KIEV: Ukraine’s interim authorities accused the country’s ousted president of ordering snipers to open fire on protesters and getting help from Russian security agents to battle his own people – but their report Thursday provided no evidence directly linking him to the bloodbath in Kiev.
Acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov also accused his predecessor of using gangs of killers, kidnappers and thugs to terrorize and undermine the opposition during Ukraine’s tumultuous winter of discontent.
The preliminary findings revealed by the new leadership examined the months of anti-government protests that culminated in the deaths in February over 100 people in Kiev, mostly protesters. That violence forced a truce between the opposition and the government, but that arrangement quickly collapsed, and President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia.
In the weeks since the bloodshed, Russia seized and then formally annexed Crimea, Ukraine’s strategic Black Sea peninsula, and the U.S. and the European Union slapped sanctions on those responsible, mainly Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
Speaking at a televised news conference in Kiev, Avakov accused Yanukovych’s government of ordering snipers to shoot at protesters from rooftops near the city’s central square, known as the Maidan. He said 17 people were killed from one location and one government sniper alone killed as many as eight people.
Ukrainian Security Service chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko charged that Yanukovych himself had ordered the killings.
“What was planned under the guise of an anti-terrorist operation, and which was in fact an operation of mass killing of people, took place under the immediate and direct leadership of former President Yanukovych,” Nalyvaichenko said.
Nalyvaichenko did not elaborate on how he knew this information, whether it was from witnesses, government documents, airline records or other sources.
Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnitsky said 12 members of an elite riot police unit named “Black Squadron” have been detained on suspicion of shooting protesters.
Nalyvaichenko also said there was evidence that Russia’s FSB security service assisted its Ukrainian counterparts’ attempts to suppress the anti-government protests.
Nalyvaichenko contended that in late January, when peaceful protests turned into bloody street clashes with police, Russia sent planes to Kiev carrying massive amounts of explosive devices, arms and crowd control devices “to organize executions and the extermination of our protesters on the Maidan.”
Russia’s FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, swiftly dismissed the claims, telling the state news agency RIA Novosti that the allegations should “rest on the conscience of the Ukrainian Security Service.”
The identity of the snipers responsible for most of the deaths is the subject of bitter disagreement.
The interim government says Yanukovych ordered snipers to be deployed and to fire at protesters – a charge that Yanukovych denied in an AP interview Wednesday in Russia.
Opponents of Kiev’s current leadership, meanwhile, say some snipers were also organized by opposition leaders trying to whip up outrage.
The new health minister, Oleh Musiy, who previously served as the protesters’ top medic, has said he treated both protesters and riot police with similar types of sniper wounds.
The speakers at Thursday’s presentation skirted a question on whether any snipers were also shooting at police.
Avakov said establishing who was responsible for the deaths of law enforcement officers would be part of the broad investigation that is still ongoing.
Avakov also detailed what he described as overwhelming evidence linking former Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko, who was in charge of police during the protests, to a person coordinating hired thugs that perpetrated a campaign of beatings and intimidation against opposition activists.
Avakov said another underworld figure operating under Yanukovych’s and Zakharchenko’s patronage ran a group of 10 people carrying out beatings and kidnappings of protest organizers, including the kidnapping of a prominent activist and his colleague. The latter was killed in the attack.