KIEV: At least five activists were shot dead Wednesday as Ukrainian police stormed protesters’ barricades in Kiev, the first fatalities in two months of anti-government protests.
Pitched battles raged in the centre of the Ukrainian capital as protesters hurled stones at police and the security forces responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The bloody clashes marked a new peak in tensions after two months of protests over the government’s failure to sign a deal for closer integration with the European Union under Russian pressure.
The epicentre of the clashes was Grushevsky Street in the city centre which has been the scene of three days of clashes between thousands of protesters and simular numbers of security forces.
The air was filled with the rancid black smoke from tyres burned by protesters as well as the stench of tear gas used by the police.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Wednesday met with opposition leaders, including former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, but it was unclear if the talks would have any result.
The opposition leaders appeared unable to have any influence on the hard core of radical protesters and stopped short of supporting their actions.
Yanukovych earlier urged protesters not to follow “political radicals” and expressed condolences to the families of those killed in the clashes.
“Once again I ask people not to succumb to calls from political radicals,” Yanukovych said. “I am against bloodletting, against the use of force, against inciting enmity and violence.”
Showing no mood for compromise, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Mykola Azarov labelled the radical protesters behind the clashes as “terrorists”. The clashes came after police launched a fresh assault on protesters in central Kiev, driving into their lines using tear gas and stun grenades.
The protesters fought back in intense clashes, with casualties seen being loaded into ambulances.
Police for the first time started moving an armoured personnel carrier towards the protesters after storming the barricades.
The deadly violence horrified Ukrainians, who have never witnessed such scenes in their country including during the 2004 Orange Revolution which was almost entirely peaceful. Amid growing international concern, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Wednesday urged “an immediate end” to the escalating violence.
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso on Wednesday warned the authorities that the EU executive would assess “possible actions” against the Ukrainian authorities.
The United States also revoked the visas of several Ukrainian nationals linked to violence against protesters in November and December last year, the US embassy said in a statement.
General prosecutors confirmed earlier information from the protest movement that five activists had been shot dead, one of them with wounds to head and chest.
Protesters claimed they were shot by police snipers. Prosecutors said the case was being investigated.
The medical centre of the protest movement said a third activist was killed after falling from the top of the ceremonial entrance to Dynamo Kiev stadium adjacent to the protests.
The police, protected with helmets and riot shields, advanced some 50 metres (160 feet) towards the Dnipro Hotel which lies at the end of Grushevsky Street.
There was so far no move by the police against the main protest camp on Independence Square, several hundred metres away from the scene of the clashes.
With Ukraine supposedly celebrating its annual day of unity, Yanukovych prayed for the country at a ceremony to mark the occasion, the presidency said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country has regarded the pro-EU protests in Ukraine with great suspicion, warned on Tuesday that the situation there was spiralling out of control.
The government is basing its actions on a new set of laws, which ban nearly all forms of protest in the ex-Soviet country and have enraged demonstrators. They allow for jail terms of up to five years for those who blockade public buildings and the arrest of protesters wearing masks or helmets.
Meanwhile a prominent Ukrainian activist and journalist, Igor Lutsenko, on Tuesday said he was safe and well after being abducted from a hospital by unknown individuals and dumped in a forest outside Kiev.
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