POSTED: 5:47 a.m. HST, Feb 20, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 6:13 a.m. HST, Feb 20, 2014
KIEV, Ukraine >> Fearing that a call for a truce was a ruse, protesters tossed firebombs and advanced upon police lines Thursday in Ukraine's embattled capital. Government snipers shot back and the almost-medieval melee that ensued left at least 33 people dead.
Video footage on Ukrainian television showed shocking scenes Thursday of protesters being cut down by gunfire, lying on the pavement as comrades rushed to their aid. Trying to protect themselves with shields, teams of protesters carried bodies away on sheets of plastic or on planks of wood.
Protesters were also seen leading policemen with hands held high around the sprawling protest camp in central Kiev -- Ukraine's Interior ministry says 67 police were captured in all. They are being held in Kiev's occupied city hall, an opposition lawmaker said.
An AP cameraman saw snipers shooting at protesters in Kiev and video footage showed that at least one sniper wearing a Ukraine riot police uniform.
President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition protesters who demand his resignation are locked in an epic battle over the identity of Ukraine, a nation of 46 million that has divided loyalties between Russia and the West. Parts of the country -- mostly in its western cities -- are in open revolt against Yanukovych's central government, while many in eastern Ukraine favor strong ties with Russia, their former Soviet ruler.
At least 59 people have died this week in the clashes in Kiev, a sharp reversal in the three-month, mostly peaceful political crisis. Thursday was the deadliest day yet.
The carnage appears to show that neither Yanukovych nor the opposition leaders appear to be in control of the chaos engulfing Ukraine. In addition, neither side appears willing to compromise, with the opposition insisting on Yanukovych's resignation and an early election and the president apparently prepared to fight until the end.
An Associated Press reporter saw 21 bodies Thursday laid out on the edge of the protest camp. Protest medic Andriy Huk later told the AP that 32 activists have been killed. In addition, one policeman was killed and 28 suffered gunshot wounds Thursday, Interior Ministry spokesman Serhiy Burlakov told the AP.
The truce late Wednesday appeared to have little credibility among hardcore protesters at Kiev's Independence Square campsite. One protest camp commander, Oleh Mykhnyuk, told the AP that even after the truce, protesters still threw firebombs at riot police on the square. As the sun rose, police pulled back, the protesters followed them and police then began shooting at them, he said.
The Interior Ministry warned Kiev residents to stay indoors Thursday because of the "armed and aggressive mood of the people."
Yanukovych claimed Thursday that police were not armed and "all measures to stop bloodshed and confrontation are being taken." The Interior Ministry later said that law enforcers will be given weapons as part of an anti-terrorist operation.
Amid the carnage, signs were emerging that Yanukovych is losing loyalists. The chief of Kiev's city administration, Volodymyr Makeyenko, announced Thursday he was leaving Yanukovych's Party of Regions.
"We must be guided only by the interests of the people, this is our only chance to save people's lives," he said, adding he would continue to fulfill his duties as long as he had the people's trust.
Another influential member of the ruling party, Serhiy Tyhipko, said both Yanukovych and opposition leaders had "completely lost control of the situation."
"Their inaction is leading to the strengthening of opposition and human victims," the Interfax news agency reported.
The parliament building was evacuated Thursday because of fears protesters were preparing to storm it. The government office and the Foreign Ministry buildings were also evacuated.
As the violence exploded and heavy smoke from burning barricades at the encampment belched into the sky, the foreign ministers of three European countries -- France, Germany and Poland -- met with Yanukovych after speaking with the opposition leaders.
Later Thursday in Brussels, the 28-nation European Union was scheduled to hold an emergency meeting on Ukraine to consider sanctions against those behind the violence.
The latest bout of street violence began Tuesday when protesters attacked police lines and set fires outside parliament, accusing Yanukovych of ignoring their demands to enact constitutional reforms that would once again limit the president's power -- a key opposition demand. Parliament, dominated by his supporters, was stalling on taking up a constitutional reform.
In a statement early Thursday, the Ukrainian Health Ministry said 28 people have died and 287 have been hospitalized during the two days of street violence. Protesters who have set up a medical facility in a downtown cathedral so that wounded colleagues would not be snatched away by police say the number of injured are significantly higher -- possibly double or triple that.
The Interior Ministry on Thursday said the gunfire against officers appeared to be coming from the national music conservatory in Kiev.
At the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Ukrainian alpine skier Bogdana Matsotska, 24, said she will not take part in Friday's women's slalom to protest developments in Kiev.
"As a protest against lawless actions made toward protesters, the lack of responsibility from the side of the president and his lackey government, we refuse further performance at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games," her father and coach, Oleg Matsotskyy, wrote in a Facebook post.
The clashes this week have been the most deadly since protests kicked off three months ago after Yanukovych shelved an association agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. Russia then announced a $15 billion bailout for Ukraine, whose economy is in tatters.
The political jockeying for influence in Ukraine has continued.
President Barack Obama stepped in to condemn the violence, warning Wednesday "there will be consequences" for Ukraine if it keeps up. The U.S. has raised the prospect of joining with the EU to impose sanctions against Ukraine.
Russia's Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, described the violence as an attempted coup and even used the phrase "brown revolution," an allusion to the Nazi rise to power in Germany in 1933.
On Thursday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Russia will "try to do our best" to fulfill its financial obligations to Ukraine, but indicated Moscow would hold back on further installments of its bailout money until the crisis is resolved.
"We need that the partners are in good shape and that the Ukrainian government is legitimate and effective, that this government is not used like a rag for wiping off feet," he said.
Maria Danilova, Jim Heintz and Yury Uvarov in Kiev contributed to this report