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Ukraine army chief sacked amid rising tension

President fires commander who urged restraint, as security service launches "anti-terrorist" drive against protesters.

Last updated: 19 Feb 2014 20:44
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The president of Ukraine has sacked his army commander and replaced him with a hardliner, hours after security forces said they would launch an "anti-terrorist" operation targeting anti-government protesters.

Viktor Yanukovich announced on Thursday that Yuri Iliin would replace Volodymyr Zamana to head the powerful post, but provided no explanation for the decision. The announcement came as protesters continued to battle police, in what is the worst violence since Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union.

Zamana was known to have publically disagreed with Yanukovych at the start of the month when the embattled Ukrainian leader first considered imposing a state of emergency in response to the wave of pro-EU protests gripping Kiev and other parts of the country.

The ousted army chief said on February 1 that "no one had the right to use the armed forces to restrict the rights of citizens" - a statement that won him wide praise in the protest movement.

The 51-year-old Iliin, reportedly a Belarusian, had until now served as the head of Ukraine's navy. He is viewed as a strong Yanukovich loyalist.

Al Jazeera's Andrew Simmons, reporting from Kiev, said the new army chief is considered a more hardline option - and local media suggest the president's decision was in preparation for military action against the protesters. 

The announcement as the National Security Service and the Ukrainian Anti-Terrorist Centre announced action against protesters, claiming they had seized over 1,500 firearms in the last few days.

It was not immediately clear when the operation would enter into force. It grants the army the right to detain suspects and hand them over for questioning to prosecutors and the police, AFP news agency reported.

The United States has condemned the violence in Ukraine "in the strongest terms". President Barack Obama said that the US holds Ukraine's government primarily responsible to ensure it is dealing with peaceful protesters appropriately.

"Our interest is to make sure the Ukrainian people can express their own desires," said Obama. "We believe a large majority of Ukrainians are interested in an integration with Europe and the commerce and cultural exchanges that are possible for them to expand opportunity and prosperity."

He added that the US is deeply engaged with its European partners, Ukraine's government and the opposition. EU foreign ministers will meet in Brussels on Thursday to discuss possible sanctions on the country.

Volodymyr Zamana

Russia, Yanukovich's international ally, on Wednesday demanded that Ukrainian opposition leaders "stop the bloodshed" and said Moscow would use all its influence to bring peace to its "friendly brother state".

The announcement as the National Security Service and the Ukrainian Anti-Terrorist Centre announced action against protesters, claiming they had seized over 1,500 firearms in the last few days.

The statements followed a night of chaos and violence in the capital, Kiev, which left a total of 26 people dead and hundreds injured. Opposition leaders urged protesters to remain on the streets to push for the removal of the president.

Clashes with riot police started in Kiev early on Tuesday morning.

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