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Ukraine leader flees Kiev, House calls polls

Kiev, Feb. 22: Opposition leaders took control of the presidential palace outside Kiev today, as Ukraine’s President, Viktor F. Yanukovych, fled the capital and Parliament, beginning to chart what appeared to be a new course for the former Soviet republic, called elections to replace him.

Members of an Opposition group from Lviv called the 31st Hundred — carrying clubs and some of them wearing masks — were in control of the entryways to the palace this morning. They watched as thousands of citizens strolled through the grounds during the day, gazing in wonder at the mansions, zoo, golf course, enclosure for rare pheasants and other luxuries, set in a birch forest on a bluff soaring above the Dnepr river.

“This commences a new life for Ukraine,” said Roman Dakus, a protester-turned-guard, who was wearing a ski helmet and carrying a length of pipe as he blocked a doorway. “This is only a start,” he added. “We need now to make a new structure and a new system, a foundation for our future, with rights for everybody, and we need to investigate who ordered the violence.”

Yanukovych appeared on television this afternoon, saying that he had been forced to leave the capital because of a “coup”, and that he had not resigned, and did not plan to.

He said he understood that people had suffered in recent days. “I feel pain for my country,” he said. “I feel responsibility. I will keep you informed of what we will do further, every day.” Yanukovych also said that he was travelling to the southeastern part of the country to talk to his supporters — a move that carried potentially ominous overtones, in that the southeast is the location, among other things, of the Crimea, the historically Russian section of the country where a Russian naval base is located.

But Parliament subsequently declared Yanukovych unable to carry out his duties and set a date of May 25 to elect his replacement.

An alleged sniper is beaten up by anti-government protesters in Kiev on Saturday. (AFP)

Protesters said they had seen helicopters and cars leaving the palace compound last night and this morning, and Yanukovych said that his car had been fired upon.

With political authority having collapsed, protesters claimed to have established control over Kiev. By this morning they had secured key intersections of the city and the government district of the capital, which police officers had fled, leaving behind burned military trucks, mattresses and heaps of garbage at the positions they had occupied for months. In Parliament, Opposition members began laying the groundwork for a change in leadership, electing Oleksander Turchynov as speaker.

Underscoring the volatility of the situation and the potential power vacuum, Oleg Tyagnibok, the leader of the nationalist Svoboda party, asked the country’s interior minister and “forces on the side of the people” to patrol the capital to prevent looting.

Yesterday Yanukovych and Opposition leaders, with the help of France, Germany, Poland and Russia, had reached an accord that reduced the power of Yanukovych. But Russia then refused to sign the accord, stirring fears that Moscow might now work to undo the deal.

 
 
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