Protesters seize Kiev post office, stand ground

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Anti-government protesters protected themselves with shields during clashes with riot police in Kiev’s Independence Square, the epicenter of the country’s current unrest, Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. The deadly clashes in Ukraine’s capital have drawn sharp reactions from Washington, generated talk of possible European Union sanctions and led to a Kremlin statement blaming Europe and the West. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

Anti-government protesters protected themselves with shields during clashes with riot police in Kiev’s Independence Square, the epicenter of the country’s current unrest, Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. The deadly clashes in Ukraine’s capital have drawn sharp reactions from Washington, generated talk of possible European Union sanctions and led to a Kremlin statement blaming Europe and the West. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

An anti-government protester walks away during clashes with riot police in Kiev’s Independence Square, the epicenter of the country’s current unrest, Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. The deadly clashes in Ukraine’s capital have drawn sharp reactions from Washington, generated talk of possible European Union sanctions and led to a Kremlin statement blaming Europe and the West. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

Anti-government protesters clash with riot police outside Ukraine’s parliament in Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014. Ukraine’s festering political crisis took a deadly turn Tuesday, as thousands of anti-government protesters clashed with police outside Ukraine’s parliament. Three protesters were killed in the melee, the opposition reported, and emergency workers found another person dead after a fire at the ruling party’s office in Kiev. Law enforcement agencies gave the demonstrators a deadline of 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) to stop the confrontations and vowed to restore order. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

Anti-government protesters clash with riot police in Kiev’s Independence Square, the epicenter of the country’s current unrest, Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014. Thousands of police armed with stun grenades and water cannons attacked the large opposition camp in Ukraine’s capital that has been the center of nearly three months of anti-government protests on Tuesday, after at least nine people were killed in street clashes. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

An anti-government protester is engulfed in flames during clashes with riot police outside Ukraine’s parliament in Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014. Thousands of angry anti-government protesters clashed with police in a new eruption of violence following new maneuvering by Russia and the European Union to gain influence over this former Soviet republic. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Defiant Ukrainian protesters seized control of the capital’s central post office Wednesday and stood their ground against riot police on the city’s main square, a day after clashes that left at least 25 people dead and raised fears of prolonged violence.

The violence that left hundreds injured Tuesday was the worst in nearly three months of anti-government protests that have paralyzed Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. The opposition and President Viktor Yanukovych’s government are locked in a deep struggle over the identity of their nation of 46 million, which is divided in its loyalties between Russia and the West.

In an ominous development, Ukraine’s top security agency accused protesters Wednesday of seizing hundreds of firearms from its offices and announced a nationwide anti-terrorist operation to restore order. The Defense Ministry said the army could take part in the operation.

Demonstrators, meanwhile, forced their way into the post office on Independence Square, also known as the Maidan, after a nearby building they had previously occupied was burned down Tuesday in fierce, fiery clashes with police overnight. Against an onslaught from riot police late Tuesday, thousands of activists armed with fire bombs and rocks had defended the square, which has been a bastion and symbol for the demonstrators.

Black smoke from the sprawling, now-burnt opposition camp was still rising above the center of Kiev on Wednesday afternoon.

The sharp escalation of violence in Ukraine prompted the European Union to threaten sanctions against Ukrainian officials responsible for the violence and triggered an angry rebuke from Moscow, which accused the West of triggering the clashes by backing the opposition. The 28-nation EU is holding an emergency meeting on Ukraine in Brussels on Thursday.

In Paris, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters Wednesday in a joint appearance with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that he and his counterparts from Germany and Poland would meet both sides in Ukraine ahead of the EU meeting.

He said he hoped the two sides “will find a way for dialogue.”

Sanctions would typically include banning leading officials from traveling to EU nations and — crucially — freezing their assets there. Travel bans and assets freezes for the powerful oligarchs who back Yanukovych could prompt them to pressure him to change course.

But the bad blood now in Ukraine runs so high that it’s not clear whether an unstoppable force of conflict has been unleashed.

The rising rage on both sides has fueled fears that the nation could be sliding deeper into violence that could lead to its eventual breakup. While most people in western regions of Ukraine resent Yanukovych, he still enjoys strong support in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions, where many want strong ties with Russia.

Neither side now appears willing to compromise, with the opposition insisting on Yanukovych’s resignation and early elections and the president prepared to fight till the end.

Radical protesters willing to confront police with violence were largely shunned at the start of the demonstrations three months ago, but they have become a key force in recent weeks, with moderate demonstrators bringing them food and some even preparing Molotov cocktails for them. Police also have turned increasingly brutal after law enforcement officers were killed.

The protests began in late November after Yanukovych turned away from a long-anticipated deal with the EU in exchange for a $15 billion bailout from Russia. The political maneuvering continued ever since, with both Moscow and the West eager to gain influence over this former Soviet republic.

The Kremlin said it put the next disbursement of its bailout on

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