Violent clashes in Kyiv on Thursday morning brought a veritable bloodbath to the streets of the Ukrainian capital.
Thousands of anti-government protesters regained control of Independence Square, but beyond its boundaries no-one is in control of the overall situation in the country at large.
Earlier there was open combat, with protesters and security forces firing on each other and dozens of people reported dead after a truce broke down. It was only declared by President Viktor Yanukovych last night.
The casualty count is rising constantly. An official from the opposition medical service Sviatoslav Khanenko told the AFP news agency that 60 people had been killed by gunfire on Thursday.
Another top medic for the protesters, Dr Oleh Musiy, was quoted as saying 70 protesters had been killed and the number of dead on Thursday could go higher. None of the figures could be verified.
Earlier the Ukrainian Presidency evoked dozens of deaths and injuries among police.
Ukraine’s police force has been armed with combat weapons, the country’s acting interior minister said. “I signed an order and police have been given combat weapons, which will be used in accordance with the law,” acting interior minister Vitaly Zakharschenko said in a statement published on the ministry website.
Ukrainian anti-government protesters are holding 67 policemen hostage in the capital, the interior ministry said.
During the morning a Reuters journalist reported seeing 21 bodies, all civilians, lined up in the streets near Independence Square. The Kyiv Post said at least 35 bodies had been counted.
European Union foreign ministers agreed on Thursday to impose sanctions on Ukraine, including visa bans, asset freezes and restrictions on the export of anti-riot equipment, ministers and officials said. The restrictions, to be drafted into law in the coming days, will apply to those involved with ordering or orchestrating the violence. Proposals for a ban on arms exports were dropped.
The bloodshed started shortly before EU foreign ministers from Germany, France and Poland held talks with Russian-backed President Yanukovych in Kyiv. The meeting was delayed for security reasons and began one hour late.
“Black smoke, detonations and gunfire around presidential palace… Officials panicky,” tweeted Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski to explain the delay. The meeting was later reported to have ended.
The Polish minister later said he was about to meet Ukraine’s opposition to discuss a proposed deal with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
The United States stepped up pressure on Wednesday by imposing travel bans on 20 senior Ukrainian officials.
German, French and Polish foreign ministers are staying in Ukraine for more talks aimed at resolving the crisis.
Earlier in the day, Russia sharply criticised the Western measures. Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that threats of sanctions were “inappropriate” and would only aggravate the confrontation between the Ukrainian government and its opponents. Separately, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov likened threats of sanctions to blackmail, RIA news agency reported.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will send an envoy to Ukraine, at the request of President Viktor Yanukovych, to try to mediate talks between the government and opposition, Russian news agencies quoted Putin’s spokesman as saying on Thursday.
Reports early in the afternoon said an extraordinary parliamentary session appeared to have got underway. Around 30 MPs from the ruling Party of Regions and independent parties are said to be ready to vote with the opposition to ensure a ceasefire, stop the clashes, and bring constitutional changes.
Kyiv authorities have ordered the reopening of the metro, which has been closed due to the violence. The city’s administrative chief Volodymyr Makeyenko published a video appeal to the president and police chiefs urging them to stop the bloodshed. He confirmed his resignation from the Party of Regions but said he would stay on in his job to ensure the city functioned properly.
These are by far the bloodiest hours of Ukraine’s 22-year post-Soviet history.
Violence on Tuesday had already claimed 28 lives, on both sides. A journalist was also killed.
Protesters and police have accused each other of using live ammunition.
A statement from Viktor Yanukovych’s office said that the protesters went on the offensive: “They are working in organised groups. They are using firearms, including sniper rifles. They are shooting to kill,” it said.
But Vitali Klitschko, leader of the opposition UDAR party, issued a statement saying: “Armed thugs have been let loose in the streets to attack people and create an illusion that there is a confrontation between citizens.”
Protesters hurling petrol bombs and paving stones drove riot police off a corner of the central Independence Square, known as the Maidan, and appeared to capture several uniformed officers – up to 50 according to some reports.
As the demonstrators regained full control of the square, police responded with stun grenades.
Pro-EU activists have been keeping vigil in the square since the president turned his back on a trade pact with the EU in November and accepted financial aid from Moscow.
Since then, the protests have turned into a rejection of his government and a call for political change.
In an apparent criticism of Yanukovych’s handling of the crisis, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said today that Moscow could only cooperate fully with Ukraine when its leadership was in “good shape”, Interfax reported. Russia would not hand over cash to a leadership that let opponents walk over it “like a doormat”, Reuters quoted the prime minister as saying.
At the Winter Olympics in Sochi, being hosted by Russia, some members of Ukraine’s team have decided to leave, the International Olympic Committee said.
Elsewhere, in Lviv, a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism since Soviet times, the regional assembly declared autonomy from Yanukovych and his administration, which many west Ukrainians see as much closer to Moscow and to Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east.