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Russia, Ukraine feud over sniper carnage

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - One of the biggest mysteries hanging over the protest mayhem that drove Ukraine's president from power: Who was behind the snipers who sowed death and terror in Kiev?

That riddle has become the latest flashpoint of feuding over Ukraine - with the nation's fledgling government and the Kremlin giving starkly different interpretations of events that could either undermine or bolster the legitimacy of the new rulers.

Ukrainian authorities are investigating the Feb. 18-20 bloodbath, and they have shifted their focus from ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's government to Vladimir Putin's Russia - pursuing the theory that the Kremlin was intent on sowing mayhem as a pretext for military incursion. Russia suggests that the snipers were organized by opposition leaders trying to whip up local and international outrage against the government.

The government's new health minister - a doctor who helped oversee medical treatment for casualties during the protests - told The Associated Press that the similarity of bullet wounds suffered by opposition victims and police indicates the shooters were trying to stoke tensions on both sides and spark even greater violence, with the goal of toppling Yanukovych.

"I think it wasn't just a part of the old regime that (plotted the provocation), but it was also the work of Russian special forces who served and maintained the ideology of the (old) regime," Health Minister Oleh Musiy said.

Putin has pushed the idea that the sniper shootings were ordered by opposition leaders, while Kremlin officials have pointed to a recording of a leaked phone call between Estonia's foreign minister and the European Union's foreign policy chief as evidence to back up that version.

This much is known: Snipers firing powerful rifles from rooftops and windows shot scores of people in the heart of Kiev. Some victims were opposition protesters, but many were civilian bystanders clearly not involved in the clashes. Among the dead were medics, as well as police officers. A majority of the more than 100 people who died in the violence were shot by snipers; hundreds were also injured by the gunfire and other street fighting.

On Tuesday, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov signaled that investigators may be turning their attention away from Ukrainian responsibility.

"I can say only one thing: the key factor in this uprising, that spilled blood in Kiev and that turned the country upside down and shocked it, was a third force," Avakov was quoted as saying by Interfax. "And this force was not Ukrainian."

The next day, Prosecutor General Oleh Makhntisky said officials have found sniper bullet casings on the National Bank building a few hundred yards up the hill from Maidan, the square that became the center and the symbol of the anti-government protests. He said investigators have confirmed snipers also fired from the Hotel Ukraine, directly on the square, and the House of Chimeras, an official residence next to the presidential administration building.

Deputy Interior Minister Mykola Velichkovych told AP that commanders of sniper units overseen by the Berkut police force and other Interior Ministry subdivisions have denied to investigators that they had given orders to shoot anyone.

Musiy, who spent more than two months organizing medical units on Maidan, said that on Feb. 20 roughly 40 civilians and protesters were brought with fatal bullet wounds to the makeshift hospital set up near the square. But he said medics also treated three police officers whose wounds were identical.

Forensic evidence, in particular the similarity of the bullet wounds, led him and others to conclude that snipers were targeting both sides of the standoff at Maidan - and that the shootings were intended to generate a wave of revulsion so strong that it would topple Yanukovych and also justify a Russian invasion.

Russia has used the uncertainty surrounding the bloodshed to discredit Ukraine's current government. During a news conference Tuesday, Putin addressed the issue in response to a reporter's question, suggesting that the snipers in fact "may have been provocateurs from opposition parties."

That theory gained currency a day later when a recording of a Feb. 26 private phone call between Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was leaked and broadcast by the Russian government-controlled TV network, Russia Today. In the call, Paet said he had heard from protesters during a visit to Kiev that opponents of Yanukovych were behind the sniper attacks.

Paet said another physician who treated victims, Dr. Olha Bogomolets, told him that both police and protesters were killed by the same bullets - and "there is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind snipers it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new (government) coalition."

On Wednesday Paet confirmed the recording was authentic, and told reporters in Tallinn that he was merely repeating what Bogomolets had told him. He said he had no way of verifying the claims, though he called Bogomolets "clearly a person with authority."

Bogomolets couldn't be immediately reached by the AP for comment. She did not answer repeated calls to her cellphone or respond to text messages.

In an interview earlier this week with a correspondent from British newspaper The Telegraph, Bogomolets said she didn't know if police and protesters were killed by the same bullets, and called for a thorough investigation.

"No one who just sees the wounds when treating the victims can make a determination about the type of weapons," she was quoted as saying. "I hope international experts and Ukrainian investigators will make a determination of what type of weapons, who was involved in the killings and how it was done. I have no data to prove anything."

On Thursday, Russia's U.N. envoy said he discussed the leaked phone call during a closed-door meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

If the call represents the truth, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters, "it is hard to imagine how such a parliament ... can be regarded as a legitimate parliament that can pass legitimate decisions on the future of Ukraine."

