KIEV, Ukraine -- Violent protests in central Kiev escalated early Wednesday, leaving at least two demonstrators dead, authorities said. Opposition and some media reports said at least four people were killed.
With international concern rising, three opposition leaders met for about three hours with President Viktor Yanukovich at his Kiev residence, but they reported only limited progress toward resolving the demands of the demonstrators.
Though police acknowledged two deaths -- and denied using live ammunition against demonstrators -- opposition medical chief Oleg Musiy said at least four protesters had died of gunshot wounds. Two of them died during an attack on an office used by the opposition, he said.
“We were trying to rescue two persons seriously injured in the clashes when the police attacked our emergency office with smoke and noise grenades, and they died,” Musiy said in an interview. “Soon after that we had to evacuate our personnel and the other wounded from the site.”
One of the dead was identified as ethnic Armenian activist Sergei Nigoyan, 20, who was found on central Kiev's Grushevsky Street with gunshot wounds to the head and neck, the daily Ukrainskaya Pravda reported.
One protester was earlier reported dead after falling 40 feet from the top of gates around the Lobanovsky soccer stadium, overlooking Grushevsky Street, the site of the latest clashes, which began Sunday. Kiev health authorities later said that the man had survived the fall.
The U.S. Embassy in Kiev said it was revoking the visas of unidentified Ukrainian officials who were involved in the violence. Local media reports identified Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko as among the targeted officials.
The European Union also strongly denounced the bloodshed.
The Ukrainian protests began in late November after Yanukovich shelved plans to strike a trade deal with the European Union, apparently fearing a backlash from Russia. He later announced a $15-billion loan deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Pro-Western demonstrators initially demanded that the deal with the EU be signed, but later began demanding new elections. The demonstrations had largely been peaceful in recent weeks but erupted in violence Sunday in reaction to new security laws signed by Yanukovich that effectively outlawed the protests.
Opposition leaders had been demanding a meeting with Yanukovich since then and he agreed Wednesday.
About 8 p.m., former world heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko, a leading opposition figure, emerged from the meeting with Yanukovich and told an estimated 30,000 people gathered in Kiev's Independence Square that the president had refused to agree to early presidential and parliamentary elections.
However, he said, Yanukovich said he was open to considering the resignation of his prime minister and Cabinet and the cancellation of recently adopted anti-protest laws. But, Klitschko added, the president said those measures had to be approved by parliament, which is controlled by the ruling party.
With snow falling from a dark sky, the 6-foot-7 Klitschko stood hatless on a platform as he spoke to the demonstrators. Surprisingly, he spoke in Russian, not Ukrainian. Particularly in western Ukraine, Russian is shunned as a language of occupation.
"I am addressing the president, who, I know, at this very second is watching this broadcast: You, president, have a possibility to resolve this with early elections, which will change the situation without bloodshed," Klitschko said. "Hear the people, don't ignore them but resolve this situation. If you don't hear the people, they will do their best to make themselves heard."
As he spoke, fires raged on Grushevsky Street, where thousands of protesters have clashed with riot police. The protesters have been throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, as well as burning tires; police have fought back with truncheons, tear gas, concussion grenades and guns -- ostensibly using only rubber bullets.
The fires provided a screen that separated police from demonstrators, with heavy black smoke obstructing the view of police snipers.
Early Wednesday morning, riot police had attempted to retake part of the street, capturing a line of burned police buses held by the rioters as their front-line position.
The Interior Ministry justified the attack as necessary to capture stocks of a combustible liquid 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 ministry's website. “To prevent the crime, police officers pushed the protesters away and seized the canisters.”
After the quick operation, police retreated, firing at pursuing protesters with rubber bullets.
Shortly after noon Wednesday, riot police used an armored vehicle to attack protesters' barricades for a second time, dispersing crowds and removing the wreckage of several buses. It was then that protesters began making fires with tires.
Police were investigating the circumstances of Nigoyan's death and the type of bullets found in his body, the Interior Ministry said.
Nigoyan, a resident of the Dnepropetrovsk region in eastern Ukraine, joined the protests in early December and hadn't left Kiev since, Ukrainskaya Pravda reported.
Freelance journalist Krystina Berdinskikh told The Times that earlier in January she had interviewed Nigoyan, then living out of a tent in Independence Square.
" 'Sometimes I think that we are not achieving any changes,' " she recalled him saying at the time. "But if there is danger, I will be in the first rows."
Ukraine's prime minister, Mykola Azarov, whose resignation has been a key demand of the opposition from the start of the protests, likened the demonstrators to terrorists.
“Protesters who were balancing on the edge of peaceful protest have stepped over the edge, as well as the edge of Christian moral principles," he said.
“These are criminals who must be held to account for their actions,” Azarov said in opening remarks to 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 at least two protesters from gunshot wounds.
However, he warned, “The president and the government will not allow any anarchy in the country.”
Yanukovich expressed condolences to the victims' families and called on protesters to end the violence.
"I am against bloodshed, against use of force, against inciting animosity and violence," Yanukovich said in a statement posted on the presidential website. "It is not too late to stop and resolve the conflict by peaceful means."
In a separate development, well-known activist Igor Lutsenko, who was reported missing Tuesday, reemerged in Kiev on Wednesday with serious injuries,the independent UNIAN news agency reported. Lutsenko said he had been kidnapped Tuesday, held overnight at an unknown location, interrogated, beaten and then dumped in a forest outside the city.
Early Wednesday afternoon, canceled school and let all pupils go home. They also ordered government and municipal offices to close early. Downtown supermarkets, offices and small shops closed early as well.
The opposition leadership asked women and children to leave the square as men began to get ready for a rumored nighttime attack by riot police.
Klitschko was among those saying he expected an overnight attack by police. “We must do everything to prevent this sweep,” he said. “And tomorrow if the president doesn't meet [our demands], we will concentrate and swell our numbers and we will go on the offensive. There is no other way out.”
The crowd, many wearing helmets and brandishing homemade shields and wooden sticks, responded with a roar.
Special correspondent Butenko reported from Kiev and Times staff writer Loiko from Moscow.