KIEV, Ukraine — Protesters tossed firebombs and advanced upon police lines Thursday in Ukraine’s embattled capital. Government snipers shot back, killing at least 70 people and wounding hundreds of others, according to a protest doctor.
Video footage on Ukrainian television showed shocking scenes Thursday of protesters being cut down by gunfire, lying on the pavement as comrades rushed to their aid. Trying to protect themselves with shields, teams of protesters carried bodies away on sheets of plastic or planks of wood.
“The price of freedom is too high but Ukrainians are paying it,” said Viktor Danilyuk, a 30-year-old protester. “We have no choice, the government isn’t hearing us.”
Protesters were also seen leading policemen with their hands held high around the sprawling protest camp in central Kyiv. Ukraine’s Interior ministry says 67 police were captured in all. An opposition lawmaker said they were being held in Kyiv’s occupied city hall.
President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition protesters who are demanding his resignation are locked in an epic battle over the identity of Ukraine, a nation of 46 million that has divided loyalties between Russia and the West. Parts of the country — mostly in its western cities — are in open revolt against Yanukovych’s central government, while many in eastern Ukraine back the president and favour strong ties with Russia, their former Soviet ruler.
Protesters across the country are also upset over corruption in Ukraine, the lack of democratic rights and the country’s ailing economy, which just barely avoided bankruptcy with a $15 billion loan from Russia.
At least 101 people have died this week in the clashes in Kyiv, according to protesters and Ukrainian authorities, a sharp reversal in three months of mostly peaceful protests. Now neither side appears willing to compromise or in control of the streets. The opposition is insisting on Yanukovych’s resignation and an early election while the embattled president is apparently prepared to fight until the end.
Thursday was the deadliest day yet at the sprawling protest camp on Kyiv’s Independence Square, also called the Maidan. Snipers were seen shooting at protesters there — and video footage showed at least one sniper wearing a Ukraine riot police uniform.
One of the wounded, volunteer medic Olesya Zhukovskaya, sent out a brief Twitter message — “I’m dying” — after being shot in the neck. Dr. Oleh Musiy, the medical co-ordinator for the protesters, said she was in serious condition after being operated on.
Musiy, the protest doctor, told the AP that at least 70 protesters were killed Thursday and over 500 were wounded in the clashes — and that the death toll could well rise further.
In addition, three policemen were killed Thursday and 28 suffered gunshot wounds, Interior Ministry spokesman Serhiy Burlakov told the AP.
There was no way to immediately verify any of the death tolls. Earlier in the day, an Associated Press reporter saw the bodies of 21 protesters laid out near Kyiv’s protest camp.
In Brussels, the 28-nation European Union decided in an emergency meeting Thursday to impose sanctions against those behind the violence in Ukraine, including a travel ban and an asset freeze against some officials.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama about the crisis in Ukraine on Thursday evening. She briefed them about the trip of the three EU foreign ministers to Kyiv, and all three leaders agreed that a political solution needs to be found as soon as possible to prevent further bloodshed.
Saying the U.S. was outraged by the violence, Obama urged Yanukovych in a statement to withdraw his forces from downtown Kyiv immediately. He also said Ukraine should respect the right of protest and that protesters must be peaceful.
The Kremlin issued a statement with Putin blaming radical protesters and voicing “extreme concern about the escalation of armed confrontation in Ukraine.”
The Russian leader called for an immediate end to bloodshed and for steps “to stabilize the situation and stop extremist and terrorist actions.” He also sent former Russian ombudsman Vladimir Lukin to Ukraine to act as a mediator.
Although the first weeks of the protests were determinedly peaceful, radical elements have become more influential as impatience with the lack of progress grows. In their battles Thursday, those hard-hatted protesters with bats and other makeshift weapons regained some of the territory on the Maidan’s fringes that police had seized earlier in the week.
One camp commander, Oleh Mykhnyuk, told the AP that protesters threw firebombs at riot police on the square overnight. As the sun rose, police pulled back, protesters followed them and police then began shooting at them, he said.
The Interior Ministry warned Kyiv residents to stay indoors Thursday because of the “armed and aggressive mood of the people.”
Yanukovych claimed Thursday that police were not armed and “all measures to stop bloodshed and confrontation are being taken.” But the Interior Ministry later contradicted that, saying law enforcers were armed as part of an “anti-terrorist” operation.
Some signs emerged that Yanukovych is losing loyalists. The chief of Kyiv’s city administration, Volodymyr Makeyenko, announced Thursday he was leaving Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.
“We must be guided only by the interests of the people, this is our only chance to save people’s lives,” he said, adding he would continue to fulfil his duties as long as he had the people’s trust.
Another influential member of the ruling party, Serhiy Tyhipko, said both Yanukovych and opposition leaders had “completely lost control of the situation.”
“Their inaction is leading to the strengthening of opposition and human victims,” the Interfax news agency reported.
The parliament building was evacuated Thursday because of fears that protesters would storm it, as were the government office in Kyiv and the Foreign Ministry buildings. But parliament convened in the afternoon, with some pro-government lawmakers heeding the opposition’s call to work out a solution to the political stalemate.
As the violence exploded Thursday morning and heavy smoke from burning barricades at the encampment belched into the sky, the foreign ministers of three EU countries — France, Germany and Poland — met with Yanukovych for five hours after speaking with the opposition leaders. The EU ministers then returned to speak again with opposition leaders.
Prior to the clashes Thursday, the Ukrainian Health Ministry said 28 people have died and 287 have been hospitalized this week. But protesters who have set up a medical facility in a downtown cathedral so that wounded colleagues would not be snatched away by police say the number of wounded is significantly higher — possibly double or triple that.
The Caritas Ukraine aid group said many of the wounded will need long-term care, including prosthetics.
The clashes this week have been the most deadly since protests kicked off in November after Yanukovych shelved an association agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia. Russia then announced a $15 billion bailout for Ukraine.
At the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Ukrainian alpine skier Bogdana Matsotska, 24, said she will not take part in Friday’s women’s slalom due to the developments in Kyiv.
“As a protest against lawless actions made toward protesters, the lack of responsibility from the side of the president and his lackey government, we refuse further performance at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games,” her father and coach, Oleg Matsotskyy, wrote in a Facebook post.