Ukraine President Exits Kiev; Protesters Take Over
Saturday, February 22, 2014 06:11 AM
By: Newsmax Wires
KIEV, Ukraine — Protesters took control of Ukraine's capital on Saturday, seizing the president's home and office as parliament sought to oust him. An aide to President Viktor Yanukovych said he had left the capital for his support base in the country's Russian-speaking east, but that he has no intention of abandoning power.
In a special parliament session, lawmakers warned that the country risks being split in two. The country's western regions want to be closer to the EU and have rejected Yanukovych's authority in many cities, while eastern Ukraine — which accounts for the bulk of the nation's economic output — favors closer ties with Russia.
Ukraine's parliament voted by an overwhelming margin on Saturday to immediately release jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who spearheaded the nation's pro-democracy 2004 Orange Revolution.
A motion "to immediately free Tymoshenko based on the decision of the European Court of Human Rights" was backed by 322 deputies of the 331 registered for Saturday's Verkhovna Rada session. Tymoshenko was jailed for seven years on disputed "abuse of power" charges in 2011.
Ukrainian lawmakers earlier had elected a close ally of Tymoshenko to the powerful post of parliament speaker. Oleksander Turchynov is a senior member of Tymoshenko's Fatherland party.
Also, Ukraine's police issued a statement saying it stands by "the people" and wants "rapid changes," the interior ministry said. "The police is at the service of the people and completely shares its aspirations for rapid changes," the ministry said. "We pay homage to the dead," it added.
Events were moving at a rapid pace that could see a decisive shift in the future of a country of 46 million people away from Moscow's orbit and closer to the West, although Ukraine is near bankruptcy and depends on Russian aid to pay its debt.
"Today he (Yanukovych) left the capital," opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko, a retired world heavyweight boxing champion, told an emergency session of parliament debating an opposition motion calling on the president to resign.
"Millions of Ukrainians see only one choice — early presidential and parliamentary elections." Klitschko then tweeted that an election should be held no later than May 25.
The senior security source said of Yanukovych: "Everything's ok with him . . . He is in Ukraine."
Asked whether the leader was in Kiev, the source replied: "I cannot say."
The UNIAN news agency cited Hanna Herman, a lawmaker close to Yanukovych, as saying the president was in the northeastern city of Kharkiv.
At the president's office in the capital, Ostap Kryvdyk, who described himself as a protest commander, said some protesters had entered the offices but there was no looting.
"We will guard the building until the next president comes," he told Reuters news service. "Yanukovych will never be back."
In a sign of the quick transformation, the interior ministry responsible for the police appeared to swing behind the protests. It said it served "exclusively the Ukrainian people and fully shares their strong desire for speedy change."
Parliament voted on Friday to dismiss Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko, a Yanukovych loyalist blamed by the opposition for the bloodshed.
The ministry urged citizens to unite "in the creation of a truly independent, democratic and just European country.”
Herman told The Associated Press on Saturday that the president is visiting Kharkiv, a city which is the heart of his support base.
"As much as some people want it, he has no intention to leave the country," Herman said. She said the president was to meet voters in the region and make a televised address.
The trip comes a day after Yanukovych and opposition leaders signed a European-brokered agreement aimed at resolving the months-old political crisis that has killed scores and injured hundreds. The agreement calls for early elections and constitutional reforms that reduce the president's powers.
The protesters, who are angry over corruption and want Ukraine to move toward Europe rather than Russia, claimed full control of Kiev and took up positions around the president's office and residence.
Parliament, only a day ago controlled by Yanukovych supporters, was considering whether to impeach him and set a quick date for new elections to end a three-month standoff that has turned into a national crisis over Ukraine's identity and future direction.
Despite significant concessions by Yanukovych on Friday, protesters said his offer of elections late this year aren't soon enough.
"Resign! Resign!" chanted protesters on Independence Square, the nucleus of the protest movement.