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The Ukraine Uprising’s Bloodiest Day Yet

At least 25 people have died so far, including nine police officers, and the number of injured could run “into the thousands.”

by Annabelle Chapman
Feb 19 2014, 3:50pm

Photo: Konstantin Chernichkin

Kiev was burning again on Tuesday. Following a period of calm, the day’s violence was the deadliest since Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests began in November.

The number of deaths rose throughout the day, as more and more corpses were found in the streets of Kiev. By Wednesday morning, at least 25 people had lost their lives, including nine police officers. Reports about the number of injured vary but start at over 200. A Ukrainian doctor on the scene said that the number could run “into the thousands” and the tolls of those both killed and wounded are only likely to rise. A stream of photos on social media showed people, many of them apparently unconscious, with their faces covered in blood.

Tuesday’s crackdown was a brutal wakeup call to anyone who thought the situation in Ukraine would be settled any time soon — a position that didn't seem too fanciful as recently as a few days ago. On Sunday, police and protesters started to pull back from their standoff on Kiev’s Hrushevskoho Street, the site of the worst clashes in January. The place was an absolute mess: a sea of soot, tires and burnt-out vehicles, studded with Ukrainian and foreign flags.

Ukraine government footage showing violence against police

Protesters also withdrew from the Kiev city administration building — otherwise known as Revolution HQ — which they had been occupying since early December. This was a condition of an amnesty deal for anti-government demonstrators, with the prosecutor stating that it would drop charges against them. When officials returned to their place of work on Monday, they found the place more or less trashed.

Meanwhile, President Yanukovych continued to ignore demands from opposition parties for early elections. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR), Svoboda, and Fatherland parties hoped to succeed in at least forcing an amendment to Ukraine’s constitution to reduce the power of the president and increase the power of parliament. The violence on Tuesday broke out as parliament was about to discuss the proposal.

That afternoon, metro stations across the city were closed off, officially due to the threat of a “terrorist attack.” This tactic has been used before to make it difficult for people to reach the protests in central Kiev. Riot police marched toward the city center, armed, ominously, with Kalashnikovs. This video from Instytutska Street shows the police attempting to restore order using a water cannon.

Photo: Konstantin Chernichkin

Ukraine’s security forces had given the crowds a deadline of 6 PM to end the protests. As evening came, riot police drew in around Independence Square, but it was still unclear whether and when they would strike. Fires broke out in the square, and central Kiev experienced a street light outage sometime before midnight. According to local reports, police shot UV paint at the protesters in order to make them visible targets in the darkness.

Meanwhile, the Trade Unions building, located on one side of Independence Square, also started to burn. This had been the protesters’ organizational heart for over two and a half months. Riot police reportedly entered the building’s upper floors from the roof before the blaze broke out. The Interior Ministry has since accused the radical organization Right Sector of setting fire to the building.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s unruly western regions were not dozing. In Lviv, protesters captured the regional administration building, police headquarters, and prosecutor’s office. Local news sources say that legal papers and documents were thrown from the windows of the prosecutor’s office and then mostly burnt on a bonfire near the building. In one of the windows, an activist appeared holding a bottle of champagne. Demonstrators in Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk, in the west of Ukraine, also captured official buildings.

As the evening approached 11 PM, two of the opposition leaders, Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, arrived at Yanukovych’s office for talks. They were kept waiting for over an hour.

“Yanukovych is hiding,” tweeted a member of Klitschko’s team. “They keep being told that the president will meet with them at any moment.”

When the talks finally took place, they came to nothing. Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion and the leader of the UDAR (or “Punch”) party, afterward told the Ukrainian media that Yanukovych had simply said that the protesters should go home.

"We are standing on the edge of the most dramatic chapter of our country’s history,” Yatsenyuk told the Ukrainian press after emerging from the talks, adding that the protesters have the right to gather in Independence Square, known as the Maidan.

Vitali Klitschko condemns Ukraine government

Yatsenyuk is the current leader of the Fatherland party, which held office in Ukraine before its former leader Yulia Tymoshenko was controversially imprisoned.

A number of European officials condemned the violence, saying Yanukovych was responsible.

“Only person who can now stop catastrophe in Ukraine is President Yanukovich,” tweeted Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, late on Tuesday night. “His vacillation and violence responsible for situation.”

But after three months of protests, many activists are awaiting a response from Europe that is tougher than a critical tweet. This time, it looks like they may get what they want. EU officials planned to meet on Thursday to discuss imposing targeted sanctions for what they said was the “unjustified use of excessive force by the Ukrainian authorities.”

In a statement last night, Russia’s foreign ministry blamed the West for the violence, calling it a “direct result” of European politicians and structures that had from the start of the protests turned a blind eye to the radical forces in Ukraine.

“The opposition no longer controls the situation among its supporters,” it added.

Photo: Konstantin Chernichkin

Russia is still occupied with the Winter Olympics in Sochi, but there is concern about what Moscow might do once Putin is no longer busy watching people slide around on ice.

The situation was calmer on Wednesday morning, but the battle does not appear to be over. The Trade Unions building was still smoldering, with dark smoke billowing from the upper floors. The metro was still not functioning and schools were closed. Protesters went about everyday chores, such as uprooting like preparing Molotov cocktails, crushing paving stones to hurl at riot police, and getting a bite to eat.

In characteristic form, Yanukovych rounded off the events of the previous night with a statement published at 5.38 AM, calling for dialogue.

“It’s my lifelong principle: no power is worth the spilling of a drop of blood,” he stated — which was a weird thing to say, given that so far, more than a few drops have been spilled in the battle on the Maidan, and there is no sign yet of that stopping.

Follow Annabelle on Twitter: @AB_Chapman