Anti-government protesters throw cobblestones at the police during a clash at Independence Square, Kiev, early on Wednesday. (AFP)
Kiev, Feb. 19: Ukrainian officials said today that 26 people had been killed after hundreds of riot police officers advanced on anti-government demonstrators mounting a desperate act of defiance in what remained of their all-but-conquered encampment on Independence Square in Kiev.
The health ministry, quoted by news agencies, said that 241 people had been injured and that nine of the dead were police officers.
In an indication of deepening concern in Washington, the state department issued an urgent warning late yesterday telling American citizens in Ukraine to avoid all protests, keep a low profile and remain indoors at night while the clashes continue.
This morning, the scene in Independence Square was apocalyptic, with black smoke billowing from fires and the streets leading to square piled with debris. The protesters’ stage, a focal point of resistance, was still intact and apparently beyond the reach of the riot police.
Police units with a water cannon were massing in front of the Khreschatyk Hotel but made no immediate attempt to move forward.
The incinerated hulk of a police armoured vehicle, which was lost in the initial push into the square, was still entangled in remnants of the protesters’ barricade.
With hundreds of riot police officers advancing from all sides after a day of deadly mayhem here in the Ukrainian capital, anti-government demonstrators mounted a seemingly doomed act of defiance late yesterday, establishing a protective ring of fire around what remained of their encampment on Independence Square. The attack on the square began shortly before 8pm, when police officers tried to drive two armoured personnel carriers through stone-reinforced barriers outside the Khreschatyk Hotel on the road to the square.
The vehicles became bogged down and, set upon by protesters wielding rocks and fireworks, burst into flames, trapping the security officers inside one of them and prompting desperate rescue efforts to save those caught in the second vehicle, which managed to pull back from the protesters’ barricade.
A phalanx of riot police officers, backed by a water cannon, had more success in a separate thrust, pushing through protesters’ barricades near the Ukraina Hotel and firing tear gas as they advanced toward the centre of the square. People covered in blood staggered to the protesters’ medical centre. Feeding the blazing defences around Independence Square last night with blankets, tires, wood, sheets of plastic foam and anything else that might burn, the protesters hoped to prolong, for a while longer at least, a tumultuous protest movement against President Viktor F. Yanukovych.
“It is called the tactic of scorched earth,” said a protester who identified himself as Andriy.
Doctors and nurses treating protesters in a temporary medical centre in the Trade Unions building on Independence Square reported gunshot wounds and evidence that the police had doctored percussion grenades to inflict more serious injury. By early today, the union building had caught fire and the blaze raged out of control.
With the centre of the city engulfed in thick, acrid smoke and filled with the deafening din of the grenades, fireworks and occasional gunfire, what began as a peaceful protest in late November against Yanukovych’s decision to spurn a trade deal with Europe and tilt towards Russia became yesterday a pyre of violent chaos.