Smoke rises near the parliament building in Kiev as activists of radical Ukrainian parties, including the Ukrainian nationalist party Svoboda (Freedom), clash with police officers yesterday. — AFP
Smoke rises near the parliament building in Kiev as activists of radical Ukrainian parties, including the Ukrainian nationalist party Svoboda (Freedom), clash with police officers yesterday. — AFP

KIEV: A policeman was killed and dozens injured yesterday in street battles with protesters in Kiev as Ukrainian lawmakers gave their initial backing to controversial legislation granting more autonomy to pro-Kremlin rebels. It was the worst unrest in the capital since a bloody popular uprising ousted Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych early last year, an event that set in train the separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland. Ukrainian authorities blamed nationalists for the trouble and said at least 30 people had been detained.

A loud blast was heard outside parliament and vast clouds of black smoke billowed into the air as demonstrators fired off what security forces said were live grenades. The violence flared shortly after MPs backed in their first reading the constitutional amendments that critics have branded “un-Ukrainian” for giving the insurgents greater powers in the east. Riot police in helmets and armed with batons were seen clashing with the protesters. Some of the injured were bleeding and lying down on the ground in front of the parliament building.

Many suffered injuries to their arms and legs. Most wore uniform. The authorities said a National Guard officer, believed to be a conscript aged 24 or 25, died. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov initially said he died from a bullet wound to the heart but later wrote that he was apparently killed by a grenade fragment. Police said another 90 members of the security forces were injured, while city authorities said medics had identified 56 wounded including 54 servicemen and two journalists. The interior ministry blamed the nationalist Svoboda party for the unrest and said those detained included a member of its paramilitary unit accused of throwing the grenade. “More than 30 people have already been detained. More to come,” Avakov said on Facebook, adding that people who threw “several” explosive devices wore T-shirts with the Svoboda logo.

‘Anti-Ukrainian war’ Avakov said the authorities had confiscated several grenades including an F-1 which Avakov noted had a maximum radius to cause death and injury. “Investigation and punishment will be unavoidable,” he said, calling the clashes an “anti-Ukrainian war.” Oksana Blyshchyk, a spokeswoman for Kiev police, said separately that around 100 police were injured and 10 of them were in critical condition. Protesters also fired at least one smoke grenade that sent up a thick cloud of black smoke outside the building. Tear gas was used by both sides, an AFP correspondent said. French journalist Antoine Delaunay wrote on Twitter that he “took a rock” to his face and at least one photographer was lightly injured. The controversial Western-backed reforms aim to give greater autonomy to the separatist east as part of a February peace deal which called for Kiev to implement decentralisation” by the end of this year. A total of 265 lawmakers voted in favour of the draft legislation at a stormy session, which saw some MPs try to disrupt the vote, which they condemned as “anti-Ukrainian” and “pro-Vladimir Putin.” Some shouted ‘Shame!’

More powers for lawmakers The bill has sparked heated debate in Ukraine where opponents see it as an “un-Ukrainian” attempt to legalise the de facto rebel control of part of the ex-Soviet country’s territory. Kiev’s Western allies see them as a way of trying to end the armed conflict in the east that has claimed more than 6,800 lives over the past 16 months. The reform bill grants more powers to regional and local lawmakers including in the eastern areas currently under rebel control. But contrary to the expectations of separatists, it does not definitively hand the largely industrial eastern region the semi-autonomous status that the insurgents are seeking. According to the text of the draft legislation, the region’s status needs to be defined by a separate law. The mostly Russian-speaking regions-dotted with war-shattered steel mills and coal mines that once fuelled Ukraine’s economywant their special status spelled out in constitutional amendments that would be enormously difficult to overturn. — AFP