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Ukrainians take protest to president's residence

Ukrainians take protest to president's residence

Kiev (AFP) - Thousands of Ukrainians on Sunday for the first time staged a major protest outside the private residence of President Viktor Yanukovych which has become a symbol of alleged corruption by the elite.

Opposition leaders vowed that protests outside the residence would become a regular feature of their campaign against the president over his rejection of a pact with the European Union which sparked mass protests in the capital Kiev.

A crowd of more than 50,000 had earlier packed Independence Square in central Kiev amid swelling anger over the brutal beating of a reporter who exposed the lavish lifestyles of Yanukovych and his ruling elite.

Some 5,000 protesters then made their way to Yanukovych's residence known as Mezhygirya on the banks of the Dnipro river some 15 kilometres (10 miles) outside of Kiev by bicycle, car and minibuses adorned with Ukrainian flags, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.

They were kept at a distance of around 300 metres (330 yards) from the heavily guarded residence by a vast cordon of anti-riot officers who blocked the path of the protesters with police buses and trucks.

The protesters carried a coffin to symbolise what they hope is the end of Yanukovych's political career and chanted "Kiev rise up!" and "Get Out Yanukovych".

Ukraine's opposition and media have long accused Yanukovych of financing Mezhygirya with funds obtained improperly by him and his family, and said its luxury is wholly inappropriate in a country going through an economic crisis.

Investigations into the financing and construction of the residence were a prime part of the work of journalist Tetyana Chornovol, who is in hospital after being brutally beaten last week.

The leader of the opposition UDAR (Punch) party and world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko stood on a minibus to denounce the "corruption" of the elite in front of the crowds.

"The authorities should not think that they can hide behind fences and not hear the people. They see how many of us there are and we do not have fear," said Klitschko.

"The next time there are going to be a million of us," he said.

The presidency has always vehemently denied that Yanukovych has behaved improperly over the construction and financing of the residence.

New rallying cause

Meanwhile, the attack and graphic hospital images of Chornovol's bloodied and swollen face have provided a new rallying cause for the weekly pro-EU protests that intially drew hundreds of thousands but began to peter out last Sunday.

Chornovol, who had been pulled out of her car and assaulted on Tuesday night, is a prominent figure in the pro-EU protests that have rocked Kiev since Yanukovych abandoned a historic EU agreement in favour of closer ties with old master Moscow.

The opposition appeared to be taken aback by a $15 billion (11 billion euro) bailout package that Yanukovych struck with Russian President Vladimir Putin on December 17, which also slashed the price Ukraine had to pay for natural gas imports on which its teetering economy depends.

The deal removed the immediate threat of a painful Ukrainian currency devaluation and debt default but also dimmed the prospects of a so-called Association Agreement being struck with the European Union in the coming months.

But opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk of jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party said Chornovol's beating showed that the authorities were ready to take grievous measures against their rivals, and called for still stronger protests.

"We have three key demands: to free the innocent (protesters arrested by the police), to jail the bandits and to dismiss the government," Yatsenyuk said in a statement.

Chornovol, 34, said from her hospital bed on Friday that she had been followed by assailants "in a black luxury jeep" after spending the day taking photographs of the residences of Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko and Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka.

The Ukrainska Pravda opposition website reporter has published several investigations about Yanukovych's Mezhygirya residence.

Chornovol also said Friday that she had recently discovered another dwelling of the president.

A Ukrainian court has issued a warrant for the arrest of five people believed to be linked to the attack on her.

But police investigators have infuriated the opposition still further by alleging that the suspects had links to Klitschko and Tymoshenko's party.

The attack has drawn explicit condemnation from the West, including the US State Department, but has been met with silence by Moscow.