AFTER a day of extraordinary drama, Ukraine faced a new and uncertain future last night after the country's parliament voted to impeach the president and Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister, was released from prison and pledged to stand in elections in May.
As the president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the capital and parliament voted to strip him of his powers, Yanukovych said he would battle to stay in power.
However, those willing to stand by him diminished by the hour as key aides fled Ukraine, the army said it would not get involved, and police in key eastern areas said they were "with the people".
In other parts of east Ukraine and Crimea there was fury at events in Kiev, and all eyes will now be on Russia, where foreign minister Sergei Lavrov labelled the opposition "rampaging hooligans" and called on Europe to rein them in.
There are fears that, with Mr Yanukovych losing control of the west of the country and Kiev, Russia may attempt to promote separatist movements in Crimea, which is largely ethnically Russian.
In a dramatic twist, Ms Tymoshenko was set free yesterday evening, cheered by 200 supporters as the former prime minister left the prison in Kharkiv where she had been held. She told reporters: "The dictatorship has fallen."
Ms Tymoshenko was jailed in 2011 for abuse of office, in a trial many said was Mr Yanukovych's personal revenge against his arch-rival. She spent much of that time under armed guard in a hospital in the eastern city of Kharkiv being treated for back problems. She walked out of the hospital with her trademark sheaf-of-wheat plait intact, and was thought to be flying to Kiev to join the protesters.
After Mr Yanukovych fled Kiev late on Friday night, his representatives in parliament said he planned to resign, but the president later surfaced in a short television interview, apparently recorded in eastern Ukraine. "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," he said, looking shaken. "Everything happening today is, to a large extent, vandalism and banditry and a coup d'etat," he said.
"I will do everything to protect my country from break-up, to stop bloodshed."
On Friday, three EU foreign ministers met Mr Yanukovych and opposition leaders and agreed to new presidential elections by the end of 2014. The ink was barely dry on the deal when parliament began passing a series of resolutions, culminating in stripping Mr Yanukovych of his powers, initiating impeachment proceedings and setting new elections for May 25.
In Kiev, the lines of riot police that stood at key points across the capital disappeared yesterday morning, leaving the capital in the hands of the protesters. Mr Yanukovych described the events as a "repeat of the 1930s when Nazis came to power in Germany and Austria".
The ousted president said the parliamentary session was illegal, and in Moscow, Mr Lavrov called his counterparts in Berlin, Warsaw and Paris to ask them to rein in the opposition. Mr Lavrov said that the protests centred on Independence Square, known as the Maidan, were led by fringe extremists, and called on European nations to force the opposition to stick to the deal signed in Kiev on Friday.
"The opposition has not only failed to fulfil a single one of its obligations but is presenting new demands all the time, following the lead of armed extremists and pogromists who pose a direct threat to Ukraine's sovereignty and constitutional order," he said. "It's time to stop misleading international public opinion, and pretending the Maidan represents the interests of the Ukrainian nation."
Even in the east of the country, however, Mr Yanukovych's authority was eroding rapidly. In Dnepropetrovsk, one of the biggest cities in eastern Ukraine, the police released a statement saying it was "with the people", while in the eastern city of Kharkiv the mayor and local governor were reported to have fled to Russia. In Crimea, however, the local parliament's speaker has said the region may secede from Ukraine if events continue.
On the streets of Kiev, after a tumultuous day in which the three-month protest appeared to have won a decisive victory, there was celebration, but also a sense that with the job finally done in removing Mr Yanukovych, the real work now begins.
"So many things have happened these days, some pleasant, some not, it is hard to know how I feel," said 30-year-old engineer Denis Romanov. "Ukraine won't ever be the same again, and I mean this in a good way. Ukraine has been reborn in these events."