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Ukraine protesters claim control of Kiev

22 February 2014, 15:40

Kiev - Protesters in the Ukrainian capital claimed full control of the city on Saturday following the signing of a Western-brokered peace deal aimed at ending the nation's three-month political crisis.

The nation's embattled president, Viktor Yanukovych, reportedly had fled the capital for his support base in Ukraine's Russia-leaning east

Police abandoned posts around the capital, and protesters took up positions around the presidential office and residence.

Parliament discussed voting on impeaching Yanukovych and setting a quick date for new elections to end a crisis over Ukraine's identity and future direction.

Yanukovych's whereabouts were unclear on Saturday morning. Media outlets reported that he left Kiev for his native eastern Ukraine after surrendering much of his powers and agreeing to early elections by the end of the year.

Despite significant concessions by the president on Friday, elections later this year aren't soon enough for protesters who blame him for police violence and amassing too many powers. They want him out now.

At a special parliament session on Saturday morning, Oleh Tyahnybok, head of the nationalist Svoboda party, called for discussion of impeachment.

The parliament speaker - Yanukovych ally Volodymyr Rybak - submitted his resignation, citing ill health as the reason. The president's representative in parliament warned against splitting the country in two, an outcome that worries many but is increasingly seeming a possibility.

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.

The president's concessions came as part of a deal on Friday intended to end violence that killed scores and left hundreds wounded in Kiev this week as snipers opened fire on protesters. It was the worst violence in Ukraine's modern history.

Andriy Parubiy, a leader of the protest camp on Independence Square, known as the Maidan, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that Yanukovych fled for Kharkiv, the center of Ukraine's industrial heartland. Kharkiv was the capital of Soviet Ukraine from 1919-1934.

The claims of the president's departure could not be immediately confirmed, however.

Parubiy also said on Saturday that protesters are now in full control of the capital. Police on Friday retreated from their positions in Kiev's government district, and the night passed quietly.

A group of protesters in helmets and shields stood guard at the president's office Saturday. No police were in sight.

Protesters booed opposition figures who took to a stage Friday evening to present their deal with the president, which cuts Yanukovych's powers.

"Death to the criminal!" some chanted, referring to Yanukovych.

A motion seeking the president's impeachment was submitted late Friday to the Ukrainian parliament, where members of Yanukovych's faction defected in droves to the opposition side, quickly passing constitutional amendments that trimmed his powers.

It wasn't clear if or when the impeachment motion would be put to a vote.

Neither side won all the points it sought in Friday's deal, and some vague conditions could ignite strong disputes down the road.

The agreement signed on Friday calls for presidential elections to be moved up from March 2015 to no later than December, but many protesters said that is far too late. And it does not address the issue that triggered the protests in November - Yanukovych's abandonment of closer ties with the European Union in favour of a bailout deal with long-time ruler Russia.

The standoff between the government and protesters escalated this week, as demonstrators clashed with police and snipers opened fire in the worst violence the country has seen since the breakup of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago. The Health Ministry put the death toll at 77 and some opposition figures said it's even higher.

The US, Russia and the 28-nation EU are deeply concerned about the future of Ukraine, a divided nation of 46 million.

The parliament on Friday quickly approved a measure that could free Yanukovych's arch-rival Tymoshenko, who has served two and a half years on a conviction of abuse of office, charges that domestic and Western critics have denounced as a political vendetta.

Legislators voted to decriminalize the count under which Tymoshenko was imprisoned, meaning that she is no longer guilty of a criminal offence.

However, Yanukovych must still sign that bill into law, and then Tymoshenko's lawyers would have to ask the court for her release from prison in Kharkiv, the city controlled by Yanukovych's loyalists where the opposition has little public following.

- AP


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