Updated: 42 reported dead in central Kiev, including protesters shot in the back. posted on February 20, 2014 at 6:09am EST
Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters
Updated — 9.50 a.m. ET:
KIEV, Ukraine — At least 42 people died in the bloodiest day of clashes here yet Thursday morning, as armed protesters shattered a truce agreed last night between Ukraine’s government and opposition by attacking police and reclaiming Kiev’s central square.
Protesters who had held out against police on Independence Square, known as the Maidan, launched an offensive at 7:30 a.m. local time, shooting at police and throwing Molotov cocktails, eyewitnesses said. Fighting then escalated dramatically over the next hour. Riot police returned fire and threw stun grenades before retreating.
Clashes spread from the square to Hrushevskogo Street, the main locus of violence Tuesday in which at least 26 died, and up Institutska Street towards a district housing many government buildings. By mid-morning, protesters had reclaimed the positions they surrendered when police descended on them on Tuesday.
Ukraine’s health ministry confirmed the deaths of seven protesters Thursday morning. The real total is expected to be far higher, based on bodies BuzzFeed saw on the square, eyewitness accounts, and pictures and video on social media. Reporters from English-language newspaper Kyiv Post had counted 42 bodies by Thursday afternoon.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had to reschedule a meeting on the crisis with the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Poland as the violence spread.
Opposition leaders blamed the violence on police. Oleh Tyahynbok, the leader of the nationalist Svoboda party, told reporters that the government had provoked the fighting to make the case for a crackdown in front of the visiting European ministers. As of Thursday afternoon, the ministers were believed to still be meeting with Yanukovych at the presidential administration.
Tyahynbok said nine activists from his party had been killed and estimated that “about 50” in total had died. “Martial law is essentially already in effect,” he said.
Most of the protesters died from shots to the heart, he said, including sniper fire. He said police had targeted medics attempting to treat injured protesters. One of them, 21-year-old Olesya Zhukovskaya, tweeted “I’m dying,” though activists gave conflicting reports Thursday afternoon about whether or not she was still alive.
Tyahynybok added that ten or so lawmakers from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions had defected to the opposition. Opposition parties called an extraordinary session of parliament for Thursday afternoon to try and find an end to the crisis. Sergei Tyhypko, an oligarch and the leader of a fraction in the Party of Regions, called earlier in the day for lawmakers to replace speaker Vladimir Rybak and appoint a new prime minister.
Kiev’s government-appointed mayor, Vladimir Makeenko, announced that he had quit the Party of Regions and said he would “take personal responsibility for the daily functions of the city of Kiev.” Makeenko ordered Kiev’s metro system, which has been closed since Tuesday, to be reopened.
Protesters retook the square and occupied several buildings not burnt out in earlier fighting to make impromptu field hospitals. Reporters with the Kyiv Post counted 15 dead at the Kozatsky Hotel on Maidan, seven at the central post office, ten at the Ukraina Hotel, and three on Khreschatyk Street.
One of the dead men BuzzFeed saw on Khreshchatyk had been shot in the back through body armor with armor-piercing bullets. Protesters took turns to pray in front of the bodies and put up a sign reading “Yanukovych, you’re a criminal.”
Protesters managed to capture at least 60 riot policemen, their faces battered and bloody. A priest led them past City Hall late Thursday morning in the direction of the energy ministry. Activists to whom BuzzFeed spoke said the men were all interior ministry conscripts, as opposed to the hated elite Berkut crowd control division, and had surrendered peacefully. They said they did not know where the riot policemen were being held.
The interior ministry said in a statement Thursday that 70 of its troops were missing.
Several protesters on the Maidan appeared to be wearing helmets, armor, and batons taken from the captured officers. Students broke bricks into pieces to use as projectiles. Old ladies mixed Molotov cocktails in a beat-up bus stop. “This is extremism!” one of them said.
Multiple activists and reporters on the ground reported sniper fire from vantage points up the hill east of the Maidan in Kiev’s government district. Police accused protesters of the gunfire and claimed 20 officers had been shot by snipers.
By noon, sporadic grenade explosions and shotgun shells could still be heard as smoke billowed around Maidan and church bells rang out unceasingly in central Kiev.
Yanukovych’s office released a statement saying that “opposition leaders’ statements about the need for a truce and a return to dialogue turned out to be just a maneuver to kill time and mobilize and arm fighters from the Maidan.”
“They attacked us,” the statement said. Yanukovych’s administration said it was taking “all measures to stop bloodshed and conflict.”
Ukrainian security forces declared an “anti-terrorism operation” before Wednesday evening’s ceasefire that allows the army to use force against civilians and “disappear” people for up to 72 hours. Yanukovych then fired the head of Ukraine’s armed forces and replaced him with the head of the navy.
Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, issued a joint statement with EU ambassador Jan Tombinski urging a return to the ceasefire.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6IbEIBhb8o <—YOUTUBE VIDEO OF THE VIOLENCE