- POSTED: 23 Feb 2014 05:13
Ukraine's jailed pro-Western opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko walked free moments after parliament voted to oust the country's embattled President Viktor Yanukovych and set new elections for May.
KIEV: Ukraine's jailed pro-Western opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko walked free on Saturday moments after parliament voted to oust the country's embattled President Viktor Yanukovych and set new elections for May.
The latest developments in the ex-Soviet nation's three-month political crisis came after protesters took control of Kiev's charred city centre and seized Yanukovych's lavish residence and official offices, in a day of dramatic twists and turns.
Yanukovych denounced the "coup" and branded his political foes as "bandits", comments that won firm support from his backers in Moscow.
But the balance of power swung firmly in the opposition's favour a day after Yanukovych and the opposition signed a Western-brokered peace pact designed to resolve Ukraine's bloodiest conflict since its independence in 1991.
Tymoshenko, the fiery 53-year-old co-leader of the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution, waved to hundreds of supporters chanting "free Yulia!"
One of her close allies said Tymoshenko was travelling directly to address the crowds on Kiev's iconic Independence Square - occupied since Yanukovych's decision in November to spurn an agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia.
"The dictatorship has fallen," Tymoshenko said in a statement released on her official website.
"It fell thanks to those people who came out to defend themselves, their families and their country."
Ukraine's pro-Russian regime appeared on the verge of collapse as lawmakers passed a resolution stating that Yanukovych was "removing himself (from power) because he is not fulfilling his obligations".
They set new presidential elections for May 25.
But Yanukovych defiantly told a local television station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv - a pro-Russian bedrock of support - that he would fight tooth and nail against the "bandits" trying to oust him.
"I am not leaving the country for anywhere. I do not intend to resign. I am the legitimately elected president," the 63-year-old leader said in a firm voice.
Yanukovych said with a hint of outrage that "everything happening today can primarily be described as vandalism, banditry and a coup d'etat."
The president however appeared to have deserted Kiev altogether, as key government buildings were left without police protection and baton-armed protesters dressed in military fatigues wandered freely across his once-fortified compound.
"We have taken the perimeter of the president's residence under our control for security reasons," Mykola Velichkovich of theopposition's self-declared Independence Square defence unit told AFP.
Thousands of mourners meanwhile brought carnations and roses to dozens of spots across Kiev's iconic Independence Square on which protesters were shot dead by police in a week of carnage that claimed nearly 100 lives.
Coffins draped with Ukraine's blue-and-yellow passed from shoulder to shoulder through the crowd before being taken outside the city for burial.
Thousands of residents also took their first-ever tour of Yanukovych's lavish Mezhygirya residence just north of Kiev.
"I am in shock," a retired military servicewoman named Natalia Rudenko said as she inspected the president's rare pheasant collection and a banquet hall built to look like a galleon.
"In a country with so much poverty, how can one person have so much?"
The Ukrainian police appeared to retreat on Saturday from their entrenched defence of the pro-Russian government by releasing a statement in support of "the people" and "rapid change".
The country's vast army issued its own statement hours later stressing that it "will in no way become involved in the political conflict."
The next test for the police will come on Sunday when a deadline expires for protesters to relinquish public spaces such as Independence Square.
The Ukrainian protests have escalated into a Cold War-style confrontation pitting attempts by the Kremlin to keep reins on its historic fiefdom against Western efforts to bring the economically struggling nation of 46 million into their fold.
Russia's foreign ministry on Saturday accused the opposition of "submitting itself to armed extremists and looters whose actions pose a direct threat to the sovereignty and constitutional order of Ukraine."
The ruling Regions Party that had previously pushed Ukraine closer toward Russia stood in disarray amid mass defections by lawmakers to opposition ranks.
More than 40 lawmakers had already quit the Regions Party - once in control of 208 votes in the 450-seat Rada - since the deadly unrest first erupted on Tuesday.
Parliament speaker Volodymyr Rybak resigned in favour of Tymoshenko's right-hand man Oleksandr Turchynov.
Deputies also named another Tymoshenko ally, Arsen Avakov, as interior minister in place of Vitaliy Zakharchenko - a figure hated by the opposition who is blamed for ordering the police to open fire on unarmed protesters.