KIEV, Ukraine -- In the wake of violence that claimed 25 lives and left hundreds injured, the Ukrainian government declared Wednesday that it was launching "an anti-terrorist operation" that some feared would escalate its conflict with pro-Western demonstrators.
“What is happening today is a conscious use of violence by way of arson, murder, hostage-taking and intimidation ... for the sake of pursuing criminal goals,” the country's security agency chief, Alexander Yakimenko, said in a statement published on the agency's website. “All of that with the use of firearms. These are not just signs of terrorism but concrete terrorist acts.
“By their actions, radical and extremist groups bear a real threat to lives of millions of Ukrainians,” his statement said.
Yakimenko's statement followed two days of the worst violence the country has seen during several months of political conflict over President Viktor Yanukovich's decision to align Ukraine economically with Russia, not the European Union.
Hours after Yakimenko issued his warning, the Associated Press reported that Yanukovich had fired the head of Ukraine's armed forces.
[Updated, 10:58 a.m. PST Feb. 19: The UNIAN news agency said the armed forces chief, Vladimir Zamanu, had been replaced by Yuri Ilyin.
One analyst said the move may have been prompted by Zamanu's reluctance to use the army against civilian demonstrators.
“The sudden switch can be explained by Yanukovich's desire to use the army in combating the growing protests,” Vadim Karasyov, head of the Institute of Global Strategies, a Kiev-based think tank, said in an interview. “Zamanu has recently hesitated to express readiness to get involved in helping to defuse the political crisis.”]
As dusk set over Independence Square in central Kiev, several thousand protesters armed with sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails faced hundreds of police armed with teargas and stun grenades, water cannons and shotguns firing rubber bullets.
An eerie fog descended on the square, where several thousand protesters were praying together. At a square nearby, police buses arrived, disgorging new units of riot police and interior troops, who joined government forces positioned near Independence Square.
The opposition leadership said it expected authorities to launch a sweep of the square.
Firefighters continued efforts to extinguish a blaze consuming the Trade Unions building, which had served as the opposition headquarters until it caught fire during clashes Tuesday night.
Police and the opposition blamed each other for the fire.
Vitali Klitschko, opposition leader and former world heavyweight boxing champion, said he held Yanukovich responsible for the bloodshed and demanded his resignation--a demand that the opposition has been making for months.
“Yanukovich must go and the sooner it happens the less blood will be shed,” Klitschko said in televised remarks. “Yanukovich is solely responsible for the armed terror against peaceful citizens and only he can stop it today.”
The Ukraine Security Service statement about terrorists came on the heels of Yanukovich's speech earlier in the day in which he laid responsibility for the violence and casualties on the opposition, which he accused of a coup attempt.
At least one political analyst called the security agency declaration disturbing and potentially dangerous.
“The declaration of an anti-terrorist operation differs from the imposition of a state of emergency only inasmuch as it doesn't need to be declared by the president and doesn't need to be approved by parliament,” Kost Bondarenko, director of Ukrainian Policy Institute, a Kiev-based think tank, said in an interview. “In fact, it opens up the possibility of the police using firearms and for the state to use the army against insurgents and terrorists."
Radical opposition activists, especially in western regions of Ukraine, have taken actions in recent days that could be deemed terrorism, Bondarenko noted, such as attacking military units and capturing a weapons storehouse in the Ivano-Frankivsk region, and taking the family of a governor hostage in the town of Lutsk.
Riot police, who have been locked in a tense standoff with the opposition in central Kiev since November, seemed to welcome the security agency's promised tough measures.
“We are sick and tired of standing here day and night without a proper idea what we should do and how,” said a police lieutenant colonel who was leading a anti-riot unit near the opposition base in Independence Square. “All we need is a concrete order to sweep this camp away and we will do it in no time. We will be even better off if allowed to use firearms. That will teach them a lesson they will never forget.”
He declined to give his name, citing security reasons.
Moscow indicated Wednesday that it was ready to back any resolute action on the part of Ukraine's leadership.
“The blame [for the crisis] unconditionally lies with extremists who all these weeks and months have been trying to push Ukraine to a use-of-force scenario,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday. “ A serious measure of responsibility lies with the opposition leaders who rejected compromise."
Lavrov also criticized Western countries, "which in many ways have tried to interfere and encourage the opposition to act outside law.”