At least 50 people have died this week in clashes in Kiev, a sharp reversal in a months-long crisis that had shown tentative steps toward compromise just days earlier.
President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition leaders who demand his resignation are locked in a decades-long battle over the identity of this nation of 46 million, whose loyalties are divided between Russia and the West. Parts of the country— mostly in its western cities — are in open revolt against Yanukovych's central government.
After urban street battles that were almost medieval in nature, an Associated Press reporter saw 21 bodies Thursday laid out on the edge of the sprawling protest encampment in central Kiev. In addition, one policeman was killed and 28 suffered gunshot wounds Thursday, Interior Ministry spokesman Serhiy Burlakov told the AP.
Late Wednesday, Yanukovych met with opposition leaders and they called for a truce and negotiations. But the truce call appeared to have little credibility among hardcore protesters at Kiev's Independence Square campsite.
One protest camp commander, Oleh Mykhnyuk, tolded The AP that even after the truce call, protesters continued to throw firebombs at riot police on the square. As the sun rose, police pulled back, the protesters followed them and police began shooting at them, he said.
Video footage on Ukrainian television showed shocking scenes of protesters being cut down by gunfire, lying on the pavement as comrades rushed to their aid, trying to protest themselves with shields.
Government snipers were shooting at some protesters in Kiev, according to an AP cameraman and a protester. Heavy paving stones, firebombs and more were sent flying toward police.
The Interior Ministry on Thursday said Kiev residents should limit their movements or stay home altogether because of the "armed and aggressive mood of the people."
Neither side appears willing to compromise, with the opposition insisting on Yanukovych's resignation and an early election and the president apparently prepared to fight until the end.
Amid the carnage, signs were emerging that Yanukovych is losing loyalists as the crisis roils. The chief of Kiev's city administration, Volodymyr Makeyenko, announced Thursday he was leaving Yanukovych's Party of Regions.
"We must be guided only by the interests of the people, this is our only chance to save people's lives," he said, adding he would continue to fulfill his duties as long as he had the people's trust.
Another influential member of the ruling party, Serhiy Tyhipko, said both Yanukovych and opposition leaders had "completely lost control of the situation."
"Their inaction is leading to the strengthening of opposition and human victims," the Interfax news agency reported.
In a statement Thursday, Yanukovych claimed that police were not armed and "all measures to stop bloodshed and confrontation are being taken."
As the violence exploded and heavy smoke from burning barricades at the encampment belched into the sky, the foreign ministers of three European countries — France, Germany and Poland — met with Yanukovych, after their meeting with the opposition leaders.
Later Thursday in Brussels, the 28-nation European Union was scheduled to hold an emergency meeting on Ukraine, to consider sanctions against those behind the violence.
The latest bout of street violence began Tuesday when protesters attacked police lines and set fires outside parliament, accusing Yanukovych of ignoring their demands to enact constitutional reforms that would limit the president's power — a key opposition demand. Parliament, dominated by his supporters, was stalling on taking up a constitutional reform.
In a statement early Thursday, the Ukrainian Health Ministry said 28 people have died and 287 have been hospitalized during the two days of street violence. Protesters who have set up a medical care facility in a downtown cathedral so that wounded colleagues would not be snatched by police at the hospital say the number of injured are significantly higher — possibly double or triple that.
A statement from the Interior Ministry on Thursday said the gunfire against officers appeared to be coming from the national music conservatory in Kiev, which is on the edge of the downtown square housing an extensive protest tent camp.
Also Thursday, the parliament building was evacuated because of fears protesters were preparing to storm it.
At the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Ukrainian alpine skier Bogdana Matsotska, 24, said she will not take part in Friday's women's slalom to protest the developments in Kiev.
"As a protest against lawless actions made toward protesters, the lack of responsibility from the side of the president and his lackey government, we refuse further performance at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games," her father and coach, Oleg Matsotskyy, wrote in a Facebook post.
The clashes this week have been the most deadly since protests kicked off three months ago after Yanukovych shelved an association agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. Russia then announced a $15 billion bailout for Ukraine, whose economy is in tatters. Political and diplomatic maneuvering has continued, with both Moscow and the West eager to gain influence over this former Soviet republic.
President Barack Obama also stepped in to condemn the violence, warning Wednesday "there will be consequences" for Ukraine if it continues. The U.S. has raised the prospect of joining with the EU to impose sanctions against Ukraine.
Russia's Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, described the violence as an attempted coup and even used the phrase "brown revolution," an allusion to the Nazi rise to power in Germany in 1933.
On Thursday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Russia will "try to do our best" to fulfill its obligations to Ukraine, but indicated Moscow would hold back on further installments of its bailout money until the crisis is resolved.
"We need that the partners are in good shape and that the Ukrainian government is legitimate and effective, that this government is not used like a rag for wiping off feet," he said.