Ukraine leader denounces coup bid, West weighs sanctions
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich accused pro-European opposition leaders today of trying to seize power by force after at least 26 people died in the worst violence since the former Soviet republic gained independence.
European Union leaders said they were urgently preparing targeted sanctions against those responsible for a crackdown on protesters who have been occupying central Kiev for almost three months since Yanukovich spurned a far-reaching trade deal with the EU and accepted a $15-billion Russian bailout.
The sprawling nation of 46 million people with an ailing economy and endemic corruption has become the object of a geopolitical tug-of-war between Moscow and the West. That was played out in hand-to-hand fighting through the night, lit by blazing barricades on Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman insisted the Kremlin was sticking to a policy of not intervening in Ukraine, although his point man has called for action to crush the protests. The Kremlin said Putin and Yanukovich spoke by telephone overnight, calling the events an attempted coup.
Moscow announced the resumption of stalled aid to Kiev on Monday with a $2-million cash injection hours before the crackdown began.
After a night of petrol bombs and gunfire on Independence Square, black smoke billowed from a burned out trade union building that protest organizers had used as a headquarters.
Security forces occupied about a third of the square - the part which lies closes to government offices and parliament - with protesters pouring in to reinforce their defenses on the remainder of a plaza they have dubbed "Euro-Maidan".
In a statement posted online in the early hours, Yanukovich said he had refrained from using force since unrest began but was being pressed by "advisers" to take a harder line.
"Without any mandate from the people, illegally and in breach of the constitution of Ukraine, these politicians - if I may use that term - have resorted to pogroms, arson and murder to try to seize power," the president said.
He declared Thursday a day of mourning for the dead.
A senior opposition leader, world champion boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko, walked out of a meeting with Yanukovich during the night, saying he could not negotiate while blood was being spilt.
When fighting subsided at dawn, the square resembled a battle-zone, the ground charred by Molotov cocktails. Helmeted young activists used pickaxes, and elderly women used their bare hands, to prise up paving to stock as ammunition.
The Health Ministry, updating the casualty toll, said 25 people had been killed in the fighting in the capital, of which nine were police officers. The police later said a 10th officer had died of his wounds.
Both police and opposition representatives said many were killed by gunshot and hundreds were injured. But the interior ministry said that five of the dead policemen had died of identical wounds from sniper fire to the head and neck.
Journalists saw some hardline protesters manning barricades armed with rifles, including one with a telescopic sight.