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Ukraine’s Maidan protest unites different beliefs

February 26, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — For the past three months, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been singing the Ukrainian national anthem on Kiev’s central square, the Maidan, united in their dreams of change. The protest movement is a mixed bag of pro-Western intelligentsia and well-off businessmen, white-collar office clerks and student romantics, radical far-rightists, pop singers, poets and even priests. The one thing holding them together: anger against now fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych and his government.

Here is a look at some of the main groups driving the protests which removed Yanukovych from power last week.

ORANGE HEROINE LOYALISTS

Yulia Tymoshenko, the Orange Revolution heroine, former prime minister and Yanukovych’s main rival, commands an ardent following of millions of Western-leaning Ukrainians. She was released from jail last week after spending 2 ½ years in prison on charges of abuse of office that the West condemned as politically motivated. While Tymoshenko was in jail, writing emotional letters to protesters, her ally Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a technocratic former economy minister, was a prominent leader of the protests. The party calls for pro-Western reforms and integration with the European Union. But it is also associated with the failed hopes of the 2004 Orange Revolution, which ousted Yanukovych from the presidency amid allegations of rigged elections. The new government was paralyzed by constant bickering among Orange leaders, allowing Yanukovych to return to power in 2010. The gold-braided Tymoshenko’s release poses new opportunities but also new challenges for the party.

Labeled Ukraine’s “Joan of Arc,” she is a divisive figure, adored but also distrusted for her alleged corruption and fierce hunger for power.

PUNCHING ABOVE THE CROWD

Towering over protesters, and over fellow opposition leaders, Vitali Klitschko — a 6-foot-7-inch (2 meters) tall former world heavyweight boxing champion — is shown in many polls to be Ukraine’s most popular opposition politician. He leads the Udar — or Punch — party that entered parliament following 2012 parliamentary elections, presenting itself as a new pro-Western force untainted by the failures of the Orange government. Popular because of his sports victories and free from the stain of corruption, Klitschko announced that he will run in presidential elections scheduled for May 25. Though he is an unskilled orator and not widely viewed as an intellectual, Klitschko won the protesters’ support for appearing at many confrontations and trying to prevent violence between activists and police. He once even was sprayed with a fire extinguisher. Now he will have to compete with Tymoshenko for the hearts of his people.

THE NATIONALISTS

The nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) Party has played a vocal role in the protests, seizing a government building in the center of Kiev that was later turned into a protest dormitory and sending scores of protesters to Kiev’s Maidan from its base in the west of the country, which is the heart of Ukrainian nationalism. The party entered parliament in 2012 and teamed up with Tymoshenko’s and Klitschko’s parties to oppose Yanukovych. It is highly controversial. It stands firmly for EU integration and a Western future of Ukraine, but it has been accused of anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric, including staging a Christmas skit on the Maidan that used Jewish stereotypes. The group’s statements have drawn criticism from Israel and some watchdogs. Despite the controversies, top Western diplomats have actively engaged with Svoboda, shaking hands and posing for photos with its leader Oleh Tyahnybok. Svoboda members have died in the violence that prompted Yanukovych to flee.

The party can be expected to seek government posts or political influence.

HARDCORE RADICALS

Yanukovych would hardly have been ousted had it not been for radical far-right groups that have been the street muscle in the demonstrations. They have donned balaclavas, armed themselves with baseball bats and thrown rocks and fire bombs at police. The radical group the Right Sector was initially condemned by the majority of moderate protesters of the Maidan. But the Right Sector soon joined the Maidan’s official self-defense units, and their members were headquartered several stories above the opposition leaders’ makeshift office. The radicals’ violent clashes with police were at first criticized, but as Yanukvoych kept ignoring the peaceful protests, moderate activists rushed to help the Right Sector, handing them Molotov cocktails and pavement stones. While it has been key in these pro-democracy demonstrations, the Right Sector embraces a hardcore nationalist ideology. One of the symbols of Patriot of Ukraine, a group that is part of the Right Sector, bears some resemblance to a swastika…

although the group denies that it was meant to mirror the Nazi image. The Right Sector is firmly against EU integration. “We don’t need the European Union. Ukraine is for Ukrainians and no one else,” said Sergey, a masked man in camouflage uniform with a baseball bat, who declined to give his last name out of fear of government retribution.

AUTOMAIDAN

Automaidan, a group of angry motorists, blocked entrances to government buildings, shipped supplies to the protest camp and trailed police cars; they also chased and detained pro-government activists who were bused into the capital to provoke violence. As a result, their activists were harassed and detained, their cars burned and one of their leaders kidnapped. Held captive for more than a week, the leader was beaten and had a piece of his ear cut off. Many protesters have called the group the opposition’s traffic police. The activists are also likely to seek influence in exchange for their role in the protests.

CIVIL SOCIETY

Along with the main groupings, the movement has been made lively by a plethora of colorful figures, intellectuals and civil society leaders. Ruslana, a pop star who won the Eurovision song contest, spent many nights singing and dancing on the Maidan stage to keep activists entertained and motivated, including on one dramatic night when police attempted to storm the square. Black-robed priests from all denominations prayed, called for peace and stood between protesters and police lines to prevent bloodshed. Respected journalists and intellectuals frequently spoke from the stage to inspire the protests, and university students ditched lectures to build barricades. Those activists and politicians have all formed a civic movement, also called the Maidan, which is expected to monitor how the new government is being formed and perhaps even get some posts in it.

Associated Press reporter Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report.

Ukraine’s Tymoshenko rallies protesters in Kiev

February 23, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — In a stunning reversal of fortune, Ukrainian opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko left imprisonment Saturday and spoke to a massive, adoring crowd, while her arch-foe President Viktor Yanukovych decamped to eastern Ukraine and vowed he would remain in power.

Protesters took control of the presidential administration building and thousands of curious and contemptuous Ukrainians roamed the suddenly open grounds of the lavish compound outside Kiev where Yanukovych was believed to live. Parliament, which he controlled as recently as a day earlier but is now emboldened against him, on Saturday called for his removal and for elections on May 25. But Yanukovych said he regards the parliament as now illegitimate and he won’t respect its decisions.

