By Roman Olearchyk in Kiev
Anti-government protesters clashed with riot police near Ukraine’s parliament building in Kiev on Tuesday, stoking fresh tensions in a three-month stand-off that shows no sign of abating.
Television footage showed police snipers shooting what looked to be stun grenades and rubber bullets from the roofs of nearby buildings, forcing protesters to use makeshift shields to protect themselves.
Some protesters wearing camouflage clothing, military helmets and bulletproof vests responded with what appeared to be hand guns, although it was not clear whether they were firing rubber or live bullets.
Demonstrators also set fire to tyres close to the parliament building as reports emerged of a Molotov cocktail being hurled into the offices of the pro-presidential Party of Regions nearby.
The area around the parliament building was the site of violent clashes last month that claimed at least four lives.
Addressing journalists in Ukraine’s parliament on Tuesday, Vitali Klitschko, a heavyweight boxing champion-turned opposition leader, called for snap elections and for parliament to curb presidential powers through constitutional amendments.
“The president must call snap presidential and parliamentary elections do this and this will be an exit from the situation,” he said.
The renewed violence is the latest twist in a battle that began in late November after President Viktor Yanukovich backed away from signing far-reaching EU integration agreements.
Mr Yanukovich instead tilted Ukraine towards Moscow, which granted a $15bn bailout for the country’s ailing economy, prompting protesters to take to the streets of Kiev and other leading cities.
Kiev is facing its most serious crisis since independence in 1991 in a dispute over trade links with the EU and Russia
The escalation in violence comes a day after Anton Siluanov, Russia’s finance minister, appeared to raise the stakes in the east-west geopolitical tussle by saying his government would purchase a further $2bn of Ukrainian government bonds. Russia had frozen the assistance package following the resignation of Mykola Azarov, Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly prime minister.
As pro-presidential lawmakers on Tuesday said that Mr Yanukovich was likely to appoint a new premier this week, suspicions loomed that his choice – not yet made public – had been approved by Moscow.
“This is like groundhog day,” Timothy Ash, analyst at Standard Bank, said in a note to investors.
“The opposition blocking the rostrum of parliament as the [pro-presidential] majority reject plans for constitutional reform, protest marches on parliament and reports of clashes as Russia opens its cheque book, seemingly to back a pro-Moscow candidate as PM. Not much evidence of compromise and conciliation.”
Protesters based in a barricaded tent encampment in downtown Kiev and in a handful of seized buildings are demanding that a caretaker government be formed to sign the far-reaching EU association free trade agreements.
Opposition leaders say that if they take over government, Russian financial assistance for Ukraine’s economy would be replaced by multi-billion-dollar financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund.
Opposition lawmakers backing the pro-EU protesters have also pushed for snap presidential and parliamentary elections and for the president’s powers to be curbed through constitutional reform.