Ukraine's embattled president fired his army chief Wednesday, as thousands of opposition protesters manned barricades in central Kyiv and the military announced a nationwide crackdown on what it calls "extremist groups."
The firing of General Volodymyr Zamana follows hours of clashes in Kyiv between opposition protesters and riot police that left at least 26 people dead and hundreds of others wounded. President Viktor Yanukovych -- the target of the protests -- offered no explanation for the dismissal.
Hours after the violence subsided, the Interior Ministry announced a sweeping "anti-terrorist" operation, saying protesters elsewhere in the country had overrun government arms depots and seized weapons and munitions. Local media quote officials as saying they fear those stockpiles are being transported to the capital for use by protesters.
Security service chief Oleksandr Yakimenko said municipal buildings, security offices and arms depots had been raided around the country. He said 1,500 firearms and 100,000 rounds of ammunition had wound up "in the hands of criminals" over the previous 24 hours.
The latest violence -- the deadliest in nearly three months of anti-government protests -- triggered widespread condemnation from Western capitals and a statement of grave concern from the United Nations.
President Yanukovych is blaming opposition leaders for the latest fighting, which escalated as riot police charged the main opposition protest encampment in Kyiv late Tuesday.
Police and opposition representatives said many of the dead were killed by gunshots. Dozens of the injured were reported in serious condition. Nine of the dead were police officers.
European Union foreign ministers have called an emergency meeting Thursday in Brussels, where they are expected to agree on sanctions against those found responsible for the violence.
Earlier Wednesday, Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko met with President Yanukovych, but the meeting failed to produce a breakthrough. Klitschko said the president demanded protesters "stop the standoff" and unconditionally vacate Independence Square.
Klitschko urged the pro-Western demonstrators occupying the square to defend their positions. Thick black smoke could be seen rising from the barricades encircling the protest camp Wednesday.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a statement saying he is "shocked" by the escalation of violence and said use of deadly force by either side is unacceptable.
The United States has issued a travel warning for its citizens in Ukraine, warning them to "maintain a low profile" while in the capital and be prepared to remain indoors at night.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden phoned Mr. Yanukovych late Tuesday to express "grave concern" about the violence, calling on the Ukrainian president to pull back security forces and exercise maximum restraint. Biden told Mr. Yanukovych his government bears "special responsibility" to resolve the crisis.
Anti-government protests have been building for weeks, with activists calling for Mr. Yanukovych's ouster after he backed away from a trade deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.
Meanwhile in Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov condemned the deadly Ukraine protests as a "coup attempt." He denied claims President Vladimir Putin was giving advice to Ukraine's president on how to handle the crisis and reiterated Moscow would not interfere with Ukraine's internal affairs.