The political crisis in the nation of 46 million, strategically important for Europe, Russia and the United States, has changed with blinding speed repeatedly in the past week. First there were signs that tensions were easing, followed by horrifying violence and then a deal signed under Western pressure that aimed to resolve the conflict but left the unity of the country in question.

Tymoshenko, whose diadem of blond peasant braids and stirring rhetoric attracted world attention in the 2004 Orange Revolution, was both sad and excited as she spoke to a crowd of about 50,000 on Kiev’s Independence Square, where a sprawling protest tent camp was set up in December. Sitting in a wheelchair because of a back problem aggravated during imprisonment, her voice cracked and her face was careworn.

But her words were vivid, praising the protesters who were killed this week in clashes with police that included sniper fire and entreating the living to keep the camp going. “You are heroes, you are the best thing in Ukraine!” she said of the victims. The Health Ministry on Saturday said the death toll in clashes between protesters and police that included sniper attacks had reached 82.

And she urged the demonstrators not to yield their encampment in the square, known in Ukrainian as the Maidan. “In no case do you have the right to leave the Maidan until you have concluded everything that you planned to do,” she said.

The crowd was thrilled. “We missed Yulia and her fire so much,” said demonstrator Yuliya Sulchanik. Minutes after her release, Tymoshenko said she plans to run for president, and Sulchanik said “Yulia will be the next president — she deserves it.”

Under the agreement signed Friday, Yanukovych faces early elections, but it is unclear when they will happen. His authority in Kiev appeared to be eroding by the hour. Yanukovych spoke on television in Kharkiv, the heartland of his base of support and ironically the same city where Tymoshenko was imprisoned. He truculently likened his opponents to the rise of Nazism in the 1930s and accused them of a putsch.

“Everything that is happening today is, to a greater degree, vandalism and banditry and a coup d’etat,” he said. “I will do everything to protect my country from breakup, to stop bloodshed.” Ukraine is deeply divided between eastern regions that are largely pro-Russian and western areas that widely detest Yanukovych and long for closer ties with the European Union. Yanukovych’s shelving of an agreement with the EU in November set off the wave of protests, but they quickly expanded their grievances to corruption, human rights abuses and calls for Yanukovych’s resignation.

The conviction of Tymoshenko was one of the underlying issues driving the protests. After the 2004 Orange Revolution helped bring Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency, Tymoshenko became prime minister. But when Yanukovych won the 2010 election, Tymoshenko was arrested and put on trial for abuse of office, an action widely seen as political revenge.

On Saturday, before Tymoshenko’s arrival, other opposition figures hailed Yanukovych’s deteriorating hold on the country. “The people have won, because we fought for our future,” said opposition leader Vitali Klitschko to a euphoric crowd of thousands on Independence Square. Beneath a cold, heavy rain, protesters who have stood for weeks and months to pressure the president to leave congratulated each other and shouted “Glory to Ukraine!”

“It is only the beginning of the battle,” Klitschko said, urging calm and telling protesters not to take justice into their own hands. Top EU foreign envoy Catherine Ashton welcomed the release of Tymoshenko as “an important step forward in view of addressing concerns regarding selective justice in the country.”

The president’s support base crumbled further as a leading governor and a mayor from the eastern city of Kharkiv fled to Russia. Oleh Slobodyan, a spokesman for the border guard service, told The Associated Press that the Kharkiv regional governor and mayor left Ukraine across the nearby Russian border. Another service spokesman, Serhiy Astakhov, said the former prosecutor-general and former taxation minister were prevented from leaving on the order of unspecified law-enforcement agencies.

Russia came out Saturday firmly against the peace deal, saying the opposition isn’t holding up its end of the agreement, which calls for protesters to surrender arms and abandon their tent camps. Tymoshenko’s entreaty is likely to make the latter condition slow to be fulfilled.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Saturday called his German, French and Polish counterparts and urged them to use their influence with the Ukrainian opposition to stop what he described as rampages by its supporters. European officials urged calm.

Ukraine’s defense and military officials also called for Ukrainians to stay peaceful. In statements Saturday, both the Defense Ministry and the chief of the armed forces said they will not be drawn into any conflict and will side with the people. But they did not specify whether they still support the president or are with the opposition.

In Kharkiv, governors, provincial officials and legislators gathered alongside top Russian lawmakers and issued a statement saying that the events in Kiev have led to the “paralysis of the central government and destabilization of the situation in the country.”

Some called for the formation of volunteer militias to defend against protesters from western regions, even as they urged army units to maintain neutrality and protect ammunition depots. Anti-government protesters around the country took out their anger on statues of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, using ropes and crowbars to knock them off pedestals in several cities and towns. Statues of Lenin still stand across the former U.S.S.R., and they are seen as a symbol of Moscow’s rule.

The past week has seen the worst violence in Ukraine since the breakup of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago. At Independence Square Saturday, protesters heaped flowers on the coffins of the dead.

“These are heroes of Ukraine who gave their lives so that we could live in a different country without Yanukovych,” said protester Viktor Fedoruk, 32. “Their names will be written in golden letters in the history of Ukraine.”

Maria Danilova and Yuras Karmanau in Kiev and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

Ukraine agreement reached, but the street resists

February 22, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Under heavy pressure from the West following a deadly day of clashes and sniper fire in the capital, President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders struck a deal Friday aimed at bringing Ukraine’s three-month political crisis to an end. But radical protesters and some pro-Russian factions rejected it, leaving lingering doubts over whether peace could be restored.

On a day of electrifying developments, the Ukrainian parliament also opened a path for Yulia Tymoshenko —Yanukovych’s political nemesis — to be let out of prison. In spite of what looked like a significant government retreat, protesters booed opposition figures who took to a stage Friday evening to present the deal, which cuts Yanukovych’s powers and calls for early elections but falls short of demands for his immediate resignation.

