Activists try to help a protester who was wounded during clashes with police in Kiev yesterday.
KIEV: Ukraine suffered its bloodiest day since Soviet times yesterday with a gun battle in central Kiev as President Viktor Yanukovich faced conflicting pressures from visiting European Union ministers and his Russian paymasters.
Three hours of fierce fighting in Independence Square, which was recaptured by anti-government protesters, left the bodies of over 20 civilians strewn on the ground, a few hundred metres from where the president met the EU delegation.
The ministers, from Germany, France and anxious neighbour Poland, planned a night of “tough negotiations” with him and the opposition, said Polish officials who hoped a plan for an interim government and early elections could end the violence.
Earlier in the day, riot police were captured on video shooting from a rooftop at demonstrators in the plaza, known as the Maidan. Protesters hurled petrol bombs and paving stones to drive the security forces off a corner of the square the police had captured in battles that began two days earlier.
Kiev’s city health department said 67 people had been killed since Tuesday, which meant at least 39 died in yesterday’s clashes. That was by far the worst violence since Ukraine emerged from the crumbling Soviet Union 22 years ago.
The trio of EU foreign ministers met for a marathon four hours with Yanukovich and extended their stay until today to put a roadmap for a political solution to opposition leaders after colleagues in Brussels imposed some targeted sanctions.
Vitaly Klitschko, an opposition leader, said he hoped for a deal overnight but added there was no clear result so far.
The document “offers a chance to bring an end to violence,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said in Warsaw, adding that Yanukovich was willing to hold rapid elections to parliament and the presidency — the latter something Yanukovich has so far appeared reluctant to consider, a year before his term ends.
“We face a night of difficult negotiations,” Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Marcin Wojciechowski tweeted from Kiev as demonstrators on Independence Square held a vigil after dark for fallen comrades, lit by mobile phone screens held aloft. Medics carried bodies on stretchers through lines of protesters who chanted “Heroes, heroes” to the dead.
At an emergency EU meeting in Brussels, foreign ministers agreed to impose visa bans and asset freezes on those responsible for the violence and to halt exports of riot gear.
In a sign of faltering support for Yanukovich, his hand-picked head of Kiev’s city administration quit the ruling party in protest at bloodshed in the streets.
But core loyalists were still talking tough.
Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko, wearing camouflage as he made a televised statement, said police had been issued with combat weapons and would use them “in accordance with the law” to defend themselves — or to free 67 of their colleagues his ministry said were being held captive.
Demonstrators said captured police had been allowed to go.
Russia criticised European Union and US actions, calling them “blackmail” that would only make matters worse. President Vladimir Putin dispatched an envoy to Kiev to join the mediation effort with the opposition at Yanukovich’s request.
Ukraine is caught in a geopolitical tug-of-war between Moscow — which sees it as a market and ally and fears protests spreading to Russia — and the West, which says Ukrainians should be free to choose economic integration with the EU.
Raising pressure on Yanukovich to restore order if he wants another desperately needed loan, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow would not hand over cash to a leadership that let opponents walk over it “like a doormat”.
Yesterday morning’s bloodshed, in which both sides used firearms, traumatised many Ukrainians, whose 2004-05 Orange Revolution for democracy passed off largely peacefully.
It heightened concern voiced by Tusk earlier this week that Ukraine could descend into civil war or split between the pro-European west and Russian-speaking east.
Video of the clashes on the edge of the Kiev square showed “Berkut” riot policemen firing bursts from automatic rifles on the run as they covered retreating colleagues fleeing past a nearby arts centre just off the plaza. An opposition militant in a helmet was filmed firing from behind a tree. Other protesters used police riot shields for cover, while some fell wounded as the protest camp became a killing zone. A presidential statement said dozens of police were wounded or killed during the opposition offensive, hours after Yanukovich and opposition leaders had agreed on a truce. The interior ministry’s website advised citizens to avoid central Kiev because of the danger from “armed and aggressive individuals”. REUTERS