KIEV: Ukrainian police and protesters on Wednesday engaged in ferocious clashes in the center of Kiev, leaving five activists dead in the first fatalities in two months of anti-government protests.
An area in the center of the capital was turned into a virtual war zone as protesters hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at police and the security forces responded with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets.
The opposition movement´s medical service said that five of its activists had been killed and four of them reported found with gunshot wounds.
Prosecutors have so far confirmed two deaths. The bloody clashes marked a new peak in tensions after two months of protests over the government´s failure to sign a deal for closer integration with the European Union under Russian pressure.
Ukrainian opposition leaders said the next 24 hours would be crucial as they waited to hear from President Viktor Yanukovych if he would accept concessions to halt the bloodshed.
The epicenter of the clashes was Grushevsky Street in the city center which has been the scene of three days of street battles between thousands of protesters and similar numbers of security forces.
Police launched a major assault on protesters there in the morning, initially pushing demonstrators back well beyond their initial lines by marching forward in military formation.
But the protesters then regrouped, creating a semi-circle of new barricades out of burning black tires whose rancid smoke filled the skies above Kiev and flames burned in near-apocalyptic scenes.