“Death to the criminal!” some chanted, referring to Yanukovych. “Resign! Resign! Resign!” shouted others as one radical speaker threatened to go on an armed offensive if the opposition doesn’t demand the president’s resignation by Saturday morning.

Addressing the crowd in Kiev’s Independence Square, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko tried to persuade them that Yanukovych had likely given all he was willing to give. “He’s not going to resign. This isn’t realistic. We have to think about realistic steps,” Klitschko said.

The agreement signed Friday calls for presidential elections to be moved up from March 2015 to no later than December, but many protesters said that is far too late. And it does not address the issue that set off the protests in November — Yanukovych’s abandonment of closer ties with the European Union in favor of a bailout deal with longtime ruler Russia.

The standoff between the government and protesters escalated this week, as demonstrators clashed with police and snipers opened fire in the worst violence the country has seen since the breakup of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago. The Health Ministry put the death toll at 77 and some opposition figures said it’s even higher.

The U.S., Russia and the 28-nation EU are deeply concerned about the future of Ukraine, a divided nation of 46 million. The country’s western regions want to be closer to the EU and have rejected Yanukovych’s authority in many cities, while eastern Ukraine favors closer ties with Russia.

Hours after the deal was signed, Ukraine’s parliament voted to restore the 2004 constitution that limits presidential authority, clawing back some of the powers that Yanukovych had pushed through for himself after being elected in 2010.

Parliament then voted to fire the interior minister, Vitali Zakharchenko, who is widely despised and blamed for ordering police violence, including the snipers who killed scores of protesters Thursday in Kiev, the capital that has been nearly paralyzed by the protests.

Then the parliament, which once was overwhelmingly pro-Yanukovych, took the bold move of approving a measure that could free arch-rival Tymoshenko, who has served two and a half years on a conviction of abuse of office, charges that domestic and Western critics have denounced as a political vendetta.

Legislators voted to decriminalize the count under which Tymoshenko was imprisoned, meaning that she is no longer guilty of a criminal offense. “Free Yulia! Free Yulia!” lawmakers chanted. However, Yanukovych must still sign that bill into law, and then Tymoshenko’s lawyers would have to ask the court for her release from prison in the eastern city of Kharkiv.

Yanukovych fears her popularity. The charismatic blond-braided heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution — which also drove Yanukovych from the presidency — Tymoshenko served as prime minister and narrowly lost the 2010 presidential election to Yanukovych.

With Yanukovych’s supporters quitting his party one after another Friday, legislators also approved an amnesty for protesters involved in violence. Under the agreement, Ukrainian authorities also will name a new unity government that includes top opposition figures within 10 days.

The deal was a result of two days and all-night of shuttle diplomacy by top diplomats from Germany, France and Poland, who talked with the president and the opposition. In Washington, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the deal is consistent with what the Obama administration was advocating, and that the U.S. will closely monitor whether it is fulfilled, holding out the threat of more sanctions if it’s not.

“The agreement is a necessary compromise in order to launch an indispensable political dialogue that offers the only democratic and peaceful way out of the crisis that has already caused too much suffering and bloodshed on all sides,” European Union President Herman Van Rompuy said.

But neither side won all the points it sought, and some vague conditions could ignite strong disputes down the road. The deal calls for protesters to hand over all their weapons, withdraw from buildings they have occupied and take down the camps they have erected around the country. It is far from clear that the thousands of protesters camped out in Kiev’s Independence Square — known as the Maidan — will pack up and go home.

“The Maidan will stand up until Yanukovych leaves,” declared one protester, 29-year-old Anataly Shevchuk. “I hope that the direction of the country changes, but so far the goals of the Maidan have not been achieved,” said another, 45-year-old Kira Rushnitskaya. “Yanukovych agreed to give up powers to stay in power overall.”

The agreement did not set a deadline for leaving the camp and many protesters are likely to move out slowly, both because of the emotional closeness the camp fostered and because of their distrust that the deal will actually be implemented.

Shots were heard Friday morning, a day after the deadliest violence since Ukraine became independent in 1991. It is unclear who was targeted and whether anyone was hurt or injured. A tense calm prevailed in the square late Friday.

The leader of one of the major radical groups, Pravy Sektor, declared that “the national revolution will continue,” according to the Interfax news agency. The deal has other detractors, too. Leonid Slutsky, a Russian lawmaker who chairs the committee in charge of relations with other ex-Soviet nations, told reporters that the agreement serves the interests of the West.

“We realize where and by whom this agreement has been written. It’s entirely in the interests of the United States and other powers, who want to split Ukraine from Russia,” he said. Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that Russian mediator Vladimir Lukin’s refusal to sign the deal doesn’t mean that Moscow isn’t interested in looking for a compromise to end the bloodshed.

“We will stand ready to continue helping Ukrainians normalize the situation if they ask for it,” it said. The statement said Ukrainians should take into account all regions in its political transition — apparently referring to the areas in Ukraine’s east and south that have close economic ties to Russia and where some see the protesters as puppets of the West.

In addition to anger over the failed EU deal, protesters across the country are upset over corruption in Ukraine, the lack of democratic rights and the country’s ailing economy, which just barely avoided bankruptcy with the first disbursement of a $15 billion bailout promised by Russia. The recent violence has added to Ukraine’s dire economic troubles.

Associated Press writers Maria Danilova, Yuras Karmanau, Efrem Lukatsky and Yuri Uvarov in Kiev; Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

Ukrainian protesters claim control over capital

February 22, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Protesters in the Ukrainian capital claimed full control of the city Saturday following the signing of a Western-brokered peace deal aimed at ending the nation’s three-month political crisis. The nation’s embattled president, Viktor Yanukovych, reportedly had fled the capital for his support base in Ukraine’s Russia-leaning east

Police abandoned posts around the capital, and protesters took up positions around the presidential office and residence. Parliament discussed voting on impeaching Yanukovych and setting a quick date for new elections to end a crisis over Ukraine’s identity and future direction.

Yanukovych’s whereabouts were unclear Saturday morning. Media outlets reported that he left Kiev for his native eastern Ukraine after surrendering much of his powers and agreeing to early elections by the end of the year.

