Protester deaths raise stakes in Ukraine crisis



A demonstrator throws an incendiary device as protesters clash with police in the center of Kyiv on Jan. 22, 2014. At least two activists were shot dead that morning when Ukrainian police stormed protesters' barricades in Kiev, the first fatalities in two months of anti-government protests.



MOSCOW, Russia — Three protesters were reported killed on Wednesday in ongoing clashes with police in Ukraine, marking a dreadful new chapter in anti-government demonstrations in the capital that have descended into violent chaos and raised the stakes in the worsening political crisis.

The country’s Prosecutor General, citing medics on the scene, confirmed at least two victims had died from apparent gunshot wounds. A third protester reportedly died after falling from a high altitude.  

Late Wednesday night in Ukraine, protest medics said that two more people had been killed.

"As of now, five people have been killed. Around 300 were wounded today from midnight," Oleg Musiy, the coordinator of the medical service, told pro-opposition Hromadske radio.

The violence has sparked fresh concerns that Ukraine's political crisis, which began last November after the government backed away from a trade deal with the European Union, is spiraling out of control.

Wednesday's news of the first two deaths arrived as the US Embassy in Kyiv announced it had revoked American visas for “several Ukrainians” linked to the violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators late last year that helped swell the protests, which have raged for more than two months.

The embassy said US authorities are “considering further action against those responsible for the current violence,” according to a statement posted online.

Protests that had been mostly peaceful for weeks erupted into open confrontation between demonstrators and police on Sunday, amid renewed anger over a sweeping anti-protest law rammed through Ukraine’s parliament late last week by the ruling Party of Regions.

Watch live video of the protests:

Observers in Kyiv suggest the leaders of Ukraine’s three main opposition parties have been unable to harness the popular rage.

Nevertheless, on Wednesday they called on President Viktor Yanukovych to withdraw all police from central Kyiv and to immediately sack Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko, whom they say has been responsible for the violence.

“Only the unconditional and immediate compliance with all requirements of the people can guarantee the situation in the country will return to a peaceful course,” the opposition leaders said in a joint statement, according to the Kyiv Post.

Opposition leaders also called for a “100 percent mobilization” and urged supporters to flock to Independence Square, the nerve center of the demonstrations.

Already, the slain activists appear to have become a rallying point for protesters.

One of them, identified as 20 year-old Serhiy Nigoyan, was an ethnic Armenian whose photograph circulated wildly throughout social networks on Wednesday.

Particularly striking is an apparent video of Nigoyan, filmed while he was manning the makeshift barricades around Independence Square, reciting part of a famous poem by Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko.

Watch here:

President Yanukovych, meanwhile, drew fierce criticism for a statement released Wednesday morning — as news flooded in of the protesters’ deaths — congratulating Ukrainians on the Day of Unity and Freedom, which is celebrated on January 22.

“If the Guinness Book of World Records included a place for cynicism, Yanukovych, with his greetings to mark the Day of Unity, would take one of the top spots,” Vitaly Portnikov, a prominent opposition-minded political analyst in Ukraine, tweeted on Wednesday.

Later, the embattled president released another statement, expressing “deep regret” over the deaths and condemning the violence “provoked by political extremists.” He also urged the opposition to the negotiating table.

“I call on people to return home,” the statement read. “We must restore peace and stability in Ukraine.”

On Wednesday afternoon, opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, head of the Fatherland party, said he and two other leaders, including boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, would meet with Yanukovych.

But comments earlier in the day from Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, casting the protesters as “terrorists,” are likely to further fuel the anger, which has been stoked in part by accusations that government-sponsored thugs were dispatched to foment the violence.

Sporadic clashes continued Wednesday afternoon, as police attempted to disperse protesters from a street leading to the Cabinet of Ministers, where much of the fighting has taken place.

Wednesday’s news also drew strong condemnation from top Western officials, who redoubled their calls for peace.

Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said in a statement on that EU officials were “assessing possible actions … and consequences for our relations.”

Responses from the international community have so far been restricted to pointed rhetoric, despite calls from many protesters on the ground for Western leaders to take a tougher stance against the Yanukovych regime.