By MARIA DANILOVA, Associated Press
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine's interim authorities accused the country's ousted president of ordering snipers to open fire on protesters and getting help from Russian security agents to battle his own people — but their report Thursday provided no evidence directly linking him to the bloodbath in Kiev.
Acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov also charged that his predecessor employed gangs of killers, kidnappers and thugs to terrorize and undermine the opposition during Ukraine's tumultuous winter of discontent.
The preliminary findings revealed by Kiev's new leadership examined the months of anti-government protests that culminated in the deaths in February over 100 people in Kiev, mostly protesters. That violence forced a truce between the opposition and the government, but the arrangement quickly collapsed and President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia.
In the weeks since the bloodshed, Russia seized and then formally annexed Crimea, Ukraine's strategic Black Sea peninsula, and the U.S. and the European Union slapped sanctions on those responsible, mainly Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle.
Also Thursday, Ukraine sent 16 senior officers to Bulgaria to join a NATO military exercise in a very public demonstration of cooperation between the alliance and the crisis-torn former Soviet republic. The computer-simulation drills involved over 700 troops from 13 NATO members and partner nations and were being held just a few hundred miles away from Crimea.
The crisis now gripping Ukraine has its roots in three days of bloodshed that peaked on Feb. 20.
Speaking at a televised press conference in Kiev, Avakov said police snipers at the time shot at demonstrators near the city's central square, known as the Maidan, as they walked toward the government district. He said 17 people were killed by government snipers positioned at the October Palace cultural center and that one government sniper alone killed as many as eight people.
"The previous leadership of the Interior Ministry and the Berkut (riot police) did everything possible to ensure that any investigations would be impossible. Clothes were burned, weapons discarded and documents destroyed," Avakov said.
Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnitsky said 12 members of an elite riot police unit named "Black Squadron" have been detained on suspicion of shooting protesters.
Ukrainian Security Service chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko charged that Yanukovych himself had ordered the killings.
"What was planned under the guise of an anti-terrorist operation, and which was in fact an operation of mass killing of people, took place under the immediate and direct leadership of former president Yanukovych," Nalyvaichenko said.
He did not elaborate on where he got his information, whether it was from witnesses, government documents, airline records or other sources.
Nalyvaichenko also said there was evidence that Russia's FSB security service assisted its Ukrainian counterparts' attempts to suppress the anti-government protests. He said FSB members were deployed at a Ukrainian security facility — 26 in December and six in January — and that they took part in planning and implementing anti-protest measures. He said the Russians even interrogated the Ukrainian security chief.
Nalyvaichenko contended that in late January, when peaceful protests turned into bloody street clashes with police, Russia sent planes to Kiev carrying massive amounts of explosive devices, arms and crowd control devices "to organize executions and the extermination of our protesters on the Maidan."
Russia's FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, swiftly dismissed the claims, telling the state news agency RIA Novosti on Thursday that the allegations should "rest on the conscience of the Ukrainian Security Service."
The identity of the snipers believed to be responsible for most of the deaths is the subject of bitter disagreement.