KIEV, Ukraine • Protesters took control of Ukraine’s capital Saturday, seizing the president’s office as parliament voted to remove him and hold new elections. President Viktor Yanukovych described the events as a coup and insisted he would not step down.
After a tumultuous week that left scores dead and Ukraine’s political destiny in flux, fears mounted that the country could split in two — a Europe-leaning west and a Russian-leaning east and south.
Parliament arranged the release of Yanukovych’s arch-rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was on her way to Kiev to join the protesters. She promised to run for president, and said she will "make it so that no drop of blood that was spilled will be forgotten."
Yanukovych said he would not recognize any of the lawmakers’ decisions as valid. He left Kiev for his support base in the country’s Russian-speaking east, where lawmakers questioned the legitimacy of the newly empowered legislature and called for volunteer militias to uphold order.
"They are trying to scare me. I have no intention to leave the country. I am not going to resign; I’m the legitimately elected president," Yanukovych said in a televised statement, clearly shaken and with long pauses in his speaking.
"Everything that is happening today is, to a greater degree, vandalism and banditry and a coup d’etat," he said. "I will do everything to protect my country from breakup, to stop bloodshed."
Ukraine, a nation of 46 million, has huge strategic importance to Russia, Europe and the United States.
The country’s western regions, angered by corruption in Yanukovych’s government, want to be closer to the European Union and have rejected Yanukovych’s authority in many cities. Eastern Ukraine, which accounts for the bulk of the nation’s economic output, favors closer ties with Russia and has largely supported the president. The three-month protest movement was prompted by the president’s decision to abort an agreement with the EU in favor of a deal with Moscow.
"The people have won, because we fought for our future," said opposition leader Vitali Klitschko to a euphoric crowd of thousands gathered on Kiev’s Independence Square. Beneath a cold, heavy rain, protesters who have stood for weeks and months to pressure the president to leave congratulated each other and shouted "Glory to Ukraine!"
"It is only the beginning of the battle," Klitschko said, urging calm and telling protesters not to take justice into their own hands.
Tymoshenko, the blond-braided icon of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, was heading from prison in the eastern city of Kharkiv straight to the protest camp, her party said.
Tymoshenko served 2½ years on a conviction of abuse of office that domestic and Western critics have denounced as a political vendetta. Tymoshenko’s reappearance on the political scene could shake things up even more.
The president’s support base crumbled further as a leading governor and a mayor from the eastern city of Kharkiv fled Russia.
Oleh Slobodyan, a spokesman for the border guard service, told The Associated Press that Kharkiv regional governor Mikhaylo Dobkin and Kharkiv Mayor Hennady Kernes left Ukraine across the nearby Russian border.
Saturday’s developments were the result of a European-brokered peace deal between the president and opposition.
But Yanukovych said Saturday that he would not sign any of the measures passed by parliament over the past two days as a result of that deal. They include motions:
-saying that the president removed himself from power
-setting new elections for May 25 instead of next year
-trimming the president’s powers
-naming a new interior minister after firing the old one on Friday
-releasing Tymoshenko.Next Page >
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