Despite significant concessions by the president Friday, elections later this year aren’t soon enough for protesters who blame him for police violence and amassing too many powers. They want him out now.

At a special parliament session Saturday morning, Oleh Tyahnybok, head of the nationalist Svoboda party, called for discussion of impeachment. The parliament speaker — Yanukovych ally Volodymyr Rybak — submitted his resignation, citing ill health as the reason. The president’s representative in parliament warned against splitting the country in two, an outcome that worries many but is increasingly seeming a possibility.

The country’s western regions want to be closer to the EU and have rejected Yanukovych’s authority in many cities, while eastern Ukraine — which accounts for the bulk of the nation’s economic output — favors closer ties with Russia.

The president’s concessions came as part of a deal Friday intended to end violence that killed scores and left hundreds wounded in Kiev this week as snipers opened fire on protesters. It was the worst violence in Ukraine’s modern history.

Andriy Parubiy, a leader of the protest camp on Independence Square, known as the Maidan, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that Yanukovych fled for Kharkiv, the center of Ukraine’s industrial heartland. Kharkiv was the capital of Soviet Ukraine from 1919-1934.

The claims of the president’s departure could not be immediately confirmed, however. Parubiy also said Saturday that protesters are now in full control of the capital. Police on Friday retreated from their positions in Kiev’s government district, and the night passed quietly.

A group of protesters in helmets and shields stood guard at the president’s office Saturday. No police were in sight. Protesters booed opposition figures who took to a stage Friday evening to present their deal with the president, which cuts Yanukovych’s powers.

“Death to the criminal!” some chanted, referring to Yanukovych. A motion seeking the president’s impeachment was submitted late Friday to the Ukrainian parliament, where members of Yanukovych’s faction defected in droves to the opposition side, quickly passing constitutional amendments that trimmed his powers.

It wasn’t clear if or when the impeachment motion would be put to a vote. Neither side won all the points it sought in Friday’s deal, and some vague conditions could ignite strong disputes down the road.

The agreement signed Friday calls for presidential elections to be moved up from March 2015 to no later than December, but many protesters said that is far too late. And it does not address the issue that triggered the protests in November — Yanukovych’s abandonment of closer ties with the European Union in favor of a bailout deal with longtime ruler Russia.

The standoff between the government and protesters escalated this week, as demonstrators clashed with police and snipers opened fire in the worst violence the country has seen since the breakup of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago. The Health Ministry put the death toll at 77 and some opposition figures said it’s even higher.

The U.S., Russia and the 28-nation EU are deeply concerned about the future of Ukraine, a divided nation of 46 million. The parliament on Friday quickly approved a measure that could free Yanukovych’s arch-rival Tymoshenko, who has served two and a half years on a conviction of abuse of office, charges that domestic and Western critics have denounced as a political vendetta.

Legislators voted to decriminalize the count under which Tymoshenko was imprisoned, meaning that she is no longer guilty of a criminal offense. However, Yanukovych must still sign that bill into law, and then Tymoshenko’s lawyers would have to ask the court for her release from prison in Kharkiv, the city controlled by Yanukovych’s loyalists where the opposition has little public following.

Scores killed in deadly Ukraine day of protest

February 21, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Protesters advanced on police lines in the heart of the Ukrainian capital on Thursday, prompting government snipers to shoot back and kill scores of people in the country’s deadliest day since the breakup of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago.

The European Union imposed sanctions on those deemed responsible for the violence, and three EU foreign ministers held a long day of talks in Kiev with both embattled President Viktor Yanukovych and leaders of the protests seeking his ouster. But it’s increasingly unclear whether either side has the will or ability to compromise.

Yanukovych and the opposition protesters are locked in a battle over the identity of Ukraine, a nation of 46 million that has divided loyalties between Russia and the West. Parts of the country — mostly in its western cities — are in open revolt against Yanukovych’s central government, while many in eastern Ukraine back the president and favor strong ties with Russia, their former Soviet ruler.

Protesters across the country are also upset over corruption in Ukraine, the lack of democratic rights and the country’s ailing economy, which just barely avoided bankruptcy with a $15 billion aid infusion from Russia.

Despite the violence, defiant protesters seemed determined to continue their push for Yanukovych’s resignation and early presidential and parliamentary elections. People streamed toward the square Thursday afternoon as other protesters hurled wood, refuse and tires on barricades.

“The price of freedom is too high. But Ukrainians are paying it,” said Viktor Danilyuk, a 30-year-old protester. “We have no choice. The government isn’t hearing us.” In an effort to defuse the situation, the national parliament late Thursday passed a measure that would prohibit an “anti-terrorist operation” threatened by Yanukovych to restore order, and called for all Interior Ministry troops to return to their bases. But it was unclear how binding the move would be. Presidential adviser Marina Stavnichuk was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying the measure goes into effect immediately, but that a mechanism for carrying it out would have to be developed by the president’s office and the Interior Ministry.

At least 101 people have died this week in the clashes in Kiev, according to protesters and Ukrainian authorities, a sharp reversal in three months of mostly peaceful protests. Now neither side appears willing to compromise.

Thursday was the deadliest day yet at the sprawling protest camp on Kiev’s Independence Square, also called the Maidan. Snipers were seen shooting at protesters there — and video footage showed at least one sniper wearing a Ukraine riot police uniform.

One of the wounded, volunteer medic Olesya Zhukovskaya, sent out a brief Twitter message — “I’m dying” — after she was shot in the neck. Dr. Oleh Musiy, the medical coordinator for the protesters, said she was in serious condition after undergoing surgery.

Musiy told The Associated Press that at least 70 protesters were killed Thursday and over 500 were wounded in the clashes — and that the death toll could rise further. In addition, three policemen were killed Thursday and 28 suffered gunshot wounds, Interior Ministry spokesman Serhiy Burlakov told the AP.

