KIEV, February 20. /ITAR-TASS/. About 50 people have been killed in ongoing riots in central Kiev, Valeria Lutkovskaya, a human rights ombudsman of the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada, said in a statement on Thursday, adding that some sources said there were much more victims.
“Hundreds of people have been taken to hospital,” she said. “Today, I inspected Kiev-based hospitals. They are overcrowded. There are dozens of people with gunshot wounds there. In fact, Kiev’s streets are an arena of combat operations.”
She urged to spare no effort to settle the situation in a peaceful way, through talks. “I am calling to immediately stop bloodshed in Kive’s streets and in other Ukrainian cities to save human lives,” she stressed. “It is never too late to stop shooting, to save human lives.”
Today’s death count includes seven people, with two police officers among them, the Ukrainian Health Ministry reported on Thursday.
Anti-government protests have been underway in Ukraine since November 2013. A new wave of riots started in Kiev in the morning of February 18 after opposition supporters tried to march to the building of Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s unicameral parliament, in support of a constitutional reform cutting presidential powers.
What is happening in Kiev
According to the latest data posted on the Ukrainian Health Ministry’s website, 505 people have turned to medical institutions for help, with 292 of them hospitalized, since the start of the latest riots on Tuesday.
There is apparently some confusion about the number of those injured, as late Wednesday’s reports said nearly 800 had been injured in the clashes.
Thursday was announced as the day of mourning for those killed. The death toll was 28 people, including 10 law enforcers, until today morning. Nevertheless, a truce in downtown Kiev lasted for about a few hours, and extremists continued their activities at about 09:00 a.m.
They were shooting from firearms, and eyewitnesses said assault rifles were used. According to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, a sniper opened fire on police officers.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sergei Burlakov said on local television that a toxic agent had been used against law enforcement officers, adding that the authorities were trying to find out what substance it was. As a result, Berkut riot police had to temporarily retreat from the October Palace international cultural center on Institutskaya Street in downtown Kiev.
TV reports said several Berkut offices had been captured.
Extremists also broke through to the Ukrainian parliament building, and evacuation started in the Verkhovna Rada.
Nearly at the same time, evacuation started in the Ukrainian government building and in a number of other state institutions and the Ukrinform national news agency building that hosts the office of Itar-Tass. Itar-Tass employees continue their work. Four security guards also remain in the building.
The radicals also seized the Ukrainian House international exhibition and convention center, and started building barricades around it, and the Ukraina (Ukraine) Hotel located on Maidan.
Berkut riot police had to retreat to Olginskaya Street. Traffic police blocked traffic on all the central streets of the capital.
The Interior Ministry called on riot participants to lay down arms. “Law enforcers have not used and will not use arms against civilians,” the ministry said. “But police will react to extremists’ attempts to harm the life and health of Interior Ministry officers in line with the law on police.”
Kiev police called on nationals to abstain from traveling to the city center, advising them to stay at home. “Such precautionary measures are connected with the fact that armed and aggressively minded people are on the streets of Kiev,” it said.
The Interior Ministry denied claims made by a number of Ukrainian media that police officers allegedly “massively defected” to the side of radically minded protesters.
“All this is no more than rumors deliberately spread by riot participants. Law enforcers are ready to protect Ukrainian nationals from unlawful actions of extremists,” the ministry said in a statement.
The Ukrainian opposition proposed holding a parliamentary plenary session designed to settle the situation in the country.
One of the key figures in the Batkivshchina party, MP Alexander Turchinov, said there would be no storm of the Verkhovna Rada. He said the opposition proposed holding a plenary meeting at 17:00 local time to find a way out of the current crisis. “We want to make a decision that would stop bloodshed in the country,” he said.
Turchinov specified that the decision would “concern restriction of presidential powers.” He urged members of the ruling Party of Regions to attend the meeting. “We guarantee security for you,” the opposition leader said.
