Ukraine’s festering political crisis took a deadly turn as thousands of anti-government protesters clashed with police outside Ukraine’s parliament.
Three protesters were killed in the melee, the opposition reported, and emergency workers found another person dead after a fire at the ruling party’s office in Kiev.
Law enforcement agencies gave the demonstrators a deadline of 6pm yesterday (1600 GMT) to stop the confrontations and vowed to restore order.
Dozens of protesters and police were injured in the clashes, which broke out after opposition leaders accused pro-government factions in parliament of dragging their feet on a constitutional reform that would limit presidential powers – a key opposition demand.
The clashes dimmed hopes for an imminent solution to the political crisis.
Tensions also soared following new steps by Russia and the European Union to gain influence over this former Soviet republic.
The protests began in November after president Viktor Yanukovych froze ties with the EU in exchange for an £8.9bn bailout from Russia, but the political manoeuvring continued and Moscow later suspended its payments. On Monday, however, while opposition leaders were meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia offered a fresh infusion of the billions that Ukraine needs to keep its ailing economy afloat.
As parliament delayed yesterday’s session to take up the issue, thousands marched towards the parliament building to put pressure on politicians. Shouting “Shame!”, the demonstrators hurled stones at police and set trucks blocking their way on fire.
Riot police retaliated with stun grenades and fired what appeared to be small metal balls, as smoke from burning tyres and vehicles billowed over Kiev, the capital.
Three protesters died in the clashes, Oleh Musiy, a top medic for the protesters, told the Associated Press. Opposition politician Lesya Orobets made the same statement on Twitter.
About 150 protesters were injured, the protesters’ medical unit said, while the interior ministry said about 40 officers had been hurt.
Justice minister Olena Lukash, a close Yanukovych aide, accused the opposition of violating earlier agreements with the government and blamed protest leaders for the violence.
Earlier in the day, protesters stormed the office of the president’s Party of Regions, but police pushed them away. When firefighters arrived to put out a fire, they discovered the body of an office employee, Kiev’s emergency services said in a statement.
Yesterday’s confrontations came two days after the government and the opposition reached a shaky compromise, with protesters vacating a government building in Kiev they had been occupying since December 1 after the government released scores of jailed activists.
But tensions rose after Russia’s finance minister offered to resume financial aid to Ukraine on Monday, just as Mr Yanukovych was expected to nominate a new prime minister, prompting fears among the opposition that he would tap a Russian-leaning loyalist.
US ambassador Geoffrey R Pyatt said in a Twitter post: “Politics needs to happen in the Rada (parliament), not on the street.”
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko called on Mr Yanukovych to agree to the reforms and to call an early election or face a serious escalation of the crisis.