KIEV, Ukraine — As the death toll in Kiev’s violent political confrontation rose dramatically to at least 25 Wednesday, Ukraine’s embattled President Victor Yanukovich laid blame for the violence on protest leaders and threatened a tough response.
Pointing to continued clashes in Kiev’s Independence Square Wednesday morning, Yanukovich accused the opposition of a coup attempt.
“Without any mandate from the people, acting illegally and violating the constitution of Ukraine these, so to say, politicians tried to seize power by resorting to pogroms, arsons and murders,” Yanukovich said in a televised speech. “They crossed the line when they called upon the people to take up arms. This is a flagrant violation of law.”
Yanukovich called upon the leaders of the opposition to immediately dissociate themselves from the radical forces. “In case they don’t want to go, they must admit that they support the radicals,” he said. “In this case we will deal with them in a different way.”
The speech came in the wake of Yanukovich’s meeting with opposition leaders Wednesday.
Meanwhile, several thousand riot police were still trying to storm the burning barricades of the protesters’ tent camp in Independence Square Wednesday morning. Police shot teargas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at the protesters who responded in kind by hurling cobblestones and Molotov cocktails at police. Police also used powerful water cannons, aiming them at protesters on top of barricades. Both sides accused the other of using live ammunition.
“Given the character of wounds on the slain civilians and also the types of weapons which were seized (from protesters) we can suggest that this bodily damage could have been caused by aggressively inclined protesters themselves,” said a statement published Wednesday on the official website of Ukraine’s Interior Ministry.
Opposition leaders showed their frustration after meeting with Yankovich.
“In my opinion, the government must immediately withdraw troops and put an end to the bloody conflict because people are dying,” protest leader and former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko said in a statement published on his UDAR party’s website. “How can we hold talks while blood is being shed? Unfortunately (Yanukovich) has no understanding of the situation.”
By Wednesday morning, hospitals and clinics in Ukraine’s capital were filled with several hundred injured on both sides.
City authorities said 25 people were dead and 341 injured. Police said the death toll included nine of their own. Some 300 police officers were injured, 74 of them with gunshot wounds, authorities said.
Ukraine daily Vesti reported that its correspondent Vyacheslav Veremiy was among the dead. Gunmen stopped a taxi cab in which Veremiy and another journalist were riding, dragged him out of the car and shot him point blank, the paper reported. The other journalist and the taxi driver were badly beaten, the report said.
The recent clashes which have been the most violent and lethal in the entire three-month-old confrontation in central Kiev began after protesters tried to storm the parliament building and broke into and burnt down the ruling party’s headquarters.
“President Yanukovich was ready for such a dramatic development as if he was luring the radical opposition into a trap,” Vadim Karasyov, Director of the Institute of Global Strategies, a Kiev-based think tank, said. “The rash of actions of the opposition appeared to have untied the regime’s hands for a tough use of force.”
Black smoke from large fires rose high Wednesday afternoon above Independence Square, where about 10,000 protesters equipped with shields, wooden sticks and helmets continued to defend the square from thousands of police. Stun grenades exploded like fireworks overhead. Groups of protesters were busy breaking cobblestones from the square surface to use as weapons. Some assembled crates with bottles for Molotov cocktails.
“If police use firearms against us the way they did overnight, we will respond in kind,” Vasil Dzyuba, a 43-year-old veterenarian from Lviv, his face blackened with soot, told the Los Angeles Times. “We will start shooting back too.”
Yanukovich tried to take advantage of the situation and crash the resistance camp in central Kiev overnight, but he also demonstrated that he doesn’t have enough forces to do so, Karasyov noted.
“Now we are in for a prolonged violent confrontation unless Yanukovich makes more concessions and calls early elections of both parliament and president,” he said.
During a lull in fighting Wednesday, a heavy truck arrived on the battle scene and dragged away an armored personnel carrier burnt by protesters overnight. Armor-clad riot police sitting on sidewalks and leaning on house walls eating sandwiches shook their heads with blackened faces under goggles. “Is that all we have?” one of the officers said pensively, before closing his eyes again.