The Battle of Kiev

By David Blair in Kiev

Snipers add to rising toll among protesters, with dozens killed yesterday alone.

Activists reinforce the barricades in Kiev's Independence Square, the epicentre of Ukraine's unrest. Picture / AP
Activists reinforce the barricades in Kiev's Independence Square, the epicentre of Ukraine's unrest. Picture / AP

For a moment, the white blanket serving as a shroud fell back, revealing the dead man's frozen face and a crimson bullet wound on the left side of his head.

A single round penetrating above the ear had killed this Ukrainian protester, who looked to be in his 20s. His corpse lay beside those of six of his comrades under the awning of a cafe in the heart of Kiev yesterday.

"It was a sniper," said Dr Vasyl Lukach as he stood beside the bodies, placed carefully in two rows. "They all have one or two bullets each in the head or in the neck. It was a professional."

Like many other medical personnel, Lukach has volunteered to care for the protesters massed in Independence Square. As he spoke, an eighth corpse arrived on a green stretcher, followed closely by a ninth. Both were shrouded in blankets, but as the last body was laid down, the cover slipped to reveal another pale face with mouth agape - and the matted blood of a telltale head wound.

By yesterday 75 people, including policemen, had been killed since Tuesday.

The huddle of doctors and protesters at this makeshift morgue on the pavement of a European capital needed no further proof. "Sniper" was the word they whispered. As if to emphasise their point, a volley of shots rang across Independence Square. Minutes later, a 10th body arrived to the echo of sporadic gunfire. This time, the dead man was fully shrouded and his face invisible, but the white cloth over his head was bloodstained.

A handful of shots, fired with precision, ended these young lives. As for when the men died, Lukach said that all had been killed within the previous two hours. No smell of decomposition rose from the corpses and their limbs flopped and rolled without any sign of rigor mortis.

The bodies were all brought from Instytutska St, leading off the eastern end of Independence Square, which all Ukrainians know as the Maidan.

For a few hours, this narrow artery was the front line of the struggle between the protesters and the security forces of President Viktor Yanukovych.

Yesterday, the demonstrators took advantage of a police withdrawal to surge forward and recapture all the ground they lost during the bloody assault on Thursday. As the security forces retreated before this determined counter-attack, the evidence suggests that snipers positioned in the buildings overlooking Instytutska St began to pick off their enemies.

A grand building with white columns, serving in normal times as an arts and culture centre, might have been one vantage point. Located on high ground beside Instytutska St, the old palace would have afforded a field of fire over a large expanse of the Maidan and the protesters' main line of advance.

All of the dead men were young, fit and dressed in the black jackets or camouflage fatigues typically worn by those protesters who place themselves in the thick of battle.

Some of the victims were taken to the nearby Hotel Ukraine, the lobby of which has become a morgue and dressing station. No less than 11 bodies were placed beside the reception desk, hidden by a screen of white sheets. Medicine, syringes and bandages covered every available surface, with some lying beneath the neon board that once displayed exchange rates for tourists. Volunteer doctors and nurses rushed to and fro, preparing for more casualties.

Outside, another corpse was borne on a stretcher down into the Maidan; as the dead man was carried past, dozens of protesters paused in the frenetic work of rebuilding barricades and took off their helmets in a fleeting gesture of respect.

Hotel Ukraine has acquired a red cross above its entrance and a sign in the window displaying 11 names "of those who are no longer with us".

Yegor Dorovskykh, a 27-year-old volunteer, came to the hotel as soon as he learned of its role as a field hospital. "I couldn't stay at home and watch TV," he said. "I'm trying to avoid the danger: I'm not in the front line, I just try to support from the rear. Yes, I'm afraid, but I have the same feeling as all of the people here. The people won't stop until, at a minimum, Yanukovych will go - and some of his people have to be in prison because, as you see, they have killed."

Yesterday the protesters did their utmost to lend dignity to their dead. No corpses were left uncovered and every effort was made to identify the casualties.

As for yesterday's final death toll, I counted 12 corpses around the cafe. Another Daily Telegraph reporter saw six more. The 11 dead in Hotel Ukraine bring the total confirmed by this newspaper to 29. Just that number makes yesterday the bloodiest day of political violence in the history of Ukraine as an independent state. The real toll was almost certainly higher.

Yet, after the security forces had gone to such lengths to terrorise and break their enemies, the end result was that the protesters were still the masters of the Maidan. They regained every inch of ground lost on Thursday, which was previously the bloodiest day of the battle.

As each nightfall sets another record for bloodshed, in the Maidan they are preparing for the worst. The entrance to Khreshchatyc underground station has become a Molotov cocktail factory where young women in high heels pour petrol into old wine bottles. Nearby, a row of cafes has become a row of first aid stations.

- Daily Telegraph UK

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf01 at 18 Dec 2014 12:20:43 Processing Time: 453ms