Ukraine’s Yanukovych missing as protesters take control of presidential residence in Kiev

Ukrainians awoke Saturday morning to rumors and reports that President Viktor Yanukovych had fled to his home town in the east or left the country. Thousands poured onto the grounds of presidential residence, 12 miles from downtown Kiev, to gawk at the manicured lawns, the golf course and the botanical gardens, while other government offices were shuttered amid reports that workers at the public prosecutor’s office were destroying documents.

Police had abandoned the center of Kiev to protesters who had commandeered water cannon trucks and claimed full control of the city.

Museum officials were working with opposition cadres to guard their shuttered buildings. They were also awaiting permission to enter the presidential mansion and inventory possessions and art works they say were likely borrowed or stolen by Yanukovych from state museums and institutions.

The crowds of ordinary Ukrainians getting their first glimpse of the luxurious estate wandered the grounds taking photos. An elderly pensioner shouted, “What a thief!” as he took in the marble statuary.

There was no looting, no one was allowed to enter the houses or outbuildings, and opposition protesters who had manned the barricades in Independence Square, the epicenter of the anti-government demonstrations, warned visitors to keep off the grass.

A group of young people somehow found their way into Yanukovych’s clubhouse and brought out golf balls and clubs and whacked a few drives down the course.

On Friday, Yanu­kovych signed a deal with opposition leaders to dilute his powers, form a caretaker government and hold early elections. Lawmakers introduced an article of dismissal for Yanu­kovych and chose Oleksandr Turchynov as the new speaker of the Ukrainian parliament. But the accord appeared likely to be a hard sell among the thousands of demonstrators who vowed that nothing short of his ouster would get them off the streets.

Opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was also ordered released from prison, according to Associated Press reports, but had still not been freed Saturday afternoon.

Turchynov, a leader of the opposition Fatherland Party, said he wanted to quickly form a caretaker government. His selection was welcomed by the U.S. ambassador in Kiev.

Parliament was at work Saturday on a measure that would set presidential and parliamentary elections for May.

The agreement Friday represents a remarkable, humiliating fall for Yanukovych, whose decision to turn away from closer ties with the European Union and toward Russia sparked protests that began here peacefully in November but turned increasingly violent.

Several Ukrainian outlets reported late Friday that Yanukovych had fled Kiev, the capital. In Washington, a senior State Department official said the president is believed to have traveled to Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, for meetings. The official said that after major announcements or developments, “it’s not unusual for him to go to the east, where his base is.”

The atmosphere remained tense late Friday in Independence Square. When one of the opposition leaders, former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, told the crowds this was the best deal they could get, one of the protesters grabbed the microphone and demanded that Yanukovych resign or face the wrath of the people.

“We will go with weapons,” said the protester, who leads one of the more militant groups in the square. “I swear it.”

The pact, reached after Ukraine’s bloodiest week of street fighting and following all-night negotiations sponsored by European and Russian officials, calls for an immediate return to the 2004 constitution, which gives parliament, not the president, the right to choose a prime minister and most of the cabinet.

The accord also called for authorities and the opposition to refrain from violence and withdraw from public spaces, and to return the country to normal life. Protesters were to turn illegal weapons over to police.

[WATCH: Live video from Independence Square]

In a move that sparked a roar of approval from protesters barricaded in Independence Square, the Ukrainian parliament approved, by a veto-proof margin, a change in law that could lead to the quick release of Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko, a former two-term prime minister and a founder of the largest opposition party here, was sentenced to seven years in prison in August 2011 for embezzlement and abuse of power over a deal to purchase natural gas from Russia. Her supporters have called her trial and conviction politically motivated.

In a rush to stem the violence, the Ukrainian parliament also sacked the interior minister, citing his “systemic and gross violation” of Ukraine’s constitution for his orders to allow police to fire live rounds at protesters.

The ousted minister, Vitaliy Zakharchenko, who controls the nation’s riot police, said security forces who shot and killed protesters were acting within the law and protecting retreating, unarmed police. “When an outrage is committed in the state and when attacks on the people and looting are spreading, when people don’t know what to expect further, it is the people in uniform’s duty to protect their citizens,” Zakharchenko said before his removal.

