Protesters took control of Ukraine's Capital Saturday, seizing the president's office as parliament voted to remove him and hold new elections.
President Viktor Yanukovich left Kiev for his support base in the country's Russian-speaking east, where lawmakers questioned the legitimacy of central authorities and called for volunteer militias to uphold order.
After a tumultuous week that left scores dead and Ukraine's political destiny in flux, fears mounted that the country could split in two--a Europe-leaning west and a Russia-leaning east and south. Yanukovych described the events as a coup and insisted he would not step down.
CBN News George Thomas just arrived in Kiev, Ukraine. Here's what he witnessed:
"Today was a historic day. I arrived in the capital city to stunning breaking news.
- President Victor Yanukovych impeached, flees capital but says he won't resign.
- Former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko released after 30 months in prison.
- Protesters control Kiev after thousands of police suddenly leave the city.
- Russia calls anti-government protesters "rampaging hooligans"
- Presidential elections scheduled for May.
- 50,000 people gather on Maidan or Independence Square to honor fallen countrymen.
That was all in 24 hours! Please pray because Ukraine is far from out of the woods. Now the real work begins to restore the country. Pray for a spirit of healing and reconciliation to settle over this great land. Stay tuned for regular updates on George Thomas CBN News.
Parliament arranged the release of Yanukovych's arch-rival, (jailed) former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was on her way to Kiev to join the protesters. She promised to run for president, and said she will "make it so that no drop of blood that was spilled will be forgotten."
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, citing corruption and brutality. 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.
"The people have risen up and achieved their goals. The authorities are crumbling. Victory is in sight," 31 year-old construction worker Sviatoslav Gordichenko said as he and thousands of other protesters surrounded an ostentatious resdiential compound in the Kiev suburbs believed to belong to Yanukovych.
An aide said Yanukovych had no intention of stepping down. He was in the eastern city of Kharkiv, where governors, provincial officials and legislators gathered alongside top Russian lawmakers and approved a statement calling on regional authorities to take full responsibility for constitutional order.
Some called for the formation of volunteer militias to defend against protesters from western regions, even as they urged army units to maintain neutrality and protect ammunition depots.
The congress of provincial lawmakers and officials in Kharkiv issued a statement saying that the events in Kiev have led to the "paralysis of the central government and destabilization of the situation in the country."
Lawmakers accused the opposition of failing to keep its word to give up its weapons and abandon protest camps.
Outside, thousands of anti-Yanukovych protesters chanted, "Ukraine is not Russia!"- a surprising development given that large anti-Yanukovych protests have been rare in the east.
Yanukovych aide Hanna Herman told The Associated Press that the president would meet Kharkiv residents and give a televised address.
"As much as some people want it, he has no intention to leave the country," she said.
Ukraine, a nation of 46 million, has long divided its loyalties and economy between Europe and longtime ruler Moscow, giving it huge strategic importance, to Russia, Europe and the United States.
European foreign ministers helped broker an agreement on Friday between Yanukovych and opposition leaders aimed at resolving the months-old political crisis that has killed scores and injured hundreds. The agreement calls for early elections and consitutional reforms that reduce the president's powers.
Neither side won all the points it sought in Friday's deal, and some vague conditions left room for strong disputes down the road. By Saturday, the events on the ground seemed to overtake the agreement.