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Ukraine truce shattered by deadly fighting in Kiev

Protesters retook Kiev's Independence Square this morning, driving back riot police in clashes that resulted in at least 22 deaths, mostly protesters.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
Activists and priests pay respects to protesters who were killed in clashes with police Thursday in Kiev's Independence Square, the epicenter of the country's current unrest. A flag held by one activist reads 'For Ukraine.'

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Violent clashes between protesters and riot police erupted again in central Kiev Thursday morning, breaking an hours-long truce and casting doubt on the efforts of European negotiators in Kiev today.

Gunfire broke out in Kiev’s Independence Square early Thursday morning, leaving at least 22 people dead, as smoke continued to billow from burning barricades, according to the BBC. Eyewitnesses said they saw the bodies of some two dozen protesters, and officials said a police officer was killed.

The bloodshed jeopardizes the efforts of European officials who arrived in Ukraine Thursday in an attempt to broker talks between Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders. The foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Poland were expected to threaten sanctions and to pressure Mr. Yanukovych to hold early elections, The New York Times reports. The meeting was initially delayed due to security concerns, but the German Foreign Office confirmed on Twitter that it was under way.

The truce failed just after dawn, the Times reports, when “young men in ski masks opened a breach in their barricade near a stage on the square, ran across a hundred yards of smoldering debris and surged toward riot police officers who were firing at them with shotguns.”

Protesters pushed back the police in a continual racket of gunshots and by around 10 a.m. had recaptured the entire square, but at the cost of creating a scene of mayhem.

Yanukovych's office released a statement blaming the resumption of violence on the protesters. The Wall Street Journal reports that it wasn’t immediately clear who first broke the truce, and the Guardian reports seeing government snipers shooting at protesters.

One protester, Anatoly Volk, told the Times that "protesters had decided to try to retake the square because they believed a truce announced around midnight was a ruse. The young men in ski masks who led the push, he said, believed it was a stalling maneuver by President Viktor F. Yanukovych, to buy time to deploy troops in the capital after discovering that the civilian police had insufficient forces to clear the square."

“A truce means real negotiations,” Mr. Volk said. “They are just delaying to make time to bring in more troops. They didn’t have the forces to storm us last night. So we are expanding our barricades to where they were before. We are restoring what we had.”

Ukraine has been roiled by protests since November, when Yanukovych announced he would not sign an association agreement with the European Union – a pact his government had been under pressure from Russia to drop. It’s not immediately clear how European and Russian officials will respond to this week’s violence, which is the sharpest since the protests began.

The European leaders who are in Ukraine today said yesterday that they would be advocating for early elections as a measure to diffuse the violence, and would be holding out the threat of sanctions.

The purpose of the trip is “to make an attempt to bring the two sides to the table,” European Parliament President Martin Schulz said on Germany’s ZDF television, according to Bloomberg. “If that process doesn’t happen, we will have to think about sanctions,” including account freezes and travel curbs for Ukrainian government officials, he said.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that “when there is a situation as blocked as this, you need to turn to the people,” and that elections were the only option, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“Early elections, either presidential or parliamentary ones, are basic points to unlock the crisis and put an end to the violence in Ukraine,” an anonymous European diplomat told the Journal.

The European leaders were scheduled to return for a 3 p.m. local time meeting in Brussels with the rest of the EU foreign ministers to address Ukraine and the possibility of sanctions.

On the Russian side, officials have warned that they will delay their promised aid until after the situation calms down, the Journal reports.

Shortly after the gunfire erupted on Thursday morning, the Kremlin’s chief spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia would continue providing economic aid to Ukraine but would wait until the situation stabilized first. 

Russia had offered Ukraine $15 billion in financial aid late last year and had already disbursed the first $3 billion tranche. A second tranche of $2 billion was planned to come this week, but has been postponed, officials said.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Moscow correspondent reports that “Moscow's mask of worried-but-not-intrusive concern over the unraveling events in Kiev is beginning to slip.”

Russian leaders Wednesday repeated previous assurances that they will not intervene in Ukraine. But experts say the Kremlin is using all its leverage behind the scenes to convince Ukrainian authorities to forcibly restore order, and may be rethinking its options if beleaguered President Viktor Yanukovych loses power to his outspokenly anti-Russian opponents amid an increasingly violent standoff in downtown Kiev.

"It seem absolutely clear that the three attempts Yanukovych has made to bring harsh pressure on the protesters occupying Kiev's Maidan square over the past three months, with the toughest being last night, were discussed and agreed in advance between Putin and Yanukovych," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. "Unlike most Ukrainian players, whose interest is mainly in maintaining the status quo and muddling through without any radical breaks, Putin wants to win. He is absolutely interested in the scenario we see unfolding, with the opposition being crushed by force."

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