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KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - Thick, dark smoke rose above the center of the Ukrainian capital amid the boom of police stun grenades Wednesday, as officers in riot gear sought to push demonstrators away from the city's main square following deadly clashes between police and protesters that left at least 25 people dead and hundreds injured and raised fears of a civil war.
After several hours of relative calm, confrontation flared up again Wednesday afternoon, with hundreds of police amassing on the edges of Independence Square, known as the Maidan, throwing stun grenades and using water cannons in a bid to disperse protesters. Thousands of activists armed with fire bombs and rocks held their ground, defending the square which has been a bastion and symbol for the demonstrators.
The violence Tuesday was the worst in nearly three months of anti-government protests that have paralyzed Ukraine's capital in a struggle over the identity of a nation divided in loyalties between Russia and the West, and the worst in the country's post-Soviet history. It prompted the European Union to threaten sanctions against Ukrainian officials responsible for the violence and triggered angry rebukes from Moscow, which accused the West of triggering the clashes by backing the opposition.
The protests began in late November after Yanukovych turned away from a long-anticipated deal with the EU in exchange for a $15 billion bailout from Russia. The political maneuvering continued ever since, with both Moscow and the West eager to gain influence over this former Soviet republic.
The Kremlin said it put the next disbursement of its bailout on hold amid uncertainty over Ukraine's future and what it described as a "coup attempt."
President Viktor Yanukovych on Wednesday blamed the protesters for the violence and said the opposition leaders "crossed a line when they called people to arms."
The European Union appears poised to impose sanctions as it called an extraordinary meeting of the 28-nation bloc's foreign ministers for Thursday.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called for "targeted measures against those responsible for violence and use of excessive force can be agreed ... as a matter of urgency."
Sanctions would at first typically include banning leading officials from traveling to the 28-nation bloc and freezing their assets there.
"It is the political leadership of the country that has a responsibility to ensure the necessary protection of fundamental rights and freedoms," said Barroso, who heads the EU's executive arm. "It was with shock and utter dismay that we have been watching developments over the last 24 hours in Ukraine," he added.
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.
Police responded by attacking the protest camp. Armed with water cannons, stun grenades and rubber bullets, police dismantled some barricades and took part of the Maidan. But the protesters held their ground through the night, encircling the camp with new burning barricades of tires, furniture and debris.
On Wednesday morning, the center of Kiev was cordoned off by police, the subway was shut down and most shops on Kiev's main street were closed. But hundreds of Ukrainians still flocked to the opposition camp, some wearing balaclavas and armed with bats, others in everyday clothes and with makeup on, carrying food to protesters.
A group of young men and women poured petrol into plastic bottles, preparing fire bombs, while a volunteer walked past them distributing ham sandwiches from a tray. Another group of activists was busy crushing the pavement into pieces and into bags to fortify barricades.
"The revolution turned into a war with the authorities," said Vasyl Oleksenko, 57, a retired geologist from central Ukraine, who said he fled the night's violence fearing for his life, but returned to the square in the morning, feeling ashamed. "We must fight this bloody, criminal leadership. We must fight for our country, our Ukraine."
Yanukovych was defiant on Wednesday.
"I again call on the leaders of the opposition ... to draw a boundary between themselves and radical forces which are provoking bloodshed and clashes with the security services," the president said in a statement. "If they don't want to leave (the square) - they should acknowledge that they are supporting radicals. Then the conversation with them will already be of a different kind." He also called a day of mourning for the dead on Thursday.
Yanukovych's tone left few with hope of compromise. He still enjoys strong support in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions, where many want strong ties with Russia.
The Health Ministry said 25 people died in the clashes, some from gunshot wounds, and Kiev hospitals were struggling to treat hundreds of injured. Activists also set up a makeshift medical unit inside a landmark Orthodox Church not far from the camp, where volunteer medics were taking care of the wounded.
Meanwhile, in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where most residents yearn for stronger ties with the EU and have little sympathy for Yanukovych, protesters seized several government buildings, including the governor's office, police stations, prosecutors and security agency offices and the tax agency headquarters. They also broke into an Interior Ministry unit and set it on fire. The building was still smoldering Wednesday morning and some protesters were driving around town in police cars they had seized during the night.
Tensions continued mounting. The government imposed restrictions for transport moving toward Kiev, apparently to prevent more opposition activists from coming from the Western part of the country, and at least one train from Lviv was held outside Kiev. Several highways into Kiev were also blocked by police.
