Cossack militia attacked Russian punk group Pussy Riot with horsewhips as they tried to perform under a sign advertising the Sochi Olympics.
Six group members – five women and one man – donned their signature ski masks and were pulling out a guitar and microphone as at least 10 Cossacks and other security officials moved in. One Cossack appeared to use pepper spray, another whipped several group members while others ripped off their masks and threw the guitar in a rubbish bin.
Police arrived and questioned witnesses, but no one was arrested. The Cossacks violently pulled masks from women’s heads, beating group member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova with a whip as she lay on the ground. The incident lasted less than three minutes and one Pussy Riot member, a man wearing a bright yellow tank top, was left with blood on his face, saying he had been pushed to the ground.
Pussy Riot, a performance-art collective involving a loose membership of feminists who edit their actions into music videos, has become an international flashpoint for those who contend Vladimir Putin’s government has exceeded its authority, particularly restricting human and gay rights.
The group gained international attention in 2012 after barging into Moscow’s main cathedral and performing a “punk prayer” in which they entreated the Virgin Mary to save Russia from Mr Putin, who was on the verge of returning to the Russian presidency for a third term.
Two members of the group, Ms Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, were sentenced to two years in prison, but were released in December under an amnesty bill seen as a Kremlin effort to assuage critics before the Olympics.
On Tuesday, two members of the group were briefly detained in Sochi, but not arrested.
The group has called for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics and has insisted that any world leader coming to Sochi would be giving tacit approval of Mr Putin’s heavy-handed policies.
Krasnodar region governor Alexander Tkachev, who has been advancing Cossacks’ interests for years, promised to conduct a “thorough probe” into the incident and prosecute the attackers.
Mr Tkachev said in comments carried by the Interfax news agency that the views of Pussy Riot “are not supported by the majority of people in the region” but stressed the importance of abiding by the law.
The Cossacks have been used since last year as an auxiliary police force to patrol the streets in the Krasnodar province, which includes the Winter Olympic host city. Patrol leader Igor Gulichev compared his forces to the Texas Rangers, an elite law-enforcement body that has power throughout that state.
Cossacks trace their history in Russia back to the 15th century. Serving in the czarist cavalry, they spearheaded imperial Russia’s expansion and were often used as border guards. Under communism, they virtually disappeared, but have since resurfaced, particularly in the south.
The European Union has threatened sanctions against Ukraine following deadly violence between riot police and protesters in Kiev in which at least 25 people died and 241 were injured.
Thousands of protesters faced riot police who have squeezed them deeper into Kiev’s Independence Square, a bastion for the protesters, after overnight clashes that set buildings on fire and brought sharp rebuke from both the West and Russia.
The violence on Tuesday was the worst in nearly three months of anti-government protests that have paralysed Ukraine’s capital in a struggle over the identity of a nation divided in loyalties between Russia and the West, and the worst in the country’s post-Soviet history.
The Kremlin said it put the next disbursement of its bailout on hold amid uncertainty over Ukraine’s future and what it described as a “coup attempt”; it criticised the West for the escalation of violence.
President Viktor Yanukovych on Wednesday blamed the protesters for the violence and said the opposition leaders “crossed a line when they called people to arms”.
The European Union appears poised to impose sanctions as it called an extraordinary meeting of the 28-nation bloc’s foreign ministers.
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso called on Wednesday for “targeted measures against those responsible for violence and use of excessive force can be agreed ... as a matter of urgency”.
Sanctions would at first typically include banning leading officials from travelling to the 28-nation bloc and freezing their assets there.
“It is the political leadership of the country that has a responsibility to ensure the necessary protection of fundamental rights and freedoms,” said Mr Barroso, who heads the EU’s executive arm. “It was with shock and utter dismay that we have been watching developments over the last 24 hours in Ukraine,” he added.
The protests began in late November after Mr Yanukovych turned away from a long-anticipated deal with the European Union in exchange for a multi-billion bailout from Russia. The political manoeuvring continued ever since, with both Moscow and the West eager to gain influence over this former Soviet republic.
The latest bout of street violence began on Tuesday when protesters attacked police lines and set fires outside parliament, accusing Mr Yanukovych of ignoring their demands to enact constitutional reforms that would limit the president’s power - a key opposition demand. Parliament, dominated by his supporters, was stalling on taking up a constitutional reform to limit presidential powers.
Police responded by attacking the protest camp. Armed with water cannon, stun grenades and rubber bullets, police dismantled some barricades and took part of the Maidan. But the protesters still held their ground through the night, encircling the camp with new burning barricades of tyres, furniture and debris.
On Wednesday morning, the centre of Kiev was cordoned off by police, the subway was shut down and most shops on Kiev’s main street were closed. But hundreds of Ukrainians still flocked to the opposition camp, some wearing balaclavas and armed with bats, others, in everyday clothes and with make-up on, carrying food to protesters.
A group of young men and women poured petrol into plastic bottles, preparing fire bombs, while a volunteer walked past them distributing ham sandwiches to protesters from a tray. Another group of activists was busy crushing the pavement into pieces and into bags to fortify barricades.
“The revolution turned into a war with the authorities,” said Vasyl Oleksenko, 57, a retired geologist from central Ukraine, who said he fled the night’s violence fearing for his life, but returned to the square in the morning, feeling ashamed. “We must fight this bloody, criminal leadership; we must fight for our country, our Ukraine.”
Mr Yanukovych was defiant on Wednesday.
“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,” the president said in a statement. “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.” He also called a day of mourning for the dead on Thursday.
Mr Yanukovych’s tone left few with hope of compromise after a night of violence. He still enjoys strong support in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions, where many want strong ties with Russia.
The health ministry said 25 people died in the clashes, some from gunshot wounds, and Kiev hospitals were struggling to treat hundreds of injured. Activists also set-up a makeshift medical unit inside a landmark Orthodox Church not far from the camp, where volunteer medics were taking care of the wounded.
Meanwhile, in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where most residents yearn for stronger ties with the EU and have little sympathy for Mr Yanukovych, protesters seized several government buildings, including the governor’s office, police stations, prosecutors and security agency offices and the tax agency headquarters. They also broke into an interior ministry unit and set it on fire. The building was still smouldering on Wednesday morning and some protesters were driving around town in police cars they had seized during the night.
Tensions continued mounting. The government imposed restrictions for transport moving towards Kiev, apparently to prevent more opposition activists from coming from the Western part of the country, and at least one train from Lviv was held outside Kiev. Several highways into Kiev were also blocked by police.
Acting defence minister Pavlo Lebedev told the ITAR-Tass news agency that he has dispatched a paratrooper brigade to Kiev to help protect arsenals. He refused to say if the unit could be used against protesters, the agency said.
Tensions soared after Russia said on Monday that it was ready to resume providing the loans that Mr Yanukovych’s government needs to keep Ukraine’s ailing economy afloat. This raised fears among the opposition that Mr Yanukovych had made a deal with Moscow to stand firm against the protesters and would choose a Russian-leaning loyalist to be his new prime minister.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that Mr Putin had a phone conversation with Mr Yanukovych overnight. Mr Peskov said that Mr Putin has not given Mr Yanukovych any advice how to settle the crisis, adding that it is up to the Ukrainian government.
Mr Peskov also added that the next disbursement of a Russian bailout has remained on hold, saying the priority now is to settle the crisis, which he described as a “coup attempt”.
The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement, blaming the West for the failure to condemn the opposition for the latest bout of violence.
EU leaders took the opposite stance, with Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt putting the blame on Mr Yanukovych in an unusually tough statement.
“Today, President Yanukovich has blood on his hands,” Mr Bildt said.