KIEV, Ukraine — Security forces fired on masses of antigovernment 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 up to 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 progovernment party they 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.
Both the United States and the EU, 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.
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.
Some said later that the officers were taken to a hotel and released.