Ukraine protesters take over capital as president leaves Kiev for pro-Russia east

The Associated Press

Protesters ride atop of what appears to be a military truck, in central Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. 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, Viktor Yanukovych, reportedly had fled the capital for his support base in Ukraine's Russia-leaning east. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

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By MARIA DANILOVA and YURAS KARMANAU

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Protesters took control of Ukraine's capital on Saturday, seizing the president's office as parliament sought to oust him and form a new government. An aide to President Viktor Yanukovych said he had left Kiev for his support base in the country's Russian-speaking east, but that he has no intention of abandoning power.

In a special parliament session, lawmakers warned that the country risks being split in two. 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 people have risen up and achieved their goals. The authorities are crumbling. Victory is in sight," 31-year-old construction worker Sviatoslav Gordichenko said outside a residential compound believed to belong to Yanukovych,

Hanna Herman, a close Yanukovych ally, told The Associated Press that the president was spending Saturday visiting Kharkiv, a city in Ukraine's east which is the heart of his support base.

"As much as some people want it, he has no intention to leave the country," Herman said. She said the president was to meet voters in the region and make a televised address.

The trip comes a day after Yanukovych and opposition leaders signed a European-brokered agreement aimed at resolving the months-old political crisis that has killed scores and injured hundreds. The agreement calls for early elections and constitutional reforms that reduce the president's powers.

The protesters, who are angry over corruption and want Ukraine to move toward Europe rather than Russia, claimed full control of Kiev and took up positions around the president's office and a grandiose residential compound believed to be his, though he never acknowledged it.

At the sprawling suburban Kiev compound, protesters stood guard and blocked more radical elements among them from entering the building, fearing unrest. Moderate protesters have sought to prevent their comrades from looting or taking up the weapons that have filled Kiev in recent weeks.

The compound became an emblem of the secrecy and arrogance that defines Yanukovych's presidency, painting him as a leader who basks in splendor while his country's economy suffers and his opponents are jailed. An Associated Press journalist visiting the grounds Saturday saw manicured lawns, a pond, several luxurious houses and the big mansion itself, an elaborate confection of five stories with marble columns.

Protesters attached a Ukrainian flag to a lamppost at the compound, shouting: "Glory to Ukraine!"

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

Protest leader Andriy Parubiy was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that protesters were in full control of the capital on Saturday. Police on Friday retreated from their positions in Kiev's government district, and the night passed quietly.

Ukraine's parliament, only a day ago controlled by Yanukovych supporters, seemed to be taking control of the country's leadership.

It was considering whether to impeach him or force his resignation, and whether to set a quick date for new elections to end the three-month standoff that has turned into a national crisis over Ukraine's identity and direction.

Despite significant concessions by Yanukovych on Friday, protesters said his offer to hold elections late this year isn't enough.

"Resign! Resign!" chanted protesters on Independence Square, the nucleus of the protest movement. Protesters at the square, known as the Maidan, heaped flowers on coffins of those killed in clashes with police Thursday.

In parliament, opposition leaders Vitaly Klitschko and Oleh Tyahnybok called for discussion of impeachment or forcing the president's resignation. Opposition leader Arseny Yatsenyuk called for naming a new government.