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KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Protesters took control of Ukraine’s capital Saturday, seizing the president’s office as parliament sought to oust him and form a new government. President Viktor Yanukovych described the events as a coup and insisted he would not step down.
After a tumultuous week that left scores dead and Ukraine’s political destiny in flux, fears mounted that the country could split in two.
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Yanukovych left Kiev for his support base in the country’s Russian-speaking east, where lawmakers questioned the legitimacy of the newly empowered parliament and called for volunteer militias to uphold order.
“Everything that is happening today is, to a greater degree, vandalism and bandits and a coup d’etat,” Yanukovych said in a televised statement, clearly shaken and making long pauses in his speech.
He said decisions made by parliament Friday and Saturday “are all illegal” and compared the situation to the rise of Nazis in the 1930s. He said he would not sign any of the measures passed by parliament, which include trimming his powers and releasing his jailed arch-rival, ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
The president said his car had been shot at, adding: “But I have no fear. I am overwhelmed by grief for our country. I feel responsibility.”
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.
Defense and military officials urged calm. In statements Saturday, both the Defense Ministry and the chief of the armed forces said they will not be drawn into any conflict and will side with the people. But they did not specify whether they still support the president or are siding with the opposition.
Protesters claimed full control of Kiev and took up positions around the president’s office and a grandiose residential compound believed to be his, though he never acknowledged it.
“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 the ostentatious residential compound in the Kiev suburbs.
The president 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.”
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.
Dalton Bennett in Kharkiv, Angela Charlton and Jim Heintz in Kiev and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.