Fierce clashes as Ukraine MPs back more autonomy for rebels

31st August 2015, Comments 0 comments

At least 90 people mainly police were wounded in fierce clashes outside the Ukrainian parliament on Monday as lawmakers gave initial backing to deeply controversial reforms granting more autonomy to pro-Russian separatists.

A loud blast was heard outside the parliament building in Kiev and vast clouds of black smoke billowed into the air as demonstrators fired off what security forces said were live grenades shortly after MPs backed the first reading of the constitutional amendments.

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

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on Facebook that protesters had detonated "several" explosive devices, and that there were about 90 people wounded, some in critical condition.

Riot police in helmets and armed with batons were seen clashing with the demonstrators.

Interior ministry advisor and top lawmaker Anton Gerashchenko said attackers had thrown a hand grenade at National Guard troops in what he called an "act of provocation".

Some of the injured were bleeding and lying down on the ground in front of the parliament. Many suffered injuries to their arms and legs. Most wore uniform.

At least one photographer was lightly injured.

Protesters also fired at least one smoke grenade that sent up a thick cloud of black smoke outside the building. Tear gas was used by both sides, an AFP correspondent said.

The unrest erupted shortly after parliament backed in the first reading reforms to give greater autonomy to the separatist east as part of a peace deal signed in February.

- 'Un-Ukrainian reforms' -

The constitutional reforms are required under the terms of the Western-backed deal reached in the Belarussian capital Minsk, which called for Kiev to implement "decentralisation" by the end of this year.

But critics have branded the moves "un-Ukrainian".

A total of 265 lawmakers voted in favour of the draft legislation at a stormy session of parliament in Kiev.

The controversial reforms have been sought by Kiev's Western allies, who see them 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 bill has sparked heated debate in Ukraine where opponents see it as an attempt to legalise the de facto rebel control of part of the ex-Soviet country's territory.

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.

According to the text of the draft legislation, the region's status needs to be defined by a separate law.

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

- 'Shame!' -

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

A group of Ukrainian lawmakers had earlier Monday disrupted the parliament to block the vote on the constitutional reforms, which they condemned as "anti-Ukrainian" and "pro-Vladimir Putin." Some shouted "Shame!"

Lawmakers from the Radical Party -- part of the pro-Western coalition behind President Petro Poroshenko -- had also blockaded the speaker's rostrum in an attempt to halt the crucial session.

Members of the extreme-right Pravy Sektor group blocked traffic outside the parliament, while several hundred activists from the nationalist party Svoboda rallied outside the building against the Western-backed reform.

Poroshenko met at the weekend with lawmakers from the pro-presidential coalition who oppose the reform in an attempt to persuade them to change their minds.

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

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© 2015 AFP

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