Kiev protesters seize president's office
The protesters claimed full control of Kiev and took up positions around the president's office.
KIEV - Thousands of protesters have taken control of Ukraine's capital today, seizing the president's office as parliament has attempted to oust President Viktor Yanukovych and form a new government.
An aide to 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.
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 Yanukovych, although he has never acknowledged it.
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 the president's residence outside Kiev were also being guarded by "self-defence" militia of anti-government protesters. Hundreds of people entered the grounds, although not the building itself.
A senior security source said the president was still in Ukraine but was unable to say whether he was in Kiev. An ally was quoted as saying he was in an eastern city.
Yanukovich, who enraged much of the population by turning away from the European Union to build closer ties with Russia three months ago, made sweeping concessions in a deal brokered by European diplomats on Friday after days of violence that killed 77 people, with central Kiev resembling a war zone.
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, following bloodshed in which his police snipers were shooting from rooftops.
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 his arch-adversary, jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, to go free. On Saturday lawmakers voted to speed her release without requiring the president's signature.
The speaker of parliament, a Yanukovich loyalist, resigned on Saturday 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 (Yanukovich) left the capital," opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko, a retired world heavyweight boxing champion, told an emergency session of parliament debating an opposition motion calling on the president to resign.
"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."
The UNIAN news agency cited Anna Herman, a lawmaker close to Yanukovich, as saying the president was in the north-eastern city of Kharkiv, in a mainly Russian-speaking province.
Two protesters in helmets stood at the entrance to the president's Kiev office. Asked where the state security guards were, one, who gave his name as Mykola Voloshin, said: "I'm the guard now."
Dmytro Pylipets, 32, a doctor from Kharkiv in military fatigues and helmet, said: "I think Yanukovich is frightened and panicking. I feel we are almost there. The Maidan revolution is almost done."
In a sign of the quick transformation, the interior ministry responsible for the police appeared to swing behind the protests. It said it served "exclusively the Ukrainian people and fully shares their strong desire for speedy change".
Parliament voted on Friday to dismiss Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko, a Yanukovich loyalist blamed by the opposition for the bloodshed.
The ministry urged citizens to unite "in the creation of a truly independent, democratic and just European country".
Yanukovich's broad concessions on Friday ended to 48 hours of violence that had turned the centre of Kiev into an inferno of blazing barricades. Without enough loyal police to restore order, the authorities had resorted to placing snipers on rooftops who shot demonstrators in the head and neck.
The foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland negotiated the concessions from Yanukovich, in what the Kremlin's envoy acknowledged as superior diplomacy.
"The EU representatives were in their own way trying to be useful, they started the talks," said Russian envoy Vladimir Lukin. "We joined the talks later, which wasn't very right. One should have agreed on the format of the talks right from the start," Lukin was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
Yanukovich, 63, a burly former Soviet regional transport official with two convictions for assault, did not smile during a signing ceremony at the presidential headquarters on Friday.