Kiev, AP—The whereabouts and legitimacy of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych were unclear on Sunday, after he left the capital and his rival Yulia Tymoshenko was freed from prison and returned to Kiev to address a massive, adoring crowd.
Ukraine’s newly emboldened legislature voted Sunday to hand the president’s powers to the parliament speaker, a Tymoshenko ally. But Yanukovych has said that parliament’s decisions in recent days are illegal.
A plane with Yanukovych onboard was denied permission to take off Saturday evening from Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine that is the president’s base of support, the State Border Guard Service said. The president’s spokesman said Sunday morning that even he does not know where Yanukovych is.
Ukraine is deeply divided between eastern regions that are largely pro-Russian and western areas that widely detest Yanukovych and long for closer ties with the European Union.
Yanukovych’s shelving of an agreement with the EU in November set off the wave of protests, but they quickly expanded their grievances to corruption, human rights abuses and calls for Yanukovych’s resignation.
The Kiev protest camp at the center of the anti-Yanukovych movement filled with more and more dedicated demonstrators Sunday morning setting up new tents after a day that saw a stunning reversal of fortune in a political standoff that has left scores dead and worried the United States, Europe and Russia.
“We need to catch and punish those with blood on their hands,” said Artyom Zhilyansky, a 45-year-old engineer on Independence Square on Sunday, referring to those killed in clashes with police last week.
He and other protesters called for law enforcement chiefs to be held accountable and Yanukovych put on trial.
The newly emboldened parliament, in a special session Sunday, voted overwhelmingly to temporarily hand the president’s powers to speaker Oleksandr Turchinov.
They also voted to remove a string of government ministers and tried to work out a coalition government. However the legitimacy of the parliament’s flurry of decisions in recent days is under question.
The votes are based on a decision Friday to return to a 10-year-old constitution that grants parliament greater powers.
Yanukovych, however, has not signed that decision into law, and said Saturday that the parliament is now acting illegally.
The political crisis in the nation of 46 million has changed with blinding speed repeatedly in the past week. First there were signs that tensions were easing, followed by horrifying violence and then a deal signed under Western pressure that aimed to resolve the conflict but left the unity of the country in question.
Protester self-defense units who have taken control of the capital peacefully changed shifts on Sunday. Helmeted and wearing makeshift shields, they have replaced police guarding the president’s administration and parliament, and have sought to stop radical forces from inflicting damage or unleashing violence.