independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Ukraine president is forced to sack army chief and agree truce

Anti-government protesters use fireworks during clashes with Interior Ministry members and riot police in central Kiev February 18, 2014. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich warned his opponents on Wednesday that he could deploy force against them after what he called their attempt to "seize power" by means of "arson and murder". Picture taken February 18, 2014. REUTERS/Olga Yakimovich (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Anti-government protesters use fireworks during clashes with Interior Ministry members and riot police in central Kiev. Reuters

The office of Ukraine's embattled president last night bowed to international pressure to agree a truce following a tide of global outrage after the deaths of at least 26 people in an ongoing offensive against protesters.

As European Union ministers threatened to impose a package of sanctions, President Viktor Yanukovych reached an agreement with top leaders of the protests. The statement did not give details of what a truce would entail or how it would be implemented.

Swathes of central Kiev have been transformed into fiery battlefields after police attacked the anti-government protest camps, which have occupied Independence Square for nearly three months.

In a surprise development last night, Mr Yanukovych sacked the head of the armed forces, Col Gen Volodymyr Zamana, replacing him with the commander of Ukraine's navy, Admiral Yuriy Ilyin, according to the president's website.

No official explanation was given for the move, which came hours after the state security service declared it was launching a nationwide "anti-terrorist" campaign to restore order.

EXPLOSIONS

Despite this, violence continued into yesterday evening, explosions from police stun grenades echoed throughout the city centre and tear gas and black smoke filled the air.

Protesters resisting attempts to evict them hurled fire bombs and rocks as riot police encircled them.

Dozens of injured protesters, many with bloody head wounds, were transported to hospitals and makeshift medical centres, with more than 600 police and protesters injured in two days of clashes.

The 26 confirmed dead include 10 police officers and one journalist.

The ferocity of the police assault provoked the strongest international criticism yet. EU leaders promised sanctions after months of tiptoeing around the issue to avoid sending Mr Yanukovych deeper into Russia's embrace.

It was his decision to ditch a trade pact with the EU in November and turn to the Kremlin for economic aid that sparked unrest among the Ukrainians who want to break free from their former Soviet rulers.

"It was with shock and utter dismay that we have been watching developments over the past 24 hours in Ukraine – there are no circumstances that can legitimise or justify such scenes," said Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president.

He vowed to pursue "targeted measures against those responsible for violence and use of excessive force".

Poland's deputy foreign minister said the bloc had reached a consensus on imposing sanctions. While measures such as asset freezes can take months to take effect, visa and travel bans can be implemented quickly. The European Investment Bank has already suspended loans to Ukraine, and the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said Washington was also considering sanctions.

Mr Kerry said he was still hoping for dialogue and a peaceful solution to the crisis. But with the opposition demanding the resignation of the government and Mr Yanukovych standing firm, there appeared little appetite for political compromise in Kiev.

The Ukrainian president and his allies in Moscow have accused the opposition of trying to seize power by force. But many European leaders blamed the authorities for the escalating violence and said riot police should pull back from the protest camps.

Mr Yanukovych "has blood on his hands," said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. An EU spokesman refused to say whether the Ukrainian president would be the target of sanctions, but French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said: "There may be a whole scale of sanctions, including personal sanctions."

PUNITIVE

However, analysts warned that the punitive measures may be too little, too late. Until now, the EU has focused on offering financial incentives to Kiev. It has been competing with less nuanced pressure from Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

Defending its approach, an EU spokesperson said that it had been careful throughout the political crisis to respect "the European ambitions that Ukraine has".

Russia kept up the pressure yesterday, with Mr Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov calling the events of the past 48 hours a "coup attempt".

A foreign ministry statement blamed interference from Europe for the escalation of violence, saying politicians had "turned a blind eye to the aggressive actions of radical forces in Ukraine".

While the public face of the opposition is the former boxer and moderate, Vitali Klitschko, and allies of the jailed former PM, Yulia Tymoshenko, nationalist and far-right groups have also been active around Independence Square.

The scale of the violence has provoked fears that the nation of 46 million people could be heading into civil war. (© Independent News Service, London)

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