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Deadly Day Breaks Peace In Kiev


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

It has been day of violence in Ukraine with at least 13 people dead in the worst fighting so far between police and anti-government protesters. The police are trying to clear barricades and protest camps in the capital, Kiev, that have been in place for the last few months as part of the opposition campaign to unseat President Viktor Yanukovych. The protests first started in November, after the government rejected an accord with the European Union in favor of stronger ties with Russia.


SIEGEL: Joining us from Kiev is reporter David Stern. And, David, until today, the confrontation appeared to be becoming less violent. Why the sudden uptick in violence?

DAVID STERN: Well, nobody really knows why now this uptick in violence, especially since we saw signs of compromise over the weekend. But it has to be said that this tension, this frustration and this aggressiveness on both sides has been there from the very beginning. This is not the first time we have seen clashes between riot police and anti-government protesters. In January, we saw days of pitched battles in one part of Kiev. But today's violence is definitely an escalation.

We saw fighting in a number of locations around - near the parliament. Protesters were trying to break through to the parliament. As you say, we've seen fatalities now. And the situation seems to be escalating even further, which is probably what most people are worried about most of all because it doesn't seem that it will ever end. And there is a question of what will happen to Ukraine as a whole if this does spread beyond the capital.

SIEGEL: David, is there a sense that the protesters who are in the streets are responding to some kind of organized leadership? Or are they largely on their own?

STERN: Well, there's a bit of both. They are responding to a leadership. There are three opposition leaders who have been negotiating with the government, with Mr. Yanukovych, and have been leading this movement. But they all are also a force unto themselves. And we do have a number of right-wing groups. They are not determining this movement. They are not the majority. But they seem to take the lead at key moments.

It's not clear what started the fighting today, but I can tell you when walking around Kiev, I saw lots of young men with ski masks, with baseball bats, and they have been training for a long time. Having said that, also, obviously there is a great deal of, I guess you could say, aggressiveness on the part of the government. So there is a definite sense that both sides are capable of violence and it's not clear exactly what the protest camp is going to be, what is leading it into the future.

SIEGEL: Well, given the obviously disastrous results of what's happened today, is there any sense of what the police, what the government is likely to do next to pursue their plan of clearing the streets?

STERN: Yeah. Nobody knows right now what the government will do. They have said they will take all legal means. There's fear that there could be a state of emergency, that perhaps they could bring out the army. So far, officials are saying that's not on the table. But there is the sense that this is escalating. The government has made it clear that it wants the protests to end, although they say they are all for peaceful protests.

So the government's - I guess you could say there aren't a whole lot of options. And at the moment, most people are focusing on just trying to dial down the violence and then possibly sometime in the future reaching some sort of political resolution.

SIEGEL: Do you have any sense - can one have any sense as to whether the protesters have the people behind them, at least the people of Kiev if not the people of Ukraine?

STERN: Well, Ukraine is a divided society. The protesters definitely do have a lot of Ukrainians behind them. But the most recent opinion polls show that the country is divided in its opinion of these protests, almost 44 to 44 percent. That being said, Mr. Yanukovych's popularity is at all-time lows. Very few people seem to be supporting him. But they're not supporting these protests. And the question is, if it continues, will these numbers increase, or will these numbers decrease?

SIEGEL: Reporter David Stern in Kiev, Ukraine, thank you very much for talking with us.

STERN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.