Ukraine's Yanukovich blames radicals for bloodshed at Maidan protests

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovich on Monday blamed armed nationalist radicals for fomenting violence in the 2014 Maidan protests that led to scores of protesters being killed and ultimately prompted him to flee into exile.

Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovich appears to testify via video link with a Ukrainian court during the trial of former riot police officers, suspected of killing protesters during the Maidan street revolt of 2013/2014, at a regional court in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

His testimony to a Ukrainian court via a video link from neighboring Russia was the first time Ukrainian authorities could question the pro-Kremlin leader in relation to the fatal shootings of demonstrators in Kiev nearly three years ago.

He appeared as a witness rather than an accused in the trial of five riot police officers accused of murder, angering many Ukrainians who want to see him in the dock. Around 15-20 protesters were outside the court as the session began.

Yanukovich used the 6 hour televised proceedings to defend his actions in the final months of his presidency. He called his ousting a “coup”, denied giving orders for police to fire at protesters and said he was trying to prevent bloodshed.

Questioned on specifics, he said he couldn’t remember whether he had spoken to Russian leader Vladimir Putin by phone during the Maidan protests or whether he had met a close Putin aide at his residence around the same time.

Asked if he had signed a request for Russian troops to invade Ukraine, he deferred the question to his lawyer. Information about the shootings of protesters had first come to him via the media. He said the new authorities had destroyed crucial evidence of what really happened at Maidan.

“Different provocations escalated the situation. Radicals and those who manipulated them were guilty. They provoked the bloodshed”,” he said, adding later that all the leaders at Maidan protests carried political responsibility for the deaths.

“It was reported that the shooting was being conducted from buildings that were under the opposition’s control. I did not give any order to shoot,” he said.

Yanukovich escaped Kiev in the final days of the Maidan protests, which installed a Western-backed leadership and lit the fuse for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and a separatist conflict in the mainly Russian-speaking east.

More than 100 demonstrators were killed in the three months of protests in Maidan square - 48 allegedly shot by police snipers who Ukrainian authorities say received direct orders from Yanukovich.

He is being investigated on suspicion of mass murder in a separate case.

Ukraine’s General Prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko stood up in the courtroom during a break in Monday’s proceedings to read out a statement accusing Yanukovich of treason.

Writing by Matthias Williams