Meanwhile, the Verkhovna Rada announced that plenary sessions would not be held on Thursday or on Friday. “Ukraine’s people’s deputies will work in constituencies and committees to draft an agreed variant of constitutional amendments regarding transition to the parliamentary-presidential form of government,” it said in a statement.
The leader of Batkivshchina’s faction, Arseny Yatsenyuk, admitted that it was hard for the opposition to control protesters.
After talks with Polish, German and French foreign ministers Radoslaw Sikorski, Frank Walter-Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius, Yatsenyuk told journalists that they discussed “ways to stop the bloodshed and avoid further escalation.”
“The only way to do that is to establish a demilitarized zone and transfer the conflict from the streets to parliament,” the opposition politician said.
Presidential administration reaction
The Ukrainian presidential administration, in turn, issued a statement that all assurances on the part of the opposition regarding truce and dialogue were a maneuver to buy time. The statement said all attempts by the authorities to organize dialogue and settle the conflict peacefully had been ignored.
“They launched the offensive. Organized armed groups are acting. They are using firearms, including sniper rifles, to kill people. Law enforcers are not armed and only use impact munitions. Dozens of law enforcement officers have been killed or injured,” it said.
Meanwhile, the EU is getting ready to impose sanctions against people responsible for escalation of violence in Ukraine, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. Together with his counterparts from Germany and Poland, he arrived in Kiev on Thursday, where he met with opposition leaders. After that, the three ministers headed for a meeting with President Viktor Yanukovich.
There were confusing reports about the motorcade with the ministers allegedly failing to drive through barricades in downtown Kiev. According to some reports, the meeting with the president was canceled for security reasons. But informed sources said the motorcade eventually drove through to the presidential palace and the meeting took place.
Meanwhile, presidential administration head Andrei Klyuyev warned that sanctions against Ukraine could split the country.
“If someone wishes our country well, they should help us. Sanctions will keep further aggravating the situation, and the threat will emerge that the country could be split into two parts, as a tough confrontation started,” the UNIAN news agency quoted him as saying.
Russia is ready to help
“We will of course continue cooperation with our Ukrainian partners on all issues we agreed on. We will try to do everything to fulfill promises that were given,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said at a cabinet meeting.
“At the same time, we need… the Ukrainian authorities to be legitimate and effective rather than be a floor mat for wiping feet on,” he said.
“We proceed from the assumption that the authorities should concentrate in order to protect people, protect law enforcement structures, which guard the state interests and protect the same people,” Medvedev said.
“Only in that case can we develop full-fledged economic cooperation,” he concluded.
History of recent protests in Ukraine
Ukraine has been hit by anti-government protests, often resulting in violent clashes, since the country’s authorities refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union at a Vilnius summit in November 2013, choosing closer ties with Russia instead.
The Ukrainian authorities adopted tougher laws for public order violations in mid-January, which triggered another wave of protests that sometimes turned violent, with three protesters believed to have been killed, and up to 200 police injured. The laws were later repealed.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov resigned on January 28, and the Ukrainian leadership decided to pardon participants in riots on condition protesters vacated state and local power institutions they seized. The amnesty law entered into force February 2, but opposition leaders reacted defiantly.
Protesters had time until February 17 to vacate seized state and local power institutions, unblock Grushevsky Street in downtown Kiev near Maidan and other streets and squares across the country except those where peaceful protest rallies were being held. But riots and seizures of buildings continued on February 18.
Kiev’s police reported Tuesday that the building of the city state administration had been seized again by protesters who threw Molotov cocktails. Earlier, protesters held the building for over 2.5 months, but vacated it on February 16 to observe the amnesty law.
The amnesty law, designed in particular to “prevent prosecution and punishment of people in connection with events that took place during peaceful rallies,” envisioned a pardon for all people who took part in riots during mass anti-government demonstrations in Ukraine except for those who committed grave crimes. It introduced a mechanism to release riot participants from criminal prosecution and ensure unhindered operation of state and local power bodies.