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Ukraine leader losing grasp on power; Tymoshenko set for release

AFP , Saturday 22 Feb 2014
Ukraine
People carry the coffins of two anti-government protesters who were killed after days of violence during a funeral service in Kiev (Photo: Reuters)
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The regime of Ukraine's president appeared close to collapse on Saturday as the emboldened opposition took control of central Kiev and key government and parliament positions and voted to immediately free its jailed leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

An emerging power vacuum gripped the charred heart of the capital a day after Viktor Yanukovych and his political rivals signed a Western-brokered peace deal to end the ex-Soviet nation's worst crisis since independence from Moscow in 1991.

Key government buildings were without police protection and baton-armed protesters dressed in military fatigues wandered freely across the president's once-fortified compound.

"We have taken the perimeter of the president's residence under our control for security reasons," Mykola Velichkovich of the opposition's self-declared Independence Square defence unit told AFP.

Thousands of mourners meanwhile brought carnations and roses to dozens of spots across Kiev's iconic Independence Square on which protesters were shot dead by police in a week of carnage that claimed nearly 100 lives.

The Ukrainian police appeared to retreat Saturday from their entrenched defence of the pro-Russian government by releasing a statement in support of "the people" and "rapid change".

"The police is at the service of the people and completely shares its aspirations for rapid changes," the interior ministry said in a statement.

"We pay homage to the dead."                                                                                                           

The next test for the police will come Sunday when a deadline expires for protesters to relinquish public spaces such as Independence Square -- the focal point of unrest that Yanukovych sparked in November by ditching an historic EU agreement in favour of closer ties with old master Moscow.

The Ukrainian protests have escalated into a Cold War-style confrontation pitting attempts by the Kremlin to keep reins on its historic fiefdom and Western efforts to bring the economically struggling nation of 46 million into their fold.

The deal on Friday called for the holding of early presidential elections by December and a forming of a unity government.

But signs of the authorities' slipping grip on power were heightened by a bold push by parliament leaders to force Yanukovych to stand down immediately and to immediately free the jailed Tymoshenko.

"We must, as the people demand, adopt a resolution calling on Yanukovych to immediately resign," boxer turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko told deputies in Ukraine's Verhovna Rada parliament.

Klitschko called for presidential elections to be held by May 25 and said the parliament was Ukraine's "only legitimate body of power."

Deputies voted to immediately release Tymoshenko, a fiery and polarising former prime minister who is serving a seven-year jail sentence for "abuse of power" she controversially received after her arch-foe Yanukovych took office in 2010.

The president's ruling Regions Party that had previously pushed Ukraine closer toward Russia was also standing in disarray Saturday amid mass defections by lawmakers to opposition ranks.

More than 40 lawmakers have already quit the Regions Party -- once in control of 208 votes in the 450-seat Rada -- since the deadly unrest first erupted on Tuesday.

Parliament speaker Volodymyr Rybak resigned in favour of Tymoshenko's right-hand man Oleksandr Turchynov.

Deputies also named another Tymoshenko ally Arsen Avakov as interior minister in place of Vitaliy Zakharchenko -- a hate figure in the opposition who is blamed for ordering the police to open fire on unarmed protesters.

It is unclear what authority parliament now has to pass laws since the country is technically entering a transition period in which powers slowly pass from the president to the legislature.

Anti-Russian sentiment has in recent weeks been sweeping the parts of Ukraine that until recently had been strongly loyal to the Kremlin and wary of the cultural values espoused by EU states.

Ukrainian media reported that protesters had since Friday toppled statues of Lenin -- the Soviet founder who for decades has symbolised Moscow's political might -- in the pro-Russian cities of Dnipropetrovsk and Potava.

Yanukovych meanwhile left the capital for his base of eastern support in Kharkiv.

Opposition lawmakers had earlier Saturday swapped rumours that the embattled president had fled Ukraine but presidential adviser Hanna Herman told AFP that "the president continues to perform his constitutional functions."

"He flew to Kharkiv on Friday," Herman said by telephone. "While there, he will meet voters and make a local television appearance."

Friday's peace pact was worked out after two days of intense mediation by the foreign ministers of European powers France and Germany along with Ukraine's cultural ally Poland and a representative from Russia.

Putin's representative pointedly skipped the signing of the deal. Envoy Vladimir Lukin explained on his return to Moscow that it was "because several questions remain unanswered."

A senior US official said President Barack Obama sought to relieve some of the diplomatic tensions by placing a call to Putin in which the two leaders held "constructive" discussions about Ukraine.

But the Kremlin said in a Saturday statement that Putin stressed to Obama the importance of putting pressure on "the radical opposition, which has taken the standoff in Ukraine to a very dangerous threshold." 

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