Ukraine's festering political crisis took a deadly turn yesterday, as thousands of anti-government protesters clashed with police outside parliament.
Security forces loyal to the Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, broke through front-line barricades near the Dynamo Kiev soccer stadium and marched to the edge of occupied Independence Square hours after Moscow gave Ukraine US$2 billion in aid it had been holding back to demand action to crush the pro-European protests.
Clashes raged for hours outside the parliament building, where opposition lawmaker Lesya Orobets said three demonstrators were killed and taken to a nearby officers' club used as a medical centre. More than 100 people were injured, she said.
Police said five civilians died in clashes that prompted the city to shut the subway system and issued a grave warning to protesters. Yanukovych's ruling Regions Party said that an employee at its headquarters was also found dead after protesters briefly seized the building.
Watch: Clashes, explosions rock Kiev as police storm protest camp
Security forces issued an ultimatum that they would restore calm if unrest persisted until 6pm local time. "If unrest continues we will be forced to take grave actions," Ukraine's interior ministry and state security agency warned in a joint statement.
Riot police had succeeded in forcing protesters back into their camp on Kiev's iconic Independence Square after heavy reinforcements arrived. Protesters briefly seized Yanokuvych's party headquarters after several hundred attacked it with Molotov cocktails, but they later withdrew as smoke continued to billow from part of the building.
Fighting flared after 20,000 mainly peaceful protesters marched from their sprawling tent encampment towards parliament to demand legislators strip the president of a raft of powers. Police fired rubber bullets and hurled smoke bombs and stun grenades at protesters, who threw paving stones and set two trucks on fire.
Demonstrators urged the Rada parliament - where Yanukovych's party has a majority - to vote on returning the country to its 2004 constitution, under which key powers would shift from the president to parliament.
"People were tired of waiting for the constitution to be changed - they needed action," said protester Volodymir, from Kiev, refusing to give his second name.
Opposition leaders called on Yanukovych to give in to their demands if he wanted to defuse the violence.
"The president of Ukraine must call early presidential and parliamentary elections. I am sure that this will reduce the temperature of society," former heavyweight boxer and opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said in televised comments. "Do this, and this will be a way out. This will be a courageous step."
The political crisis has snowballed into a titanic tug of war for the country's future between Russia and the West. The US ambassador on Twitter lamented the resumption of violence. But the Russian foreign ministry lashed out at Western countries, accusing them of turning a blind eye to the more radical elements inside the protest movement.
Additional reporting by Reuters, Associated Press