Estonia denies leaked call implicates Ukraine protesters in killings

TALLINN (Reuters) - Estonia denied on Wednesday that a leaked telephone call showed that its foreign minister had blamed opponents of Ukraine’s deposed president for sniper killings during last month’s unrest - as Russian media have suggested.

The Baltic state acknowledged that the audio recording of a conversation between Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was authentic, but rejected the way some have interpreted it.

The recording, published on YouTube, was picked up by Russian state television and was the top item on state news agency RIA-Novosti.

Rossyia-24 state TV dubbed parts into Russian and suggested the EU now had proof that sniper shootings at police and protesters had been carried out by the same people.

At least 88 people were killed in gunbattles between police and anti-government protesters in late February in Ukraine’s worst violence since Soviet times. Each side has blamed the other for using snipers.

In the leaked audio, Paet, speaking in imperfect English, says a doctor identified only as Olga had told him on a visit to Kiev that snipers may have come from the opposition.

“The same Olga told that, well, all the evidence shows that people who were killed by snipers from both sides among policemen and then people from the street,” Paet says.

“So that there is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind the snipers it was not Yanukovich, but it was somebody from the new coalition,” he said, referring to the former opposition to deposed President Viktor Yanukovich.

In a statement, the Estonian government denied Paet viewed the opposition as being involved in the sniping.

“Foreign Minister Paet was giving an overview of what he had heard the previous day in Kiev and expressed concern over the situation on the ground,” it said.

“We reject the claim that Paet was giving an assessment of the opposition’s involvement in the violence.

A spokeswoman for Ashton declined to comment on the leaked conversation.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has not reacted officially, but Itar-Tass news agency quoted a source at the ministry on Wednesday as saying that Moscow was “surprised” that the EU was not commenting on the intercepted phone chat.

Reporting by David Mardiste in Tallin; Additional reporting by Niklas Pollard in Stockholm; Justyna Pawlak in Brussels and Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow; Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Sonya Hepinstall