The National Health Ministry said a total of 75 people died in the clashes Tuesday and Thursday, but did not give a breakdown. Earlier Thursday, however, it said 28 people had died. There was no way to immediately verify any of the death tolls.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, along with his German and Polish counterparts, said after a five-hour meeting with Yanukovych and another with opposition leaders that they discussed new elections and a new government, but gave no details. The three resumed meeting with Yanukovych late Thursday.

“For now, there are no results,” said an opposition leader, Vitali Klitschko. Video footage on Ukrainian television showed shocking scenes Thursday of protesters being cut down by gunfire, lying on the pavement as comrades rushed to their aid. Trying to protect themselves with shields, teams of protesters carried bodies away on sheets of plastic or planks of wood.

Protesters were also seen leading policemen, their hands held high, around the sprawling protest camp in central Kiev. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry says 67 police were captured in all. An opposition lawmaker said they were being held in Kiev’s occupied city hall.

The Interior Ministry said late Thursday that security forces may use force to free the captured police. In Brussels, the 28-nation European Union decided in an emergency meeting Thursday to impose sanctions against those behind the violence in Ukraine, including a travel ban and an asset freeze against some government officials. It was unclear whether the EU would consider any of the opposition figures to also have a share of responsibility in the bloodshed.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama about the crisis Thursday evening. She briefed them about the trip of the three EU foreign ministers to Kiev, and all three leaders agreed that a political solution needs to be found as soon as possible to prevent further bloodshed.

Saying the U.S. was outraged by the violence, Obama urged Yanukovych in a statement to withdraw his forces from downtown Kiev immediately. He also said Ukraine should respect the right of protest and that protesters must be peaceful.

The White House said U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke by telephone with Yanukovych on Thursday afternoon and made clear that the U.S. is prepared to sanction those officials responsible for the violence.

The Kremlin issued a statement with Putin blaming radical protesters and voicing “extreme concern about the escalation of armed confrontation in Ukraine.” The Russian leader called for an immediate end to bloodshed and for steps “to stabilize the situation and stop extremist and terrorist actions.” He also sent former Russian ombudsman Vladimir Lukin to Ukraine to act as a mediator.

Although the first weeks of the protests were determinedly peaceful, radical elements have become more influential as impatience with the lack of progress grows. In their battles Thursday, those protesters, wearing hard hats and armed with bats and other makeshift weapons, regained some territory on the fringes of Independence Square that police had seized earlier in the week.

One camp commander, Oleh Mykhnyuk, told the AP that protesters threw firebombs at riot police on the square overnight. As the sun rose, police pulled back, protesters followed them and police then began shooting at them, he said.

The Interior Ministry warned Kiev residents to stay indoors because of the “armed and aggressive mood of the people.” Yanukovych claimed that police were not armed and “all measures to stop bloodshed and confrontation are being taken.” But the Interior Ministry later contradicted that, saying law enforcers were armed as part of an “anti-terrorist” operation.

Russia appears increasingly frustrated with Yanukovych’s inability to find a way out of the crisis. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Russia will “try to do our best” to fulfill its financial obligations to Ukraine, but indicated Moscow would hold back on further bailout installments until the crisis is resolved.

“We need partners that are in good shape and a Ukrainian government that is legitimate and effective,” he said. Some signs emerged that Yanukovych is losing loyalists. The chief of Kiev’s city administration, Volodymyr Makeyenko, announced Thursday he was leaving Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.

“We must be guided only by the interests of the people, this is our only chance to save people’s lives,” he said, adding he would continue to fulfill his duties as long as he had the people’s trust. Another influential member of the ruling party, Serhiy Tyhipko, said both Yanukovych and opposition leaders had “completely lost control of the situation.”

“Their inaction is leading to the strengthening of opposition and human victims,” the Interfax news agency reported him saying. Prior to the clashes Thursday, the Ukrainian Health Ministry said 287 wounded had been hospitalized this week. But protesters who have set up a medical facility in a downtown cathedral so that wounded colleagues would not be snatched away by police say the number of wounded is significantly higher — possibly double or triple that.

The Caritas Ukraine aid group praised the protest medics but said many of the wounded will need long-term care, including prosthetics.

AP reporters Maria Danilova and Yury Uvarov in Kiev and Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.

Ukraine: At least 18 dead as truce collapses

February 20, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Fierce clashes between police and protesters — some including gunfire — shattered a brief truce in Ukraine’s besieged capital Thursday, killing at least 19 people.

The deaths came in a new eruption of violence just hours after the country’s embattled president and the opposition leaders demanding his resignation called for a truce and negotiations to try to resolve Ukraine’s political crisis.

The two sides are locked in a decades-long battle over the identity of this nation of 46 million, whose loyalties are divided between Russia and the West. Parts of the country— mostly in its western cities — are in open revolt against President Viktor Yanukovych’s central government.

An Associated Press reporter saw 18 bodies Thursday laid out on the edge of the sprawling protest encampment in central Kiev, the capital. In addition, one policeman was killed and 28 suffered gunshot wounds Thursday, Interior Ministry spokesman Serhiy Burlakov told the AP.

Those numbers Thursday brought the week’s death toll to at least 45 in Kiev. As the violence exploded and heavy smoke from burning barricades at the encampment belched into the sky, the foreign ministers of three European countries met with Yanukovych, after their meeting with the opposition leaders.

Later Thursday in Brussels, the 28-nation European Union was scheduled to hold an emergency meeting on Ukraine, to consider sanctions against those behind the violence. The latest bout of street violence began Tuesday when protesters attacked police lines and set fires outside parliament, accusing Yanukovych of ignoring their demands to enact constitutional reforms that would limit the president’s power — a key opposition demand. Parliament, dominated by his supporters, was stalling on taking up a constitutional reform to limit presidential powers.

In a statement early Thursday, the Ukrainian Health Ministry said 28 people have died and 287 have been hospitalized during the two days of street violence. Protesters, who have set up a medical care facility in a downtown cathedral, say the numbers of injured are significantly higher — possibly double or triple that.

A statement from the Interior Ministry on Thursday said the gunfire against officers appeared to be coming from the national music conservatory in Kiev, which is on the edge of the downtown square housing an extensive protest tent camp.

