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At least 25 killed in Ukraine as president alleges coup attempt

KIEV, Ukraine -- As the death toll in Kiev's violent political confrontation rose dramatically to at least 25 Wednesday,  embattled Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich laid blame for the violence on protest leaders and threatened a tough response.

Pointing to continued clashes in Kiev's Independence Square Wednesday morning, Yanukovich accused the opposition of a coup attempt.

“Without any mandate from the people, acting illegally and violating the constitution of Ukraine, these, so to say, politicians tried to seize power by resorting to pogroms, arsons and murders,” Yanukovich said in a televised speech. “They crossed the line when they called upon the people to take up arms. This is a flagrant violation of law.”

Yanukovich called on the leaders of the opposition to immediately dissociate themselves from the radical forces. “In case they don't want to go, they must admit that they support the radicals,” he said. “In this case, we will deal with them in a different way.”

The speech came in the wake of Yanukovich's meeting with opposition leaders Wednesday.

Meanwhile, several thousand riot police were still trying to storm the burning barricades of the protesters' tent camp in Independence Square on Wednesday morning. Police shot tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at the protesters, who responded by hurling cobblestones and Molotov cocktails at officers. Police also used powerful water cannons, aiming them at protesters on top of barricades. Each side accused the other of using live ammunition.

"Given the character of wounds on the slain civilians and also the types of weapons which were seized [from protesters], we can suggest that this bodily damage could have been caused by aggressively inclined protesters themselves," said a statement published Wednesday on the official website of Ukraine's Interior Ministry.

Opposition leaders showed their frustration after meeting with Yankovich.

"In my opinion, the government must immediately withdraw troops and put an end to the bloody conflict because people are dying,” protest leader and former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko said in a statement published on his UDAR party's website. “How can we hold talks while blood is being shed? Unfortunately [Yanukovich] has no understanding of the situation.”

By Wednesday morning, hospitals and clinics in Ukraine's capital were filled with several hundred injured from both sides.

City authorities said 25 people were dead and 341 injured. Police said the death toll included nine of their own. About 300 police officers were injured, 74 of them with gunshot wounds, authorities said.

The daily newspaper Vesti reported that correspondent Vyacheslav Veremiy was among the dead. Gunmen stopped a taxi in which Veremiy and another journalist were riding, dragged him out of the car and shot him point blank, the paper reported. The other journalist and the taxi driver were badly beaten, the report said.

Black smoke from large fires rose high Wednesday afternoon above Independence Square, where about 10,000 protesters equipped with shields, wooden clubs and helmets continued to defend the square from thousands of police. Stun grenades exploded like fireworks overhead. Groups of protesters were busy breaking cobblestones from the square surface to use as weapons. Some assembled crates with bottles for Molotov cocktails.

“If police use firearms against us the way they did overnight, we will respond in kind,” Vasil Dzyuba, a 43-year-old veterinarian from Lviv, his face blackened with soot, told The Times. “We will start shooting back too.”

The recent clashes, which have been the most violent and lethal in the entire 3-month-old confrontation in central Kiev, began after protesters tried to storm the parliament building and broke into and burned down the ruling party's headquarters.

"President Yanukovich was ready for such a dramatic development as if he was luring the radical opposition into a trap," said Vadim Karasyov, director of the Institute of Global Strategies, a Kiev-based think tank. “The rash of actions of the opposition appeared to have untied the regime's hands for a tough use of force.”

Yanukovich tried to take advantage of the situation and crash the resistance camp in central Kiev overnight, but he also demonstrated that he doesn't have enough forces to do so, Karasyov said.

“Now we are in for a prolonged violent confrontation unless Yanukovich makes more concessions and calls early elections of both parliament and president,” he said.

During a lull in the fighting Wednesday, a heavy truck arrived on the scene and dragged away an armored personnel carrier burned by protesters overnight. Armor-clad riot police sitting on sidewalks and leaning on house walls eating sandwiches shook their heads with blackened faces under goggles. “Is that all we have?” one of the officers said pensively, before closing his eyes again.

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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