A protester walks near burning tyres during clashes with riot police in Kiev yesterday.
KIEV: Ukrainian police yesterday stormed protesters’ barricades in Kiev amid violent clashes that left five persons dead, the first fatalities in two months of anti-government protests.
Pitched battles raged in the centre of the Ukrainian capital as protesters hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at police and the security forces responded with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets.
The bloody clashes marked a new peak in tensions after two months of protests over the government’s failure to sign a deal for closer integration with the European Union under Russian pressure.
The epicentre of the clashes was Grushevsky Street in the city centre which has been the scene of three days of street battles between thousands of protesters and similar numbers of security forces.
Using tear gas and stun grenades, police initially pushed demonstrators back well beyond their initial lines by marching forward in military formation.
But the protesters then regrouped, creating new barricades out of burning black tyres whose rancid smoke filled the skies above Kiev and flames burned in near-apocalyptic scenes.
The protesters fought back in intense clashes, with casualties seen being loaded into ambulances. Police for the first time started moving an armoured personnel carrier towards the protesters after storming the barricades.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich yesterday met with opposition leaders, including former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko in a meeting that has gone on for several hours but whose outcome is unclear. Yanukovich earlier urged protesters not to follow “political radicals” and said he wanted to halt the “bloodletting”.
Showing no mood for compromise, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Mykola Azarov labelled the radical protesters behind the clashes as “terrorists”. He then headed to the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Amid fears the police would soon launch a new assault, the government gave the police special permission to use water cannon and more powerful stun grenades. Shops on Kiev’s main Khreshchatyk Avenue close to the protests received orders to close for the day from the local authorities.
Meanwhile thousands filled Independence Square in Kiev which was the main protest hub for the last two months, hoping their sheer numbers would deter further action. The deadly violence horrified Ukrainians, who have never witnessed such scenes in their country including during the 2004 Orange Revolution which was almost entirely peaceful.
Amid growing international concern, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton yesterday urged “an immediate end” to the escalating violence. European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso yesterday warned the authorities that the EU executive would assess “possible actions” against the Ukrainian authorities.