Ukrainian protesters claim control over capital

AP , Saturday 22 Feb 2014

File Photo: Independence Square, Kiev, crowded by rallying supporters of Ukraine's integration with EU (Photo: Reuters)

Protesters in the Ukrainian capital claimed full control of the city 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 reportedly fled the capital for his support base in Ukraine's Russia-leaning east.

Media outlets reported that President Viktor Yanukovych left Kiev for his native eastern Ukraine after surrendering much of his powers and agreeing to early elections this fall.

The changes came as part of Friday's deal intended to end violence that killed scores and left hundreds wounded in Kiev this week as snipers opened fire on protesters.

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

Parubiy also said 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.

Despite significant concessions made by Yanukovych, many of the protesters have remained dissatisfied with the deal and pushed for his immediate ouster.

They booed opposition figures who took to a stage Friday evening to present the deal, which cuts Yanukovych's powers and calls for early elections but falls short of demands for his immediate resignation.

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

The leader of a major radical group that spearheaded clashes with police, Pravy Sektor, declared Friday that "the national revolution will continue."

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 Yanukovych's powers.

It wasn't clear if and when the impeachment motion would be put to 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 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 favor of a bailout deal with longtime 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 country's western regions want to be closer to the EU and have rejected Yanukovych's authority in many cities, while eastern Ukraine that accounts for the bulk of the nation's economic output favors closer ties with Russia.

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 offense.

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.

The deal was a result of two days and all-night of shuttle diplomacy by top diplomats from Germany, France and Poland, who talked with the president and the opposition.

In Washington, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the deal is consistent with what the Obama administration was advocating, and that the US will closely monitor whether it is fulfilled, holding out the threat of more sanctions if it's not.

In Moscow, a senior Russian lawmaker criticized the deal as a Western attempt to wrest Ukraine out of Russia's sphere of influence.

Leonid Slutsky, who chairs the committee in charge of relations with other ex-Soviet nations, told reporters that the agreement is "entirely in the interests of the United States and other powers, who want to split Ukraine from Russia."

Russia's mediator Vladimir Lukin's refused to sign the deal Friday, and the Russian Foreign Ministry warned that Ukraine should take into account all regions in its political transition, apparently referring to the areas in Ukraine's east and south.

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