Riot police officers clash with anti-government protesters in central Kiev, Ukraine, early Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. (Associated Press)
Pelted by rocks and fireworks, the vehicles became stuck in the massive barricades outside the Khreschatyk Hotel and burst into flames, apparently trapping the security officers inside, prompting desperate rescue efforts from their colleagues.
In the course of wild day of parries and thrusts by the protesters and the police, authorities in Kiev reported nine people killed, including two police officers. It was the bloodiest day of violence since Yanukovych spurned a trade deal with Europe in November and set off protests that began peacefully but have since involved occasional spasms of deadly violence.
The push into Independence Square by anti-riot forces spread chaos and fire across the protest zone, with tents ablaze as police advanced through clouds of smoke and tear-gas. Protesters sang the national anthem against the din of percussion grenades, fireworks and what, on occasion, sounded like gunfire.
A phalanx of riot police officers, backed by a water cannon, pushed through protesters’ barricades near the Ukraina Hotel and fired tear gas as they advanced toward the center of the square. People covered in blood staggered to a medical center set up in the protest encampment.
Earlier in the day, enraged protesters reoccupied City Hall, which they had vacated two days earlier, and authorities shut the Kiev subway to thwart opposition calls for reinforcements to come defend their encampment.
The police advance followed hours of street battles that destroyed hopes of an early political settlement, stirred in recent days by an amnesty deal. The resumption of violence underscored the volatility of a political crisis that has not only aroused fear of civil war in Ukraine but has also dragged Russia and the West into a geopolitical struggle redolent of the Cold War.
The violence began early Tuesday when anti-government activists moved out of their barricaded zone around Independence Square and advanced into a government-controlled district, battling riot police officers with stones and Molotov cocktails in the worst clashes in nearly a month. A group of young militants occupied and set fire to the headquarters of the ruling Party of Regions.
“We have no other way,” said Lena Melniko, a 33-year-old accountant who joined a team of protesters digging up paving stones and passing them on to helmeted fighters to throw at police.
“We have been protesting for three months but are stuck in dead end,” she added, seemingly oblivious to the deafening din of percussion grenades fired by police.
Much of the violence early Tuesday took place along Instyuts’ka Street near Ukraine’s parliament building and the main offices of the government. Protesters hurled stones at police officers sheltering behind a barricade of blazing vehicles while ambulances, sirens wailing, rushed to help people injured in the clashes.
News agencies quoted anti-government activists as saying three protesters had been killed, but there was no immediate confirmation of casualties. Olga Bogomolets, a doctor, told the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper that three activists had died at a medical unit in the Officers’ House on Kriposniy Lane. She said that they had died from gunshot wounds to the head and heart and that tens of other people had suffered injuries.
Andriy Huk, deputy chief of the protest zone’s medical center, said there were five people with serious head wounds and seven who had lost an eye. He put the total of people injured at 170.
Protesters reported that the police were using live ammunition, but this could not be confirmed. Cartridges scattered on the street suggested that most, if not all, of the firing from police lines involved rubber bullets.