KIEV - A policeman was killed and dozens injured Monday in street battles with protesters in Kiev as Ukrainian lawmakers gave their initial backing to controversial legislation granting more autonomy to pro-Kremlin rebels.

It was the worst unrest in the capital since a bloody popular uprising ousted Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych early last year, an event that set in train the separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland.

Ukrainian authorities blamed nationalists for the trouble and said at least 30 people had been detained.

A loud blast was heard outside parliament and vast clouds of black smoke billowed into the air as demonstrators fired off what security forces said were live grenades.

The violence flared shortly after MPs backed in their first reading the constitutional amendments that critics have branded “un-Ukrainian” for giving the insurgents greater powers in the east. Riot police in helmets and armed with batons were seen clashing with the protesters.

Some of the injured were bleeding and lying down on the ground in front of the parliament building. Many suffered injuries to their arms and legs. Most wore uniform. The authorities said a National Guard officer, believed to be a conscript aged 24 or 25, died.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov initially said he died from a bullet wound to the heart but later wrote that he was apparently killed by a grenade fragment.

Police said another 90 members of the security forces were injured, while city authorities said medics had identified 56 wounded including 54 servicemen and two journalists.

The interior ministry blamed the nationalist Svoboda party for the unrest and said those detained included a member of its paramilitary unit accused of throwing the grenade. “More than 30 people have already been detained. More to come,” Avakov said on Facebook, adding that people who threw “several” explosive devices wore T-shirts with the Svoboda logo.

Avakov said the authorities had confiscated several grenades including an F-1 which Avakov noted had a maximum radius to cause death and injury. “Investigation and punishment will be unavoidable,” he said, calling the clashes an “anti-Ukrainian war.”

Oksana Blyshchyk, a spokeswoman for Kiev police, said separately that around 100 police were injured and 10 of them were in critical condition.

Protesters also fired at least one smoke grenade that sent up a thick cloud of black smoke outside the building. Tear gas was used by both sides, an AFP correspondent said. French journalist Antoine Delaunay wrote on Twitter that he “took a rock” to his face and at least one photographer was lightly injured.

The controversial Western-backed reforms aim to give greater autonomy to the separatist east as part of a February peace deal which called for Kiev to implement decentralisation” by the end of this year.

A total of 265 lawmakers voted in favour of the draft legislation at a stormy session, which saw some MPs try to disrupt the vote, which they condemned as “anti-Ukrainian” and “pro-Vladimir Putin.” Some shouted “Shame!”

The bill has sparked heated debate in Ukraine where opponents see it as an “un-Ukrainian” attempt to legalise the de facto rebel control of part of the ex-Soviet country’s territory.

Kiev’s Western allies see them as a way of trying to end the armed conflict in the east that has claimed more than 6,800 lives over the past 16 months.

The reform bill grants more powers to regional and local lawmakers including in the eastern areas currently under rebel control. But contrary to the expectations of separatists, it does not definitively hand the largely industrial eastern region the semi-autonomous status that the insurgents are seeking.

According to the text of the draft legislation, the region’s status needs to be defined by a separate law.

The mostly Russian-speaking regions - dotted with war-shattered steel mills and coal mines that once fuelled Ukraine’s economy - want their special status spelled out in constitutional amendments that would be enormously difficult to overturn.

Kiev and the West accuse Russia of backing the rebels militarily and in particular deploying its troops to the conflict zone, claims that President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin have repeatedly denied.

Russia on Friday dismissed the constitutional amendments on decentralising Ukraine as merely an “imitation” of compliance with the February deal.


Two US F-22 jets land in Poland amid Ukraine tensions

WARSAW (AFP) - Two US F-22 Raptor stealth fighters landed in Poland on Monday, as regional tensions run high over Russia and the conflict in Ukraine.

The arrival of the two planes was aired on TVP Info public television channel. They flew in from their German base of Spangdahlem into the Lask air base in central Poland.

Poland borders war-torn Ukraine, where government troops have been fighting pro-Russian separatists since April last year, in a conflict that has claimed the lives of nearly 7,000 people.

While the conflict eased after a truce in February, fighting has escalated in recent days.

The fighting has stirred the highest tensions since the Cold War ended more than two decades ago as the West accuses Russia of not only arming the rebels but sending in troops to support them. Moscow denies the charges.

The F-22 is virtually undetectable by radar. It became operational in 2005 and was used in combat for the first time in September last year in strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. The US Air Force has a fleet of about 180 F-22s.