KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — The head of Ukraine’s police on Saturday accused opposition protesters of stockpiling firearms and blamed their rising radicalism for the shooting death of an officer, as tensions roiled in the capital and the western sector of the country.
The statement by Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko, one of the government figures most despised by the opposition, came as protesters briefly seized the energy ministry’s headquarters.
Demonstrations that started in late November to protest President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to shelve a long-awaited agreement to deepen ties with the European Union had been mostly peaceful until a week ago, when radical factions enraged by new laws to crack down on protests started violent clashes with police.
On Saturday, the city health department said a third man had died of wounds suffered in a clash on Wednesday. Two protesters died that day of gunshot wounds. Health department spokeswoman Natalia Vishnevska said the man who died Saturday had been wounded in the chest, but did not give further details.
Since the outbreak of the Kiev clashes, protesters have seized regional administration buildings in a score of cities in western Ukraine, where support for Yanukovych ranges from thin to virtually nil. Hundreds of demonstrators took the administration building in Vinnitsya, 180 kilometers (110 miles) southwest of Kiev on Saturday.
The clashes and the spread of unrest outside the capital suggest that the government could be losing control of much of the country. Zakharchenko’s statement appeared to show alarm.
“The events of recent days in the Ukrainian capital showed that our attempts to peacefully resolve the conflict without resorting to forceful opposition remain futile,” Zakharchenko said. He claimed that police had information that protesters were gathering arms in the Kiev city hall and trade union building, two places that demonstrators have occupied since early December and turned into operational centers.
He also blamed radical calls for attacks on and seizure of police officers for the death of a policeman whose body was found Friday night in Kiev. No arrests have been made or suspects named.
Separately, the Interior Ministry claimed that protesters were holding two policemen in the city hall after detaining them the night before and threatened to storm the building if they were not released. Opposition members denied they were holding police or gathering arms.
But Andriy Hrytsenko, a well-known opposition figure and former defense minister, was quoted Saturday by the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda as calling for protesters who have legal arms to carry them in self-defense.
“Firearms should be used only in response to threats to human life. I’ll be the first to do this,” he was quoted as saying.
Protesters on Saturday morning seized the headquarters of the energy ministry, but left it several hours later. Energy Minister Eduard Stavitskiy was quoted by the Unian news agency as saying that all the country’s nuclear power facilities were put on high alert after the seizure.
Yanukovych has refused protesters’ demand to resign and call early elections, offering only minor concessions to the opposition Friday. Protesters who had observed an uneasy truce with police at the clash site near the Ukrainian parliament resumed the violence, with protesters pelting rocks and fire bombs at police, who responded with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets.
On Saturday afternoon, the clash site was tense and black smoke billowed from a barricade of burning tires. Demonstrators milled about, many of them bearing clubs, metal rods and large sticks, but there was no violence.
Yanukovych has called a special parliament session for Tuesday. The session would consider a government reshuffle, amnesty for many of the arrested protesters and changing harsh new laws cracking down on protests, he said on Friday.
The new laws were a critical factor in prompting the last week’s violence, in contrast to the determined peacefulness of most of the previous weeks of protests.
The holding company of Rinat Akhmetov, a powerful tycoon whose support has been important to Yanukovych, on Saturday issued a statement calling for a peaceful resolution of the crisis, saying “The most important thing is that the route of force will not find an exit.”
AP writer Yuras Karmanau in Minsk contributed to this story.