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Protesters hail freed Tymoshenko but Ukraine leader defiant
AFP Protesters hail freed Tymoshenko but Ukraine leader defiant

Kiev (AFP) - Ukrainian protesters seized control of the capital Kiev on Saturday in a historic cascade of events that saw jailed opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko walk free while marginalised President Viktor Yanukovych defiantly claimed to still wield power.

The situation in the ex-Soviet nation -- deeply divided between aspirations towards the European Union and loyalty to Russia -- was still fluid and uncertainty reigned over whether the opposition had definitively triumphed over Yanukovych on a day of high drama exactly three months into the country's crisis.

But there was clearly no more evidence of the brutal violence that had charred the heart of Kiev for much of this week and left nearly 100 people dead.

The tens of thousands of protesters who had occupied the city's central Independence Square discovered that security forces had all but abandoned government and presidential buildings and that anyone was now free to enter unchallenged.

They and other city residents gawped in awe and anger at the ostentatious luxury Yanukovych had built up inside a private estate that featured everything from a private zoo to a replica galleon floating on an artificial waterway.

Yanukovych gave a television interview from the pro-Russian eastern bastion city of Kharkiv denouncing the "coup" against him and branding his political foes "bandits" -- comments that won firm support from his backers in Moscow.

But the army issued a statement saying it "will in no way become involved in the political conflict" and the police force declared itself in support of "the people" and "rapid change".

British Foreign Secretary William Hague sounded an encouraging note about the "extraordinary developments" in Ukraine.

"Events in the last 24 hours show the will of Ukrainians to move towards a different future, and ensure that the voices of those who have protested courageously over several months are heard," Hague said in a statement.

The parliament in Kiev stepped into the power vacuum left by Yanukovych's departure by voting to oust the embattled president and setting new elections for May 25.

Lawmakers followed that up with an equally dramatic move ordering the release of Tymoshenko -- a former premier and stalwart supporter of close EU ties who remained Yanukovych's nemesis even when she was sent to prison in 2011 on a seven-year sentence for "abuse of power".

The fiery 53-year-old co-leader of the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution then appeared in a wheelchair on Independence Square's main stage to a rapturous welcome from a 50,000-strong crowd.

"You are heroes, you are the best of Ukraine," she said before breaking down in tears.

Priests conducted a religious ceremony for one of the protesters killed this week before she arrived, and many in the crowd lit up their mobile phones to create a sea of light.

The US government welcomed Tymoshenko's release and wisher her "a speedy recovery as she seeks the appropriate medical treatment that she has long needed and sought" while incarcerated.

The developments showed the balance of power in Ukraine swinging in the opposition's favour and seemingly superseding a Western-brokered pact Yanukovych had signed just a day earlier with the opposition to resolve the country's bloodiest conflict since its independence in 1991.

The crisis had erupted in November when Yanukovych had dumped a pact promising closer ties with the European Union in favour of hewing closer to Soviet-era master Russia.

- Yanukovych refuses to resign -

"This is a political knockout for Yanukovych," charismatic former-boxer-turned-opposition-leader Vitali Klitschko said in a statement Saturday.

"Yanukovych is no longer president."

But Yanukovych vowed flatly to fight any attempt to topple him.

"I am not leaving the country for anywhere. I do not intend to resign. I am the legitimately elected president," the 63-year-old leader, who took office in 2010, said in a firm voice.

Yanukovych added with a hint of outrage that "everything happening today can primarily be described as vandalism, banditry and a coup d'etat".

Yet the president's grasp on power appeared limited on Saturday. Government buildings stood without police protection and baton-armed protesters dressed in military fatigues wandered freely across his once-fortified compound.

"We have taken the perimeter of the president's residence under our control for security reasons," Mykola Velichkovich of the opposition's self-declared 'Independence Square defence unit' told AFP.

Thousands of mourners meanwhile brought carnations and roses to dozens of locations across central Kiev at which people were shot dead by police in a week of carnage.

Coffins draped with Ukraine's blue-and-yellow passed from shoulder to shoulder through the crowd before being taken outside the city for burial.

Thousands of residents also took their first-ever tour of Yanukovych's lavish private residence just north of Kiev, gaping at a zoo, a galleon and other extravagances the leader had enjoyed behind high walls.

"I am in shock," a retired military servicewoman named Natalia Rudenko said as she inspected the president's rare pheasant collection and a banquet hall built inside the galleon replica.

"In a country with so much poverty, how can one person have so much?"

- Russia unsettled -

The months of Ukrainian protests had escalated into a Cold War-style confrontation, pitting attempts by the Kremlin to keep reins on its historic fiefdom against EU and US efforts to bring the economically struggling nation of 46 million into the West's fold.

Russa's foreign ministry accused the opposition of "submitting itself to armed extremists and looters whose actions pose a direct threat to the sovereignty and constitutional order of Ukraine".

Yanukovych's ruling Regions Party, that had previously pushed Ukraine closer toward Russia, stood in disarray amid mass defections by lawmakers to opposition ranks.

More than 40 lawmakers had already quit the Regions Party -- once in control of 208 votes in the 450-seat Rada -- since the deadly unrest first erupted on Tuesday.

Deputies also named Tymoshenko ally Arsen Avakov as interior minister in place of Vitaliy Zakharchenko -- a figure hated by the opposition who is blamed for ordering the police to open fire on unarmed protesters.