The Ukrainian parliament declared President Viktor Yanukovich constitutionally unable to carry out his duties on Saturday and set an early election for May 25. The decision came just hours after the embattled Yanukovych said he wouldn't respect any decisions made by parliament.
Following the parliament vote, Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko was freed 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, a bitter rival of President Viktor Yanukovich, waved to supporters from a car as she was driven out of the hospital in the northeastern city if Kharkiv, a Reuters photographer said.
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.
Tymoshenko said parliament's vote on Saturday to oust President Viktor Yanukovich amounted to the fall of a dictator.
"Our homeland will from today on be able to see the sun and sky as a dictatorship has ended," she told reporters after her release from the hospital where she had been held under prison guard for most of the time since she was jailed in 2011.
Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko (Photo: EPA)
Yanukovich called the country's political crisis a coup and said it resembles the rise of Nazis in the 1930s. The Ukrainian president said he has no intention of resigning or leaving the country.
"Everything that is happening today is, to a greater degree, vandalism and bandits and a coup d'etat," Yanukovych said in a televised statement on Saturday, clearly shaken and making long pauses in his speech.
He said decisions made by parliament Friday and Saturday "are all illegal" and compared the situation to the rise of Nazis in the 1930s. He said he would not sign any of the measures passed by parliament, which include trimming his powers and releasing his jailed arch-rival, ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Hours after Yanukovych and opposition leaders signed an agreement aimed at resolving the country's turmoil on Friday, Yanukovych feld to Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, the heartland of his support.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday the opposition in Ukraine had failed to deliver on the Feb. 21 agreement with Yanukovich.
The Foreign Ministry said that was the message Lavrov conveyed to his German, Polish and French counterparts - the European Union trio that helped reach the deal between the rival sides in Kiev - on the phone on Saturday.
"The opposition not only has failed to fulfil a single of its obligations but is already presenting new demands all the time, following the lead of armed extremists and pogromists whose actions pose direct threat to Ukraine's sovereignty and constitutional order," Lavrov told the EU ministers, according to a statement on the Russian Foreign Ministry's website.
'Self-defense' militia gaurd Kiev office of President Viktor Yanukovich (Photo: Reuters)
Political crisis shakes Ukraine
Meanwhile, the armed forces of Ukraine said they will not become involved in any political conflict, the military general staff said in a statement posted on the website of the defence ministry Saturday.
"The armed forces of Ukraine are loyal to their constitutional obligations and cannot be pulled into domestic political conflict," it said.
In the interveiw, Yanukovich said his car had come under fire but showed no signs of injury in a television interview.
"My car was shot at. I am not afraid. I feel sorrow for my country," he told UBR television and Internet outlet.
He also called his opponents gangsters who were terrorising the country and said he would now travel through southeast Ukraine meeting people. The interview is thought to have been conducted in the northeastern city Kharkiv and his presidential administration in Kiev is controlled by the opposition.
Leaders of mainly Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine that are loyal to President Yanukovich challenged the legitimacy of the national parliament on Saturday and said they were taking control of their territories.
The move appeared to increase the possibility of a split in the sprawling former Soviet republic of 46 million, despite denials by the leaders that this was their intention.
The Kiev parliament has passed a series of measures that would reduce the president's powers and pave the way to the formation of a national unity government and early presidential elections.
Mikhaylo Dobkin, Governor of Kharkiv region in northeast Ukraine, told regional leaders meeting in the city: "We're not preparing to break up the country. We want to preserve it."
But a resolution adopted at the meeting said: "The decisions taken by the Ukrainian parliament in such circumstances cause doubts about their ... legitimacy and legality."
It added: "The central state organs are paralysed. 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."
Many politicians have warned of a looming partition in Ukraine, which broke peacefully from the Soviet Union in 1991, since people took to the streets late last year to protest against Yanukovich for spurning political and trade deals with the European Union. Western Ukraine is broadly pro-EU.
Some Ukrainians are also worried by calls in Crimea for the region to again become Russian territory, nearly six decades after Kremlin leader Nikita Khrushchev - who was a Ukrainian - redrew internal Soviet boundaries to make a gift of the peninsula to Ukraine.
"The revolution has been won in Kiev, in part of Ukraine, but not in the whole of Ukraine. We still have many risks," said Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst at the Kiev-based Penta think-tank.
"If Yanukovich appears and ... proclaims an alternative power in Kharkiv or in Donetsk - it will mean that we have two countries. The most serious risk now is the possible division of the country. The crisis is not yet over."
Russia has strong cultural, historical and economic ties with eastern Ukraine, and some factories there have contracts with the Russian military. Some Russians do not think of Ukraine, the cradle of Russian civilisation, as outside Russia.
Protesters seized the Kiev office of President Viktor Yanukovich early Saturday, as the pro-Russian leader's grip on power rapidly eroded following bloodshed in the Ukrainian capital.
Parliament voted to free his arch-rival, jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Her daughter said Tymoshenko was already free under Ukrainian law but still in the hospital where she has been held for treatment.
The newly-installed interior minister declared that the police were now behind the protesters they had fought for days, giving central Kiev the look of a war zone with 77 people killed, while central authority crumbled in western Ukraine.
Blood in the streets (Photo: Reuters)
At the president's headquarters, Ostap Kryvdyk, who described himself as a protest commander, said some protesters had entered the offices but there was no looting. "We will guard the building until the next president comes," he told Reuters. "Yanukovich will never be back."
The grounds of Yanukovich's residence outside Kiev were also being guarded by "self-defense" militia of protesters.
The quick disintegration of Yanukovich's government marked a setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had counted on the Ukrainian leader to bring Ukraine into a Eurasian Union to help rebuild as much of the old Soviet Union as possible.
A senior security source said Yanukovich was still in Ukraine but was unable to say whether he was in Kiev. An ally was quoted as saying he was in a city in the country's generally pro-Russian east.
The government, still led by a Yanukovich ally, said it would ensure a smooth handover of power to a new administration.
"The cabinet of ministers and ministry of finance are working normally," the government said in a statement. "The current government will provide a fully responsible transfer of power under the constitution and legislation."
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 a deal brokered by European diplomats on Friday after days of pitched fighting in Kiev, with police snipers gunning down protesters.
But the deal, which called for early elections by the end of the year, was not enough to satisfy demonstrators, who want Yanukovich out immediately in the wake of the bloodletting.
Parliament has quickly acted to implement the deal, voting to restore a constitution that curbs the president's powers and to change the legal code to allow Tymoshenko to go free. On Saturday, lawmakers voted to speed her release by eliminating a requirement that the president approve it.
The speaker of parliament, a Yanukovich loyalist, resigned and parliament elected Oleksander Turchynov, a close ally of Tymoshenko, as his replacement.
Events were moving at a rapid pace that could see a decisive shift in the future of a country of 46 million people away from Moscow's orbit and closer to the West, although Ukraine is near bankruptcy and depends on promised Russian aid to pay its bills.
"Today he left the capital," opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko, a retired world heavyweight boxing champion, told an emergency session of parliament about the president.
"Millions of Ukrainians see only one choice - early presidential and parliamentary elections." Klitschko then tweeted that an election should be held no later than May 25.
The senior security source said of Yanukovich: "Everything's ok with him ... He is in Ukraine." Asked whether the leader was in Kiev, the source replied: "I cannot say."
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report