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Moscow, Ukrainian leaders feud over Kiev sniper attacks

– One of the biggest mysteries hanging over the protest mayhem that drove Ukraine’s president from power: Who was behind the snipers who sowed death and terror in Kiev?

That riddle has become the latest flashpoint of feuding over Ukraine – with the nation’s fledgling government and the Kremlin giving starkly different interpretations of events that could either undermine or bolster the legitimacy of the new rulers.

Ukrainian authorities are investigating the Feb. 18 to 20 bloodbath, and they have shifted their focus from ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s government to Vladimir Putin’s Russia – pursuing the theory that the Kremlin was intent on sowing mayhem as a pretext for military incursion.

Russia suggests that the snipers were organized by opposition leaders trying to whip up local and international outrage against the government.

The government’s new health minister – a doctor who helped oversee medical treatment for casualties during the protests – told The Associated Press that the similarity of bullet wounds suffered by opposition victims and police indicates the shooters were trying to stoke tensions on both sides and spark even greater violence, with the goal of toppling Yanukovych.

“I think it wasn’t just a part of the old regime that (plotted the provocation), but it was also the work of Russian special forces who served and maintained the ideology of the (old) regime,” Health Minister Oleh Musiy said.

Kremlin officials have pointed to a recording of a leaked phone call between Estonia’s foreign minister, Urmas Paet, and the European Union’s foreign policy chief in which Paet said he had heard from protesters during a visit to Kiev that opponents of Yanukovych were behind the sniper attacks.

This much is known: Snipers firing powerful rifles from rooftops and windows shot scores of people in the heart of Kiev. Some victims were opposition protesters, but many were civilian bystanders clearly not involved in the clashes.

Among the dead were medics, as well as police officers. A majority of the more than 100 people who died in the violence were shot by snipers; hundreds were also injured by the gunfire and other street fighting.

On Tuesday, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov signaled that investigators may be turning their attention away from Ukrainian responsibility.

“I can say only one thing: The key factor in this uprising, that spilled blood in Kiev and that turned the country upside down and shocked it, was a third force,” Avakov was quoted as saying by Interfax. “And this force was not Ukrainian.”

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