Friday 19 December 2014

Freed Tymoshenko returns to Kiev

Published 22/02/2014 | 01:47

Members of Berkut anti-riot unit prepare to leave their barracks in Kiev February 22, 2014. The heads of four Ukrainian security bodies, including the police's Berkut anti-riot units, appeared in parliament on Saturday and declared they would not take part in any conflict with the people. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis (UKRAINE  - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Members of Berkut anti-riot unit prepare to leave their barracks in Kiev February 22, 2014. The heads of four Ukrainian security bodies, including the police's Berkut anti-riot units, appeared in parliament on Saturday and declared they would not take part in any conflict with the people. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko addresses the crowd in central Kiev (AP)
A member of Berkut anti-riot unit closes the gate as most of the troops left their barracks in Kiev February 22, 2014. The heads of four Ukrainian security bodies, including the police's Berkut anti-riot units, appeared in parliament on Saturday and declared they would not take part in any conflict with the people. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
A suspected supporter of Ukraine's embattled president Viktor Yanukovych, center, is shielded by anti-government protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Fears that Ukraine could split in two mounted Saturday as regional lawmakers in the pro-Russian east questioned the authority of the national parliament. Protesters took control of Ukraine's capital and parliament sought to oust the president. (AP Photo/ Marko Drobnjakovic)
Members of Berkut anti-riot unit embark in a bus as leave their barracks in Kiev February 22, 2014. The heads of four Ukrainian security bodies, including the police's Berkut anti-riot units, appeared in parliament on Saturday and declared they would not take part in any conflict with the people. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Anti-goverment protesters argue with riot policemen outside the Berkut anti-riot units barracks in Kiev February 22, 2014. The heads of four Ukrainian security bodies, including the police's Berkut anti-riot units, appeared in parliament on Saturday and declared they would not take part in any conflict with the people. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Yulia Tymoshenko has been released from prison, a party spokesman said (AP)
Anti-government protesters are transported in a truck body in the Independence Square in Kiev February 22, 2014. Protesters seized the Kiev office of President Viktor Yanukovich on Saturday and the opposition demanded a new election be held by May, as the pro-Russian leader's grip on power rapidly eroded following bloodshed in the capital. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Anti-government protesters hold shields and flags as they guard the Ukrainian Parliament building in Kiev February 22, 2014. The heads of four Ukrainian security bodies, including the police's Berkut anti-riot units, appeared in parliament on Saturday and declared they would not take part in any conflict with the people. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
A poster showing jailed Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko is seen in the Independence Square in Kiev February 22, 2014. Protesters seized the Kiev office of President Viktor Yanukovich on Saturday and his whereabouts were a mystery, as the pro-Russian leader's grip on power rapidly eroded following bloodshed in the Ukrainian capital. Parliament voted to free his arch-rival, jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Newly elected Ukrainian interior minister Arsen Avakov (R) holds a loud-speaker as he addresses anti-government protesters outside the Ukrainian parliament building in Kiev February 22, 2014. Parliament in Ukraine elected opposition lawmaker Arsen Avakov as interior minister on Saturday until the formation of a new coalition government. Avakov takes over the powerful post after lawmakers on Friday dismissed Vitaly Zakharchenko, an ally of embattled President Viktor Yanukovich, following two days of carnage in the capital, Kiev. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
People cheer as members of Berkut anti-riot unit leave their barracks in Kiev February 22, 2014. The heads of four Ukrainian security bodies, including the police's Berkut anti-riot units, appeared in parliament on Saturday and declared they would not take part in any conflict with the people. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Members of Berkut anti-riot unit leave their barracks in Kiev February 22, 2014. The heads of four Ukrainian security bodies, including the police's Berkut anti-riot units, appeared in parliament on Saturday and declared they would not take part in any conflict with the people. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Members of Berkut anti-riot unit embark in a bus as leave their barracks in Kiev February 22, 2014. The heads of four Ukrainian security bodies, including the police's Berkut anti-riot units, appeared in parliament on Saturday and declared they would not take part in any conflict with the people. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Yevgenia Tymoshenko reacts as the Parliament voted to free her mother, Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, during a session in Kiev February 22, 2014. Protesters seized the Kiev office of President Viktor Yanukovich on Saturday and his whereabouts were a mystery, as the pro-Russian leader's grip on power rapidly eroded following bloodshed in the Ukrainian capital. REUTERS/Andrii Skakodub (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
An effigy of an anti-government protester stands at a barricade near Kiev's Independence square February 22, 2014. The heads of four Ukrainian security bodies, including the police's Berkut anti-riot units, appeared in parliament on Saturday and declared they would not take part in any conflict with the people REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis (UKRAINE - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS)
Protesters stand guard in front of presidential administrative building in central Kiev, Ukraine (AP)
A boy in Lviv lights a candle in memory of the Ukrainian victims of clashes between police and protesters (AP)
A suspected supporter of Ukraine's embattled president Viktor Yanukovych is assaulted by anti-government protesters in Kiev (AP)

Hours after her release from prison, former Ukrainian prime minister and opposition figurehead Yulia Tymoshenko appeared before an ecstatic throng at the protester encampment in Ukraine's capital today, praising the demonstrators killed in violence this week and urging the protesters to keep occupying the square.

Her speech to the crowd of about 50,000, made from a wheelchair because of the severe back problems she suffered in 2½ years of imprisonment, was the latest stunning development in the fast-moving Ukrainian political crisis.

