New Ukraine clashes shatter shaky truce


by Olga Rudenko and Jennifer Collins, Special for USA TODAY

Posted on February 20, 2014 at 8:40 AM

Updated Thursday, Feb 20 at 11:01 AM

KIEV, Ukraine — The tenuous truce between the government and opposition protesters collapsed Thursday amid renewed violence between the demonstrators and riot police.

Protesters hurled rocks and petrol bombs amid gunshots while tanks were moving toward the center of the city, witnesses reported. An Associated Press reporter counted 22 bodies at the protest encampment.

Activists rebuilding barricades in Independence Square expressed optimism despite the violence.

"I think today will be a turning point for our revolution," said Igor Zhdanov, a protester in Kiev. "They started to surrender, we threw them back."

Others said the broken truce made it clear President Viktor Yanukovych is playing for time.

"We've passed the point of no return," said a protester identified only as Vitaliy, who was among demonstrators building barricades around the square. . "Yanukovych can't be trusted even a little bit."

"Anyone who is occupying any position in the government now should never work in any government institution again," he added

Oleh Hrynyshevskiy, a surgeon, was helping the wounded protesters in a first-aid post in the hall of a post office on Independence Square.

"This is not the end of it — it's just beginning," said Hrynyshevskiy, who rushed to Kiev from western Ukraine on Wednesday to help the wounded.

At least one of the dead was wearing a bulletproof vest but the bullet broke through it, he added.

One protest camp commander, Oleh Mykhnyuk, said that even after the truce call, protesters continued to throw firebombs at riot police on the square. As the sun rose, police pulled back, the protesters followed them and police began shooting at them, he said.

Video footage on Ukrainian TV showed protesters being cut down by gunfire, lying on the pavement as comrades rushed to their aid, trying to protect themselves with shields.

A protester who wouldn't give his name told USA TODAY the demonstrators had no guns with them.

In a statement Thursday, Yanukovych claimed that police were not armed and "all measures to stop bloodshed and confrontation are being taken."

The foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland met with opposition leaders, then with Yanukovych.

The two sides are locked in a battle over the identity of this nation of 46 million, whose loyalties are divided between Russia and the West. Parts of the country are in open revolt against the central government while others in the east are threatening to secede.

Crimea, a pro-Moscow, autonomous republic within the Ukraine, may secede from the country if tensions escalate further, according to Russian media reports.The head of the Crimean parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov, said Ukraine's southern territory may break away if the country descends into further chaos.

Konstantinov told parliament he believes the country is heading toward a split.

The latest bout of street violence began Tuesday when protesters attacked police lines and set fires outside parliament, accusing Yanukovych of ignoring their demands to enact constitutional reforms that would limit the president's power — a key opposition demand. Parliament, dominated by his supporters, was stalling on taking up a constitutional reform to limit presidential powers.

In a statement published early Thursday, the Ukrainian Health Ministry said 28 people have died and 287 have been hospitalized during the two days of street violence. Protesters, who have set up a medical care facility in a downtown cathedral, say the numbers are significantly higher.

Ukrainian police said Thursday that more than 20 officers have been wounded by gunfire in the capital. A statement from the Interior Ministry on Thursday said the gunfire appeared to be coming from the national music conservatory, which is on the edge of the downtown square housing an extensive protest tent camp. It did not say when the officers were wounded, but added that they were receiving treatment on Thursday.

Also Thursday, the parliament building was evacuated amid fears protesters were preparing to storm it, said parliament spokeswoman Irina Karnelyuk.

The renewed clashes despite the declaration of truce follow days of violence, the deadliest since protests kicked off three months ago after Yanukovych shelved an association agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. Russia then announced a $15 billion bailout for Ukraine, whose economy is in tatters.

The ongoing violence on the square Thursday indicates that more radical elements among the protesters may be unwilling to observe the truce and may not be mollified by the prospects of negotiations. Although the initial weeks of protests were determinedly peaceful, radicals helped drive an outburst of clashes with police in January in which at least three people died, and the day of violence on Tuesday may have radicalized many more.

Meanwhile, neither side had appeared willing to compromise, with the opposition insisting on Yanukovych's resignation and an early election and the president apparently prepared to fight until the end. Now, protesters are braced for the military to move in, the opposition said.

Political and diplomatic maneuvering has continued, with both Moscow and the West eager to gain influence over this former Soviet republic.

President Obama also stepped in to condemn the violence, warning Wednesday "there will be consequences" for Ukraine if it continues. The U.S. has raised the prospect of joining with the EU to impose sanctions against Ukraine.

Russia's Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, described the violence as an attempted coup and even used the phrase "brown revolution," an allusion to the Nazi rise to power in Germany in 1933. The ministry said Russia would use "all our influence to restore peace and calm." Meanwhile, Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov laid some of the blame for the escalation in violence on Western countries "that interfered in events by courting the protesters."

Analysts say Russia is trying to maintain its influence in the Ukraine.

"Russia has never not intervened in Ukraine, that's the whole issue," said Ben Tonra, head of the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin in Ireland. "President Putin has actively intervened in Ukrainian politics since the separation of Ukraine."

Contributing: Luigi Serenelli in Berlin; Associated Press