Deadly clashes in Kiev over autonomy plan for rebel regions

31st August 2015, Comments 0 comments

One policeman was killed and dozens injured Monday in street battles with protesters in Kiev as Ukrainian lawmakers gave their initial backing to controversial legislation granting more autonomy to pro-Kremlin rebel regions.

It was the worst unrest in the capital since a bloody popular uprising ousted Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych early last year, an event that set in train the separatist insurgency in Ukraine's industrial east.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk blamed ultra-nationalists for the violence but they denied involvement.

"At a time when Russia and its bandits are seeking to destroy the country but are unable to do this on the front line, the so-called pro-Ukrainian political forces are trying to open a second front inside the country," he said in an address to the nation.

The violence involving hundreds of demonstrators flared up shortly after MPs backed the first reading of constitutional reforms that critics have branded "un-Ukrainian" for giving the Moscow-backed insurgents greater powers in the east.

Riot police armed with batons were seen clashing with the protesters.

A loud blast was heard outside parliament and clouds of black smoke billowed into the air as demonstrators threw what security forces said were live grenades.

Some of the injured were seen bleeding on the ground in front of the parliament building, with many suffering injuries to their arms and legs. Most of those hurt were in uniform.

The authorities said a member of the National Guard, believed to be a 24-year-old conscript, died of his injuries.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov initially said he died from a bullet wound to the heart but later corrected this, saying he was killed by shrapnel from a grenade.

Avakov said a deputy interior minister was also hurt.

Police said around 90 members of the security forces were injured, with spokeswoman Oksana Blyshchyk saying separately that 10 of them were in a critical condition.

The city authorities said two journalists were also hurt.

The interior ministry blamed the nationalist Svoboda party for the unrest, saying those detained included a member of its paramilitary unit accused of throwing the grenade.

"More than 30 people have already been detained. More to come," Avakov said, adding that people who threw "several" explosive devices were wearing T-shirts with the Svoboda logo.

Svoboda rejected the accusations, instead blaming the violence on the authorities who it said were the first to use force against the protesters.

The party led by fiery nationalist Oleg Tiagnybok called the explosions a provocation designed to cast suspicion on "Ukrainian patriots".

Authorities opened a criminal probe into the clashes.

- 'Anti-Ukrainian war' -

The authorities confiscated a F1 anti-personnel grenade, which Avakov noted was designed to cause maximum death and injury.

"Investigation and punishment will be unavoidable," he said, calling the clashes an "anti-Ukrainian war".

Tear gas was used by both sides, an AFP correspondent said.

The Western-backed reforms aim to give greater autonomy to the separatist east as part of a February peace deal which called for Kiev to implement decentralisation by the year's end.

A total of 265 lawmakers voted in favour of the draft legislation at a stormy session, which saw some MPs try to disrupt the vote, which they condemned as "anti-Ukrainian" and "pro-Vladimir Putin."

Some shouted "Shame!"

- Controversial legislation -

The bill has sparked heated debate in Ukraine where opponents see it as an attempt to legalise de facto rebel control of part of the ex-Soviet country's territory.

Kiev's Western allies see the reforms as a way of trying to end the armed conflict in the east that has claimed more than 6,800 lives over the past 16 months.

The reform bill grants more powers to regional and local lawmakers including in the eastern areas currently under rebel control.

But contrary to the expectations of separatists, it does not definitively hand the largely industrial eastern region the semi-autonomous status that the insurgents are seeking.

The Russian-speaking regions -- dotted with war-shattered steel mills and coal mines that once fuelled Ukraine's economy -- want their special status spelt out in constitutional amendments that would be enormously difficult to overturn.

Kiev and the West accuse Russia of backing the rebels militarily and in particular deploying its troops to the conflict zone, claims that the Kremlin has repeatedly denied.

Russia on Friday dismissed the constitutional amendments on decentralising Ukraine as merely an "imitation" of compliance with the February deal.

Ukraine last week accused Russia of sending huge numbers of reinforcements to aid separatists.

On Saturday, French President Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel of Germany agreed with Putin to hold a new Ukraine summit in the coming weeks.

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© 2015 AFP

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