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April 23, 2014

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Ukraine’s feared Berkut riot force disbanded

Updated Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 | 10:15 a.m.

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine's Berkut riot police were tough guys, recruited from among former paratroops and marines, originally to bolster street cops in the fight against organized crime.

But Ukraine's post-Soviet leaders couldn't resist using them against demonstrators as well.

The Berkut — or Golden Eagle — hammered demonstrators seeking the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, provoking revulsion at home and abroad. The new government ordered the units disbanded Thursday.

Here is a look at a feared security force:

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WHO THEY WERE:

The Berkut's basic mission was to provide extra firepower for regular police, for instance when raiding the hideout of an organized crime figure. In that, they were similar to so-called SWAT teams in the United States. Their equipment could include riot gear, military-style rifles, body armor, helmets and even machine guns. They also policed public events such as sporting matches and sometimes simply supplemented regular police patrols.

Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor who has written about security forces in the former Soviet Union, says the Berkut is a rebadged version of the Soviet era riot police, called OMON, meaning special purpose police detachment.

Members were often people who did their required military service in more physically demanding units such as paratroops and marines, and often had athletic backgrounds.

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VIOLENT TACTICS:

The Berkut were deployed against protesters who gathered on Independence Square in central Kiev after Yanukovych backed out of signing a trade and political agreement that would have brought Ukraine closer to the European Union.

On Nov. 30, Berkut officers stormed a small protest rally on the square in the middle of the night, cracking activists' heads and disfiguring faces with their truncheons, even though the protesters did not resist and most tried to flee.

The crackdown re-energized the protest, helping to turn it into a broader political movement for greater human rights and against police violence and corruption.

Berkut officers targeted journalists and volunteer medics, prompting an international outcry. They were caught on tape punching and humiliating a protester, who had been stripped naked and forced to stand on the snow in freezing temperatures.

After those events, disbanding the force became a central demand of the protests.

On Thursday, dozens of demonstrators were killed by police. Yanukovych fled Kiev the next day and some of his supporters joined a vote in parliament to remove him.

On Tuesday, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said he ordered the Berkut dismissed because the units "have completely discredited themselves before the people of Ukraine."

Galeotti said police attitudes toward the demonstrators may have worsened as they were kept on the front lines for weeks.

"After the first Molotov cocktail explodes on your friend," he said, "it's more about revenge."

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STRATEGY BACKFIRES:

Valery Kur, a top police investigator in Kiev during the Soviet era and now a law enforcement and security adviser, said the Berkut's predecessor units were formed to provide armed backup to investigators as organized crime flourished in the late 1980s. He criticized their use in politically charged situations: "The politicians began to use them for their own ends."

Galeotti said the Yanukovych government in the end used the Berkut ineffectively, pressing the demonstrators at times but then backing off. They were deployed "enough to radicalize the opposition but not enough to crush it," he said.

Had the government decided to go all out and clear the demonstrators from the square in the first week, Galeotti said, "they probably would have won."