KIEV — After two protesters were shot to death during clashes with police Wednesday, the first fatalities in Ukraine’s two-month civil uprising, President Viktor Yanukovych met with opposition leaders as efforts to defuse the crisis took on new urgency.
Even as Yanukovych met with three Parliament leaders at the presidential headquarters, the violent standoff between demonstrators and the authorities continued, edging Kiev toward a state of emergency.
Businesses and schools near the conflict zone were told to close, and riot police brought in at least one armored personnel carrier and permitted the use of water cannons even in freezing temperatures.
Fires continued to burn near Dynamo Stadium, where the main clashes have occurred in recent days, and where protesters have turned the charred carcasses of police buses into barricades.
In Independence Square, which demonstrators have occupied since Dec. 1, thousands of protesters reinforced barricades in anticipation of a mobilization by the authorities to clear the area.
The circumstances of the two shooting deaths remained murky, with protesters saying the men had been killed by police.
Authorities confirmed that two young men had died of gunshot wounds, and said the deaths were under investigation. The local news media reported that a third man died after apparently falling from an archway that protesters had climbed to hurl stones and firebombs at police.
The worsening violence came as Ukraine observed Unity Day, a commemoration of the unification of the eastern and western parts of the country in 1919 that is normally an occasion of national pride.
Yanukovych, who has often seemed aloof and remote during the political crisis, quickly issued a statement lamenting the deaths, though he placed the blame on the opposition.
“I express my deep regret over the loss of lives in the conflict triggered by political extremists,” he said in a statement released by his office. “My sincere condolences to the bereaved families.”
Yanukovych also called for an end to the violence. “Once again, I ask people to resist the calls of political radicals,” he said.
“It is still not too late to stop and resolve the conflict peacefully. I ask people to return to their homes. We must restore peace, tranquility, and stability in Ukraine.”
Opponents of the government said three recent actions had been intended to incite the more radical protesters and sow doubt in the minds of moderates.
They were the passing of laws last week restricting public assembly; the blocking of a protest march past Parliament on Sunday; and the sending of cellphone messages on Tuesday to people standing in the vicinity of the fighting that said, “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”
With the situation increasingly ominous, it was unclear how much sway even the opposition leaders meeting with Yanukovych could exert over the demonstrators on the street.