A former top security official with Ukraine's main security agency, the SBU, waded into the confusion, in an interview published Thursday with the respected newspaper Dzerkalo Tizhnya. Hennady Moskal, who was deputy head of the agency, told the newspaper that snipers from the Interior Ministry and SBU were responsible for the shootings, not foreign agents.

"In addition to this, snipers received orders to shoot not only protesters, but also police forces. This was all done in order to escalate the conflict, in order to justify the police operation to clear Maidan," he was quoted as saying.

One of the victims of the snipers was Alexander Tonskikh, 57. He told AP that at around 10 a.m. on Feb. 20, he and dozens of opposition fighters moved south out of the main battleground on Maidan.

Riot police withdrew suddenly, he said, and an instant later snipers began firing from at least two different directions, from what seemed to be the rooftops of government buildings, between 200 and 300 yards away.

He said dozens of people were "mown down like grass" as he and others crouched behind a waist-high stone wall, holding wooden clubs and metal riot shields.

At least 10 people, he said, were killed instantly, and many others wounded. The bodies piled up on top of each other like fallen tree branches.

Shooting then began from a third direction, he said. As he crouched with his back to a tree, he was hit by a bullet that entered his right arm, went through his right side, punctured his lung and lodged just below his heart.

He then lost consciousness.


AP writers Edith Lederer at the United Nations, and Jari Tanner in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed to this report.

Join the discussion

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rtgarton March 09 2014 at 9:46 AM

Maybe aliens were looking down on us and didn't like what they saw, so they disguised themselves as snipers? What is wrong with you people.

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arkady967 March 09 2014 at 12:42 PM

From the community organizer playbook...

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mal998 March 09 2014 at 12:35 PM

Russia creates mayhem, just like they've always done. Not unlike the big rwing power brokers here in the U.S. Do you really think that thousands of Ukrainians turned out to protest because some CIA operative told them to? Hogwash. People riot because they want freedom and opportunity, plain and simple. Read some history and educate yourselves before making rash statements that have no basis in fact, other than the nonsense disseminated by the morons at fux-you news. I hear a lot of bravado here. Maybe it's time to re-instate the draft and give all you cowboys a chance to saddle up.

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1 reply
rvanhosen mal998 March 09 2014 at 12:41 PM

Why are the protestors holding up signs in English??

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2 replies
kcarthey rvanhosen March 09 2014 at 1:01 PM

Why? Like all protestors anywhere in the world they hold up signs in English so they can be read on American TV. Too bad so few Americans never bothered to learn any other language but English and that language often poorly.

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ernest rvanhosen March 09 2014 at 1:02 PM

To keep Republicans from reading them....

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jct5054 March 09 2014 at 11:44 AM

They want to ensure they take a good look at Victoria Nuland from our state dept, she was funneling mega dollars into Ukraine for the Pro-western side to over throw an elected goverment. Strange when we do it, it is the will of the people, when Putin and Russia do it in the crimea it is against the law.

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1 reply
kklinvt jct5054 March 09 2014 at 12:03 PM

That is the classic American double standard. We can do whatever we want so long as no one finds out. You can't or we will publicly shame you, or worse, for doing the exact same thing.

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ehomemail March 09 2014 at 12:11 PM

Clearly, a lot of confusion and not much of factual information. Let the dust settle, everyhting will be resolved ... USA should stay away form that region, it may be worse than Afganistan.

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Myron E Holley J March 09 2014 at 3:12 AM

TRYING TO STOKE THE FIRE FOR OBUMMER. It don't wash. Keep out bummers

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rivers360 March 09 2014 at 4:25 AM

And who was the second shooter from behind the grassy knoll? Older folks will appreciate the comment. Younger folks will be clueless.

Please, at least ONE younger person read this and tell me you understand. My thanks.

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1 reply
rothhammer1 rivers360 March 09 2014 at 5:15 AM

You did not define what ages you refer to as 'older' or 'younger.'

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1 reply
Hi Connie rothhammer1 March 09 2014 at 5:41 AM

I know what she is talking about, but then I am 74 years old! So let's define "younger" as half my age. That would be 37 years old.

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molly2peaches March 09 2014 at 4:38 AM

Lots of Obama haters wishing for this to happen here. Wishing to be doing the mowing down like grass themselves.

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1 reply
moderationist molly2peaches March 09 2014 at 7:38 AM

Obama will send them taxpayer billions out of our economy

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me3jewels March 09 2014 at 11:23 AM

More like Hitler every day.

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bjredmond64 March 09 2014 at 11:06 AM

did anyone really believe russia was our friend? a very devious governmet looking to rule the world.

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1 reply
tactical668 bjredmond64 March 09 2014 at 12:27 PM

evidently our president does

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