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Ukraine’s president strains to keep grip

Antigovernment protesters used a compressed-air cannon to launch a Molotov cocktail toward police at Independence Square in Kiev on Wednesday.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Antigovernment protesters used a compressed-air cannon to launch a Molotov cocktail toward police at Independence Square in Kiev on Wednesday.

KIEV — Ukraine spiraled deeper into crisis Wednesday as the government of President Viktor Yanukovych and several thousand grimly determined protesters — along with their supporters in Russia and Europe — prepared for an extended confrontation over the fate of this fractured country of 46 million.

As measures of the turmoil, the authorities announced a nationwide operation to keep guns and power from “extremist groups” and cashiered the country’s top general, then turned around later to declare that a truce had been reached with opposition leaders.

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But it was clear that, with their bloody offensive to take back the center of Kiev stalled — and the deployment of paratroopers to help protect military bases — the Ukrainian authorities were concerned about maintaining control.

The Defense Ministry later added a further beat to a drumroll of ominous warnings a day after the capital, Kiev, erupted in a frenzy of fire and fighting that left at least 25 people dead, including nine police officers. The Health Ministry said 241 had been wounded, but Ukrainian media put the number at more than 1,000.

“Military servants of the armed forces of Ukraine might be used in antiterrorist operations on the territory of Ukraine,” the defense ministry said, raising the prospect that Yanukovych could call on the military to try to restore order — and keep himself in office.

That statement brought a quick response from President Obama and other Western leaders, who sought to defuse the crisis even as their differences with Russia hardened.

“We have been watching very carefully, and we expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters,” Obama said. “There will be consequences if people step over the line.”

Earlier Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States might join a European sanctions response to the Ukraine crisis.

President François Hollande of France, speaking at a joint news conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in Paris, said, “There are unspeakable, unacceptable, intolerable acts being carried out in Ukraine.”

“But sanctions alone are not enough,” Merkel added. “We have to get the political process going again,” including both government and opposition representatives.

It was unclear how the Ukrainian military could be legally deployed for what would be a domestic policing mission unless the authorities first declared a state of emergency, a step that Yanukovych has previously shied away from and for which the military has shown no enthusiasm. That was why the firing Wednesday of the pro-European chief of the Ukrainian general staff, Volodymyr Zaman, set off alarms in the West.

Also raising concerns was the fact that US officials have sought to contact senior Ukrainian military officials by phone and “nobody is picking up,” a senior State Department official said.

Together, the moves suggest that Yanukovych, whose resignation many protesters see as a necessary precondition for calm, will press on with a high-risk strategy rooted in his view — zealously encouraged by the Kremlin — that Ukraine confronts not a popular uprising but a foreign-backed putsch by extremists.

As the mayhem that gripped Kiev on Tuesday gave way to relative calm, the authorities on Wednesday reinforced squads of riot police. They massed at a roundabout at the end of Khreschatyk Street, the main artery leading to Independence Square. A dozen military-style dump trucks, armored cars and other vehicles waited nearby. By late evening, however, there was no sign of a new push to sweep away the thousands of protesters still singing and chanting around a stage in the square.

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