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Ukraine's leader pledges cooperation with EU

Ukraine’s interim leadership pledged to put the country back on course for European integration.

Parliament Speaker and newly-appointed interim president of Ukraine, Olexandr Turchynov, speaks during a session at the Parliament in Kiev on 23 February, 2014. Picture: AFP.

KIEV - Ukraine's interim leadership pledged to put the country back on course for European integration now that Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich has been ousted from the presidency, while the United States warned Russia against sending in its forces.

As rival neighbours east and west of the former Soviet republic said a power vacuum in Kiev must not lead to the country breaking apart, acting President Oleksander Turchinov said late on Sunday that Ukraine's new leaders wanted relations with Russia on a "new, equal and good-neighbourly footing that recognises and takes into account Ukraine's European choice".

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will travel to Ukraine on Monday, where she is expected to discuss measures to shore up the ailing economy.

In addition to any economic assistance the EU might offer, the United States has also promised help. Budgets are tight on both sides of the Atlantic, and international creditors may be wary of Yanukovich's opponents, whose previous spell in government was no economic success.

Russia said late on Sunday it had recalled its ambassador in Ukraine for consultations on the deteriorating situation in Kiev.

A day after Yanukovich fled to the Russian-speaking east following dozens of deaths during street protests aimed at toppling him, parliament named its new speaker, Turchinov, as interim head of state. An ally of the ousted leader's jailed rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, he aims to swear in a government by Tuesday that can provide authority until a presidential election on 25 May.

With battle-hardened, pro-Western protesters in control of central Kiev and determined to hold their leaders to account, lawmakers rushed through decisions to cement their power, display their rejection of rampant corruption and bring to account officials who ordered police to fire on Independence Square.

But whoever takes charge as interim prime minister faces a huge challenge to satisfy popular expectations and will find an economy in deep crisis.

President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, was asked on US television about the possibility of Russia sending troops to Ukraine, which President Vladimir Putin had hoped Yanukovich would keep closely allied to Moscow.

"That would be a grave mistake," Rice said. "It's not in the interests of Ukraine or of Russia or of Europe or the United States to see a country split. It's in nobody's interest to see violence return and the situation escalate."

Yanukovich's flight into hiding left Putin's Ukraine policy in tatters, on a day he had hoped eyes would be on the grand finale to the Sochi Olympics. The Kremlin leader spoke on Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose foreign minister had brokered a short-lived truce in Kiev on Friday.

They agreed Ukraine's "territorial integrity" must be maintained, Merkel's spokesman said in a statement.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague was asked if Russia might send in the tanks to defend its interests among ethnic Russians in the east and on the Crimea peninsula, where Moscow bases its Black Sea Fleet. "It would really not be in the interests of Russia to do any such thing," he told the BBC.

It is unlikely the United States and its allies in NATO would risk an outright military confrontation with Russia, but such echoes of the Cold War underline the high stakes in Ukraine, whose 46 million people and sprawling territory are caught in a geopolitical tug of war.

In Russia, where Putin had wanted Ukraine as a key part in a union of ex-Soviet states, the finance minister said the next tranche of a $15 billion loan package agreed to in December would not be paid, at least before a new government is formed.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to his office, told US Secretary of State John Kerry the opposition had seized power by force by ignoring an EU-brokered truce that would have left Yanukovich in office for the time being.

PARLIAMENT ACTS

In a hectic round of voting in parliament, lawmakers rushed in some crowd-pleasing measures against the old administration, conscious that those still occupying Independence Square - or the Maida - remained deeply suspicious of the political class.

They stripped Yanukovich of his abandoned country home near Kiev, complete with ostrich farm and hot tubs, its brash opulence fuelling demands that he be held to account for stealing taxpayer billions.

As prime minister following the largely peaceful Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005, which overturned the first presidential victory by Yanukovich, Tymoshenko disappointed many in Ukraine who had hoped for an end to the corruption and failed economic policies that marked the aftermath of Soviet communism.

On Independence Square, men were still wandering around with clubs and wearing home-made body armour, helmets and in some cases ski masks and camouflage fatigues.