KIEV, Ukraine – The head of Ukraine's police says protesters on Saturday released two officers they seized and tortured, but a protest leader called the claim a provocation aimed at justifying a crackdown.
Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko, one of the government figures despised most by protesters, said the two officers were released with the help of negotiations by foreign embassies. He said they had been hospitalized, but did not give details of how they allegedly were abused.
Zakharchenko earlier said the officers were seized by volunteer security guards at the protest gatherings in Kiev. But the commandant of the corps, Mykhailo Blavatsky, told The Associated Press that no police had been seized.
"The authorities are looking for a pretext to break up the Maidan and creating all kinds of provocations," he said, referring to the main square of Kiev where around-the-clock protests have been going on for nearly two months. "Capturing a policeman would only give the authorities reason to go on the attack and we don't need that."
Zakharchenko's claim and an earlier statement that a third captured officer had been released and was in serious condition in a hospital raised fears that police were preparing to break up the protest.
"We will consider those who remain on the Maidan and in captured buildings to be extremist groups. In the event that danger arises, and radicals go into action, we will be obliged to use force," Zakharchenko said.
Demonstrations that started in late November to protest President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to shelve a long-awaited agreement to deepen ties with the European Union had been mostly peaceful until a week ago, when radical factions enraged by new laws to crack down on protests started violent clashes with police.
The clashes and the spread of unrest outside the capital suggest that the government could be losing control of much of the country.