Russia and the West have crossed swords over Ukraine as the country descended into the worst violence in its post-Soviet history.
Twenty-six people, including a Ukrainian journalist, were killed and more than 750 were injured in the capital Kiev since Tuesday in fierce street battles between security forces and protesters. The Interior Ministry said 10 police officers died and 383 were wounded, including 74 who received gunshot wounds. The Ministry insisted that police were using only rubber bullets, while protesters fired live ammunition. Radicals seized over 1,500 firing arms and 100,000 bullets in the last 24 hours, according to security services.
Police cleared several streets overnight, but failed to oust protesters from Maidan or Independence Square, where they had been camping since the start of protests three months ago. On Wednesday afternoon street battles resumed with security forces trying to push the protesters from the square.
After weeks of indecision and manoeuvring President Viktor Yanukovych appears to have finally resolved to get tough with the protesters.
In a televised address to the nation on Wednesday, Mr. Yanukovych said the opposition leaders had “crossed a line when they called people to arms.”
The Ukrainian leader repeated his call for talks with the opposition, but warned that “violators of law must stand trial.”
Authorities sealed off Kiev from the rest of the country, halting transportation by rail, bus and cars in order to prevent activists from pro-Western Ukraine to reinforce protests in the capital. The Defence Ministry confirmed media reports that at least one elite paratrooper unit was heading to Kiev “to guard weapon arsenals.”
Russia threw its weight behind Mr. Yanukovych, squarely blaming the opposition for the deadly violence and condemning it as “a coup attempt.”
“In the opinion of the President [Vladimir Putin], full responsibility for what is happening in Ukraine lies with extremists, whose actions are seen in Moscow as an attempted coup d’état,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday. He said the Russian and Ukrainian leaders talked on telephone on Tuesday night, but gave no details.
The West, by contrast, held Mr. Yanukovych responsible for the violence.
US Vice-President Joe Biden called Mr. Yanukovich, urging him to pull back government forces and exercise maximum restraint, the White House said.
“He has blood on his hands,” Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter.
The European Union threatened to use sanctions against Ukraine’s leaders. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he expected the alliance to take “targeted measures against those responsible for violence and use of excessive force” at the EU Foreign Ministers’ emergency meeting on Thursday.
Moscow, for its part, addressed to the opposition the demand “to stop violence and immediately resume dialogue with the lawful authorities without threats and ultimatums.”
For the first time since the start of the protests Russia promised to intervene in the crisis.
“Ukraine is a friendly sister nation and strategic partner for Russia, and we will use all our leverage to restore peace and calm in the country,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued on Wednesday.
The latest flare up of violence highlighted the rift between Ukraine’s West and pro-Russia East. In Lviv and several other cities in Western Ukraine radicals seized government offices and police stations, while in Eastern regions government supporters set fire to offices of opposition parties.