Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovich looks on during a signing ceremony of an EU-mediated peace deal with opposition leaders at the presidential headquarters in Kiev. Credit: Reuters
Ukraine's parliament voted on Saturday to remove President Viktor Yanukovich, who abandoned his Kiev office to protesters and denounced what he described as a coup after a week of fighting in the streets of the capital.
Parliament also freed his arch-nemesis, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who walked free from the hospital where she had been jailed, completing a radical transformation in the former Soviet republic of 46 million people.
The apparent toppling of the pro-Russian leader, after bloodshed in Kiev that saw 82 people killed and the center of the capital transformed into an inferno, looks likely to pull Ukraine away from Moscow's orbit and closer to Europe.
It is also a stark reversal for Russian President Vladimir Putin's dream of recreating as much as possible of the Soviet Union in a new Eurasian Union, in which Moscow had counted on Yanukovich to deliver Ukraine as a central member.
Members of the Ukrainian parliament, which abandoned Yanukovich after this week's bloodshed, stood, applauded and sang the national anthem after it declared the president constitutionally unable to carry out his duties and set an early election for May 25.
"This is a political knockout," opposition leader and retired world boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko told reporters.
Moments later, opposition leader Tymoshenko waved to supporters from a car as she was driven out of the hospital in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, where she has been treated for a bad back while serving a seven-year sentence since 2011.
In a television interview which the station said was also conducted in Kharkiv, Yanukovich said he would not resign or leave the country, and called decisions by parliament "illegal".
"The events witnessed by our country and the whole world are an example of a coup d'etat," he said, comparing it to the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany in the 1930s. He said he had also come under fire. "My car was shot at. I am not afraid. I feel sorrow for my country," he told UBR television.
Interfax news agency said Yanukovich was refused exit from the country by border guards when he tried to fly out from the city of Donetsk.
At Yanukovich's abandoned secret estate near Kiev, people flocked to take photographs of his private zoo with ostriches and deer, replica ancient Greek ruins, and lavish waterways and follies.
Despite Yanukovich's defiance, the dismantling of his authority seemed all but complete, with his cabinet promising a transition to a new government, the police declaring themselves behind the protesters and his arch-rival Tymoshenko going free.
Setting herself immediately on a collision course with Moscow, Tymoshenko said she was sure her country would join the European Union in the near future. Her release was welcomed by Washington.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said "illegal extremist groups are refusing to disarm and in fact are taking Kiev under their control with the connivance of opposition leaders".
"DON'T STOP YET"
As night fell, 30,000 opposition supporters on Kiev's Independence Square, scene of nearly three months of protests, were in buoyant mood. "People can taste freedom and take off their flak jackets," said Vasily, 40, a builder.
There was sadness too as coffins were displayed in front of the crowd and priests said prayers. People crossed themselves in front of makeshift shrines with candles and pictures of the dead. Two captured water cannon trucks were parked in the square like trophies of war.
In an emotional speech after she was carried on to a stage in a wheelchair, Tymoshenko told the protesters on the square, known as the Maidan: "You have no right to leave the Maidan ... Don't stop yet."
The Ukrainian cabinet said it was committed to a responsible transfer of power.
Ukrainian military and police leaders said they would not get involved in any internal conflict. The interior ministry responsible for the police said it served "exclusively the Ukrainian people and fully shares their strong desire for speedy change".
Yanukovich, who enraged much of the population by turning away from the European Union to cultivate closer relations with Russia three months ago, made sweeping concessions in a deal brokered by European diplomats on Friday after days of street battles that saw police snipers gun down protesters.
But the deal, which called for early elections by the end of the year, was not enough to satisfy pro-Europe demonstrators on Independence Square, who wanted Yanukovich out immediately in the wake of the bloodletting.
On Saturday, the speaker of parliament, a Yanukovich loyalist, resigned and parliament elected Oleksander Turchynov, a close ally of Tymoshenko, as his replacement.
"Today he left the capital," Klitschko said of Yanukovich at an emergency session of parliament. "Millions of Ukrainians see only one choice - early presidential and parliamentary elections."
The release of Tymoshenko transforms Ukraine by giving the opposition a single leader and potential future president, although Klitschko and others also have claims.
The 53-year-old, known for her distinctive blonde braid, was jailed by a court under Yanukovich over a natural gas deal with Russia she arranged while serving as premier before he took office. The EU had long considered her a political prisoner, and her freedom was one of the main demands it had for closer ties with Ukraine during years of negotiations that ended when Yanukovich abruptly turned towards Moscow in November.
She had served as a leader of the "Orange Revolution" of mass demonstrations which overturned a fraudulent election victory for Yanukovich in 2004, but after a divisive term as prime minister she lost to him in an election in 2010.
Underscoring Ukraine's regional divisions, leaders of Russian-speaking eastern provinces loyal to Yanukovich voted to challenge anti-Yanukovich steps by the central parliament.
Eastern regional bosses meeting in Kharkiv - the city where Yanukovich had apparently sought refuge - adopted a resolution saying parliament's moves "in such circumstances cause doubts about their ... legitimacy and legality.
"Until the constitutional order and lawfulness are restored ... we have decided to take responsibility for safeguarding the constitutional order, legality, citizens' rights and their security on our territories."
Kharkiv Governor Mikhaylo Dobkin told the meeting: "We're not preparing to break up the country. We want to preserve it."
In Russia, Mikhail Margelov, head of the foreign policy committee of the upper house of parliament, said the Kharkiv meeting proved "that the Maidan and the opposition, let alone the militants, are not the majority of the Ukrainian people".
But the head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's lower house, Alexei Pushkov, seemed to acknowledge that Yanukovich's rule was finished. "He fled. Security fled. Staff fled," Pushkov said. "A sad end to the president."