KIEV, Ukraine — As fires burned at the barricades in central Kiev for a second straight night, Ukraine’s embattled president replaced the army chief Wednesday and the military said it would take part in a national anti-terrorist operation to restore order.
The move, announced in a decree from President Viktor Yanukovych, came a day after 25 people were killed and over 425 injured in clashes between police and protesters at the sprawling protest camp in the Ukrainian capital. Officials have often referred to the protesters who have demanded Yanukovych’s resignation for months as “terrorists.”
The violence this week was the worst in nearly three months of anti-government protests that have paralyzed Kiev. The two sides are locked in a stalemate over the identity of this nation of 46 million, whose loyalties are divided between Russia and the West. The protests began in late November after Yanukovych turned away from a long-anticipated deal with the EU in exchange for a $15 billion bailout from Russia.
The political maneuvering has continued since, with both Moscow and the West eager to gain influence over this former Soviet republic. Three EU foreign ministers — from Germany, France and Poland — were heading to Kiev on Thursday to speak with both sides before an emergency EU meeting back in Brussels to consider sanctions against those responsible for the recent violence in Ukraine.
In an escalation of the tensions, Ukraine’s top security agency accused protesters Wednesday of seizing hundreds of firearms from its offices and announced a nationwide anti-terrorist operation to restore order.
Earlier in the day, demonstrators forced their way into the main post office on Kiev’s Independence Square, also known as the Maidan, after a nearby building they had previously occupied was burned down Tuesday in fierce, fiery clashes with riot police. Thousands of activists armed with fire bombs and rocks had defended the square, a key symbol of the protests.
“The revolution has turned into a war with the authorities,” said Vasyl Oleksenko, 57, a retired geologist from central Ukraine. “We must fight this bloody, criminal leadership. We must fight for our country, our Ukraine!”
The bad blood now runs so high it has fueled fears the nation could be sliding toward a messy breakup. While most people in the country’s western regions resent Yanukovych, he enjoys strong support in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions, where many want strong ties with Russia.
Neither side now appears willing to compromise, with the opposition insisting on Yanukovych’s resignation and early elections and the president prepared to fight till the end.
Opposition lawmaker Oleh Lyashko warned that Yanukovych himself is in danger if he does not offer some concessions.
“Yanukovych, you will end like (Moammar) Gadhafi,” Lyashko told thousands of angry protesters. “Either you, a parasite, will stop killing people or this fate will await you. Remember this, dictator!”
For his part, Yanukovych blamed the protesters for the violence and said the opposition leaders “crossed a line when they called people to arms.”
“I again call on the leaders of the opposition … to draw a boundary between themselves and radical forces, which are provoking bloodshed and clashes with the security services,” the president said in a statement. “If they don’t want to leave — they should acknowledge that they are supporting radicals. Then the conversation with them will already be of a different kind.”
He called for a day of mourning Thursday for the dead.
In Moscow, the Kremlin said it put the next disbursement of its bailout on hold amid uncertainty over Ukraine’s future and what it described as a “coup attempt.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters that he and his counterparts from Germany and Poland would meet both sides in Ukraine ahead of the EU meeting on possible sanctions. He said he hoped the two sides “will find a way for dialogue.”
Possible sanctions include travel bans and asset freezes, which could hit hard the powerful oligarchs who back Yanukovych.
Ordinary Ukrainians, meanwhile, are struggling amid a stagnating economy and soaring corruption. They have been especially angered to see that Yanukovych’s close friends and family have risen to top government posts and amassed fortunes since he came to power in 2010. Yanukovych’s dentist son, Oleksander, has become a financial and construction magnate worth $187 million, according to Forbes Ukraine.
The latest bout of street violence began Tuesday when protesters attacked police lines and set fires outside parliament, accusing Yanukovych of ignoring their demands to enact constitutional reforms that would limit the president’s power — a key opposition demand. Parliament, dominated by his supporters, was stalling on taking up a constitutional reform to limit presidential powers.
Police responded by attacking the protest camp. Armed with water cannons, stun grenades and rubber bullets, police dismantled some barricades. But the protesters held their ground through the night, encircling the protest camp with new burning barricades of tires, furniture and debris.
On Wednesday morning, the center of Kiev was cordoned off by police, the subway was shut down and most shops on Kiev’s main street were closed. But hundreds of Ukrainians still flocked to the opposition camp, some wearing balaclavas and armed with bats.
One group of young men and women poured petrol into plastic bottles, preparing fire bombs, while a volunteer walked by distributing ham sandwiches. Other activists were busy crushing the pavement into bags to fortify the barricades.
In the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where most residents yearn for stronger ties with the EU and have little sympathy for Yanukovych, protesters seized several government buildings, including the governor’s office, police stations, and offices for prosecutors, security officials and the tax agency. They also broke into an Interior Ministry unit and set it on fire.
In another western city, Lutsk, protesters handcuffed the regional governor, a Yanukovych appointee, and tied him to the stage on a central square after he refused to resign. In the city of Khmelnitsky, three people were injured when protesters tried to storm a law enforcement office.
Government buildings were stormed or besieged in other western cities.
Ukraine’s ailing economy is a major factor in the crisis. On Monday, Russia said it was ready to resume providing the loans that Yanukovych’s government needs to keep the country afloat. This raised fears among the opposition that Yanukovych had made a deal with Moscow to stand firm against the protesters.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a statement that Putin spoke to Yanukovych overnight by phone. The next Russian bailout payment is on hold, he said, because the priority is to settle the crisis, which he described as a “coup attempt.”
In tit-for-tat statements, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement blaming the West for failing to condemn the opposition for the latest violence, while EU leaders took the opposite stance.
“Today, President Yanukovych has blood on his hands,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said.