Kiev, Ukraine (CNN, Feb. 19, 2014) — Protesters stoked fires along barricade lines as night fell Wednesday over Kiev’s Maidan, or Independence Square, a day after 26 people died in violent clashes that have drawn reproach from Western leaders.
An opposition leader said the situation was precarious, but despite the burning fires and police lines, a strange calm pervaded central Kiev — even as security officials rebranded the protesters as terrorists and announced a nationwide security operation to restore order.
Meanwhile, European and U.S. leaders threatened quick sanctions against the Ukrainian government over what French President Francois Hollande called “unspeakable, unacceptable, intolerable acts.”
While insisting that “peaceful protesters (should) remain peaceful,” U.S. President Barack Obama made a point in saying that the Ukrainian government carried an especially big burden for what’s happened so far and what’s to come.
“We hold the Ukrainian government primarily responsible for making sure that it is dealing with peaceful protesters in an appropriate way, that the Ukrainian people are able to assemble and speak freely about their interests without fear of repression,” he said.
Europe will “respond to any deterioration on the ground,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Wednesday, pledging “targeted measures against those responsible for violence and use of excessive force.”
The strong words come a day before the foreign minister of France, Germany and Poland were to travel to Kiev to survey the situation before briefing their E.U. colleagues in Brussels and discussing possible sanctions.
Thousands of demonstrators have packed Independence Square since November, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych reversed a decision to sign a trade deal with the European Union and instead turned toward Russia.
The unrest intensified after an anti-protest law went into effect, and erupted into outright violence Tuesday night. CNN reporters saw protesters clawing paving stones from the streets and firing Molotov cocktails attached to fireworks from an improvised air cannon.
Police and protesters were among Tuesday’s dead. A journalist and a government employee died, too.
More than 240 others were hospitalized, Ukraine’s health ministry said.
Police said more than 77 protesters had been detained.
The head of Ukraine’s Security Service, Oleksander Yakimenko, accused protesters of taking over government offices across the country and looting 1,500 weapons and 100,000 rounds of ammunition.
“These are concrete acts of terror,” Yakimenko said in a statement announcing an anti-terrorism operation apparently targeting protesters. “Radical and extremist groups are now a real threat” to millions of Ukrainians.
Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk denied that demonstrators had attacked police, blaming instead government “provocateurs” for inciting the violence.
“We are determined to have only a peaceful rally,” he told CNN. “No violence, no force, no weapons.”
Growing call for sanctions
Speaking Wednesday in Paris, U.S. Sectretary of State John Kerry said he was “deeply disturbed” by events in Kiev.
“President Yanokovich has the opportunity to make a choice, a choice between protecting the people that he serves — all of the people — and the choice for compromise and dialogue versus violence and mayhem,” Kerry said during a visit to Paris.
“We believe the choice is clear and we are talking about the possibility of sanctions or other steps with our friends and Europe and elsewhere in order to create the environment for compromise,” he said.
U.S. President Barack Obama also was expected to address the issue later Wednesday while on a trip to Mexico.
U.S. officials have already revoked the visas for Ukrainian government officials linked to the violence against protesters, senior U.S. administration officials told CNN.
British Prime Minister David Cameron called the violence from both government forces and protesters “completely unacceptable,” and said “President Yanukovych has a particular responsibility to pull back government forces and de-escalate the situation.”
The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, warned that “anyone who at this time is responsible for decisions which lead to further bloodshed, must also be aware that Europe will certainly reconsider the restraint it has shown in deciding whether to impose sanctions on individuals.”