Ukraine’s new authorities have arrested a dozen members of the country’s disbanded “Berkut” riot police.
The men are suspected of participation in the February slayings of dozens of protesters in Kiev, gunned down while agitating for the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovych.
The authorities say more arrests are to follow and they are turning their attention to other security units, including a crack Ukrainian anti-terrorist team first identified by the Daily Beast last weekend.
In a dramatic press conference by the prosecutor general and heads of the interior ministry and SBU state security, Ukraine’s new security chiefs say Yanukovych ordered the mass slayings and the snipers were under his “direct leadership”.
They allege also they have uncovered evidence that Russia’s intelligence service the FSB assisted and advised Ukrainian counterparts in the bloody bid to suppress anti-government protests, leaving more than a hundred dead.
The new head of Ukraine’s SBU intelligence service Valentyn Nalivaichenko told reporters that his predecessor at SBI, Aleksandr Yakimenko oversaw the carnage in the Maidan on the orders of ex-president Yanukovych.
The operation started to be put into effect on the evening of February 18 when 108 Alfa Team members tried to set up on a building overlooking Independence Square.
Protesters had vacated the structure earlier because of an fire there.
The Alfa members were armed with AK-47s and sniper rifles, including German Blaser hunting rifles.
But the fire and smoke prevented the Alfa team from remaining in the building.
Russian experts, who had flown in that day to advise, also brought weapons, ammunition and explosives, said Nalivaichenko.
The Alfa members involved are now in hiding in Crimea but some former commanders are still in Ukraine and are being interrogated.
Ukraine government is demanding from Moscow the identity of the Russian FSB officers who acted as advisers.
The authorities stress that the investigation into the killings is still in its early stages and is centering on the killing of at least 53 anti-government protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan, on February 20.
Many of the dead were killed by long-distance sniper rounds.
Those killings came the day before the Yanukovych government crumbled with some key government loyalists deserting the regime as a result of the bloodshed and the ousted president fleeing Ukraine’s capital for Russia.
In all at least 103 people were killed on the streets of Kiev in the months-long protest against Yanukovych, according to the country’s Ministry of Health, although the protesters put the number at 118.
The ministry says 166 protesters remain missing and that 1,528 persons were injured in the anti-government clashes.
A spokesman for the general prosecutor said all of the arrested are being detained as suspects in “mass murder on Institutska Street,” which leads off the Maidan.
It saw some of the worst violence in February and has been renamed by protesters as the Avenue of the Heavenly Hundred, in honor of those killed.
According to Ukraine’s interim Attorney General Oleh Makhnitsky those detained so far were members of a special “Black Unit” within the Berkut “trained for special operations including the killing of people.”
He says, “They were overseen by the presidential administration,” adding that additional arrests are likely in the coming weeks.
The special operations unit provided cover for unarmed Berkut, acting Deputy Prosecutor General Aleksey Baganets told reporters.
“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 to retreat.”
The commander of the Black Unit is among the arrested.
The decision to announce preliminary findings of the ongoing probe came 48 hours after the Daily Beast published exclusive still photographs of armed members of the SBU’s anti-terrorist Alfa unit and other crack special forces units from the interior ministry locking and loading on the morning of February 20 in the courtyard of the Kiev headquarters of the Ukrainian intelligence service three blocks from the Maidan.
The SBU is the successor intelligence agency to the Ukrainian branch of the Soviet-era KGB and has exceptional ties with the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, says Ukraine’s new Justice Minister, Pavlo Petrenko.
He claims the former head of the agency was a Russian agent.
The Alfa Team trains with specialists from Russia, according to former Russian military intelligence officer Boris Volodarsky.
The photographs, part of an archive of hundreds of pictures and video footage shot on February 20 by ordinary Ukrainians and supplied exclusively to the Daily Beast also show Alfa Team members and other crack units rotating in and out of the courtyard during the shootings.
Many of their faces are visible while they are preparing for action or resting during the morning without their masks.
Today the Daily Beast is adding to the photographs published Saturday night by posting video footage of the SBU courtyard on February 20 as well as some video frames taken the following morning of suspected Alfa team members loading up a van in the courtyard with ammunition boxes before driving it away.
The February 21 frames were taken hours before Yanukovych fled the capital.
Team members are seen switching tags on VW and Mazda vans parked in the courtyard before driving them off in what Maidan activists suspect was an operation to rid the SBU of ordnance and weaponry that could be linked to the shootings.
Maidan leaders have expressed reservations about the set-up of the investigation into the slayings, which is being overseen by the new heads of the SBU, the police and the prosecutor general’s office.
They have objected to agencies possibly involved in the carnage leading the investigation, fearing the results will be flawed, worrying that even if the new leaders are determined to get to the bottom of the shootings, there are Yanukovych loyalists in the agencies able to sabotage the probe or cover up evidence.
Some activists expressed satisfaction with the explosive preliminary findings on Thursday but others are still pushing for an outside international body to probe the killings and provide oversight.
Source: The Daily Beast