Ukraine on edge after clashes as third policeman dies

1st September 2015, Comments 0 comments

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko defended on Tuesday controversial legislation giving more autonomy to pro-Russian rebels that sparked deadly street battles in Kiev.

The unrest -- the worst in the Ukrainian capital since a bloody uprising in early 2014 -- has further exacerbated divisions in Poroshenko's ruling coalition, with nationalists deeply opposed to giving the separatists greater control over the country's war-ravaged east.

Three policeman died after being wounded by a grenade explosion near the parliament building, which the government blamed on an ultra-nationalist group.

The proposed reforms, which were given initial backing by MPs in a stormy session that set off Monday's violence, are a key part of a faltering Western-backed peace deal signed in February.

Poroshenko stressed support for the controversial reforms that nationalists have branded "un-Ukrainian," by effectively legalising the rebel seizure of the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions.

"More than 70 percent of Ukrainians support constitutional changes on decentralisation and as Ukraine's president, I will be with the Ukrainian people," he said.

Poroshenko has described the violence as a "stab in the back" and warned the culprits would face "severe punishment".

Two of the policemen died Tuesday after the clashes outside parliament, with around 140 people -- most of them police -- treated in hospital.

The chaotic scenes with swirling black smoke, and riot police confronting baseball bat-wielding protesters carried echoes of the worst clashes of the Maidan uprising that ousted president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.

His ouster unleashed a separatist insurgency in the industrial east that has killed more than 6,800 people.

Political analysts said the Kiev clashes underscored weaknesses in Poroshenko's coalition.

"The president ended up in a difficult situation," Vadym Karasyov, head of the Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev, told AFP.

The right-wing Radical Party quit the ruling coalition Tuesday in protest at the legislation.

- 'High price for peace' -

The February truce deal calls for Kiev to implement "decentralisation" by the end of this year.

The West has voiced support for the controversial proposals, but expressed disquiet over Monday's violence.

European Council President Donald Tusk said it showed "Ukraine is ready to pay a high price for peace."

The White House added: "This action represents an important step toward comprehensive reform of Ukraine's governance and the empowerment of regional and local authorities."

Kiev's Western allies see the reforms as a chance to end the armed conflict in the east, as a brittle truce in the war-torn east appeared to be holding.

"At a time when Russia and its bandits are seeking to destroy the country but are unable to do this on the front line, so-called pro-Ukrainian political forces are trying to open a second front inside the country," Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Monday.

The Svoboda party led by firebrand Oleg Tyagnybok rejected the accusations, and claimed that the authorities were the first to use force against demonstrators.

Kiev police said 18 people, including a member of Svoboda's paramilitary wing accused of firing a grenade, remained in detention.

- 'True Ukrainian heroes' -

"We have already found the perpetrators," Poroshenko said after visiting the wounded in hospital.

"The organisers, who were distributing baseball bats, who helped bring weapons, will also be found."

A 24-year-old member of the National Guard suffered a shrapnel wound to the heart from the grenade explosion and died on the operating table Monday.

On Tuesday, two more members of the National Guard succumbed to their injuries, one of them after spending nearly 24 hours in a coma.

Several dozen Ukrainians including Poroshenko visited the parliament building to light candles and lay flowers in honour of those killed and wounded.

Poroshenko called those who perished in the unrest "true Ukranian heroes," saying they would receive posthumous honours.

Authorities said that 131 policemen were among the more than 140 people injured in the clashes. Ten of them remain in serious condition.

The reform bill, which has sparked debate in Ukraine, was approved by a total of 265 lawmakers on first reading and the second reading is expected to take place by the end of the year.

It will need a two-thirds majority of 450 lawmakers to pass that stage.

Russia has dismissed the legislation as merely an "imitation" of compliance with the peace deal.

Kiev and the West accuse Russia of backing the rebels with weapons and troops, a claim the Kremlin denies.


© 2015 AFP

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