Ukraine: protesters and police clash on worst day of Kiev bloodshed

Link to video: Ukraine: clashes escalate in Kiev as riot police attempt to break barricade

  An anti-government protester is engulfed in flames An anti-government protester is engulfed in flames. Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Three months of confrontation in Ukraine between the president and a large protest movement reached its peak on Tuesday night in the worst bloodshed since the country separated from Moscow more than two decades ago, with 18 people reported killed as riot police moved in to clear Kiev’s Independence Square, the crucible of the anti-government activism.

Hopes for a settlement of the crisis went up in smoke amid scenes of rioting, burning buildings, police bombings and rubber bullets that also left up to 500 people injured.

A large section of the protest camp in the capital, Kiev, was engulfed in flames on Tuesday night as police advanced on the demonstrators using water cannons and stun grenades.

The security services had earlier issued a warning, ordering tens of thousands of protesters to get off the streets by Tuesday evening or face a crackdown.

The violence, the worst since a government-opposition confrontation erupted last November, came after President Viktor Yanukovych, the main target of the protests, stalled on outlines of an agreement to appoint a new technocratic coalition government or have his powers cut back.

Anti-government protesters clash with riot police in Kiev's Independence Square Anti-government protesters clash with riot police in Kiev’s Independence Square. Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Opposition organisers said 11 civilians had been killed and hundreds more injured, many seriously. The authorities said seven police officers were killed and 39 officers had sustained gunshot wounds.

Columns of riot police sought to banish crowds of protesters from encroaching on the country’s parliament, while demonstrators ransacked offices of Yanukovych’s political party.

“Extremists are killing innocents on the streets of the capital, burning buildings and cars,” the statement from the security services said. “Unless the disorder stops, we will have to restore order by all means envisaged by law.”

The White House asked Yanukovych to “exercise maximum restraint”. But video footage from Kiev showed heavily armed riot police firing Kalashnikovs. Both police and opposition leaders called on women and children to leave the protest camp in Independence Square, known as the Maidan, as riot police began their assault.

Protesters gather in Independence Square in Kiev Protesters gather in Independence Square in Kiev. Photograph: EPA/Igor Kovalenko

Vitali Klitschko, an opposition leader and former world heavyweight boxing champion, said: “The government has deliberately organised a provocation to clear Independence Square with blood and violence and to destroy the protests and the activists.”

There were reports that riot police were firing smoke and stun grenades. Opposition sources said police snipers were firing on demonstrators from rooftops. According to reports, security services began moving in at 8pm local time after announcing over loudspeakers that they were about to conduct “an anti-terror operation”.

The foreign ministries of Ukraine and Russia earlier issued what appeared to be co-ordinated statements blaming Europe for fomenting the unrest. It appeared that the Kremlin had a hand in the political machinations behind the eruption and the crackdown. As well as blaming Europe for the rioting, it offered $2bn (£1.2m) to Yanukovych and sought to influence the appointment of the new prime minister.

“The violent clashes today have to date resulted in deaths by bullets and hundreds of injuries, including seven people in a critical position,” said protesters in a statement.

“Snipers posted on roofs are targeting the heads and chests of protesters. Ambulances blocked by security forces are not able to provide first aid to the injured,” it continued.

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