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December 22, 2014

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Ukraine standoff continues amid shaky truce

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Sergei Chuzavkov / AP

Anti-government protesters protected themselves with shields during clashes with riot police in Kiev’s Independence Square, the epicenter of the country’s current unrest, Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014.

KIEV, Ukraine — Despite a truce called by Ukraine's protest leaders and the president they aim to oust, street fighting between protesters and police in the center of Kiev continued on Thursday morning, as the number of people reported dead in the conflict rose to 28.

Smoke from burning barricades surrounding the protest camp rose above the Ukrainian capital, as several thousand protesters remained on the square and hurled Molotov cocktails and rocks at lines of police, who responded with stun grenades. An Associated Press Television cameraman saw one unconscious protester being taken off the square in a stretcher, as well as numerous others with minor injuries.

In a statement published early on 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 care facility in a downtown cathedral, say the numbers are significantly higher.

The mood on the square Thursday was calmer than in the previous two days of violence, the most deadly since protests kicked off three months ago after President Viktor Yanukovych shelved an association agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. After Yanukovych shelved the agreement with the EU, Russia announced a $15 billion bailout for Ukraine, whose economy is in tatters.

The two sides are locked in a battle over the identity of this nation of 46 million, whose loyalties are divided between Russia and the West, and parts of the country are in open revolt against the central government.

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 limit the president's power — a key opposition demand. Parliament, dominated by his supporters, was stalling on taking up a constitutional reform to limit presidential powers.

Police responded by attacking the protest camp. Armed with water cannons, stun grenades and rubber bullets, police dismantled some barricades. But the protesters held their ground through the night, encircling the protest camp with new burning barricades of tires, furniture and debris.

The ongoing violence on the square Thursday indicates that more radical elements among the protesters may be unwilling to observe the truce and may not be mollified by the prospects of negotiations. Although the initial weeks of protests were determinedly peaceful, radicals helped drive an outburst of clashes with police in January in which at least three people died, and the day of violence on Tuesday may have radicalized many more.

Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, who along with two other leaders met with the president late on Wednesday to discuss a truce, said the president assured them that police would not storm the protesters' encampment on Kiev's Independence Square, according to the Interfax news agency.

A brief statement published on the president's website late on Wednesday did not give details of what terms a truce would entail or how it would be implemented. Nor did it specify how the negotiations would be conducted or give an indication of how they would be different from previous meetings of the president and the opposition leaders.

Political and diplomatic maneuvering has continued, with both Moscow and the West eager to gain influence over this former Soviet republic. Three EU foreign ministers — from Germany, France and Poland — were heading to Kiev on Thursday to speak with both sides before an emergency EU meeting in Brussels to consider sanctions against those responsible for the recent violence in Ukraine.

President Barack Obama also stepped in to condemn the violence, warning Wednesday "there will be consequences" for Ukraine if it continues. The U.S. has raised the prospect of joining with the EU to impose sanctions against Ukraine.

On a visit to Mexico, Obama said the Ukrainian military should not step into a situation that civilians should resolve and added that the U.S. holds Ukraine's government primarily responsible for dealing with peaceful protesters appropriately.

Russia's Foreign Ministry, in turn, 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. The ministry said Russia would use "all our influence to restore peace and calm."

In Kiev, Ukraine's top security agency accused protesters Wednesday of seizing hundreds of firearms from its offices and announced a nationwide anti-terrorist operation to restore order.

Demonstrators, meanwhile, forced their way into the main post office on Kiev's Independence Square, also known as the Maidan, after a nearby building they had previously occupied was burned down in fierce, fiery clashes late Tuesday with riot police. Thousands of activists armed with fire bombs and rocks had defended the square, a key symbol of the protests.

"The revolution has turned into a war with the authorities," Vasyl Oleksenko, a retired geologist from central Ukraine, said Wednesday. "We must fight this bloody, criminal leadership. We must fight for our country, our Ukraine!"

Before the truce was announced the bad blood was running so high it has fueled fears the nation could be sliding toward a messy breakup. While most people in the country's western regions resent Yanukovych, he enjoys strong support in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions, where many want strong ties with Russia.

Neither side had appeared 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.

Opposition lawmaker Oleh Lyashko warned that Yanukovych himself was in danger.

"Yanukovych, you will end like (Moammar) Gadhafi," Lyashko told thousands of angry protesters. "Either you, a parasite, will stop killing people or this fate will await you. Remember this, dictator!"

Before the truce announcement, Yanukovych had blamed the protesters for the violence and said the opposition leaders had "crossed a line when they called people to arms."

"I again call on the leaders of the opposition ... to draw a boundary between themselves and radical forces, which are provoking bloodshed and clashes with the security services," the president said in a statement. "If they don't want to leave — they should acknowledge that they are supporting radicals."

He called for a day of mourning Thursday for the dead.

In Moscow, the Kremlin said it put the next disbursement of its bailout on hold amid uncertainty over Ukraine's future and what it described as a "coup attempt."

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters that he and his counterparts from Germany and Poland would meet both sides in Ukraine ahead of the EU meeting on possible sanctions. He said he hoped the two sides "will find a way for dialogue."

Possible sanctions include travel bans and asset freezes, which could hit hard the powerful oligarchs who back Yanukovych.

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