Also Thursday, the parliament building was evacuated because of fears protesters were preparing to storm it, said parliament spokeswoman Irina Karnelyuk. The clashes this week have been the most deadly since protests kicked off three months ago after Yanukovych shelved an association agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. Russia then announced a $15 billion bailout for Ukraine, whose economy is in tatters.

Although the initial weeks of protests were determinedly peaceful, radicals helped drive an outburst of clashes with police in January in which at least three people died, and the day of violence on Tuesday may have radicalized many more.

Political and diplomatic maneuvering has continued, with both Moscow and the West eager to gain influence over this former Soviet republic. Three EU foreign ministers — from Germany, France and Poland — were in Kiev Thursday speaking with both sides.

President Barack Obama also stepped in to condemn the violence, warning Wednesday “there will be consequences” for Ukraine if it continues. The U.S. has raised the prospect of joining with the EU to impose sanctions against Ukraine.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, described the violence as an attempted coup and even used the phrase “brown revolution,” an allusion to the Nazi rise to power in Germany in 1933. The ministry said Russia would use “all our influence to restore peace and calm.”

Neither side had appeared willing to compromise, with the opposition insisting on Yanukovych’s resignation and an early election and the president apparently prepared to fight until the end.

Maria Danilova, Jim Heintz and Yury Uvarov in Kiev contributed to this report.

Ukraine: 25 killed, 241 injured in Kiev clashes

February 19, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — As thick black smoke rose from the barricades encircling the protest camp in central Kiev, a tense calm descended Wednesday over the capital and the European Union threatened sanctions against Ukraine following deadly violence between riot police and protesters in which at least 25 people died and 241 were injured.

Thousands of defiant protesters faced rows of riot police who have squeezed them deeper into the Kiev’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan, which has been a bastion and symbol for the protesters, after overnight clashes that set buildings on fire and brought sharp rebuke from both the West and Russia.

The violence on Tuesday was the worst in nearly three months of anti-government protests that have paralyzed Ukraine’s capital in a struggle over the identity of a nation divided in loyalties between Russia and the West, and the worst in the country’s post-Soviet history. The Kremlin said it put the next disbursement of its bailout on hold amid uncertainty over Ukraine’s future and what it described as a “coup attempt”; it criticized the West for the escalation of violence.

President Viktor Yanukovych on Wednesday blamed the protesters for the violence and said the opposition leaders “crossed a line when they called people to arms.” The European Union appears poised to impose sanctions as it called an extraordinary meeting of the 28-nation bloc’s foreign ministers.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called Wednesday for “targeted measures against those responsible for violence and use of excessive force can be agreed … as a matter of urgency.” Sanctions would at first typically include banning leading officials from traveling to the 28-nation bloc and freezing their assets there.

“It is the political leadership of the country that has a responsibility to ensure the necessary protection of fundamental rights and freedoms,” said Barroso, who heads the EU’s executive arm. “It was with shock and utter dismay that we have been watching developments over the last 24 hours in Ukraine,” he added.

The protests began in late November after Yanukovych turned away from a long-anticipated deal with the European Union in exchange for a $15 billion bailout from Russia. The political maneuvering continued ever since, with both Moscow and the West eager to gain influence over this former Soviet republic.

The latest bout of street violence began Tuesday when protesters attacked police lines and set fires outside parliament, accusing Yanukovych of ignoring their demands to enact constitutional reforms that would limit president’s power — a key opposition demand. Parliament, dominated by his supporters, was stalling on taking up a constitutional reform to limit presidential powers.

Police responded by attacking the protest camp. Armed with water cannons, stun grenades and rubber bullets, police dismantled some barricades and took part of the Maidan. But the protesters still held their ground through the night, encircling the camp with new burning barricades of tires, furniture and debris.

On Wednesday morning, the center of Kiev was cordoned off by police, the subway was shut down and most shops on Kiev’s main street were closed. But hundreds of Ukrainians still flocked to the opposition camp, some wearing balaclavas and armed with bats, others, in every-day clothes and with make-up on, carrying food to protesters.

A group of young men and women poured petrol into plastic bottles, preparing fire bombs, while a volunteer walked past them distributing ham sandwiches to protesters from a tray. Another group of activists was busy crushing the pavement into pieces and into bags to fortify barricades.

“The revolution turned into a war with the authorities,” said Vasyl Oleksenko, 57, a retired geologist from central Ukraine, who said he fled the night’s violence fearing for his life, but returned to the square in the morning, feeling ashamed. “We must fight this bloody, criminal leadership; we must fight for our country, our Ukraine.”

Yanukovych was defiant on Wednesday. “I again call on the leaders of the opposition … to draw a boundary between themselves and radical forces which are provoking bloodshed and clashes with the security services,” the president said in a statement. “If they don’t want to leave (the square) — they should acknowledge that they are supporting radicals. Then the conversation with them will already be of a different kind.” He also called a day of mourning for the dead on Thursday.

Yanukovych’s tone left few with hope of compromise after a night of violence. He still enjoys strong support in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions, where many want strong ties with Russia.

The Health Ministry said 25 people died in the clashes, some from gunshot wounds, and Kiev hospitals were struggling to treat hundreds of injured. Activists also set-up a makeshift medical unit inside an landmark Orthodox Church not far from the camp, where volunteer medics were taking care of the wounded.

Meanwhile, in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where most residents yearn for stronger ties with the EU and have little sympathy for Yanukovych, protesters seized several government buildings, including the governor’s office, police stations, prosecutors and security agency offices and the tax agency headquarters. They also broke into an Interior Ministry unit and set it on fire. The building was still smoldering Wednesday morning and some protesters were driving around town in police cars they had seized during the night.

Tensions continued mounting. The government imposed restrictions for transport moving toward Kiev, apparently to prevent more opposition activists from coming from Western part of the country, and at least one train from Lviv was held outside Kiev. Several highways toward into Kiev were also blocked by police.

