KIEV Feb 20 – Ukraine’s brittle truce shattered on Thursday in fierce clashes between baton wielding protesters and riot police that claimed at least 27 lives just as EU envoys were holding crisis talks with the embattled president.
Bodies of anti government demonstrators lay amid smouldering debris after masked protesters hurling Molotov cocktails and stones forced gun toting police from Kiev’s iconic Independence Square the epicentre of the ex Soviet country’s three month old crisis.
The retreating police unleashed a hail of rubber bullets on protesters as plumes of acrid smoke billowed into the air amid the explosions of stun grenades.
The lobby of the Ukraina hotel overlooking the square was turned into an impromptu morgue. Bodies of seven dead protesters lay side by side under white sheets on the marble floor in front of the reception desk.
An AFP photographer saw spent live cartridge shells littering the ground on the square. It was unclear who had used the ammunition.
The main government building nearby was evacuated while lawmakers ended a session of parliament early after the violence.
Ukraine’s three main opposition leaders called the unrest a “planned provocation” by the pro Russian government while Moscow blamed it on “extremists and hardliners” who were bent on sparking a civil war.
The clashes left in tatters a truce that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had called late Wednesday in response to a spurt of violence that killed more than two dozen people in less than two days.
Yanukovych was holding crisis talks with the foreign ministers of EU powers France and Germany along with Poland ahead of an emergency meeting in Brussels where the European Union was expected to impose sanctions against Ukrainian government officials for the unrest.
The US State Department has already announced travel bans on about 20 senior government figures over fighting that killed at least 28 people on Tuesday.
– Death toll climbs –
Yanukovych has appeared to struggle to formulate a clear policy in the face of Ukraine’s deadliest violence since independence and an escalating Cold War like war of words between the West and former master Moscow over the future of the country sandwiched between Russia and the European Union.
AFP reporters said they saw the bodies of at least 25 protesters with apparent gunshot wounds around two popular Independence Square hotels and lying outside the central Kiev post office on Thursday.
Ukraine’s interior ministry said two policeman died from gunshot wounds sustained in the clashes and advised Kiev residents to stay indoors “because the streets of Kiev are occupied by armed and aggressive people”.
Ukraine’s crisis was initially ignited by Yanukovych’s shock decision in November to ditch an historic EU trade and political association agreement in favour of closer ties with Kiev’s historic masters in the Kremlin.
But it has since evolved into a much broader anti government movement that has swept through both the pro Western west of the country as well as parts of its more Russified east and exposed the deep historical fault lines between the two.
Yanukovych had appeared determined Wednesday to end the crisis by force after the country’s security services announced plans to launch a sweeping “anti terror” operation.
He also sacked the army’s top general a powerful figure lauded by the opposition for refusing to back the use of force against those who had come out on the street.