KIEV, Ukraine - Protesters took control of Ukraine's capital Saturday, seizing the president's office as parliament voted to remove him and hold new elections. President Viktor Yanukovych described the events as a coup and insisted he would not step down.
After a tumultuous week that left scores dead and Ukraine's political destiny in flux, fears mounted that the country could split in two — a Europe-leaning west and a Russian-leaning east and south.
Parliament arranged the release of Yanukovych's arch-rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was on her way to Kyiv to join the protesters.
Asked by crowds gathered at the hospital where she was released about her further plans, Tymoshenko said, "I will run for president," news agencies reported.
She said she will "make it so that no drop of blood that was spilled will be forgotten."
Yanukovych said he would not recognize any of the lawmakers' decisions as valid. He left Kyiv for his support base in the country's Russian-speaking east, where lawmakers questioned the legitimacy of the newly empowered legislature and called for volunteer militias to uphold order.
"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," Yanukovych said in a televised statement, clearly shaken and with long pauses in his speaking.
"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."
Ukraine, a nation of 46 million, has huge strategic importance to Russia, Europe and the United States.
Riot police leave the Presidential office in Kiev, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov
The country's western regions, angered by corruption in Yanukovych's government, want to be closer to the European Union and have rejected 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.
"A dictator has been overthrown," said protester Anatoly Sumchinsky, among thousands gathered on Kyiv's Independence Square cheering a huge screen broadcasting a parliamentary debate. "We stood for our right to live in a different Ukraine. It's a victory."
Tymoshenko, the blond-braided icon of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, was heading from prison in the eastern city of Kharkiv straight to the protest camp, her party said.
Tymoshenko served 2 1/2 years on a conviction of abuse of office that domestic and Western critics have denounced as a political vendetta. Tymoshenko's reappearance on the political scene could shake things up even more.
Saturday's developments were the result of a European-brokered peace deal between the president and opposition.
But Yanukovych said Saturday 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.
People carry the coffin in Lviv, western Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic