Ukraine Protesters Blame Violence On Government Thugs

A major concern among peaceful anti-government protesters crowding into Kiev's central square is that Ukraine's government is trying to provoke violence in order to justify a police crackdown. In one incident, according to protest organizers, the government used provocateurs.

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Ukraine's government is under international pressure for its response to ongoing protests. The government has assured the U.S. it will not call out the army, but protestors believe the government is looking for an excuse to use force, and is plant provocateurs in the crowds to discredit a peaceful movement.

NPR's Cory Flintoff reports from the capital, Kiev.

CORY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: On December 1st, some 300,000 people gathered in Kiev's central square. That demonstration was peaceful. But just a few blocks away, near the presidential administration building on Bankova Street, trouble was brewing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

FLINTOFF: Yuri Butoosuf, a Ukrainian journalist, was there when masked men rammed a construction vehicle into a barrier set up by young soldiers. He said several dozen highly aggressive attackers then stormed the soldiers' line.

YURI BUTOOSUF: They were very organized group. They had metal sticks. They had fires.

FLINTOFF: Firebombs, actually, and flares.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

FLINTOFF: Video of the clash went worldwide, showing attackers with makeshift helmets, steel bars and bats. One man repeatedly whips at the troops with a heavy chain.

Ukraine's government has a fearsome squad of riot police known as Berkut, but they were nowhere to be seen.

BUTOOSUF: I saw the soldiers, 19-year-old, they stay against the crowd. And I see that they don't have shields.

FLINTOFF: Butoosuf says the troops were mostly young, inexperienced draftees, 19-year-olds who weren't even provided with the protective shields that riot police carry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

FLINTOFF: In the video, they can be seen locking arms and taking the brunt of the attack. Butoosuf says opposition activists at the scene recognize that the attack would create a horrific image that was just the opposite of the giant, peaceful protest that was taking place several blocks away.

BUTOOSUF: And we wanted to stop the attack, very small. There were both hooligans and the soldiers.

FLINTOFF: But he says the hooligans also beat up activists who try to intervene. By now, the air was filled with tear gas, Butoosuf says, and civilians had to retreat. The young soldiers didn't have gas masks, but some of their attackers did. After more than three hours, the authorities brought in trained riot police, who severely beat activists and journalists, arresting at least nine of them.

By that time, Butoosuf says the hooligans were nowhere to be found. He says they were provocateurs who were paid and protected by someone in the government, and who set upon ill-equipped young soldiers in an effort to create casualties, discredit the opposition and produce scenes of violence for the mass media.

BUTOOSUF: It was only special effects, no more.

FLINTOFF: The opposition moved quickly to try to stem the damage to its image. This is opposition politician Petro Poroshenko speaking to reporters the next morning.

PETRO POROSHENKO: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: He says the protest leaders did everything they could to keep activists from joining in the clash. Poroshenko calls the attackers titushki, a common nickname for thugs who are hired to provoke violence.

Amnesty International has been focused on what it says are human rights violations from the beginning of the protests. This is Tetanya Mazur, Amnesty's director in Ukraine.

TETANYA MAZUR: And right now, what they're demanding is an effective transfer and prompt investigation of all the events that took place at Bankova.

FLINTOFF: The government has been silent about the allegations. But the issue is still a concern for protest leaders who fear that a desperate government may resort to new efforts to touch off clashes.

Cory Flintoff, NPR News, Kiev.

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