Acting Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedev told the ITAR-Tass news agency that he has dispatched a paratrooper brigade to Kiev to help protect arsenals. He refused to say if the unit could be used against protesters, the agency said.
Tensions soared after Russia said Monday that it was ready to resume providing the loans that Yanukovych's government needs to keep Ukraine's ailing economy afloat. This raised fears among the opposition that Yanukovych had made a deal with Moscow to stand firm against the protesters and would choose a Russian-leaning loyalist to be his new prime minister.
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that Putin had a phone conversation with Yanukovych overnight. Peskov said that Putin hasn't given Yanukovych any advice how to settle the crisis, adding that it's up to the Ukrainian government.
Peskov also added that the next disbursement of a Russian bailout has remained on hold, saying the priority now is to settle the crisis, which he described as a "coup attempt."
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement, blaming the West for the failure to condemn the opposition for the latest bout of violence.
EU leaders took the opposite stance, with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt putting the blame on Yanukovych in an unusually tough statement.
"Today, President Yanukovich has blood on his hands," Bildt said.
The Russians are pretty smart, buying a country for $15 billion. The Evil Empire is at it again !!
Putin bought the President of the Ukraine not the People, thats why they are not giving the rest of the money they are afraid he will loose!
God Bless the Protesters, You have endured enough of the Soviet regime and deserve your independence and sovereignty! I pray to our heavenly father that he guides you and helps you overcome the Soviet Regime. Mother Mary pray for our brothers and sisters in the Ukraine! Have faith and keep up the resistance!
There is more going on than what this blog says. My dad used to say, "believe nothing of what you hear (in the news) and half of what you see (in the news). Optical illusion cannot be discerned by the emotionally and psychologically blind."
Is this the same Vitali Klitschko who is a heavy weight boxer ?
Putin sucked before and he still sucks now . Not all of us Americans are anti-Russian I love the people I married one she is a dream girl and is really all about Family first . Just like these protesters when goverments stop hearing the people . A protest is a few 100 to a few 1000 when you here it from Millions someone better wake up . Kiev need to stay free Putin will have the old cold war back soon, he is trying vary hard to get it there .
Many fail to understand that the Ukraine is deeply divided not by just politics, but by culture going back centuries. The eastern half of the country has some of the most productive farmland in the world which, once absorbed by Imperial Russia in the time of Catherine the Great, became invaluable to the well being of Russia. This fact was not lost on the Communists following the revolution. Stalin's collectivization of agriculture in the '30s resulted in many thousands of Ukrainian farmers starving, while others were relocated to nether regions of the USSR. The eastern half of the country was repopulated by Russians. They brought their culture along with them. Russian is the first language of the majority of people now living there, and their kinship with Russia runs deep in most other matters as well. The western half of the country, where the current unrest exists, is true Ukrainian. The people there look more toward Europe for both economic advancement and retribution for what Russia, both imperial and Soviet, has done to their nation. Yanukovch's decision to draw closer to Moscow is seen as just a continuation of a disagreeable past. There is little middle ground in this conflict and much that could lead to civil war with Putin backing the Ukrainian president.
The people want to be part of the EU, for what!!??...So that they be skinned like Greece, by the blood ******* German banks??!!..They're better off with Putin.
rocher54 ,,I understand your point and feel the exact same way but unfortunately people are getting dumber by the day and will not see what's happening.
They are better of with no one!!! But the fact is that this country are 2 distinct cultures! There will be a civil war if they dont break up!
Thank you for this informative post.
So sad to see my home city like this... haven't been there since I was a kid, but still sad.
Well who didn't see this coming.
Russians always blaming the west. They should concern themselves with building an economywith less thugery and corruption.
Scenes like in Ukraine and other countries such as in the Middle East where people rise up against what they believe is a corrupt government have already happened here in the United States several times. The Revolutionary War, many battles between colonists and the Native Americans which later turned into a war you rarely find true details about in our school's history books, and of course the Civil War of the 1800;s. We will have clashes like the Ukraine in our country again and most likely another Civil War only because our government today is not representative for the majority voice of the people. Our school systems fall more and more out of touch with actual education of our youth, our social services are in disrepair, and our health system becomes more and more of dream than an actual working entity. Everyday more and more Americans realize that our government is NOT for the people and more for the lying, cheating, narcissistic, out-for-their-own-agenda politicians. Yes, unfortunately we will wake up one day to civil unrest in our country. Look what happened with Occupy Wall Street.