By Phil Black, Nick Paton Walsh and Ben Brumfield CNN
A shaky truce crumbled in Kiev on Thursday morning, when gunfire erupted at Maidan, or Independence Square, which has been ground zero for anti-government protesters.
At least 20 protesters died, said Oleg Musiy, head of the protesters’ medical service. A policeman was also killed, the interior ministry said.
It’s unclear what prompted the gunfire. But CNN crews at the scene reported that as security forces were moving away from the area, a group of protesters pursued them, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.
“Protesters broke the truce,” said a statement from President Viktor Yanukovych’s office.
“The opposition used the negotiation period to buy time, to mobilize and get weapons to protesters.”
When the bullets flew, several demonstrators fell to the ground.
Protesters grabbed the wounded by their clothes or limbs, and carried many of them to a hotel lobby at one end of the square that had been converted into a triage center.
Bodies, covered in bloodied sheets, lay on the floor. Orthodox priests prayed over them.
As police hastened their withdrawal, demonstrators rushed to fortify their barricades, which they then reignited.
The tent city was once again in their hands.
Death toll unclear
It’s unclear exactly how many people died Thursday. Speculation ran rampant. Various figures were thrown around.
No one wanted a repeat of Tuesday, when 28 people died, police and protesters alike.
It was the deadliest day of protests, which began in November when Yanukovych reversed a decision to sign a trade deal with the European Union and instead turned toward Russia.
That dissatisfaction has since morphed into resentment of Yanukovych, his closeness to Russia, and the power he wields.
Talks and truce
Thursday’s violent developments came just hours after an embattled Yanukovych announced a truce — and opposition leaders had agreed to abide by.
Later Thursday, European foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting in Brussels. At noon, foreign ministers from Germany, France and Poland were meeting with Yanukovych.
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, a former world-class boxer, is expected to sit down with Yanukovych also. Their meeting Wednesday led to the truce.
It’s unclear if the meeting is still on.
Bracing for crackdown
On Wednesday, senior officials in U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration told CNN they were bracing for Ukraine to intensify its crackdown under pressure from Russia.
“Things have gotten very bad,” one official said. “The government is speaking in very nasty, aggressive and confrontational terms. It signals they are prepared to do something.”
France has threatened sanctions against Ukraine over the government’s crackdown, with President Francois Hollande calling the protest violence “unspeakable, unacceptable, intolerable acts.”
But analysts warned there was little that outside pressure could do, especially if the Ukrainian military gets involved on the side of the government cracking down on protesters.
“My own hunch,” said Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, “is this is going to continue to escalate.”
CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, Phil Black, Andrew Carey and Todd Baxter reported from Kiev, while CNN’s Ben Brumfield reported and wrote from Atlanta.
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