(for the latest updates on the current conflict in Ukraine, click here or scroll to the bottom of this post. A livestream of Independence Square, from Espreso TV, is below)
Original post: The death toll from the bloodiest day so far of Ukraine's months-long anti government protests now stands at 25 people, including nine police officers. Hundreds more on both sides of the confrontation were in the hospital on Wednesday. And although a livestream of the scene shows that last night's fires in Kiev's Independence Square have more or less died down, that image doesn't stand as a metaphor for the still-raging tensions between the pro-European opposition and Ukraine's Moscow-friendly government.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich threatened to take a harder line against the protesters in Independence Square (and, presumably, the politicians and leaders who support their demands) unless they back down. In a statement translated by Reuters, Yanukovich said that the opposition was acting "without any mandate from the people," and "[had] resorted to pogroms, arson and murder to try and seize power." He also accused the opposition of aligning itself with "radicals." Here's more of his statement, this time from the Guardian:
"I again call on the leaders of the opposition … to draw a boundary between themselves and radical forces which are provoking bloodshed and clashes with the security services. If they don't want to leave [the square], they should acknowledge that they are supporting radicals. Then the conversation with them will already be of a different kind."
Meanwhile, The Guardian adds, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko walked out of a meeting with Yanukovich on Tuesday night after he said that the president told him that the riot police assaults on the opposition camp wouldn't stop until protesters abandoned Independence Square entirely.
A few things happened in recent days to spark yesterday's deadly confrontations, after months of protests against Yanukovich's decision to take a financial loan from Russia over a trade deal with the European Union. Over the weekend, protesters took the first steps to honor a very shaky compromise deal between the opposition and Yanukovich's government: they vacated City Hall, a building occupied for months by protesters. In exchange, the Ukrainian government promised to close criminal cases against thousands of protesters. But even as the building cleared of opposition protesters, both sides were nervous that the other wouldn't honor their promises. Russia's announcement on Monday that it would provide the Ukraine with another cash infusion did little to help the fears of pro-European opposition groups in the country.
For the protesters, the Ukrainian Parliament's slow movement on a measure that would limit Yanukovich's presidential powers was another sign that things wouldn't go as planned. Tens of thousands of protesters marched from Independence Square to the nearby Parliament building to show their support for the measure, reportedly leading to one of the first rounds of deadly clashes between protesters and the riot police dispatched to stop them in their tracks. Later on Tuesday, police forces attempted to clear Independence Square entirely, leading to another round of bloody confrontations. Although riot police were able to surround the camp and take back some ground, they failed to clear out the center of the protester's makeshift headquarters, thanks in part to the protester-built "protective ring of fire" around the core of the camp. As of Wednesday, Independence Square is still controlled by opposition groups, who continue to hold the line separating them from police.
The soft balance between police and protester death show Ukraine is not a massacre, but a battle.— joshuafoust (@joshuafoust) February 19, 2014
The EU said on Wednesday that it is weighing sanctions against those responsible for the bloodshed. Meanwhile, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay released a statement on Wednesday condemning the violence, without assigning blame for the use of force in Kiev: "I strongly condemn the killings and urge the Government and protesters to act to defuse tensions and to take swift action to find a peaceful solution to the ongoing crisis,” she said, adding, “I also call for an urgent and independent investigation to establish facts and responsibilities, including the possible use of excessive force, and to ensure accountability for these deadly clashes." As Jake Tapper reported on Wednesday, the U.S. and a number of allies are apparently coordinating their own response to the crisis, which might involve a threat of sanctions. But for now the world waits to see what will happen as the day drags on and night descends.
Update: On Wednesday, Ukraine's president replaced the country's head of the army. The government gave no official reason for the change, although it's plausible to guess it has some connection to the increasingly violent crackdown on protesters in Kiev. Here's one speculation on why:
Ukraine president Yanukovych just fired his army chief. The big question is why. If it was for failing to accept crackdown orders: bad. Bad.— Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) February 19, 2014
The new head of the army is Yuriy Ilyin, who formerly ran Ukraine's navy. Earlier on Wednesday, Ukraine's security agency chief announced that his agency was undertaking an "anti-terrorist" operation in the wake of conflict between riot police and opposition protesters in the country. That announcement included a suggestion that the armed forces would get involved in the operation.
Update 2: President Obama briefly addressed the Ukraine conflicts in brief remarks to reporters on Wednesday:
The U.S. condemns the violence in Ukraine in the strongest possible terms: Obama— Reuters World (@ReutersWorld) February 19, 2014
Ukraine military should not step into a situation that should be resolved by civilians: President Obama— Reuters World (@ReutersWorld) February 19, 2014
At least one journalist has been killed in the violence so far, Reporters Without Borders reported. Vyacheslav Veremyi, working for Ukrainian paper Vesti, who was "dragged out of his taxi by unknown assailants in the city centre," the advocacy group wrote. They added: "the journalist was violently beaten up, and according to witness accounts, he was shot in the stomach after he showed his press card."
Update 3: President Viktor Yanukovych announced on Wednesday evening that he'd agreed to a "truce" with opposition leaders. The announcement was posted to the government's website. Few other details on the truce were immediately available. It's also not clear that the announcement has changed anything on the ground at the moment. Richard Engel of NBC News reports that "We don't see any sign of a compromise."
Following a deadly Tuesday in Kiev, anti-government protests spread nationwide on Wednesday, particularly in the western part of the country.