KIEV, Ukraine -- The violent protests in downtown Kiev raging since the weekend escalated on Wednesday, leaving at least three protesters dead, according to authorities and local news reports.
Protest activist Sergei Nigoyan, 20, died Wednesday morning of gunshot wounds to the head and neck, the daily Ukrainskaya Pravda reported.
Another protester died during the night after falling 40 feet from the top of gates around Lobanvsky Stadium, a soccer venue overlooking Grushevsky Street in downtown Kiev, the site of the clashes that began Sunday, the UNIAN news organization reported. Kiev health authorities reported a third man died from a gunshot wound to the chest during the violence.
The protests in Kiev began in November when President Viktor Yanukovich refrained from signing a trade and association agreement with the European Union. The demonstrations had largely been peaceful in recent weeks but erupted into violence Sunday.
Early Wednesday morning, riot police attempted to retake part of Grushevsky Street from protesters, capturing a line of burned police buses held by the rioters as their front-line position.
Ukraine's Interior Ministry justified the sudden attack as necessary to capture stocks of an unidentified combustible liquid substance allegedly prepared by the protesters.
“The police got information that protest action participants were planning to use an unknown chemical substance to cause burns to police officers,” said a statement posted Wednesday on the Interior Ministry's website. “To prevent the crime, police officers pushed the protesters away and seized the canisters.”
After the quick operation, the police force retreated, firing at pursuing protesters with rubber bullets.
Shortly after noon local time Wednesday, riot police used an armored vehicle to attack protesters' barricades for a second time, dispersing crowds and removing the remains of some burned buses.
Police were investigating the circumstances of Nigoyan's death and the type of bullets found in his body, the Interior Ministry said.
Nigoyan, an ethnic Armenian and resident of the Dnepropetrovsk region in eastern Ukraine, joined the protests in early December and hadn't left Kiev since, Ukrainskaya Pravda reported. He previously told the news outlet that he joined the protest because “this is about my future too, as I will go on living in this country.”
Ukraine's prime minister, Mykola Azarov, whose resignation has been a key demand of the opposition from the start of the protests, on Wednesday likened the demonstrators to terrorists.
“Part of the protesters who were balancing on the edge of peaceful protest have overstepped this edge, as well as the edge of Christian moral principles," Azarov said.
“These are criminals who must be held to account for their actions,” he said in opening remarks of a Cabinet session. “As premier, I responsibly state that unfortunately there are victims for which the organizers and some participants in the mass disorders should be responsible.”
Azarov said riot police were not carrying weapons with live ammunition and were therefore not responsible for the deaths of the protesters who were shot.
“The president and the government will not allow any anarchy in the country,” Azarov said.
Yanukovich expressed condolences to the three victims' families and called on protesters to end the violence.
"I am against bloodshed, against use of force, against inciting animosity and violence," the president said in a statement to The Times. "It is not too late to stop and resolve the conflict by peaceful means."
In a separate development, well-known activist Igor Lustenko, who was reported missing Tuesday, reemerged in Kiev Wednesday with serious injuries, UNIAN reported. Lutsenko said that he had been kidnapped by strangers on Tuesday, held overnight at an unknown location, interrogated, beaten up and then dumped in a forest outside the city.
Special correspondent Butenko reported from Kiev. Staff writer Loiko reported from Moscow.