Twelve members of Ukraine's disbanded 'Berkut' riot police have been detained on suspicion of shooting peaceful participants in Kiev's months-long anti-government protests, a spokesman for the General Prosecutor said on Thursday.
Ukraine's acting Attorney General Oleh Makhnitsky said the detainees were members of a specialized force within the Berkut called the 'Black Unit'.
"The police officers of this company were trained for special operations including the killing of people. They were overseen by the presidential administration," Interfax Ukraine newswire quoted Makhnitsky as saying.
The detainees belonged to ‘Berkut black company’, acting Prosecutor General Oleg Makhnitsky told journalists on Thursday.
The General Prosecutor’s office explained that unlike regular Berkut troops, which went unarmed to the confrontation with anti-government protesters, the special operations unit was issued with sniper rifles to provide cover for their Berkut comrades.
“Their task was, as they explained, although we don’t fully believe them, to shoot back at advancing protesters and allow the regular Berkut troops retreat,” acting Deputy Prosecutor General Aleksey Baganets said.
The identity of the ‘Maidan snipers’ is a hot political topic both domestically and internationally. A leaked conversation between EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet discussed a “stronger understanding” that somebody among the new Ukrainian authorities were behind the snipers.
Yanukovich, in his latest interview, said the radical part of the Maidan responded with sniper fire to an agreement he signed with opposition leaders, which among other things resulted in the pullback of security troops from Kiev.
Earlier Aleksandr Yakimenko, the man who headed the Ukrainian Security Service at the time of the confrontation, said the so-called Maidan Self-Defense Force was controlling the building, from which snipers killed people in the Kiev streets. He said he believes the snipers could be mercenaries from former Yugoslavia.
There are theories blaming other law enforcers for the bloodshed. A recent Daily Beast report alleged that the snipers came from the elite Alfa group of the Ukrainian Security Service. The report prompted comments from Olga Bogomolets, an influential Maidan activist and presidential hopeful, who said it casts doubt on the Ukrainian investigation into the killings, which may be conducted by the same people who committed the crimes.
Moscow sees another likely culprit in the killings. The radical Right Sector group is responsible for many crimes during the protest and was likely behind the snipers as well, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview on Sunday.
Both Russia and the West, at odds on many issues over the Ukrainian crisis, agree that an impartial and comprehensive investigation into the sniper case was essential for future stability in the country. But with signals coming from the investigation looking incoherent, the Ukrainian authorities may be tempted to spin the case for political gains, either domestic or international.
In Kiev, an interim preliminary report by the Ukrainian government released Thursday implicated ousted president Viktor Yanukovych in the covert planning of a series of sniper attacks in Ukrainian capital, backed by Russia, during anti-government protests.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said evidence showed Yanukovych had directly ordered snipers to open fire on protesters during a presentation of the report . Yanukovych has denied personal responsibility for the bloodshed.
Twelve members of the feared Berkut special security forces have been detained as part of the investigation, Ukraine's Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnytsky announced.