KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Authorities in Ukraine said Thursday that they have detained several members of an elite riot police unit on suspicion of shooting protesters during bloody anti-government clashes in February that left more than 100 dead.
The Prosecutor General’s Office said those detained include the head of a company in the Berkut riot police who allegedly handed out weapons for use against demonstrators.
A government report is to be released later Thursday on the events on Feb. 18-20.
Days after those killings, President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital, precipitating the fall of his government.
The identity of the snipers is disputed. The interim government says Yanukovych ordered snipers to be deployed – a charge Yanukovych denied in an AP interview on Wednesday.
Opponents of the current leadership say snipers were organized by opposition leaders trying to whip up outrage.
Yanukovych also said he “was wrong” in inviting Russian troops into Crimea, which was swiftly annexed by Moscow following a referendum in which reunion with Russia was backed by 97 percent of those who voted.
Ukraine’s fledging government and Western leaders have since expressed concern about a recent build-up of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border. President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week that the troops were there for military exercises and that one battalion has already left.
Yanukovych, in the interview with AP and Russia’s state NTV television, did not answer several questions about whether he would support any Russian move into other areas of Ukraine on the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday offered further assurances, telling reporters that Russian troops “will be returning to the place of their permanent quarters as soon as other participants of the exercise have completed their tasks.”
Lavrov, however, accused the Ukrainian government “and their patrons in the West of blowing this out of proportion,” adding that Russia did not violate any international norms by sending additional troops to its own borders.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, who commands all NATO forces in Europe, said Russia has 40,000 troops along the border with neighboring Ukraine, and that they are capable of attacking by land and air on 12 hours’ notice.
The sheer size and posture of its forces are destabilizing although the Russians’ plans remain unknown to NATO, Breedlove said.
Peter Leonard in Kiev, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this story.