KIEV, April 3 (RIA Novosti) - Ukrainian prosecutors have arrested 12 agents from the country's Berkut special forces on suspicion of killing civilians during rallies on Kiev's Independence Square earlier this year, the country's interior minister said Thursday.
"We identified everyone who was involved in the operation, however the degree of their involvement in the shootings is still being investigated," said Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who rose to power following a coup during the protests.
Many opposition activists laid the blame for civilian deaths at the doorstep of the country's police department, but Moscow has said it had evidence that members of the ultranationalist Right Sector movement - known for their violent attacks on police during the protests - fired at other Ukrainians in an attempt to bolster anti-government sentiments.
Acting Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnitsky said earlier Thursday that nine people, including the alleged leader of the "group of hitmen," had been detained. Investigators have implicated them in the deadly sniper shootings that took place on February 20 in the heart of Kiev.
"We used new forensic methods during the probe that enabled us to detain several members of the Berkut special forces, which is an elite corps, who are suspected of shooting and killing people," Mr. Makhnitsky said on Thursday. All of the suspects are from Berkut's Kiev branch, he added.
The chief prosecutor said the order to shoot at civilians had come from their commander, following a directive to crack down on protesters by the Interior Ministry, Security Service and the presidential administration.
Most Berkut officers fled to the breakaway republic of Crimea in Ukraine's south following the February coup that put a far-right opposition at the helm of the country. The region later held a referendum to leave Ukraine, rejoining Russia last month.
Maj. Alexander Vasyukov, a former Berkut officer, said at a press conference in Crimea's capital Simferopol in March that the accusations against the special troops were untrue. He stressed that all officers had been sent to the protest venues unarmed.
"We were denied guns that fire rubber bullets. They were given to us in the very end," Vasyukov told reporters.
Updated with new headline, Avakov's quote, 3 more arrested