Thick, dark smoke rose above the centre of the Ukrainian capital amid the boom of police stun grenades Wednesday, as officers in riot gear sought to push demonstrators away from the city's main square following deadly clashes between police and protesters that left at least 25 people dead and hundreds injured and raised fears of a civil war.
After several hours of relative calm, confrontation flared up again Wednesday afternoon, with hundreds of police amassing on the edges of Independence Square, known as the Maidan, throwing stun grenades and using water cannons in a bid to disperse protesters. Thousands of activists armed with fire bombs and rocks held their ground, defending the square which has been a bastion and symbol for the demonstrators.
The violence Tuesday was the worst in nearly three months of anti-government protests that have paralyzed Ukraine's capital in a struggle over the identity of a nation divided in loyalties between Russia and the West. It prompted the European Union to threaten sanctions against Ukrainian officials responsible for the violence and triggered angry rebukes from Moscow, which accused the West of triggering the clashes by backing the opposition.
Sanctions would typically include banning leading officials from travelling to the 28-nation bloc and — crucially — freezing their assets there. Travel bans and assets freezes for the powerful oligarchs who back President Viktor Yanukovych could prompt them to pressure him to change course.
But the bad blood runs so high that it's not clear whether an unstoppable force of conflict has been unleashed: The rising rage on both sides has fueled fears that the 46-million nation in the centre of Europe could be sliding deeper into violence that could lead to its breakup. While most people in western regions of Ukraine resent Yanukovych, he still enjoys strong support in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions, where many want strong ties with Russia.
Neither side now appears willing to compromise, with the opposition insisting on Yanukovych's resignation and early elections and the president prepared to fight till the end.