Ukraine ushers in new era as president flees

Thousands of people come to visit Kiev's Independence square on Feb 23, 2014. A new era dawned in Ukraine on Sunday when parliament appointed a pro-Western interim leader after impeaching a defiant president Viktor Yanukovych, whose whereabouts
Thousands of people come to visit Kiev's Independence square on Feb 23, 2014. A new era dawned in Ukraine on Sunday when parliament appointed a pro-Western interim leader after impeaching a defiant president Viktor Yanukovych, whose whereabouts remain a mystery following a week of carnage. -- PHOTO: AFP

KIEV (AFP) - A new era dawned in Ukraine on Sunday when parliament appointed a pro-Western interim leader after impeaching a defiant president Viktor Yanukovych, whose whereabouts remain a mystery following a week of carnage.

The ex-Soviet state's bloody three-month crisis culminated in a dizzying flurry of historic changes over the weekend that saw parliament oust the pro-Russian Yanukovych and call a presidential election for May 25.

Lawmakers then went a step further by approving the release from her seven-year jail sentence of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko - a star of the 2004 Orange Revolution who was thrown behind bars less than a year after Yanukovych came to power in 2010.

The constitutional legitimacy of parliament's actions remains an open question and Yanukovych vowed in a taped interview to fight the "bandits" who now claimed to rule Ukraine.

But Mr Yanukovych's grasp on power was in limited evidence in Kiev on Sunday as the city's police presence vanished and protesters took control of everything from traffic management to protection of government buildings after a week of bloodshed that claimed nearly 100 lives.

The United States vowed to drum up financial help that could help pull Ukraine out of a crisis that erupted in November when Yanukovych spurned an historic EU trade deal and secured a US$15 billion (S$19 billion) bailout for the struggling nation of 46 million people from old master Russia.

Lawmakers voted on Sunday to name close Tymoshenko ally Oleksandr Turchynov - himself only appointed as parliament speaker on Saturday in place of a veteran Yanukovych supporter - as interim president with the task of forming a new government by Tuesday.

Mr Turchynov immediately vowed to draw up a "government of the people" and urged leading lawmakers to create a new parliamentary majority that could swiftly approve reforms that had stalled under Yanukovych.

"We have until Tuesday," the 49-year-old interim leader said.

New interior minister Arsen Aviakov announced the launch of a probe into police involvement in the "execution" of protesters in a week of carnage that turned the heart of Kiev into a war zone.

Mr Yanukovych was dealt another embarrassing blow when his own Regions Party issued a statement condemning him for issuing "criminal orders" that led to so many deaths.

"We condemn Yanukovych's cowardice and decision to flee," the Regions Party said in a statement. "We condemn treason." Parliament also voted to dimiss Ukraine's Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara after sacking the federal police chief and prosecutor general on Saturday And it took the symbolic step of handing over Yanukovych's marble-lined mansion outside Kiev - its vast car collection and golden toilet fixtures opened up for public viewing on Saturday - to the state.

Western countries gave vital but cautious backing to the sweeping changes in Ukraine while Russia once again cautioned that payment of its huge bailout package was on hold.

Ukraine stands on the precipice of a default and owes nearly US$13 billion in debt payments this year - money it cannot drum up on financial markets because of prohibitively expensive borrowing costs.

Mr Turchynov on Sunday called the state of Ukraine's economy "catastrophic".

US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told a G20 meeting in Sydney that Washington "stands ready to assist Ukraine as it implements reforms to restore economic stability and seeks to return to a path of democracy and growth".

But Mr Lew said it was vital for Ukraine to start working more closely on an economic revival programme with experts from the International Monetary Fund - something Yanukovych's government mostly had failed to do.

"The IMF remains in the best position to help states like Ukraine deal with their economic challenges," Mr Lew said.

Russian Finance Minister Alexei Ulyukayev confirmed on Sunday that the disbursement of the remaining US$12 billion in Moscow's assistance package was on hold until the political situation in Kiev cleared up.

The whereabouts of Yanukovych remained a mystery on Sunday amid speculation that he was hiding out in the eastern and mostly pro-Russian eastern part of Ukraine.

Mr Turchynov and Ukraine's border service both said Yanukovych had been prevented from fleeing the country out of the eastern city of Donetsk because his charter plane did not have the required paperwork.

"When officials arrived to check the documentation they were met by armed people who offered them money to fly out urgently," border service spokesman Serhiy Astahov told AFP.

Mr Yanukovych claimed in his taped video message on Saturday that he would never flee the country or relinquish the presidency to opponents he compared to "Nazis".

But attention of world leaders was quickly shifting to Ms Tymoshenko amid mounting speculation that the former premier had the best chance of uniting the opposition for a presidential bid.

Ms Tymoshenko, who had appeared before the crowds in a wheelchair on Saturday because of back problems, held a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday and also met Western ambassadors in Kiev.

Her Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party said Tymoshenko and Merkel had agreed to meet "very soon".

The Germany government said Dr Merkel had urged her to work for the unity of the country.

But Ms Tymoshenko's spokesman stressed that the charismatic 53-year-old had at this stage made no decision about running in the May election.

"Tymoshenko has not made any announcement about taking part in the presidential election campaign," spokesman Natalia Lysova told AFP.

"This is not the right time for this."

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