Applause Erupts As Ukrainian Opposition Leader Freed From Prison
A chief political rival of embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was freed Saturday from prison as the defiant leader struggled to hold on to power as protesters seized control of the presidential palace and the parliament voted to remove him from office.
Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko waved to supporters from a car as she was driven out of the hospital in the northeastern city if Kharkiv, where she has been treated for a bad back while serving a seven-year sentence since 2011.
“Our country can from this day on see the sun, because dictatorship fell,” Tymoshenko said.
Parliament members had voted to free her after Yanukovych fled the capital of Kiev a day after announcing a pact with opposition leaders. Yanukovych said he is traveling the country to seek advice and will “do everything to stop the bloodshed” that left at least 77 dead, hundreds injured and nearly collapsed the country into a civil war.
“I am not planning to leave the country,” he said in a video televised on local media. “I am not planning to resign. I am a legitimately elected president. I was given guarantees of safety by all the international mediators I worked with.”
Yanukovych claimed his car was shot at, but that he didn’t fear for his life, denouncing some of the opposition protesters as “bandits.”
“I will not sign anything with the bandits who are terrorizing the whole country and Ukrainian people. They are discrediting the country,” he said on UBR television.
In another strike against the president, the parliament Saturday freed Tymoshenko, who had been imprisoned on charges of abuse of office, which the West had questioned. They also endorsed Oleksandr Turchynov as the new speaker.
The apparent toppling of the pro-Russian looks likely to pull Ukraine away from Moscow’s orbit and closer to Europe.
Ukraine’s Leader Flees the Capital; Elections Are Called
KIEV, Ukraine — Abandoned by his own guards and reviled across the Ukrainian capital but still determined to recover his shredded authority, President Viktor F. Yanukovych fled Kiev on Saturday to denounce what he called a violent coup, as his official residence, his vast, colonnaded office complex and other once impregnable centers of power fell without a fight to throngs of joyous citizens stunned by their triumph.
While Mr. Yanukovych’s nemesis, former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko, was released from a penitentiary hospital, Parliament found the president unable to fulfill his duties and exercised its constitutional powers to set an election for May 25 to select his replacement. But with both Mr. Yanukovych and his Russian patrons speaking of a “coup” carried out by “bandits” and “hooligans,” it was far from clear that the day’s lightning-quick events would be the last act in a struggle that has not just convulsed Ukraine but expanded into an East-West confrontation reminiscent of the Cold War.
At the presidential residence a short distance from the capital, protesters carrying clubs and some wearing masks were in control of the entryways Saturday morning and watched as thousands of citizens strolled through the grounds in wonder. “This commences a new life for Ukraine,” said Roman Dakus, a protester-turned-guard, who was wearing a ski helmet and carrying a length of pipe as he blocked a doorway at the compound. “This is only a start,” he added. “We need now to make a new structure and a new system, a foundation for our future, with rights for everybody, and we need to investigate who ordered the violence.”
With the riot police they battled for days having disappeared, the protesters claimed to be in charge of security for the city. There was no sign of looting, either in the city proper or in the presidential compound.
A pugnacious Mr. Yanukovych appeared on television Saturday afternoon, apparently from the eastern city of Kharkiv, near Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia, saying he had been forced to leave the capital because of a “coup,” and that he had not resigned, and had no plans to. He said indignantly that his car had been fired upon as he drove away.
“I don’t plan to leave the country. I don’t plan to resign,” he said, speaking in Russian rather than Ukrainian, the country’s official language. “I am a legitimately elected president.” He added: “What is happening today, mostly, it is vandalism, banditism and a coup d’état. This is my assessment and I am deeply convinced of this. I will remain on the territory of Ukraine.” He also complained of “traitors” among his own former supporters but he declined to name them.
Regional governors from eastern Ukraine met in Kharkiv and adopted a resolution resisting the authority of Parliament. They said that until matters were resolved, “we have decided to take responsibility for safeguarding the constitutional order, legality, citizens’ rights and their security on our territories.”
One of the few institutions still taking orders from the president was the official trilingual website of the Ukrainian presidency, which posted a transcript of his defiant television address. But, by evening, the text had appeared only in Ukrainian and Russian, suggesting that his English translator had perhaps jumped ship.
The former nerve center of Mr. Yanukovych’s power, the huge compound of the presidential administration, just a few hundred yards from Independence Square in Kiev, was empty Saturday aside from protesters who patrolled its courtyard and blocked off a nearby street to prevent residents swarming into the building. Ukrainian flags flying outside had all been lowered to half-mast, in honor of those killed by police officers and snipers on Thursday.
Mr. Yanukovych said in his television appearance that he would be traveling to the southeastern part of Ukraine to talk to his supporters — a plan that carried potentially ominous overtones, in that the southeast is the location of the Crimea, the historically Russian section of the country that is the site of a Russian naval base.
The president’s departure from Kiev, just a day after a peace deal with the opposition that he had hoped would keep him in office until at least December, capped three months of streets protests and a week of frenzied violence in the capital that left more than 75 protesters dead. It turned what began in November as a street protest driven by pro-Europe chants and nationalist songs into a momentous but still ill-defined revolution.
With nobody clearly in charge, other than the so far remarkably disciplined fighting squads, lieutenants of Ms. Tymoshenko moved to fill the power vacuum. With Oleksandr V. Turchynov, a former acting prime minister and close ally of Ms. Tymoshenko, presiding over the Parliament, her Fatherland party seemed to be in charge, at least temporarily.