KYIV, Ukraine — Protesters packed sacks full of fresh snow, donned masks and helmets and gathered clubs and crowbars as they prepared for a battle with riot police in the Ukrainian capital on Wednesday afternoon.
The preparation came after at least two protesters were shot and killed by police during clashes in the early morning hours, making Jan. 22 the most violent day in more than two months of largely peaceful anti-government demonstrations.
Doctors at the scene told GlobalPost that the two men had been shot in the head and chest, with one man also taking a bullet to the heart. The Associated Press reported that the protesters were fired upon with live ammunition. A third man reportedly died when he fell from atop a football stadium arcade after taking a beating by riot police.
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.
Earlier in the day, GlobalPost witnessed several with bloody injuries to their heads being carried away to ambulances.
During the afternoon clashes, thick black smoked filled the streets as protesters burned car tires, creating a smoke screen that police were unable to see through. Still, police fired rubber and metal bullets into the smoke.
One man took a hit with a metal bullet to the thigh, and though the armor he was wearing kept it from penetrating, he was quickly hauled away by volunteer medical staff to be checked.
At Independence Square, the protest’s nerve center, Mykola, a mustachioed pensioner in a hard hat, said he had seen the body of one of the deceased protesters before it was carried away to a nearby building by medical personnel.
“He was just there, dead, and we knew it when we saw him. He was finished. Those underlings [the riot police] killed him,” said Mykola, who would not give his last name for fear of retribution by the government.
After 3 p.m. local time, rumors swirled within the protest camp of an impending police raid, after authorities cleared main streets of cars, ordered national television and radio offices to close for the day and sanctioned the use of new gas and an array of new weapons.
Opposition leaders said this was the government essentially declaring martial law, and called for a general mobilization of the population.
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Thousands heeded the rallying cry Wednesday afternoon, quickly amassing on the square and helping to reinforce the protest camp of the Euromaidan protest movement, as it is called.
By the evening, protesters had regained control of Hrushevskohi Street and were burning tires at the front lines near the Cabinet building. Flames as high as 15 feet illuminated the scene as police made futile attempts to put out the blaze with water cannons. A stack of tires 10 feet high stood nearby, fuel for the fires.
About 100 meters behind the front line, protesters were erecting a secondary barricade using cement planters and steel ripped from massive billboards, to slow police if they tried to chase protesters back to the square again. Older women banged sheet metal in a steady beat that has persisted for much of the last three days on the street.
Tensions between the protesters and authorities took a drastic turn for the worse last week when pro-government lawmakers pushed through by a show of hands a slew of draconian laws meant to quell the protests. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych signed the legislation into law last Friday.
Under the new rules, wearing helmets, distributing “extremist” materials and participating in mass demonstrations are offenses punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
But they haven’t stopped most people here from wearing protective headwear — sometimes in the form of kitchen colanders — and wielding everything from baseball bats to crowbars.
Oleh Rybachuk, a civil society leader and former deputy prime minister, said Wednesday that he was wearing a helmet on the square for the first time since the protests began, in intentional defiance of the laws.
“I will wear a helmet because we no longer recognize this government, this dictatorship,” he told GlobalPost by phone.
The upsurge in violence began when more than 100,000 demonstrators turned out on Sunday to protest the laws and began clashes with police outside the cabinet building.
A group of about 200 radical protesters heaved Molotov cocktails and cobblestones at police, injuring more than 160, according to the Interior Ministry. Hundreds more were injured when police used tear gas and flash grenades on them. Police were also seen throwing stones and Molotov cocktails into protesters’ ranks.
Some took a more medieval approach, wearing armor and shooting arrows from hastily fashioned bows.
For two days the battle remained a stalemate. Protesters burned several police buses and used the charred remains to fortify their front line.
But on Wednesday morning police launched a barrage of tear gas and flash grenades at protesters and indiscriminately fired rubber bullets and reportedly live ammunition into the group, pushing it back from the Cabinet to Independence Square.
Ironically, Wednesday marked the anniversary of the unification of eastern and western Ukraine in 1919, called Unity Day.
"Our goal is justice, welfare, free life in a free country," President Yanukovych said in his in Unity Day statement posted to his official website on Wednesday afternoon, as police and protesters continued to clash just blocks away from his presidential administration. "We're so different, but we're united. Nobody can set us apart."
Yanukovych later released a statement saying he felt “deep regret” over Wednesday’s deaths and condemning the violence “provoked by political extremists.” He also urged the opposition to negotiate rather than take to the streets.
“I call on people to return home,” the president’s statement read. “We must restore peace and stability in Ukraine.”