Hours after her release from prison, former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko has appeared before protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square, praising the demonstrators killed in violence this week and urging the crowds to keep occupying the square
Tymoshenko’s speech to about 50,000 people, made from a wheelchair because of the severe back problems she suffered in two and a half years of imprisonment, was the latest development in the country’s fast-moving political crisis, the AP news agency reported.
Tymoshenko, who appeared close to exhaustion, said: “You are heroes, you are the best thing in Ukraine!
“In no case do you have the right to leave the Maidan [Independence Square] until you have concluded everything that you planned to do.”
Earlier on Saturday, parliament voted to remove President Viktor Yanukovich from office, hours after he abandoned his Kiev office to protesters and denounced what he described as a coup.
The impeachment, which was backed by 328 of the 447 deputies, argues that Yanukovich abused his powers.
The Ukrainian parliament, which decisively abandoned Yanukovich after loyalists defected, declared on Saturday the president constitutionally unable to carry out his duties and set an early election for May 25.
Deputies in the assembly stood, applauded and sang the national anthem.
In a television interview shortly beforehand, which the station said was conducted in the eastern city of Kharkiv, Yanukovich said he would not resign or leave the country, and called decisions by parliament “illegal”.
“The events witnessed by our country and the whole world are an example of a coup d’etat,” he said, comparing it to the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany in the 1930s.
He said he had come under fire. “My car was shot at. I am not afraid. I feel sorrow for my country,” he told UBR television.
Despite his defiance, the dismantling of his authority seemed all but complete with his cabinet promising a transition to a new government, the police declaring themselves behind the protesters and his jailed arch adversary Yulia Tymoshenko freed.
Tymoshenko was freed earlier on Saturday from the hospital where she had been held under prison guard for most of the time since she was convicted in 2011.
The former prime minister waved to supporters from a car as she was driven out of the hospital in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, a Reuters photographer said.
“The dictatorship has fallen,” Tymoshenko said in a statement released on her official website. “It fell thanks to those people who came out to defend themselves, their families and their country.”
Tymoshenko, 53, was jailed in 2011 for abuse of office over a gas deal with Russia but her supporters and Western leaders say her trial was politically motivated.
The release followed an earlier vote by parliament to free her.
‘With the people’
The newly-installed interior minister declared that the police now stood with demonstrators they had fought for days, when central Kiev became a war zone with 77 people killed.
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The grounds of Yanukovich’s residence outside Kiev were also being guarded by “self-defence” militia of protesters.
Military and police leaders said they would not get involved in any internal conflict. The interior ministry responsible for the police said it served “exclusively the Ukrainian people and fully shared their strong desire for speedy change”.
“The organs of the Interior Ministry have crossed to the side of the protesters, the side of the people,” new Interior Minister Arsen Avakov told Ukraine’s Channel 5 TV.
Yanukovich, who enraged much of the population by turning away from the European Union to cultivate closer relations with Russia three months ago, made sweeping concessions in the deal brokered by European diplomats on Friday after days of pitched fighting in Kiev that saw police snipers gun down protesters.
But the deal, which called for early elections by the end of the year, was not enough to satisfy pro-Europe demonstrators on Independence Square, known as the Maidan, or “Euro-Maidan”, who want Yanukovich out immediately in the wake of the bloodletting.
On Saturday, the speaker of parliament, a Yanukovich loyalist, resigned and parliament elected Oleksander Turchynov, a close ally of Tymoshenko, as his replacement.
Underscoring Ukraine’s regional divisions, leaders of Russian-speaking eastern provinces loyal to Yanukovich voted to challenge anti-Yanukovich steps by the central parliament.
Eastern regional bosses meeting in Kharkiv – the city where Yanukovich had apparently sought refuge – adopted a resolution saying parliament’s moves “in such circumstances cause doubts about their … legitimacy and legality.
“Until the constitutional order and lawfulness are restored … we have decided to take responsibility for safeguarding the constitutional order, legality, citizens’ rights and their security on our territories.”
Kharkiv Governor Mikhaylo Dobkin told the meeting: “We’re not preparing to break up the country. We want to preserve it.”