Riot police take a break near Kiev’s Independence Square Wednesday afternoon after two days of clashes with the opposition. (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times)
KIEV, Ukraine — In the wake of violence that claimed 25 lives and left hundreds injured, the Ukrainian government declared Wednesday that it was launching “an anti-terrorist operation” that some feared would escalate its conflict with pro-Western demonstrators.
“What is happening today is a conscious use of violence by way of arson, murder, hostage-taking and intimidation … for the sake of pursuing criminal goals,” the country’s security agency chief, Alexander Yakimenko, said in a statement published on the agency’s website. “All of that with the use of firearms. These are not just signs of terrorism but concrete terrorist acts.
“By their actions, radical and extremist groups bear a real threat to lives of millions of Ukrainians,” his statement said.
Yakimenko’s statement followed two days of the worst violence the country has seen during several months of political conflict over President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to align Ukraine economically with Russia, not the European Union.
Hours after Yakimenko issued his warning, the Associated Press reported that Yanukovich had fired the head of Ukraine’s armed forces.
[Updated, 10:58 a.m. PST Feb. 19: The UNIAN news agency said the armed forces chief, Vladimir Zamanu, had been replaced by Yuri Ilyin.
One analyst said the move may have been prompted by Zamanu's reluctance to use the army against civilian demonstrators.
“The sudden switch can be explained by Yanukovich's desire to use the army in combating the growing protests,” Vadim Karasyov, head of the Institute of Global Strategies, a Kiev-based think tank, said in an interview. “Zamanu has recently hesitated to express readiness to get involved in helping to defuse the political crisis.”]
As dusk set over Independence Square in central Kiev, several thousand protesters armed with sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails faced hundreds of police armed with teargas and stun grenades, water cannons and shotguns firing rubber bullets.
An eerie fog descended on the square, where several thousand protesters were praying together. At a square nearby, police buses arrived, disgorging new units of riot police and interior troops, who joined government forces positioned near Independence Square.
Ukraine’s Yanukovich agrees ‘truce’ with opposition, start to negotiations
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich said on Wednesday he had agreed a “truce” with opposition leaders, after street violence in which at least 26 people were killed, and a start to negotiations to end further bloodshed.
A statement on the presidential website said that during talks with the three main opposition leaders, Yanukovich had agreed firstly a truce and secondly “the start to negotiations with the aim of ending bloodshed, and stabilising the situation in the state in the interests of social peace.”
Obama condemns Ukraine violence, threatens ‘consequences’ if clashes escalate
President Barack Obama said the US “condemns in the strongest terms the violence” in Ukraine, adding that the Ukrainian government must uphold the rights of peaceful protesters. Obama said there would be consequences should “people step over the line.”
“We expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters,” Obama said Wednesday from Mexico ahead of a summit with other North American leaders. “We’ve also said that we expect peaceful protesters to remain peaceful.”
As Tuesday’s riots and clashes between protesters and police in Kiev continued into Wednesday, the European Union announced that a rare meeting of its 28 member countries would occur on Thursday to address what is to be done about the ongoing violence, AP reported.
“We’ll be monitoring very carefully the situation, recognizing that, along with our European partners and the international community, there will be consequences if people step over the line,” Obama said.
At least 26 people, including 10 police officers, have been killed and some 800 injured since the start of violent riots in Kiev on Tuesday. The most recent, deadliest wave of violence in Ukraine started with an attempt by radical protesters to storm the building of the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada), which prompted fierce clashes with police. Several buildings in central Kiev – including the office of the Party of Regions – were stormed, looted, and set on fire.
At least 426 people have sought medical help following the clashes in Kiev, the city’s health department said. There are currently 277 people being treated in hospitals for injuries, including gunshot wounds and burns.
Despite the fierce battles on Independence Square (Maidan) and the possibility of further violence in coming days, Obama said the US and its partners would watch vigilantly to make “sure the Ukrainian military does not step to what should be a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have “agreed to continue to do everything so that there is no escalation of violence” in Ukraine, Merkel said, as quoted by Reuters. The German Chancellor spoke with the Russian president over the phone.