Western powers threatened sanctions on Wednesday over the death of 26 people in the worst violence since Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, pressuring President Viktor Yanukovich to compromise with his pro-European opponents.
In the evening, Yanukovich replaced Colonel-General Volodymyr Zamana with Admiral Yury Ilyin as the new head of the armed forces general staff.
The president, who is backed by Russia, had earlier denounced the overnight bloodshed in central Kiev as an attempted coup, and his security service said it had launched a nationwide “anti-terrorist operation” after arms and ammunition dumps were looted.
In the western bastion of Ukrainian nationalism, a regional assembly declared self-rule and crowds seized public buildings.
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European Union leaders condemned “the unjustified use of excessive force by the Ukrainian authorities” and said they were urgently preparing targeted sanctions against officials responsible for the crackdown. The foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland will visit Yanukovich on Thursday, hours before an emergency EU meeting to decide on the sanctions.
Protesters have been occupying central Kiev for almost three months since Yanukovich spurned a far-reaching trade deal with the EU and accepted a $15-billion Russian bailout instead. Their struggle with government forces was played out at close quarters, hand to hand, in fighting through the night on Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan.
On Wednesday, fires blazed along the barricaded frontline between protesters and riot police but there was no immediate sign of a repetition of Tuesday’s violence. A trade union building that protest organisers had used as a headquarters stood blackened and gutted by fire.
Security forces occupied about a third of the square, while protesters reinforced defences on the remainder of the Maidan.