Several Ukrainian outlets reported late Friday that Yanukovych had fled Kiev, the capital. In Washington, a senior State Department official said the president is believed to have traveled to Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, for meetings. The official said that after major announcements or developments, “it’s not unusual for him to go to the east, where his base is.”

The deal between the opposition and Yanukovych calls for a presidential election no later than December, instead of March 2015 as scheduled. Many protesters say December is too late — they want Yanukovych to resign immediately and then face charges.

“I think people are preparing for the worst, for more to come,” said Sergiy, a geography teacher from Lviv who is volunteering as a medic in a makeshift triage unit at the October Palace cultural center and who, like others interviewed Friday, declined to give his last name.

Sergiy said that Yanukovych cannot be trusted to hold elections in 10 months and would use the time to fortify his position and surround himself with cronies. The teacher said he also feared that opposition leaders were too ready to make a deal.

“We’re afraid the politicians — from both sides, yes, from the opposition, too — will cheat us again,” Sergiy said.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, head of the parliamentary faction of the Fatherland party, tweeted before the signing that the deal must be approved “on the Maidan,” as Independence Square is called, and would not take effect until that happens.

[READ: A look at the key players in the protests and deal]

Protesters and mourners swelled into Independence Square on Friday to pray, sing hymns and the national anthem, and pass from hand to hand the coffins of some of the protesters killed Thursday.

The total death toll from clashes reached 77, the Health Ministry said Friday, with 379 others hospitalized.

The violence and bloodshed clearly weighed on protesters’ minds. “After the first shots were fired at us, that was it. Yanukovych is no longer our legitimate president. We’re here until he is gone,” said a mechanic who gave his name only as Vladimir.

His head was tightly bandaged from a bullet he said was fired at him by government snipers on Thursday. A friend, Dmitriy, said that “Yanukovych belongs in court, not in the president’s office.”

The Post's Will Englund gives a first-person account of what it's like on the ground for protesters and citizens in Kiev. (The Washington Post)

President Obama spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin about Ukraine for more than an hour, their first extensive conversation in months.

The White House said the two leaders “exchanged views on the need to implement quickly the political agreement reached today” but stopped short of saying they had agreed on all the elements of the deal. Obama and Putin also discussed the importance of stabilizing Ukraine’s precarious economy “and the need for all sides to refrain from further violence,” the White House said in a statement.

Also Friday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry spoke with three of the main Ukrainian opposition leaders to congratulate them for what the official called “courage and leadership” in helping reach agreement with the Yanukovych government. Klitschko was invited to join the telephone call with Kerry, the official said, but remained among opposition supporters on Independence Square instead.

“This is a very, very fragile agreement,” despite the progress, and emotion remains high among opposition supporters, the U.S. official said.

One of the lead European negotiators, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, said, “This is the best agreement we could have and it gives Ukraine a chance to return to peace, to reform, and hopefully to resume its way towards Europe.”

In less diplomatic language, Sikorski was caught telling an opposition leader to take the deal, warning that “if you don't support this, you'll have martial law, the army. You will all be dead," in remarks captured by ITV News.

Situation ‘quite fluid’

It is unclear what role the Russians played. Putin dispatched human rights commissioner Vladimir Lukin from Moscow on Thursday. Until now, Russia’s lobbying of Ukraine has been so aggressive that Europeans have characterized it as bullying. But Lukin is a respected, low-key figure, and his appointment seemed to signal a change in the Kremlin’s tone.

Yet Lukin flew back to Moscow before the signing. The Kremlin later said it was suspending its $15 billion aid program to Ukraine, which was signed after Yanukovych spurned a trade pact with the European Union in November.

“There is a chance of achieving peace in Ukraine. People are working on it,” Lukin said, according to the Russian news agency Interfax. “But the situation there is very complicated and quite fluid, people you have to talk to are coming and going. The conversation will continue, including with our partners in Europe.”

Leonid Slutsky, a Russian legislator who oversees relations with ex-Soviet states, told reporters Friday the deal is “entirely in the interests of the United States and other powers, who want to split Ukraine from Russia,” according to the Associated Press.

Yanukovych announced via his Web site that Saturday and Sunday would be national days of mourning for the dead.

In a sign of the new power-sharing relationship, the same decree was announced by parliament.

Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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