KIEV, Ukraine — Security forces fired on masses of anti-government demonstrators in Kiev on Thursday in a drastic escalation of the 3-month-old crisis that left dozens dead and Ukraine reeling from the most lethal day of violence since Soviet times.
The shootings followed a quickly shattered truce, with protesters parading dozens of captured police officers through Kiev’s central square. Despite a frenzy of East-West diplomacy and negotiations, there was little sign that tensions were easing.
President Viktor Yanukovych lost at least a dozen political allies including the mayor of the capital, who resigned from his governing Party of Regions to protest the bloodshed. Yanukovych conferred with three foreign ministers from the European Union who had come to press for a compromise solution, practically within sight of the main conflict zone in downtown Kiev.
The sights of bullet-riddled bodies slumped amid smoldering debris, some of them shot in the head, and screaming medics carrying the dead and wounded to emergency clinics, including one in a hotel lobby, shocked the country and the world. The opposition said at least 70 and as many as 100 people had been killed, while municipal authorities put the day’s death toll at 39.
There were signs late Thursday that Yanukovych might be moving closer to compromise, apparently expressing willingness to hold presidential and parliamentary elections this year, as the opposition has demanded. But given the hostility and mistrust on both sides, aggravated by the mayhem that has engulfed central Kiev, the prospects of any agreement seemed remote — particularly now that many of the president’s adversaries say they will settle for nothing less than his resignation.
About the only thing that was clear by late Thursday was that protesters had reclaimed and even expanded territory in the center of Kiev that they had lost just two days earlier when the police began a bloody but unsuccessful assault on Independence Square, which has been the focal point of protests since late November. And the widespread use of firearms in the center of the city was a new and ominous element for the protest movement.
Earlier Thursday, there had been rumors that Yanukovych, his police ranks stretched thin, might declare a state of emergency, a move that could herald the deployment of the military to help quell the crisis in the former Soviet republic of 46 million.
But his authority to do so was unclear. Opposition leaders convened a session of Parliament late Thursday and together with defectors from the pro-government party passed a resolution obliging Interior Ministry troops to return to their barracks and the police to their usual posts, and prohibiting the use of firearms against protesters. It also asserted that only lawmakers, rather than the president, could declare a state of emergency. Perhaps more than these assertions, the vote was significant for signaling Yanukovych had lost control of a majority in Parliament after the defections from his party.
Both the United States and the European Union, which made good on pledges to slap punitive sanctions on Ukrainian officials deemed to be responsible for the deadly escalation, warned Yanukovych to avoid declaring a state of emergency, which could take the country deeper into civil conflict. But short of calling in troops it looked unlikely that Yanukovych could restore his battered authority and regain control of the capital.
As the protesters, reinforced by swarms of ordinary residents, erected barricades around their extended protest zone, a woman mounted a stage to appeal for help from foreign governments to prevent the president from declaring a state of emergency.
“A state of emergency means the beginning of war,” she said. “We cannot let that happen.”
In the center of Kiev, however, war had basically broken out, with the police having been authorized to use live ammunition. Just after dawn, young men in ski masks opened a breach in the police barricade near the stage on Independence Square, ran across a hundred yards of smoldering debris from what had been called a protective ring of fire and confronted riot police officers who were firing at them with shotguns. Snipers also opened fire, but it was unclear which side they were on.
Sviatoslav Khanenko, a lawmaker and a head of the medical service of the National Resistance Headquarters, said by telephone that about 70 people had been killed and more than 1,000 wounded. Some news reports said 100 people had been killed.
These reports could not be corroborated. But even at the lower casualty numbers reported by Kiev’s municipal health authorities, Thursday was the most lethal day in Ukraine since independence from the former Soviet Union more than 22 years ago.
By noon, 11 corpses had been laid out in a makeshift outdoor morgue under a Coca-Cola umbrella at the end of Independence Square. Other bodies were taken elsewhere.
The demonstrators captured more than 60 officers, who were marched, dazed and bloodied, toward the center of the square through a crowd of men who heckled and shoved them. A Ukrainian Orthodox priest accompanied the officers, pleading with their captors not to hurt them.
“People are very angry, but we must not act like Yanukovych does,” said the priest, Nikolai Givailo.
Others said later that the officers were taken to a hotel and released. But the mere act of parading police officers through the streets signaled a new level of defiance and rage by the Kiev protesters.
With Yanukovych’s allies in Parliament still resisting changes to the Ukrainian Constitution demanded by the opposition that would reduce the powers of the president, there were intense talks underway in Kiev in hopes of ending the violence.
The foreign ministers of Germany, Poland and France met with Yanukovych for more than four hours Thursday, and then announced that they would stay in Kiev overnight to continue their discussions.
“Ahead of us is a night of heavy negotiations,” Marcin Wojciechowski, a spokesman for the Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, wrote on Twitter.
After the initial round of meetings, the Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, said at a news conference in Warsaw that there were some indications that Yanukovych would be willing to schedule earlier parliamentary and presidential elections, something he had previously resisted. The presidential elections are scheduled for March 2015.
But Vitali Klitschko, a Ukrainian opposition leader, expressed deep skepticism after his subsequent meeting with the European Union emissaries in Kiev. He was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying there was “no deal yet.”
With demonstrators surging toward and then past police lines, what had been a narrowly circumscribed protest area ringed by police officers expanded rapidly and, amid a continual racket of gunshots, reached up a hill overlooking the square to the edge of the main government district of the capital.
The fighting left bodies lined up on a sidewalk and makeshift clinics crammed with the wounded, as sirens and gunfire rang through the center of the city.
“There will be many dead today,” Anatoly Volk, 38, one of the demonstrators, said as he watched stretchers carrying victims down a stairway slick with mud near the Hotel Ukraina.
Volk said the protesters had decided to try to retake the square because they believed the truce announced around midnight Wednesday had been a ruse. The men in ski masks who led the push, he said, believed it was a stalling maneuver by Yanukovych to buy time to deploy troops in the capital because the authorities decided the civilian police had insufficient forces to clear the square.
“A truce means real negotiations,” Volk said. “They are just delaying to make time to bring in more troops. They didn’t have the forces to storm us last night. So we are expanding our barricades to where they were before. We are restoring what we had.”
Supporters of the opposition this week overran an Interior Ministry garrison near Lviv, in western Ukraine, and captured its armory; it was unclear whether any of the commandeered weapons were being used Thursday in the fighting in the capital.
The part of the square back under the control of the protesters after the fighting Thursday was an otherworldly panorama of soot-smeared paving stones, debris and coils of smoldering wire from burned tires.
From the stage on the square, a speaker yelled “Glory to Ukraine!” and the crowd yelled back “Glory to its heroes!” That echoed the slogans of the World War II-era Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, guerrilla armies that battled the Nazis, Poles and Soviets in an ultimately futile quest for an independent Ukraine.
The protests began in November when Yanukovych rejected a trade and economic agreement with the European Union and turned instead to Russia for financial aid.