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Russia, Ukraine feud over sniper carnage

Saturday - 3/8/2014, 1:14pm  ET

In this Friday, Feb. 21, 2014 file photo, a man with a gun runs along a street during a clash between opposition protesters and riot police at a burning barricades near the Presidential office in Kiev, Ukraine. As questions circulate about who was behind the lethal snipers that sowed death and terror in Ukraine’s capital, doctors and others told the AP the similarity of bullets wounds suffered by opposition victims and police indicates the snipers were specifically trying to stoke tensions and spark a larger, angrier clash between opposition fighters and government security forces.(AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, file)

MIKE ECKEL
Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- One of the biggest mysteries hanging over the protest mayhem that drove Ukraine's president from power: Who was behind the snipers who sowed death and terror in Kiev?

That riddle has become the latest flashpoint of feuding over Ukraine -- with the nation's fledgling government and the Kremlin giving starkly different interpretations of events that could either undermine or bolster the legitimacy of the new rulers.

Ukrainian authorities are investigating the Feb. 18-20 bloodbath, and they have shifted their focus from ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's government to Vladimir Putin's Russia -- pursuing the theory that the Kremlin was intent on sowing mayhem as a pretext for military incursion. Russia suggests that the snipers were organized by opposition leaders trying to whip up local and international outrage against the government.

The government's new health minister -- a doctor who helped oversee medical treatment for casualties during the protests -- told The Associated Press that the similarity of bullet wounds suffered by opposition victims and police indicates the shooters were trying to stoke tensions on both sides and spark even greater violence, with the goal of toppling Yanukovych.

"I think it wasn't just a part of the old regime that (plotted the provocation), but it was also the work of Russian special forces who served and maintained the ideology of the (old) regime," Health Minister Oleh Musiy said.

Putin has pushed the idea that the sniper shootings were ordered by opposition leaders, while Kremlin officials have pointed to a recording of a leaked phone call between Estonia's foreign minister and the European Union's foreign policy chief as evidence to back up that version.

This much is known: Snipers firing powerful rifles from rooftops and windows shot scores of people in the heart of Kiev. Some victims were opposition protesters, but many were civilian bystanders clearly not involved in the clashes. Among the dead were medics, as well as police officers. A majority of the more than 100 people who died in the violence were shot by snipers; hundreds were also injured by the gunfire and other street fighting.

On Tuesday, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov signaled that investigators may be turning their attention away from Ukrainian responsibility.

"I can say only one thing: the key factor in this uprising, that spilled blood in Kiev and that turned the country upside down and shocked it, was a third force," Avakov was quoted as saying by Interfax. "And this force was not Ukrainian."

The next day, Prosecutor General Oleh Makhntisky said officials have found sniper bullet casings on the National Bank building a few hundred yards up the hill from Maidan, the square that became the center and the symbol of the anti-government protests. He said investigators have confirmed snipers also fired from the Hotel Ukraine, directly on the square, and the House of Chimeras, an official residence next to the presidential administration building.

Deputy Interior Minister Mykola Velichkovych told AP that commanders of sniper units overseen by the Berkut police force and other Interior Ministry subdivisions have denied to investigators that they had given orders to shoot anyone.

Musiy, who spent more than two months organizing medical units on Maidan, said that on Feb. 20 roughly 40 civilians and protesters were brought with fatal bullet wounds to the makeshift hospital set up near the square. But he said medics also treated three police officers whose wounds were identical.

Forensic evidence, in particular the similarity of the bullet wounds, led him and others to conclude that snipers were targeting both sides of the standoff at Maidan -- and that the shootings were intended to generate a wave of revulsion so strong that it would topple Yanukovych and also justify a Russian invasion.

Russia has used the uncertainty surrounding the bloodshed to discredit Ukraine's current government. During a news conference Tuesday, Putin addressed the issue in response to a reporter's question, suggesting that the snipers in fact "may have been provocateurs from opposition parties."

That theory gained currency a day later when a recording of a Feb. 26 private phone call between Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was leaked and broadcast by the Russian government-controlled TV network, Russia Today. In the call, Paet said he had heard from protesters during a visit to Kiev that opponents of Yanukovych were behind the sniper attacks.

Paet said another physician who treated victims, Dr. Olha Bogomolets, told him that both police and protesters were killed by the same bullets -- and "there is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind snipers it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new (government) coalition."

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