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Flames lit up the Ukrainian capital last night as riot police tried to clear Kiev's main square of thousands of protesters. Ukraine's Health Ministry says at least 25 people were killed in the rioting; ten of the dead were police, and one was a Ukrainian journalist. The fighting is the worst since protests began last fall, set off when Ukraine's president backed away from a trade deal with the European Union. That country is split between those who want to keep their close ties with Russia and those who want to move towards the West.
We reached BBC reporter David Stern, who's been out in the streets of Kiev. Good morning.
DAVID STERN: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Describe for us what you've been seeing over these past hours and how different it's been from the demonstrations that have come before it.
STERN: Well, we've seen waves of violence and then relative peace. But what I've been seeing the last 24 hours has been the worst violence so far. After it kicked off near the parliament, it turned into street battles in a number of locations. The protesters were throwing Molotov cocktails, bricks that they had pried up from the street and they created a sort of bucket brigade of passing the bricks up to the front line of the activists who are battling the police.
The police, of course, were returning fire with rubber bullets, with stun grenades, which created deafening roars. So it really seems like a battlefield. And at the entire time there was a smell of tires burning. The protesters had set tires on fire. And, of course, there was tear gas. So it's turned this area of Kiev into a war zone.
The opposition leaders of this movement met with President Viktor Yanukovych. These talks produced nothing. In fact, it seems that the two sides are digging in even deeper. Mr. Yanukovych said that the protesters had crossed a line. So at the moment, everyone is watching very closely to see what will happen next, speaking about a decisive moment one way or another. And perhaps the violence will continue and even escalate.
MONTAGNE: Now, the opposition leaders have been calling for President Yanukovych's resignation. But what ultimately do they want from this government? What are they accusing him and the government of doing?
STERN: Well, there are many, many complaints. The opposition leaders, they say that this is a criminal regime - those are their words. There is without a doubt rampant corruption in Ukraine. This is a fact, this has been documented by Western organizations. And the local press writes extensively about corruption reaching all the way up into the highest echelons of the government. The people talk about the Yanukovych family. So they would like to see him go.
But that's really what the people - when I speak to them on the street, what they say is they want a new system. They see the whole structure as rotten and corrupt. And what they want is a new start, if that's possible. And the European Union has sort of provided a symbol for the direction that these protesters want to go.
MONTAGNE: Well, are there signs that these protests are spreading far beyond the capital, Kiev?
STERN: Well, yes. They have spread, not to the extent that we've seen in Kiev. The western part of the country and the central part of the country, where Kiev is located, they are primarily anti-government, anti-President Yanukovych. And so we have been seeing demonstrations in the major cities of the west. Government buildings have been seized. And there's general support, people are actually coming from the west - have come from the west into Kiev.
But then we have the eastern part of the country and the south - in particular Crimea. These are Russian speaking and there's a large ethnic Russian population. And either they are more ambivalent about the demonstrations or they're not supporting them at all.
MONTAGNE: So it's a strong word but I'm just wondering if there's any suggestion that Ukraine is looking at a civil war here.
STERN: Well, there's - yes. There are suggestions, more than suggestions. There have been a number of warnings. Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of Ukraine after independence, in fact warned last month that they were on the brink of civil war. Now, we're not at that point yet, but as I say, it is a divided country. Ukraine percentage-wise, at least the latest opinion polls, show the country is split evenly between those who support the protest movement and those who are against.
So the question is, what will be the reaction of the west when they see this violence? But also, what will be the reaction in the east, in particular Crimea, because there have already been rumblings there, that the Russian speaking population may ask for outside for outside help.
MONTAGNE: The BBC's David Stern speaking to us from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Thank you very much.
STERN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.