KIEV, Ukraine (CNN) — 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.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed.
“The violence on all sides is completely unacceptable and President Yanukovych has a particular responsibility to pull back government forces and de-escalate the situation,” Cameron said Wednesday.
The European Union “will respond to any deterioration on the ground” in violence-torn Ukraine, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Wednesday. “We therefore expect that targeted measures against those responsible for violence and use of excessive force can be agreed by our Member States as a matter of urgency, as proposed by the High Representative/Vice President.”
The foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland will travel to Kiev on Thursday morning to collect the latest information on the Ukraine crisis before going to Brussels and presenting their findings to their European Union counterparts later that day, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters Wednesday.
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.”
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.
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.”
U.S. President Barack Obama also was expected to address the issue later Wednesday while on a trip to Mexico, National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters aboard Air Force One. He said a “full toolkit” is available to the United States to respond to the Ukrainian violence, including sanctions.
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.
iReporter Volodymyr Solohub, a corporate lawyer, was among hundreds who came to Independence Square to support protesters battling police.
He watched Tuesday as demonstrators rushed injured people from the front lines to medics.
“Some of them had broken hands, and blood was flowing down their faces,” he said Wednesday.
Barrages of stun grenades shattered the air around him through the night, he said.
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.”
Even as the European Union scheduled a meeting on Ukraine for Thursday and the leaders of France and Poland called for sanctions over the violence, Yanukovych fired fresh vitriol at his opposition.
He pinned blame for the violence exclusively on protesters, but he would have none of it himself.
“This is my life principle — no power is worth a drop of blood spilled for it,” he said in a statement.
Yet he issued a veiled threat to protesters.
Opposition forces should “disassociate themselves from the radical forces that provoke bloodshed and clashes with law enforcement,” he said.
Otherwise, admit to supporting them and be treated accordingly, Yanukovych demanded.
Opposition leaders pointed the finger back, painting their supporters as the victims, not the aggressors.
Neither side seems to have a monopoly on the use of violence, and in the mayhem, it is sometimes hard to tell who is carrying it out.
The journalist who died Wednesday was shot the night before, after a group of masked people stopped a taxi he was riding in, according to a statement by his newspaper Ukrainian Vesti.
They wore camouflage clothes and threw Molotov cocktails. They also beat other passengers in the car, the paper reported.
Hopes dashed hard
Tuesday’s violence followed what seemed like a rare breakthrough.
The government had said it would drop charges against those arrested in the political unrest.
After holding Kiev’s City Hall for three months, protesters pulled back Sunday and unblocked streets in the city center.
But hope died Tuesday, when the speaker of parliament refused to allow amendments that would limit the president’s powers.
Opposition anger reignited and poured into the streets.
The government’s prosecutor general accused the opposition of breaking “the truce,” thus setting the stage for the security crackdown that ensued.
Riot police plowed into the crowd with water cannons, stun grenades and night sticks. Some demonstrators fought back, swinging what looked like baseball bats.
Protesters set fire to the headquarters of the ruling Party of Regions. But the opposition’s headquarters, the Trade Unions House, was also smoldering at daybreak Wednesday.
Authorities accused protesters of firing guns at security forces. An armored personnel carrier charged barricades but was quickly inundated and set alight.
Kiev was the center of the action, as in the past.
But police said the unrest has spread to western Ukraine, with protesters attacking police and local government offices in a number of regions.
Political fuel, spark
Flaming barricades have been a constant for three months all around Kiev’s Independence Square.
But Tuesday’s bloodshed marked a decided escalation.
Though the strife started over a trade pact, protesters’ anger was fueled by underlying sentiments in favor of the West and against Russia.
Their initial call for Yanukovych to reverse his decision on the EU trade deal avalanched over time into an attack on the President’s power base.
Yanukovych and his allies responded with some concessions, offering places in government to opposition leaders.
But on-again, off-again talks have gone nowhere.
Both sides have demanded that the other back down first, and neither is budging.
Yanukovych and opposition leader and famed boxer Vitali Klitschko played another round of the you-first game in an overnight face-to-face meeting.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Klitschko said there effectively was “no discussion.”
The President demanded the protesters back off first. Klitschko threw the demand back at him. “I told Yanukovych this,” he said. “How can we negotiate when there is blood being spilled?”
West vs. Moscow
EU leaders condemned the violence and waved the possibility of sanctions at Kiev’s government, placing most of the responsibility on its shoulders.
Barroso threatened “targeted measures against those responsible” in a statement.
But Russia is also waving money, standing by with billions in economic aid for Ukraine’s economy.
Since political tensions began, Washington and Moscow have weighed in on opposite ends and kept doing so Tuesday.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Yanukovych to press him to stop the violence, placing the responsibility to de-escalate mainly with government.
Russia accused Washington of meddling in Ukrainian affairs.
Washington is trying to tell “the authorities of a sovereign state what they should do next and how they should do it,” an article in Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti’s read.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the clashes in a statement late Tuesday and called for them to stop.
“He reiterates to all sides that the use of violence is unacceptable,” it read.
Ban said preventing more bloodshed is a “paramount priority.”
But in Kiev, the call may be falling on the deaf ears of embittered rivals.
By Phil Black, Michael Pearson and Victoria Butenko
CNN’s Phil Black and Victoria Butenko reported from Kiev, while CNN’s Michael Pearson reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Elise Labott, Jake Tapper, Greg Botelho, Ben Brumfield, Michael Martinez, Neda Farshbaf, Larry Register and Radina Gigova contributed to this report.