Acting Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedev told the ITAR-Tass news agency that he has dispatched a paratrooper brigade to Kiev to help protect arsenals. He refused to say if the unit could be used against protesters, the agency said.

Tensions soared after Russia said Monday that it was ready to resume providing the loans that Yanukovych’s government needs to keep Ukraine’s ailing economy afloat. This raised fears among the opposition that Yanukovych had made a deal with Moscow to stand firm against the protesters and would choose a Russian-leaning loyalist to be his new prime minister.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that Putin had a phone conversation with Yanukovych overnight. Peskov said that Putin hasn’t given Yanukovych any advice how to settle the crisis, adding that it’s up to the Ukrainian government.

Peskov also added that the next disbursement of a Russian bailout has remained on hold, saying the priority now is to settle the crisis, which he described as a “coup attempt.” The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement, blaming the West for the failure to condemn the opposition for the latest bout of violence.

EU leaders took the opposite stance, with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt putting the blame on Yanukovych in an unusually tough statement. “Today, President Yanukovich has blood on his hands,” Bildt said.

__ Svetlana Fedas in Lviv, Ukraine, Laura Mills and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and John-Thor Dahlburg and Juergen Baetz in Brussels contributed to this report.

Riot police move in against Kiev protest camp

February 19, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Amid cries of “Glory to Ukraine!” and with flaming tires lighting up the night sky, thousands of riot police armed with stun grenades and water cannons attacked the sprawling protest camp in the center of Kiev on Tuesday, following a day of street battles that left 18 people dead and hundreds injured.

The violence was the deadliest in nearly three months of anti-government protests that have paralyzed Ukraine’s capital in a struggle over the nation’s identity, and the worst in the country’s post-Soviet history

With the boom of exploding stun grenades and fireworks nearly drowning out his words at times, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko urged the 20,000 protesters to defend the camp on Independence Square that has been the heart of the protests.

“We will not go anywhere from here,” Klitschko told the crowd, speaking from a stage in the square as tents and tires burned around him, releasing huge plumes of smoke. “This is an island of freedom and we will defend it,” he said.

Many heeded his call. “This looks like a war against one’s own people,” said Dmytro Shulko, 35, who was heading toward the camp armed with a fire bomb. “But we will defend ourselves.” As police dismantled some of the barricades on the perimeter of the square and tried to push away the protesters, they fought back with rocks, bats and fire bombs. Against the backdrop of a soaring monument to Ukraine’s independence, protesters fed the burning flames with tires, creating walls of fire to prevent police from advancing. A large building the protesters had used as a headquarters caught fire and many struggled to get out. Many of the protesters were bleeding.

Speaking over loudspeakers, police urged women and children to leave the square because an “anti-terrorist” operation was underway. The protesters appeared to sense that Ukraine’s political standoff was reaching a critical turning point. Waving Ukrainian and opposition party flags, they shouted “Glory to Ukraine!” and sang the Ukrainian national anthem.

Shortly before midnight, Klitschko headed to President Viktor Yanukovych’s office to try to resolve the crisis, his spokeswoman said. An hour later, he was still waiting to be received. Earlier in the day, protesters attacked police lines and set fires outside parliament, accusing Yanukovych of once again ignoring their demands and dragging his feet on a constitutional reform to limit presidential powers.

Tensions had soared after Russia said Monday that it was ready to resume providing the loans that Yanukovych’s government needs to keep Ukraine’s ailing economy afloat. This raised fears among the opposition that Yanukovych had made a deal with Moscow to stand firm against the protesters and would choose a Russian-leaning loyalist to be his new prime minister.

The protests began in late November after Yanukovych turned away from a long-anticipated deal with the European Union in exchange for a $15 billion bailout from Russia. The political maneuvering continued, however, with both Moscow and the West eager to gain influence over this former Soviet republic.

Until Monday, the government and the opposition had appeared to be making some progress toward resolving the political crisis peacefully. In exchange for the release of scores of jailed activists, protesters on Sunday vacated a government building that they had occupied since Dec. 1.

Russia also may have wanted to see Kiev remain calm through the Winter Olympics in Sochi, so as not to distract from President Vladimir Putin’s games. But after the outburst of violence against riot police, Yanukovych’s government may have felt it had no choice but to try to restore order.

While Kiev and western Ukraine have risen up against Yanukovych, he remains popular in the Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions, where economic and cultural ties with Russia are strong. As darkness fell, law enforcement agencies vowed to bring order to the streets and they shut down subway stations in the center of the capital. In Independence Square, Orthodox priests prayed for peace.

“We see that this regime again has begun shooting people; they want to sink Ukraine in blood. We will not give in to a single provocation,” opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk told the protesters. “We will not take one step back from this square. We have nowhere to retreat to. Ukraine is behind us, Ukraine’s future is behind us.”

Tuesday’s clashes were the first to lead to deaths since Jan. 22, when two protesters were hit with live ammunition and a third died after a fall. As angry protesters outside parliament hurled stones at police and set trucks blocking their way on fire, riot police retaliated with stun grenades and fired what appeared to be small metal balls, as smoke from burning tires and vehicles billowed over Kiev.

Early Wednesday morning, government agencies said 18 people died in the violence, including seven policemen who died from gunshot wounds. Eleven civilians also died, including three who were shot. A police spokeswoman said 159 police were wounded, including 39 who were shot.

The coordinator for the opposition’s medical response team, Oleh Musiy, said more than 400 protesters were injured. He also claimed that about 20 had died, but this could not independently be confirmed.

One of the civilians was found dead after protesters stormed the office of the president’s Party of Regions. Police pushed them away, but when firefighters arrived to put out a fire, they discovered the body of an office employee, Kiev’s emergency services said.

Justice Minister Olena Lukash, a close Yanukovych aide, accused the opposition of violating earlier agreements with the government and blamed protest leaders for the violence. In Washington, Vice President Joe Biden expressed his “grave concern” in telephone call to Yanukovych, urging him to pull back government forces and exercise maximum restraint. The White House said Biden also called on Ukraine’s government to address the protesters’ “legitimate grievances” and put forward proposals for political reform.

Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged both sides to end the violence, halt their ultimatums and hold high-level talks. U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey R. Payatt also threatened both sides with sanctions. “We believe Ukraine’s crisis can still be solved via dialogue, but those on both sides who fuel violence will open themselves to sanctions,” Payatt said on Twitter.

Germany has refused to back Washington’s calls for sanctions against Ukraine’s government to pressure it into accepting opposition demands for reforms. But when central Kiev exploded in violence Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Ukrainian security forces have a “particular responsibility” to de-escalate the situation, adding that the EU might resort to unspecified sanctions against individuals. “Whoever is responsible for decisions that lead to bloodshed in the center of Kiev or elsewhere in Ukraine will need to consider that Europe’s previous reluctance for personal sanctions must be rethought,” he said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry blamed the West for the escalation of the violence and called on the opposition to work with the government to find a way out of the crisis. “What is happening is a direct result of the conniving politics of Western politicians and European bodies,” the ministry said in a statement.

Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau in Kiev, Lynn Berry and Laura Mills in Moscow and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.

Clashes in Ukraine leave 4 dead; deadline looms

February 18, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s festering political crisis took a deadly turn Tuesday, as thousands of anti-government protesters clashed with police outside Ukraine’s parliament. Three protesters were killed in the melee, the opposition reported, and emergency workers found another person dead after a fire at the ruling party’s office in Kiev.

Law enforcement agencies gave the demonstrators a deadline of 6 p.m. (1600GMT) to stop the confrontations and vowed to restore order. Dozens of protesters and police were injured in the clashes Tuesday, which broke out after opposition leaders accused pro-government factions in parliament of dragging their feet on a constitutional reform that would limit presidential powers — a key opposition demand.

The clashes dimmed hopes for an imminent solution to the political crisis. Tensions also soared following new steps by Russia and the European Union to gain influence over this former Soviet republic.

The protests began in November after President Viktor Yanukovych froze ties with the EU in exchange for a $15 billion bailout from Russia, but the political maneuvering continued and Moscow later suspended its payments. On Monday, however, while opposition leaders were meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia offered a fresh infusion of the billions of dollars that Ukraine needs to keep its ailing economy afloat.

As parliament delayed Tuesday’s session to take up the issue, thousands marched toward the parliament building to put pressure on lawmakers. Shouting “Shame!” the demonstrators hurled stones at police and set trucks blocking their way on fire.

Riot police retaliated with stun grenades and fired what appeared to be small metal balls, as smoke from burning tires and vehicles billowed over Kiev, the capital. Three protesters died in the clashes, Oleh Musiy, a top medic for the protesters, told The Associated Press. Opposition lawmaker Lesya Orobets made the same statement on Twitter.

About 150 protesters were injured, the protesters’ medical unit said, while the Interior Ministry said about 40 officers had been hurt. Justice Minister Olena Lukash, a close Yanukovych aide, accused the opposition of violating earlier agreements with the government and blamed protest leaders for the violence.

Earlier in the day, protesters stormed the office of the president’s Party of Regions, but police pushed them away. When firefighters arrived to put out a fire, they discovered the body of an office employee, Kiev’s emergency services said in a statement.

Tuesday’s confrontations came two days after the government and the opposition reached a shaky compromise, with protesters vacating a government building in Kiev they had been occupying since Dec. 1 after the government released of scores of jailed activists.

But tensions rose after Russia’s finance minister offered to resume financial aid to Ukraine on Monday, just as Yanukovych was expected to nominate a new prime minister, prompting fears among the opposition that he would tap a Russian-leaning loyalist.

“After weekend progress in Kyiv, sorry to see renewed violence,” U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey R. Pyatt said in a Twitter post. “Politics needs to happen in the Rada (parliament), not on the street.” Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko called on Yanukovych to agree to the reforms and to call an early election or face a serious escalation of the crisis.

“We are talking minutes, not hours,” Klitschko told reporters. Yanukovych still remains popular in the Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, where economic and cultural ties with Russia are strong. But western Ukraine is keen to pursue closer ties to the 28-nation EU and move away from Russia’s orbit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin promised Yanukovych $15 billion in loans in December, but after purchasing Ukrainian bonds worth $3 billion Russia put the payments on hold. The Russian finance minister said Monday that $2 billion more would be purchased this week.

Associated Press writer Laura Mills in Moscow contributed reporting.

Ukrainian protesters end occupation of City Hall

February 16, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Anti-government demonstrators in Ukraine’s capital ended their nearly three-month occupation of Kiev City Hall on Sunday as promised in exchange for the release of all jailed protesters. But tensions remained high as hundreds stayed outside the building, vowing to retake it if the government fails to drop all criminal charges against the protesters.

Prospects for an easing of the standoff between the opposition and President Viktor Yanukovych dimmed further when a top opposition leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, again turned down an offer to become prime minister in a coalition government.

Yanukovych is expected to nominate a new prime minister in the near future, and Western officials have been advocating for a coalition government drawn from the ruling party and the opposition. However Yatsenyuk said he would not agree to take the post, which Yanukovych offered to him last month, unless the president makes further concessions, including a constitutional reform that reduces presidential powers.

“I cannot be bought with posts, Mr. President. Go ahead and buy your henchmen,” Yatsenyuk told the tens of thousands of protesters who turned out for the traditional Sunday demonstration. Earlier Sunday, protesters handed control over City Hall to international mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who were then supposed to hand it back to city authorities. The compromise was reached after the last of 234 jailed protesters were released in the past week under an amnesty that also called for opposition activists to vacate government buildings in Kiev and elsewhere.

But hundreds of angry protesters, clad in protective gear, amassed outside the building, saying they would seize it again if charges were not dropped. Demonstrators had seized Kiev City Hall on Dec. 1, about a week after mass street protests broke out in response to Yanukovych’s decision to abandon a long-anticipated political and economic treaty with the European Union. The president, whose support base is in the Russian-speaking east and south of the country, turned to Russia instead for loans to keep Ukraine’s economy afloat.

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