Ukraine protests: Police launch fresh attack on anti-government demonstrators as death toll continues to rise

The death toll following clashes between troops and protesters is 26 - and rising

Ukraine's state security service has announced an 'anti-terror operation' across the country as Western nations considered imposing sanctions following deadly violence in the capital of Kiev that killed at least 26 people.

The security agency said protesters have seized over 1,500 firearms and seized control of the capital's central post office as they continue to fight off police attempts to break up a giant opposition tent camp.

The latest attempt to quell the unrest comes as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has accused pro-European opposition leaders of trying to seize power by force as violence in Independence Square reportedly left 25 people dead and many more injured following clashes between police and protesters.

"Without any mandate from the people, illegally and in breach of the constitution of Ukraine, these politicians - if I may use that term - have resorted to pogroms, arson and murder to try to seize power," the president said.

The European Union has said it expects to agree possible sanctions on those behind "repression" in the country following the renewed violence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman insisted the Kremlin was sticking to a policy of not intervening in Ukraine, although his spokesman has called for action to crush the protests. The Kremlin said Putin and Yanukovich spoke by telephone overnight, calling the events an attempted coup.

The Polish Border Guard service said dozens of Ukrainians had blocked a road to the border crossing off and anti government protesters broke into a station in western Ukraine, Lvov, the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN reports and released all prisoners held in the building.

Anti-government protesters, many of them masked, have poured back onto the streets this morning, preparing to confront police for a second day, while others could be seen pouring petrol into plastic bottles and some handed out food. The center of Kiev was cordoned off by police, the subway was shut down and most shops on Kiev's main street were closed.

Viktor Yanukovich released his statement in the early hours of Wednesday morning, saying opposition leaders "crossed a line when they called people to arms" as riot police battled with protesters occupying the square.

The defiant tone of the statement quashed hopes of a compromise to resolve the crisis, which erupted three months ago when Yanukovich decided against signing a free trade and association agreement with the European Union, choosing instead to increase ties with Russia.

Police were gaining ground after hours of clashes in the square but demonstrators managed to hold their defence lines behind a burning barricade of tires and wood.

Shrouded in plumes of black smoke, police attempted to extinguish the fire with two water cannons but protesters responded by hurling petrol bombs at the police vehicles, a Reuters cameraman said.

Police have gained control of almost half the square and several floors of a trade union building, used as an anti-government headquarters, were engulfed in flames as dawn was breaking.

At least 14 protesters and seven policemen died in violence that erupted yesterday and continued into the early hours of today. The Ukrainian health ministry put the number dead at 26.

Many were killed by gunshot and hundreds of people were injured, with dozens in serious condition, police and opposition representatives said.

Alarmed Western governments demanded restraint and dialogue. US Vice President Joe Biden called Yanukovich, urging him to pull back government forces and exercise maximum restraint, the White House said.

The unrest has spread to at least three cities in the western part of the country. Police said protesters had seized regional administration headquarters in the cities of Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv. Media said protesters torched the main police station in the city of Ternopil.

The authorities have restricted traffic coming into the capital to prevent reinforcements from reaching protesters and shut down the underground.

Earlier, the state security service set a deadline for the demonstrators to end disorder or face “tough measures”. Then the police advanced to the square before launching a full assault in the early hours, throwing stun grenades and using water cannons.

Western powers warned Yanukovich against trying to smash the pro-European demonstrations, urging him to turn back to the EU and the prospect of an IMF-supported economic recovery, while Russia accused them of meddling. Independence Square engulfed in flames overnight Independence Square engulfed in flames overnight

The riot police moved in hours after Moscow gave Ukraine $2 billion in aid for its crippled economy that it had been holding back to demand decisive action to crush the protests.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said he had spoken to Ukraine's acting prime minister, who had given assurances that the authorities would try to avoid using live firearms.

“For the sake of the Ukrainians and for the sake of the future of that country, I will pray that he is right,” Fuele told a public event in Brussels.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for restraint, said his spokesman, Martin Nesirky, adding: “He is extremely concerned over today's reports of renewed violence and fatalities.”

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has tried to broker a power-sharing transition, urged Ukraine's leadership “to address the root causes of the crisis”.

Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, telephoned his Ukrainian counterpart to warn against sliding back into violence and to urge the government to keep working for a political solution.

Monday's $2 billion cash injection, a resumption of a $15 billion aid package, was seen as a signal that Russia believed Yanukovich had a plan to end the protests and had dropped any idea of bringing opposition leaders into government.

Reuters, Associated Press

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