Ukraine on brink of splitting after authorities crack down on protesters

West-leaning city suffers its 'blackest day' after 26 die and Independence Square is left in ruins as government forces smash protesters

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 February, 2014, 9:42pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 1:28am

The bodies of dead protesters lay side by side on the marble floor of the hotel lobby.

Overlooking Kiev's Independence Square, the entrance to the Ukraina Hotel - its walls and windows peppered with bullet holes - was turned into an impromptu morgue yesterday.

The corpses were the latest fatalities after an overnight lull in violence was shattered by fresh battles in Ukraine's capital.

A tense calm had settled on the city overnight after President Viktor Yanukovych called a truce late on Wednesday in response to a surge of violence on Tuesday that killed 28 people, 10 of them police officers.

Until yesterday, it was by far the worst day of bloodshed the country had seen since it gained independence on the Soviet Union's collapse more than 20 years ago.

But the brief peace was soon shattered by clashes that left dozens more dead. Columns of men bearing clubs and chanting patriotic songs headed to Independence Square at 8.30am.

Petro Maksimchuk, 23, said: "What truce? There is no truce, it is simply war ahead of us. They are provoking us. They throw grenades at us. Burn our homes. We have been here for three months, and during that time nothing burned."

He added: "These are not people. They are killers. Sanctions will not help. They all should be sent into isolation in Siberia."

Serhiy, 55, from the western city of Lviv who declined to give his surname, added: "It is bad that Ukraine is already broken into two parts. In the West, the police and army are with us, but in the east, they are against us.

"It is the 'Yanukovychers' who are dividing us."

Yanukovych triggered the revolt in November by scrapping a pact with Europe in favour of cheap loans and gas supplies from Russia. The move turned Yanukovych's Russian-speaking power base against the pro-European west of the country in a confrontation that had lasted almost three months.

The country is now on the brink, with a president - apparently egged on by Moscow - unleashing massive force while the opposition is becoming more radicalised and increasingly intent on armed resistance.

"The people either have to rise up, or if there is a big crackdown, they will go underground," said Andrei Poznyakov, 23. "This president is incapable of creating a decent situation for people."

Early in the afternoon, about 200 riot police, many with shotguns, were deployed in the Council of Ministers building in Grushevsky Street.

Meanwhile, protesters were busy building and fortifying new barricades a few hundred yards down the street.

"Black smoke, detonations and gunfire around presidential palace ... Officials panicky," tweeted Polish minister Radoslaw Sikorski.

In Brussels, the European Union was preparing to impose sanctions on those responsible for the violence as well as impose an arms embargo on the country. But there seemed little sign of diplomacy in Kiev.

The situation has gone out of control with unknown consequences for Ukraine, said Vadim Karasyov, director of the Institute for Global Strategies, a Kiev-based think tank.

"The opposition leaders seem no longer capable of controlling the protesters, among whom there are a lot of people with firearms now," Karasyov said.

"On the other hand, Yanukovych doesn't have enough resources to crush the rebellion by force. There is only one way out for him now - to leave Kiev for a safe place and call an early presidential election."

Agence France-Presse, Reuters, McClathcy-Tribune