Former Ukrainian leader rallies protesters after release from prison
Marko Drobnjakovic, Associated Press
KIEV, Ukraine — Hours after her release from prison, former Ukrainian prime minister and opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko appeared before an ecstatic throng at the protester encampment in Ukraine's capital Saturday, praising the demonstrators killed in violence this week and urging the protesters to keep occupying the square.
Her speech to the crowd of about 50,000, made from a wheelchair because of the severe back problems she suffered in 2½ years of imprisonment, was the latest stunning development in the fast-moving Ukrainian political crisis.
Only a day earlier, her arch-rival, President Viktor Yanukovych, signed an agreement with protest leaders that cut his powers and called for early elections. Parliament, once controlled by Yanukovych supporters, quickly thereafter voted to decriminalize the abuse-of-office charge for which Tymoshenko was convicted.
Yanukovych meanwhile appeared to be losing power by the hour. He decamped from Kiev to Kharkiv, a city in his support base in eastern Ukraine, while protesters took control of the presidential administration building and thousands of curious and contemptuous Ukrainians roamed the suddenly open grounds of the lavish compound outside Kiev where he was believed to live.
In Kharkiv, Yanukovych defiantly declared that he regarded parliament's actions as invalid and bitterly likened the demonstrators who conducted three months of protests against him to Nazis.
"Everything that is happening today is, to a greater degree, vandalism and banditry and a coup d'etat," he said. "I will do everything to protect my country from breakup, to stop bloodshed."
The reversal of fortune for both Tymoshenko and Yanukovych was an eerie echo of the Orange Revolution of a decade ago — the mass protests that forced a rerun of a presidential election nominally won by Yanukovych. Tymoshenko attracted world attention as the most vivid of the protest leaders, her elaborate blond peasant braid making her instantly recognizable.
On Saturday, Tymoshenko appeared close to exhaustion and her voice cracked frequently, but her flair for vivid words was undimmed.
"You are heroes, you are the best thing in Ukraine!" she said of those killed in the violence. The Health Ministry on Saturday said the death toll in clashes between protesters and police that included sniper attacks had reached 82.
And she urged the demonstrators not to yield from their encampment in the square, known in Ukrainian as the Maidan.
"In no case do you have the right to leave the Maidan until you have concluded everything that you planned to do," she said.
After the 2004 protests helped bring Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency, Tymoshenko became prime minister. But when Yanukovych won the 2010 election, Tymoshenko was arrested and put on trial for abuse of office, an action widely seen as political revenge.
Her call for protests to continue and Yanukovych's defiance leaves unsettled the fate of Ukraine, a nation of 46 million of huge strategic importance to Russia, Europe and the United States.
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. 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.
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