KIEV // Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko was freed on Saturday during the dramatic ousting of her arch enemy Viktor Yanukovich, setting up a run for the presidency in May.
Earlier in the day, Ukraine’s Parliament voted to remove Mr Yanukovich from power after months of protests against his government’s decision to spurn a deal on closer ties with the European Union in favour of former Soviet master Moscow.
Ms Tymoshenko said she believed Ukraine would follow the will of Ukrainian protesters and join the EU, the Interfax news agency reported.
“I am sure that Ukraine will be a member of the European Union in the near future and this will change everything,” she said in Kiev after being freed from jail in Kharkiv.
Protesters took control of Kiev’s charred city centre and also seized Mr Yanukovich’s lavish residence and official offices on Saturday.
He denounced the events in the capital as a “coup” that he blamed on “bandits”.
Ms Tymoshenko was released from jail on Saturday after parliament had on Friday voted to free the former prime minister who had spent more than two years in jail for what supporters say were politically tainted charges.
Sporting her distinctive blonde braid, the 53-year-old was driven out of the hospital in the northeastern city of Kharkiv where she had spent much of her confinement.
“Our homeland will from today on be able to see the sun and sky as a dictatorship has ended,” she told reporters.
She waved to supporters, who chanted “Yulia, Yulia!” before travelling to Kiev’s Independence Square, scene of nearly three months of protests against Mr Yanukovich.
Seventy-seven people were killed in two days of carnage on and around the square this week.
Regretting the deaths of anti-Yanukovich protesters in gun battles and clashes with police, she said everything must be done so that “each drop of blood was not spilt in vain”.
The EU brokered a peace deal between Mr Yanukovich and his rivals on Friday, calling for an election by year-end, but protesters made clear they wanted the president out immediately.
In a day of high drama, parliament, which was empowered under the EU-brokered deal, voted to remove Mr Yanukovich from office and set an election for May 25.
But Mr Yanukovich vowed to remain in power, even as his political allies abandoned him in droves.
“I have no plans to leave the country and I have no plans to resign. I am the legally elected president and all the international intermediaries I’ve talked to have given me guarantees of security. We’ll see how those are fulfilled,” Mr Yanukovich said in a TV interview on Saturday.
Oleksandr Turchynov, a leading opposition MP, was elected speaker of parliament, which under the constitution makes him acting head of state. He told parliamentarians that Mr Yanukovich had tried to board a plane to Russia but was turned back by border officials and had returned to the area near his hometown of Donetsk in Ukraine’s east.
The conflict has deepened tensions between the West and Russia. European officials immediately backed the decisions of the parliament and rejected Mr Yanukovich’s allegations of a coup. Moscow has backed Mr Yanukovich and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denounced the events in Kiev as “a direct threat to the sovereignty and constitutional order in Ukraine”.
However, the parliament also voted to replace a string of key cabinet officials, including the defence and interior ministers, with opposition members.
The interior ministry said that “it serves only the Ukrainian people and fully shares the desire of citizens for immediate change”. It called for cooperation from all sides to ensure public order. And the defence ministry said in a statement that it would “in no way be drawn into the political conflict”.
Parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Rybak, a close ally of Mr Yanukovich, handed in his resignation ahead of the vote by MPs to replace him with Mr Turchynov.
Dozens of legislators defected from Mr Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, while a majority of those who remained voted for his ouster in the parliament vote, said Serhei Tihipko, a senior party member. “We tried for a long time to reach him today but not a single phone worked, none of his aides, not anyone could be reached,” Mr Tihipko told reporters in the parliament. “Members of the party who were in parliament today felt abandoned.”
“He should have the courage to resign,” Mr Tihipko said, noting that the party would find another candidate to run in the May elections if Mr Yanukovich lacks support.
Meanwhile, Vitali Klichko, the former boxing champion who is one of the most prominent leaders of the opposition, said Saturday’s developments amounted to “a political knockout” for Mr Yanukovich.
Protests against Mr. Yanukovich’s government started in November when he shelved a partnership accord with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia, which promised financial assistance to the county. The protests quickly turned into broader anti-government demonstrations after a crackdown on protesters.
Dozens of protesters carrying sticks and shields stood protecting government buildings, including parliament and the security service’s offices.
Thousands poured into the square to watch proceedings in parliament on a large screen and bring flowers and candles to memorials to dead protesters.
Ms Tymoshenko was jailed in 2011 for abuse of office over a gas deal with Russia but her supporters and western leaders regarded her as a political prisoner.
A fiery orator, she shot to fame during the 2004-5 Orange Revolution that overturned a rigged election won by Mr Yanukovich. She became prime minister, but was forced out after Ms Yanukovich beat her to the presidency in 2010.
Reuters and Agence France-Presse