KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Protesters took control of Ukraine’s capital Saturday, seizing the president’s office as parliament sought to oust him and form a new government. President Viktor Yanukovych left Kiev for his support base in the country’s Russian-speaking east, where lawmakers questioned the legitimacy of central authorities and called for volunteer militias to uphold order.
After a tumultuous week that left scores dead and Ukraine’s political destiny in flux, fears mounted that the country could split in two.
The country’s western regions, angered by corruption in Yanukovych’s government, want to be closer to the European Union and have rejected Yanukovych’s authority in many cities, citing corruption and brutality. Eastern Ukraine, which accounts for the bulk of the nation’s economic output, favors closer ties with Russia and has largely supported the president. The three-month protest movement was prompted by the president’s decision to abort an agreement with the EU in favor of a deal with Moscow.
“The people have risen up and achieved their goals. The authorities are crumbling. Victory is in sight,” 31-year-old construction worker Sviatoslav Gordichenko said as he and thousands of other protesters surrounded an ostentatious residential compound in the Kiev suburbs believed to belong to Yanukovych.
An aide said Yanukovych had no intention of stepping down. He was in the eastern city of Kharkiv, where governors, provincial officials and legislators gathered alongside top Russian lawmakers and approved a statement calling on regional authorities to take full responsibility for constitutional order.
Some called for the formation of volunteer militias to defend against protesters from western regions, even as they urged army units to maintain neutrality and protect ammunition depots.
The congress of provincial lawmakers and officials in Kharkiv issued a statement saying that the events in Kiev have led to the “paralysis of the central government and destabilization of the situation in the country.” Lawmakers accused the opposition of failing to keep its word to give up its weapons and abandon protest camps.
Outside, thousands of anti-Yanukovych protesters chanted “Ukraine is not Russia!” – a surprising development given that large anti-Yanukovych protests have been rare in the east.
Yanukovych aide Hanna Herman told The Associated Press that the president would meet Kharkiv residents and give a televised address.
“As much as some people want it, he has no intention to leave the country,” she said.
Ukraine, a nation of 46 million, has long divided its loyalties and economy between Europe and longtime ruler Moscow, giving it huge strategic importance to Russia, Europe and the United States.
European foreign ministers helped broker an agreement on Friday between Yanukovych and opposition leaders aimed at resolving the months-old political crisis that has killed scores and injured hundreds. The agreement calls for early elections and constitutional reforms that reduce the president’s powers.
Neither side won all the points it sought in Friday’s deal, and some vague conditions left room for strong disputes down the road. By Saturday, events on the ground seemed to overtake the agreement.
The protesters claimed full control of Kiev and took up positions around the president’s office and a grandiose residential compound believed to be his, though he never acknowledged it.
At the sprawling suburban Kiev compound, protesters stood guard and blocked more radical elements among them from entering the building, fearing unrest. Moderate protesters have sought to prevent their comrades from looting or taking up the weapons that have filled Kiev in recent weeks.
The compound became an emblem of the secrecy and arrogance that defines Yanukovych’s presidency, painting him as a leader who basks in splendor while his country’s economy suffers and his opponents are jailed. An Associated Press journalist visiting the grounds Saturday saw manicured lawns, a pond, several luxurious houses and the big mansion itself, an elaborate confection of five stories with marble columns.
Protesters attached a Ukrainian flag to a lamppost at the compound, shouting: “Glory to Ukraine!”
A group of protesters in helmets and shields stood guard at the president’s office Saturday. No police were in sight.
Protest leader Andriy Parubiy was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that protesters were in full control of the capital on Saturday. Police retreated from their positions in Kiev’s government district.
Protesters also gathered around the country, often taking out their anger at statues of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, using ropes and crowbars to knock Lenin statues off pedestals in several cities and towns. Statues of Lenin still stand in cities and towns across the former USSR, and they are seen as a symbol of Moscow’s rule.
Ukraine’s parliament, only a day ago controlled by Yanukovych supporters, seemed to be taking control of the country’s leadership.
It was considering whether to impeach him or force his resignation, and whether to set a quick date for new elections. It named a new interior minister after firing the previous one Friday, amid anger at police violence against protesters.
The parliament approved a measure that could free Yanukovych’s arch-rival and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who has served 2 1/2 years on a conviction of abuse of office, charges that domestic and Western critics have denounced as a political vendetta.
A spokeswoman for Tymoshenko, Natasha Lysova, told The Associated Press that a decision taken by parliament Saturday means Tymoshenko must be freed immediately. Earlier Lysova had erroneously said Tymoshenko had already been freed.
Tymoshenko’s reappearance on the political scene could shake things up even more.
The past week saw the worst violence in Ukraine since the breakup of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago. At the protests’ epicenter on Kiev’s Independence Square, demonstrators clashed with police and snipers opened fire. The Health Ministry put the death toll at 77, and some opposition figures said it’s even higher.
At the square Saturday, protesters heaped flowers on the coffins of the dead.
Dalton Bennett in Kharkiv, Angela Charlton and Jim Heintz in Kiev and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.