Ukraine tug of war leaves 25 dead

9:51 AM, Feb 19, 2014   |    comments
Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY
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KIEV, Ukraine (NBC NEWS) -- Thousands of riot police and protesters were in a tense standoff in Ukraine's capital on Wednesday after the bloodiest day of violence in the country's tug of war between Russia and the West.

At least 25 people were killed in Kiev on Tuesday - including 10 police officers - in what was the deadliest day since the Ukraine won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The country's interim prime minister went as far as to describe the clashes as an attempted coup.

"This was not a demonstration of democracy ... It is the manipulation of people's minds and an attempt to seize power by force," interim Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov told a government meeting watched by The Associated Press on Wednesday morning.

But European Union leaders called an emergency meeting to consider sanctions after what they called an "exessive use of force."

Parts of the city have been in a state of near paralysis since November after President Viktor Yanukovich ditched a deal with the European Union and struck a loan scheme with Russia to float its ailing economy.

Protests began peacefully last year but have been increasingly characterized by smaller, more extreme elements - many aligned with the far-right - who have clashed with riot police.

While the demonstrations started as a rejection of the Russia-leaning government policies, protesters said they now seek to "oust a corrupt and brutal regime," according to a post by the opposition-run "Euromaidan" Facebook group on Wednesday morning.

Tuesday's violence shattered weeks of relative calm in the capital, sparked by Russia's announcement it was ready to resume its loan package to the Ukraine. Some in the opposition saw this as an indication that the two countries had struck a deal and that the government was intent on standing firm against the protesters.

The European Union said it was preparing targeted sanctions against those responsible for the violence.

"We have ... made it clear that the EU will respond to any deterioration on the ground," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement.

"We therefore expect that targeted measures against those responsible for violence and use of excessive force can be agreed by our member states as a matter of urgency.

Demonstrators torched vehicles and buildings, and threw stones and Molotov cocktails. Authorities responded with rubber bullets and smoke grenades, often while singing the Ukrainian national anthem, The Associated Press reported.

Having given the protesters an ultimatum to clear the streets, security forces descended on the city's Independence Square - the iconic center of the protest movement known as the "Euromadian" - parts of which were still ablaze Wednesday morning.

Around half of the 20,000 demonstrators who flooded the streets on Tuesday heeded the call of former world champion boxer turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko to stand their ground.

Klitschko returned to the square afterward and urged the protesters to defend the camp.

"We will not go anywhere from here," Klitschko told the crowd. "This is an island of freedom and we will defend it," he said.

"I am not going to sit and wait while they kill me," said one protester, 32-year-old Anton Rybkovich. "I'm going to attack. The more force the government uses, the more harsh our response will be."

In a statement Wednesday, President Yanukovich maintained his call for a peaceful resolution to the stand-off instead of violence.

"I am totally against a heavy-handed approach and the more so against bloodshed," Yanukovich said. "I once again call the leaders of the opposition, who claim that they aim for a peace settlement, to separate themselves from the radical forces which provoke bloodshed and clashes with law enforcement services."

But voices abroad, such as the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, appeared to side with the protesters. Tusk told his parliament on Wednesday that he would be pressing E.U. leaders to impose sanctions on the Ukrainian government following the deadly clashes.

"I will today hold talks with the leaders of the biggest EU countries and institutions, and persuade them to impose sanctions - personal and financial," Tusk said, according to Reuters. "I hope that such a stance from Poland will help the EU as a whole in taking fast decisions."

Vice President Joe Biden called Yanukovich on Tuesday, urging him to pull back government forces and exercise maximum restraint, the White House said.

In Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement condemning the violence and urging the Ukrainian government and protesters to take steps to de-escalate the situation through dialogue.

"Rather than issuing ultimatums, the government of Ukraine should immediately resume talks with senior opposition leaders and support dialogue through Ukraine's democratic institutions," Kerry said. "We also call on protesters to refrain from violence of any kind; Ukraine's deep divisions will not be healed by allowing more innocent blood to be spilled."

Maria Stromova of NBC News contributed to this report from Moscow. Alexander Smith reported from London. Photo Courtesy of Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY.

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