KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s protest leaders and the president they want to oust called a truce Wednesday, just hours after the military raised fears of a widespread crackdown with a vow to defeat “terrorists” responsible for seizing weapons and burning buildings.
The two sides agreed to negotiate to end the violence that left at least 26 people dead and more than 400 injured Tuesday. Among the dead were nine police officers. Protesters say the death toll was substantially higher.
The clashes between police and protesters led President Viktor Yanukovych to declare that the military would take part in a “national anti-terrorist operation.” The parameters weren’t specified, but the military’s involvement and Yanukovych’s appointment of a new military chief of staff fueled new worries.
As protective fires blazed around the tent camp in Kiev for a second night and protesters defending it showed no signs of yielding, Yanukovych met with top opposition leaders. A statement on his website said they had agreed on a truce and negotiations.
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Vitali Klitschko, a leader of the protests that have sought to keep Ukraine open to Europe and out of a close alliance with Russia, said Yanukovych assured opposition leaders that police would not storm the protesters’ encampment on Kiev’s Independence Square, according to the Interfax news agency.
The brief statement on the president’s website did not give details of what terms a truce would entail or how it would be implemented. Nor did it specify how the negotiations would be conducted or give an indication of how they would be different from previous meetings between the president and opposition leaders.
Perhaps crucially, there was no immediate indication of whether radical elements among the protesters would observe the truce or be mollified by the prospect of negotiations.
Locked in battle
Although the initial weeks of protests were determinedly peaceful, radicals helped drive an outburst of clashes with police in January in which at least three people died. And the day of violence Tuesday — the worst in nearly three months of anti-government protests that have paralyzed Kiev — may have radicalized many more.
The two sides are locked in a battle over the identity of the 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 for closer ties with the European Union (EU).
After Yanukovych shelved the agreement with the EU, Russia announced a $15 billion bailout for Ukraine, whose economy is in tatters.
Political and diplomatic maneuvering has continued, with the Russian government and the West eager to gain influence over the 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 in Brussels to consider sanctions against those responsible for the recent violence in Ukraine.
President Obama, who was visiting Mexico, stepped in to condemn the violence, warning Wednesday: “there will be consequences” for Ukraine if it continues. The United States has raised the prospect of joining with the EU to impose sanctions against Ukraine.
He also said the Ukrainian military should not step into a situation that civilians should resolve and added that the U.S. holds Ukraine’s government primarily responsible for dealing with peaceful protesters appropriately.
After word spread of the reported truce, Obama said he hoped it would “provide space for the sides to resolve their disagreements peacefully.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, described the violence as an attempted coup and used the phrase “brown revolution,” an allusion to the Nazi rise to power in Germany in 1933. The ministry said Russia would use “all our influence to restore peace and calm.”
In Kiev, 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.
Demonstrators, meanwhile, 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 in fiery clashes late Tuesday 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,” Vasyl Oleksenko, a retired geologist from central Ukraine, said Wednesday. “We must fight this bloody, criminal leadership. We must fight for our country, our Ukraine!”
Before the truce was announced the bad blood was running 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.
In the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, 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 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.
Day of mourning
Before the truce announcement, Yanukovych had blamed the protesters for the violence and said the opposition leaders had “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.”
He called for a day of mourning Thursday for the dead.
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.
In Moscow, Russian officials said they put the next disbursement of the bailout on hold amid uncertainty over Ukraine’s future and what it described as a “coup attempt.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said 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.
The protesters are a hodgepodge of groups, some radical enough to alarm some European diplomats, who have been arguing for weeks over whether to impose sanctions on Ukrainian leaders, many of whom have assets outside the country. But few, if any, share Yanukovych’s — also Russia’s — view that the government is simply a victim.
“Yanukovych claims to be the victim of the radicals of the Maidan, and that he did not want such violence. We accept that the opposition made a mistake,” said Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski. But, he added, the “president’s credibility with everyone is now zero.”
The distrust was evident late Wednesday, after the truce statement was posted on the president’s website. There were scant signs riot police officers or protesters in Kiev were pulling back, though a fleet of empty buses arrived overnight at a staging area near the square for a possible withdrawal or redeployment of at least some of the government’s anti-riot force.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.