act, insisting sanctions must be used. A high level meeting on the matter is set for February 20. Meanwhile, the foreign ministers from France, Germany and Poland are headed to Kyiv to hold crisis talks with top government officials and the opposition.

Searching for the dead

However, the West is seen as increasingly irrelevant by those on the streets. Throughout February 19, anti-government activists, old and young, worked together using ice picks and sledge hammers to breakdown and remove cobblestones from the ground. Miniature Molotov cocktail making factories sprung up across the square. "Now we must fight back. There are no limits. What choice do we have when our government kills its own people?" says 20-year-old Oleh, one of the potent cocktail makers as he hunches over petrol bottles.

Alongside these preparations, they searched for the dead in the burnt out Trade Union House, and medical teams worked round the clock in makeshift emergency rooms set up in churches. The violent police crackdown on February 18 already has an official death toll of 25, including 9 police officers, but at least one more died on February 19.

the Trade Union House was used as HQ for the opposition but caught fire on the night of the February 18

Some shocking footage of a woman gunned down during a protest outside the city authorities office in regional city of Khmelnitsky was circulating on the internet on February 19. A second man showed a gunshot wound in his stomach. The death brings the total of those that have died this week to 26.

Crouched beneath the Trade Union's house, which continued to billow thick black clouds of smoke and emit small explosions throughout the following day and night, Oleh told bne what he witnessed. "I saw people inside the building who could not escape," he says. "They [the police] set the building on fire, they set tents in the square on fire with grenades. They did not care that people would burn alive. It is what they wanted."

Last night, Yuriy T, the coordinator of the medical floor at the former protest headquarters, confirmed that a team of four volunteers who entered the still smouldering building in search of the injured and dead had already found one badly charred corpse inside. "It was impossible to make an identification, at this stage," he tells bne. "There could well be more bodies. We were only able to be inside for about half an hour due to the intense heat and smoke, we visited just the seventh and eighth floors."

"It appeared that there were several major gas explosions inside and bodies could also have been totally incinerated in these," he added.

According to Katerina Melnyk coordinator of the Euromaidan hospital guard, more than 200 people are in official hospitals, most with very serious injuries. Hundreds more are thought have been wounded in the clashes. "Only people who are very seriously hurt will go to the hospital, because they are afraid that they will be arrested if they go there, so people with smaller injuries would rather not seek treatment," Nina Potarskay, who worked for Euromaidan coordinating medical volunteers on February 18, tells bne.

Several reportedly died that night after being prevented from accessing appropriate medical facilities. "When we called for the ambulances, the riot police prevented them from coming close to the hospital and took the ambulance to treat their own men" claims Mykola Polishchuk, Kyiv's chief neurosurgeon and Minister of Health in 2005, who volunteered in the makeshift hospital in Mychailivskiy Cathedral.

There are also multiple reports that the police used live, as well as rubber bullets against protesters. "Most of the injured people had head injuries; they had been hit with stones and bricks, [but] there were injuries from live ammunition as well," says Polishchuk who says he witnessed one protester die of a gunshot to the lung.

Bosiy, a twenty-two year-old member of Euromaidan radical group Right Sector [Praviy Sektor] says he was shot at with live rounds repeatedly. "During the day I had to change my bullet proof vest twice, so did others that I was with, because they were destroyed by the live ammunition. They aimed at our heads and also at our chests. We removed bullets from our vests. I was injured on my hand from grenades and on my legs," he says.

As he speaks, a colleague from the Euromaiden Defence Unit points up. "There's a sniper". A figure dressed all in black is clearly visible on top of the ten-storey high building for a few seconds before ducking out of sight. The defence unit says that there have been two shooters positioned there since the early hours of the morning.

Bosiy also confirmed reports of titushki (gangs of street fighters loyal to the government) fighting alongside the police near Mariinsky Park. "There were two hundred maybe more. They threw stones and bricks." The Right Sector fighter also says his unit discovered undetonated grenades in the park area with bags of nails and metal balls attached to them.

Ukraine's security services, however, have countered by accusing protesters of using guns against the police. The claim is not outlandish. "I think many people on Maidan have guns, and if the police use gun then they will shoot back," says Artem Melnichuk, a student from Kyiv who fought alongside his father in the last round of clashes. Photos of protesters with guns have been circulating on Twitter and other social media sites.

The announced ceasefire late on February 19 did little to convince those on the street. "Yanukovych tells lies," says one hooded youth who identified himself as Sergei. "Why should we believe a murderer? Every time he has gone back on his promises"

Beneath the watchful gaze of the iconic copper and gold Berehynia statue, the barricades on Maidan continued to blaze into the early hours of February 20. Several hundred protesters remained in the square, several hurled rocks and fireworks across the frontline. The police on the other side used a water cannon and showed no sign of retreating.

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