At least 21 civilians were killed in fresh fighting in Kiev on Thursday, shattering an overnight truce declared by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, and a presidential statement said dozens of police were also dead or wounded.
Activists hurling petrol bombs and paving stones drove riot police off a corner of the central Independence Square, known as the Maidan, and appeared to capture several uniformed officers. Police responded with stun grenades.
The clashes erupted shortly before three visiting European foreign ministers were due to meet the Russian-backed Yanukovich to push for a compromise with his pro-European opponents. The meeting was delayed for security reasons but began an hour late.
A statement from Yanukovich’s office said: “They (the protesters) went on to the offensive. They are working in organized groups. They are using firearms, including sniper rifles. They are shooting to kill.
“The number of dead and injured among police officers is dozens,” the statement on the presidential website said.
Shortly after 9 a.m. (0700 GMT), the protesters advanced to a line closer to Yanukovich’s office and parliament. Television showed activists in combat fatigues leading several captured, uniformed policemen across the square.
Both sides have accused the other of using live ammunition.
The foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland were expected to present Yanukovich with a mixture of sanctions and enticements to make a deal with his opponents that could end the bloodshed.
“Black smoke, denotations and gunfire around presidential palace … Officials panicky,” tweeted Polish minister Radoslaw Sikorski to explain the delay in the meeting.
Pro-EU activists have been keeping vigil in the square since the president turned his back on a trade pact with the bloc in November and accepted financial aid from Moscow.
Russia, which has been holding back a new loan installment until it sees stability in Kiev, has condemned EU and U.S. support of the opposition demands that Yanukovich, elected in 2010, should share power and hold new elections.
In an apparent criticism of Yanukovich’s handling of the crisis, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Thursday that Moscow could only cooperate fully with Ukraine when its leadership was in “good shape”, Interfax reported.