• Reuters

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It only takes one word for people on Independence Square to dash for cover: “Sniper!”

A handful of snipers have been wreaking havoc on the front lines of Kiev’s urban conflict, picking off targeted individuals among the protesters with kill shots to the neck and head.

Self-defense groups on the protesters’ side say at least two snipers, and possibly as many as four or five, operating from vantage points on higher ground, turned a small area on the edge of the square Thursday into a battlefield.

Anti-government protesters hold snipers on the police side responsible for the deaths of at least 15 people in Kiev’s spasm of violence — the last possibly a man who was sipping coffee with his wife at dusk when he was shot.

Even as the opposition-led protest movement was poised to savor a victory over President Viktor Yanukovich with a deal foreseeing early elections and the formation of an interim government, there was little cause for jubilation in the wake of violence that has claimed at least 77 lives since Tuesday.

The snipers conducted their deadly work Thursday in an area about 300 meters up a steep incline from Independence Square, known locally as the Maidan, which leads to the heavily protected presidential offices.

“I saw three people fall,” said 27-year-old Roman, a former sniper from the Berkut riot police who is now part of a self-defense detail at the Hotel Ukraine, where the reception area has been turned into a field hospital.

“They were shot in the head or neck.”

Protesters said snipers, armed with Soviet-made SVD or SVS weapons and provided cover by armed police, used high ground near the October Palace to shoot at protesters who earlier that day had advanced up the hill to reclaim lost positions.

TV footage showed several sniper victims — helmeted and wearing body armor — being dragged away like lifeless rag dolls by their comrades after apparently being hit by a precise shot to the side of the head or neck.

Within two hours of the violence starting Thursday, police issued a statement saying it had been initiated by protesters who had used their own snipers.

Long before Thursday’s carnage, and as the protest movement against Yanukovich grew increasingly violent, rumors had abounded that police were using snipers.

That appeared to many to be the only explanation for the first two deaths in the conflict in late January: Two young activists were found, one dead, one dying, with gunshot wounds after a night of violence in front of Dynamo Kiev football stadium.

But TV footage and photographs of Thursday’s violence left no doubt that police snipers were at work.

One Reuters photo grab showed a police sniper, prone with legs splayed, using a telescopic sight on a Finnish-made weapon mounted on a rest.

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