Fresh from prison, former Ukraine PM plans to run for president

Yulia Tymoshenko, an adversary of dismissed President Yanukovich, says she wants to lead the embattled country

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, released from jail early on Saturday, acted quickly to secure opposition support — announcing plans to run for president and later, while addressing a crowd of tens of thousands of protesters in the capital Kiev, urging them to remain in Independence Square, the epicenter of anti-government protest, until all their demands are met.

Tymoshenko’s appeal to the crowd came shortly after the Ukranian parliament voted Saturday to dismiss embattled President Viktor Yanukovich and hold new elections on May 25.

The vote against Yanukovich took place hours after anti-government protesters seized his office in Kiev. The president had insisted earlier in the day that he would not step down, even as his grip on power appeared to be rapidly crumbling. The latest developments followed two days of violence that turned central Kiev into a battle zone and left at least 77 people dead.

The military said it would not get involved in trying to stamp out the uprising, after protesters entered Yanukovich's office compound.

The president's residence outside the capital also appeared to have been abandoned. Local media said protesters had entered the sprawling grounds, but it was unclear whether they were inside the main building. Interfax, a Russian news agency, said some security guards were present.

Thousands of protesters on Kiev's Independence Square celebrated just after the parliamentary vote was announced Saturday. The protesters had been skeptical of a European Union-brokered accord under which the embattled leader agreed to give up powers, hold early elections by the end of the year and form a government of national unity.

The UDAR (Punch) party of opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko submitted the parliamentary resolution calling on Yanukovich to quit to clear the way for early elections.

Yanukovich appeared defiant in a local television station broadcast out of Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine, on Saturday. He said he would not resign, and compared the protestors to Nazis.

 "We are witnessing the return of the Nazis, the time when in 1930s the Nazis came to power in Germany and Austria. It is the same now,” he said. “I will do all I can to protect the country from splitting and to prevent bloodshed." 

Yanukovich did not say where he was, but said he would remain away from the capital for the time being.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sided with Yanukovich on Saturday, calling the opposition "armed extremists and pogromists." He urged Germany, Poland and France to persuade protesters to adhere to a peace accord signed by leaders of the opposition and the Ukrainian government earlier this week.

But it was not immediately clear if Western powers would come to the aid of Ukraine's government. Poland’s foreign minister seemed to bolster the opposition on Saturday, saying that the Ukrainian parliament had a right to vote Yanukovich out, and that the protesters’ actions did not amount to an illegal coup.

Tymoshenko returns

Former Prime Minister Tymoshenko was freed from a prison hospital on Saturday. Tymoshenko had been charged with abuse of power and jailed after signing a natural gas deal with Russian oil giant Gazprom in 2011, and her conviction was seen by many as political retribution. 

While crowds of supporters mobbed her car as she made her way to Kiev, she vowed to help lead the country.

Asked by a supporter what her plans are, Tymoshenko said, "I will run for president," news agencies reported. She said she would "make it so that no drop of blood that was spilled will be forgotten."

Lawmakers elected a close ally of Tymoshenko’s to the powerful post of parliament speaker on Saturday, replacing a Yanukovich loyalist. 

Click here for more on the protests in Ukraine

The crisis in Ukraine began with protests in November after Yanukovich turned his back on a far-reaching economic deal with the EU, in favor of closer ties with Russia.

Events have been moving at an accelerating pace that could see a decisive shift in the future of the country of 46 million people away from Moscow's sphere of influence and closer to the West, although Ukraine is near bankruptcy and depends on Russian aid to pay its debt.

Also Saturday, leaders of mainly Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine that are loyal to Yanukovich challenged the legitimacy of the national parliament, and said they were taking sole control of their territories.

Mikhaylo Dobkin, governor of Kharkov region in northeast Ukraine, told a regional leaders meeting in the city of Kharkov: "We're not preparing to break up the country. We want to preserve it."

But a resolution adopted at the meeting said that "the decisions taken by the Ukrainian parliament in such circumstances cause doubts about their ... legitimacy and legality."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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Europe, Ukraine
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