KyiV, Ukraine -- He bent over the limp body and raised a corner of the bloody white sheet that covered it.
Volodymyr Holodnyuk let out a dull moan and let the fabric drop.
He then picked up a blue helmet that lay at the feet of the body, its insides gummy with blood, and ran his trembling fingers along the surface until he found what he was looking for: a hole left by a 7.62-millimetre bullet, the sort used by a Dragunov sniper rifle.
The helmet, and the body, belonged to Holodnyuk's son, Ustym, a 19-year-old engineering student who was among at least 67 protesters killed in central Kyiv early Thursday, at least 20 of them brought down by snipers. One police officer also died.
The country's deadliest day since the breakup of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago prompted a backlash among political leaders, with the parliament voting to pull police off the streets and the mayor of Kyiv, who had been considered a powerful ally of President Viktor Yanukovych, announcing he was quitting the ruling party in protest of the violence.
Yanukovych was meeting with opposition leaders at press time early today as several thousand protesters milled around Independence Square. No visible police forces were seen there early this morning.
Holodnyuk, a retired police officer, had arrived in Kyiv early Thursday to meet his son and take him home. Ustym had spent about three months on the barricades as an activist in the opposition movement and needed some rest, his father said. They spoke by phone about 9 a.m. and arranged to meet at 11.
"I said to him, 'Be careful, don't stick your neck out today, because we're going home,' " said Holodnyuk, 48, who wore his old police coat, dark blue with a cheap fur collar. "He replied with a laugh, 'Not to worry, Dad! I am wearing my magic UN helmet and nothing's going to happen to me.' These were the last words my son ever said to me."
He lowered his head to the helmet, almost touching the drying blood with his face, and sank into an armchair, his massive frame shaking as he tried to stifle his sobs.
A doctor knelt next to him, touching his hand, meeting his eyes. "I don't think we can allow you to take your son's body away now," she said gently, measuring her words. "If you are stopped by the police with a dead body in your car, you can be arrested."
Dr. Olga Bogomolets said none of the 20 protesters killed by snipers Thursday could have been saved.
"I am not a specialist in ballistics, but I have no doubt that whoever shot them was shooting to kill," said Bogomolets, chief doctor at the opposition's emergency medical centre at the Ukraine Hotel, which had become a makeshift morgue. "Some of them died on the spot, some here, but we didn't have a solitary chance to save them."
Of the 20, eight were taken to the city morgue and 12 to the hotel. Overall, city officials said, the death toll in three days of violence was 96, including 10 police officers.
Bogomolets said all the bullets her staff extracted were identical -- 7.62-millimetre. She said dozens of protesters were injured by bullets.
Most of the deaths occurred within minutes in the morning after a relative lull in the clashes, the result of a truce late Wednesday between Yanukovych and opposition leaders. The sniper attacks appeared to provoke protesters into a desperate charge, pushing fast-retreating police forces away from Independence Square, the centre of the protest movement since it began in November.
"Some of protesters here had their officially registered hunting rifles with them, and they started shooting back," said Nikolay Mosiyenko, a 46-year-old retired lieutenant-colonel of the Ukraine Armed Forces, who joined the protest at its outset last fall.
The counterattack by protesters led to street fighting that looked more like medieval warfare than a modern riot. With several police down with shotgun wounds, commanders gave an order to retreat. Many police officers fled in police buses carrying their wounded comrades, but dozens stayed behind to face a fierce battle with protesters armed with clubs, wooden sticks, metal rods and Molotov cocktails.
As the fighting engulfed Europe Square in central Kyiv, hundreds of men attacked one another with clubs, most protecting themselves with metal and wooden shields.
Soon the police were fleeing, dropping shields, clubs and even flak jackets. Some of those who stumbled, fell or were thrown to the ground were set upon by attackers who hit them with sticks, kicked them with boots and took them away. "If that was the idea of Yanukovych's anti-terrorist operation, I must say it failed utterly," Mosiyenko said. "He never got the backing of the army in a situation when the police can no longer cope."
Mosiyenko was referring to a government warning Wednesday it was undertaking an "anti-terrorist operation" to end the protests, which began in response to Yanukovych's decision to turn down an alliance with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia.
The uprising has divided Ukrainians, with many in the industrial east, closest to Russia, supporting Yanukovych. The opposition has strong support in the European-facing west and in the capital, Kyiv.
Protesters across the country are also upset over corruption in Ukraine, the lack of democratic rights and the country's ailing economy, which just barely avoided bankruptcy with a $15-billion aid infusion from Russia.
At an urgent session late Thursday, the parliament voted to call off the operation against protesters and ordered all law enforcement officers to cease fire and return to their barracks. About 50 lawmakers with Yanukovych's ruling party switched sides to vote with the majority.
One prominent political scientist said the vote was a significant blow to the president. "This is the first vivid testimony that Yanukovych is a lame duck whose loyalists are already abandoning his sinking ship," Igor Popov, president of Politika Analytical Center, a Kyiv-based think-tank, said.
-- Los Angeles Times, with AP files