Only a day earlier, her arch-rival, President Viktor Yanukovych, signed an agreement with protest leaders that cut his powers and called for early elections.

Parliament, once controlled by Mr Yanukovych's supporters, quickly thereafter voted to decriminalize the abuse-of-office charge for which Ms Tymoshenko was convicted.

Mr Yanukovych meanwhile appeared to be losing power by the hour.

He decamped from Kiev to Kharkiv, a city in his support base in eastern Ukraine, while protesters took control of the presidential administration building and thousands of curious and contemptuous Ukrainians roamed the suddenly open grounds of the lavish compound outside Kiev where he was believed to live.

In Kharkiv, Mr Yanukovych defiantly declared that he regarded parliament's actions as invalid and bitterly likened the demonstrators who conducted three months of protests against him to Nazis.

"Everything that is happening today is, to a greater degree, vandalism and banditry and a coup d'etat," he said. "I will do everything to protect my country from breakup, to stop bloodshed."

The reversal of fortune for both Ms Tymoshenko and Mr Yanukovych was an eerie echo of the Orange Revolution of a decade ago - the mass protests that forced a rerun of a presidential election nominally won by Mr Yanukovych. Ms Tymoshenko attracted world attention as the most vivid of the protest leaders, her elaborate blond peasant braid making her instantly recognisable.

On Saturday, Ms Tymoshenko appeared close to exhaustion and her voice cracked frequently, but her flair for vivid words was undimmed.

"You are heroes, you are the best thing in Ukraine!" she said of those killed in the violence. The Health Ministry on Saturday said the death toll in clashes between protesters and police that included sniper attacks had reached 82.

And she urged the demonstrators not to yield from their encampment in the square, known in Ukrainian as the Maidan.

"In no case do you have the right to leave the Maidan until you have concluded everything that you planned to do," she said.

After the 2004 protests helped bring Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency, Ms Tymoshenko became prime minister. But when Mr Yanukovych won the 2010 election, Ms Tymoshenko was arrested and put on trial for abuse of office, an action widely seen as political revenge.

Her call for protests to continue and Mr Yanukovych's defiance leaves unsettled the fate of Ukraine, a nation of 46 million of huge strategic importance to Russia, Europe and the United States.

The country's western regions, angered by corruption in Mr Yanukovych's government, want to be closer to the European Union and have rejected Mr Yanukovych's authority in many cities. Eastern Ukraine, which accounts for the bulk of the nation's economic output, favours closer ties with Russia and has largely supported the president. The three-month protest movement was prompted by the president's decision to abort an agreement with the EU in favour of a deal with Moscow.

"The people have won, because we fought for our future," said opposition leader Vitali Klitschko to a euphoric crowd of thousands gathered on Kiev's Independence Square. Beneath a cold, heavy rain, protesters who have stood for weeks and months to pressure the president to leave congratulated each other and shouted "Glory to Ukraine!"

"It is only the beginning of the battle," Mr Klitschko said, urging calm and telling protesters not to take justice into their own hands.

The president's support base crumbled further as a leading governor and a mayor from the eastern city of Kharkiv fled for Russia.

Oleh Slobodyan, a spokesman for the border guard service, said that Kharkiv regional governor Mikhaylo Dobkin and Kharkiv Mayor Hennady Kernes left Ukraine across the nearby Russian border.

Today's developments were the result of a European-brokered peace deal between the president and opposition.

But Mr Yanukovych said today that he would not sign any of the measures passed by parliament over the past two days as a result of that deal. They include motions:

:: saying that the president removed himself from power;

:: setting new elections for May 25 instead of next year;

:: trimming the president's powers;

:: naming a new interior minister after firing the old one yesterday;

:: releasing Ms Tymoshenko.

The decisions were passed with large majorities, including yes votes from some members of Mr Yanukovych's Party of Regions, which dominated Ukraine's political scene until this week but is now swiftly losing support.

Russia came out today firmly against the peace deal, saying the opposition is not holding up its end of the agreement, which calls for protesters to surrender arms and abandon their tent camps.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov called his German, French and Polish counterparts and urged them to use their influence with the Ukrainian opposition to stop what he described as rampages by its supporters. European officials urged calm.

Ukraine's defence and military officials also called for Ukrainians to stay peaceful. In statements today, both the Defence Ministry and the chief of the armed forces said they will not be drawn into any conflict and will side with the people. But they did not specify whether they still support the president or are with the opposition.

In Kharkiv, governors, provincial officials and legislators gathered alongside top Russian politicians and issued a statement saying that the events in Kiev have led to the "paralysis of the central government and destabilisation of the situation in the country".

Some called for the formation of volunteer militias to defend against protesters from western regions, even as they urged army units to maintain neutrality and protect ammunition depots.

Anti-government protesters around the country took out their anger on statues of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, using ropes and crowbars to knock them off pedestals in several cities and towns. Statues of Lenin still stand across the former USSR, and they are seen as a symbol of Moscow's rule.

The past week has seen the worst violence in Ukraine since the break-up of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago. At Independence Square Saturday, protesters heaped flowers on the coffins of the dead.

"These are heroes of Ukraine who gave their lives so that we could live in a different country without Yanukovych," said protester Viktor Fedoruk, 32. "Their names will be written in golden letters in the history of Ukraine."

AP

Press Association

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