KIEV, Ukraine — Security forces fired on masses of anti-government demonstrators in Kiev on Thursday in a drastic escalation of the 3-month-old crisis that left dozens dead and Ukraine reeling from the most lethal day of violence since Soviet times.
The shootings followed a quickly shattered truce, with protesters parading dozens of captured police officers through Kiev's central square. Despite a frenzy of East-West diplomacy and negotiations, there was little sign that tensions were easing.
President Viktor Yanukovych lost at least a dozen political allies including the mayor of the capital, who resigned from his governing Party of Regions to protest the bloodshed. Yanukovych conferred with three foreign ministers from the European Union who had come to press for a compromise solution, practically within sight of the main conflict zone in downtown Kiev.
The sights of bullet-riddled bodies slumped amid smoldering debris, some of them shot in the head, and screaming medics carrying the dead and wounded to emergency clinics, including one in a hotel lobby, shocked the country and the world. The opposition said at least 70 and as many as 100 people had been killed, while municipal authorities put the day's death toll at 39.
There were signs late Thursday that Yanukovych might be moving closer to compromise, apparently expressing willingness to hold presidential and parliamentary elections this year, as the opposition has demanded. But given the hostility and mistrust on both sides, aggravated by the mayhem that has engulfed central Kiev, the prospects of any agreement seemed remote — particularly now that many of the president's adversaries say they will settle for nothing less than his resignation.
About the only thing that was clear by late Thursday was that protesters had reclaimed and even expanded territory in the center of Kiev that they had lost just two days earlier when the police began a bloody but unsuccessful assault on Independence Square, which has been the focal point of protests since late November. And the widespread use of firearms in the center of the city was a new and ominous element.
Earlier Thursday, there had been rumors that Yanukovych, his police ranks stretched thin, might declare a state of emergency, a move that could herald the deployment of the military to help quell the crisis in the former Soviet republic of 46 million.
Both the United States and the European Union, which made good on pledges to slap punitive sanctions on Ukrainian officials deemed to be responsible for the deadly escalation, warned Yanukovych to avoid declaring a state of emergency, which could take the country deeper into civil conflict. But short of calling in troops it looked unlikely that Yanukovych could restore his battered authority and regain control of the capital.
In a sign of trouble for Yanukovych, the mayor of Kiev, Volodymyr Makeyenko, announced in a video statement that he could no longer remain in the governing party because ordinary people were dying. He noted bitterly that "no oligarch has died, no politician has died."
With Yanukovych's allies in Parliament still resisting changes to the constitution demanded by the opposition that would reduce the powers of the president, there were intense talks underway in Kiev in hopes of ending the violence.
The foreign ministers of Germany, Poland and France met with Yanukovych for more than four hours Thursday, and then announced that they would stay in Kiev overnight to continue their discussions.
"Ahead of us is a night of heavy negotiations," Marcin Wojciechowski, a spokesman for the Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, wrote on Twitter.
The Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, said at a news conference in Warsaw that there were some indications that Yanukovych would be willing to schedule earlier parliamentary and presidential elections. The presidential elections are scheduled for March 2015.
But Vitali Klitschko, an opposition leader, expressed deep skepticism after his subsequent meeting with the European Union emissaries in Kiev. He was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying there was "no deal yet."