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Recorded phone call about Kiev deaths fuels propaganda war

In this Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 file photo, activists evacuate a wounded protester during clashes with police in Kiev's Independence Square, the epicenter of the country's current unrest, Kiev, Ukraine. As questions circulate about who was behind the lethal snipers that sowed death and terror in Ukraine's capital, doctors and others told the AP the similarity of bullets wounds suffered by opposition victims and police indicates the snipers were specifically trying to stoke tensions and spark a larger, angrier clash between opposition fighters and government security forces.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP

It's a conversation that, if accurate, would mean the West needs to rapidly reinterpret what's happening in Ukraine: In an audio recording posted online, the Foreign Minister of Estonia sounds like he's suggesting that it was the country's pro-Western opposition, not the security forces of the deposed Viktor Yanukovych, who used deadly ammunition against the crowds on Kiev's Independence Square last month.

But those familiar with the phone call say they believe the recording in question was tampered with, likely by operatives of the Russian government.

In the recorded conversation, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet can be heard appearing to tell European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that there was a growing "understanding" that snipers affiliated with the protest movement were in fact responsible for much of the bloodshed on Feb. 18 to 20 in Kiev. At least 80 people were killed, many of them by live ammunition, in three days of clashes between protesters and police. The opposition seized control of government following the fighting, while Mr. Yanukovych fled to Russia .

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"All evidence shows that people who were killed by snipers, from both sides, among policemen and people in the streets, that they were the same snipers, killing people from both sides," Mr. Paet can be heard saying in the call, which the Estonian foreign ministry acknowledges was made Feb. 26, following a visit by Mr. Paet to Kiev.

"It's really disturbing that the new coalition, that they don't want to investigate what exactly happened…. There is now stronger and stronger understanding that beyond [the] snipers, it was not Yanukovych – but it was somebody from the new coalition," he continues.

A shocked Ms. Ashton replies: "I didn't pick that up. That's interesting. Gosh."

The recording sounds legitimate. The first two minutes of the 10-minute recording – which first appeared on pro-Russian blogs four days ago – are a lengthy game of operator tag as Mr. Paet's assistants try and connect him to Ms. Ashton's phone. Towards the end of the conversation, Mr. Paet refers to a looming visit by Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird on Feb. 28.

Mr. Paet suggests his new version of events is based on a conversation he had with Olga Bogomolets, a renowned Kiev doctor who played a frontline role in the anti-Yanukovych protests, and who treated many of those shot in the February violence.

Dr. Bogomolets, however, told The Globe and Mail that the recorded conversation didn't reflect what she told Mr. Paet during their meeting. "What I saw were people who were killed by snipers and only on [protesters'] side," she said.

"The main message that I was bringing to Europe was, we have to find those people who bring the snipers, who paid the snipers. We have to know their names. We have to know the truth."

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On Sunday, Estonia's President Toomas Hendrick Ilves denied that the audio recording accurately reflected what Mr. Paet had said to Ms. Ashton.

"Some intelligence agency eavesdropped (not much choice who) and later full speech spliced together for propaganda," Mr. Ilves wrote to The Globe and Mail via Twitter. The brackets are his own.

Asked if he could release a full recording of the conversation between Mr. Paet and Ms. Ashton to prove the audio on pro-Russian blogs had been spliced, Mr. Ilves said he didn't have one. "Do you record your phone conversations?" he replied.

Even if Mr. Ilves is correct, the damage is in many ways already done. "Kiev snipers hired by Maidan leaders – leaked EU's Ashton phone tape," reads one headline on the website of the Kremlin-owned Russia Today television channel.

Those who want to believe the Kremlin's version of events – in which power in Kiev has been seized by armed gangsters that the West is foolish to support – now have this recording to cling to.

Those critical of the Russian role in Ukraine can point to yet another nefarious act by Moscow's agents.

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The propaganda war continues.

With files from Paul Waldie in Kiev

Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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