KIEV: Ukraine suffered its bloodiest day since Soviet times Thursday with a gunbattle in central Kiev as President Viktor Yanukovich faced conflicting pressures from visiting European Union ministers and his Russian paymasters.
Three hours of fierce fighting in Independence Square, which was recaptured by anti-government protesters, left the bodies of over 20 civilians strewn on the ground, a few hundred meters from where the president met the EU delegation.
The ministers, from Germany, France and Poland, shuttled through “a night of difficult negotiations” with him and the opposition, said EU officials who hoped a plan for an interim government and early elections could bring peace.
Earlier in the day, riot police were captured on video shooting from a rooftop at demonstrators in the plaza, known as the Maidan. Protesters hurled petrol bombs and paving stones to drive the security forces off a corner of the square the police had captured in battles that began two days earlier.
The Health Ministry said 75 people had been killed since Tuesday afternoon, which meant at least 47 died in Thursday’s clashes. That was by far the worst violence since Ukraine emerged from the crumbling Soviet Union 22 years ago.
The trio of EU foreign ministers met for a marathon four hours with Yanukovich and extended their stay until Friday to put a road map for a political solution to opposition leaders after colleagues in Brussels imposed some targeted sanctions and threatened more if the authorities failed to restore calm.
Vitaly Klitschko, an opposition leader, said he hoped for a deal overnight but added there was no clear result so far.
In global diplomacy at the highest level, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel who in turn discussed Ukraine with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin “stressed the critical importance of an immediate end to bloodshed, the need to take urgent measures to stabilize the situation and suppress extremist and terrorist attacks” the Kremlin said – sharing Yanukovich’s view that he faces a coup. The White House said Obama and Merkel agreed it was “critical” U.S. and EU leaders “stay in close touch in the days ahead on steps we can take to support an end to the violence and a political solution that is in the best interests of the Ukrainian people.” Earlier this month, bugged and leaked diplomatic phone calls exposed EU-U.S. disagreement on Ukraine.
The EU plan “offers a chance to bring an end to violence,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said in Warsaw, adding that Yanukovich was willing to hold rapid elections to Parliament and the presidency – something Yanukovich has so far appeared reluctant to consider, a year before his term ends.
“Progress made but important differences remain,” Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski tweeted from Kiev as demonstrators on Independence Square held a vigil after dark for fallen comrades, lit by mobile phone screens held aloft.
Medics carried bodies on stretchers through lines of protesters who chanted “Heroes, heroes” to the dead.
Though armed militants on the barricades tend to be from the far-right fringe, the opposition has broad support. But many Ukrainians also fear violence slipping out of control: “This is brother fighting brother,” said Irina, a local woman walking to Independence Square to donate syringes for blood transfusions. “We need to realize we’re all one people.”
In a sign of faltering support for Yanukovich, his hand-picked head of Kiev’s city administration quit the ruling party in protest at bloodshed in the streets. But core loyalists were still talking tough.
Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko, wearing camouflage as he made a televised statement, said police had been issued with combat weapons and would use them “in accordance with the law” to defend themselves – or to free 67 of their colleagues his ministry said were being held captive.
Demonstrators said captured police had been allowed to go.
Russia criticized European Union and U.S. actions, calling them “blackmail” that would only make matters worse. Putin dispatched an envoy to Kiev to join the mediation effort.
Raising pressure on Yanukovich to restore order if he wants another desperately needed loan, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow would not hand over cash to a leadership that let opponents walk over it “like a doormat.”
It heightened concern voiced by Tusk earlier this week that Ukraine could descend into civil war or split between the pro-European West and Russian-speaking east.