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Ukraine president flees, Tymoshenko freed

KIEV -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to step down Saturday and denounced a “coup” by protesters as the emboldened opposition took control of parliament and parts of Kiev in another dramatic turn in the three-month crisis. Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison after parliament voted to free her.

Yanukovych's regime appeared close to collapse as protesters took control of his offices and lawmakers voted to free jailed pro-Western Tymoshenko.

But Yanukovych defiantly told a local television station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv — a pro-Russian bedrock of support — that he would fight tooth and nail against the “bandits” trying to oust 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 said in a firm voice.

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

“This is not an opposition,” Yanukovych scoffed. “These are bandits.”

Opposition Seizes Yanukovych Office

Yet a sense of an emerging power vacuum gripped the charred heart of the capital a day after Yanukovych and his political rivals signed a Western-brokered peace deal to end the ex-Soviet nation's worst crisis since independence from Moscow in 1991.

Key government buildings were left without police protection and baton-armed protesters dressed in military fatigues wandered freely across the president's 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 spots across Kiev's iconic Independence Square on which protesters were shot dead by police in a week of carnage that claimed nearly 100 lives.

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

The Ukrainian police appeared to retreat Saturday from their entrenched defense of the pro-Russian government by releasing a statement in support of “the people” and “rapid change.”

The country's vast army issued its own statement hours later vitally stressing that it “will in no way become involved in the political conflict.”

The next test for the police will come Sunday when a deadline expires for protesters to relinquish public spaces such as Independence Square — the focal point of unrest that Yanukovych sparked in November by ditching an historic EU agreement in favor of closer ties with old master Moscow.

The Ukrainian protests have escalated into a Cold War-style confrontation pitting attempts by the Kremlin to keep reins on its historic fiefdom against Western efforts to bring the economically struggling nation of 46 million into their fold.

Russia's foreign ministry on Saturday 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.”

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Ukrainian lawmakers celebrate after voting on new laws in parliament in Kiev, on Friday, Feb. 21. Ukraine's opposition leaders reached a deal Friday with the country's beleaguered president, with parliament changing the constitution and opening the way for the release of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. (AP)

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