KYIV, Ukraine — Protesters in Ukraine appeared on Saturday to have seized the country’s capital, wielding full control over central Kyiv’s government quarters and having reportedly taken over embattled President Viktor Yanukovych’s mansion outside the city.
Meanwhile, reports indicated that Yanukovych flew late Friday to the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv — a base of support for his increasingly frail ruling Party of Regions — where a top advisor said he would meet with constituents and issue an address later in the day.
Developments here are unfolding at lightning pace, with the country’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, steaming ahead with draft laws aimed at dismantling the Yanukovych regime piece by piece.
By mid-day Saturday, parliament had voted to formally free jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s top rival and the country’s most famous political prisoner.
Parliament also elected a new speaker and interior minister from the opposition Fatherland party, while the country’s interior ministry issued a statement claiming it was shifting its loyalty to the people.
“We bow our heads to the blessed memory of the dead,” the statement said, in reference to the at least 77 protesters killed in clashes with police and security forces last week.
The ministry also urged public cooperation in maintaining law and order in the country, tellingly ending its address with the greeting that has become ubiquitous among Ukraine’s protesters: “Glory to Ukraine!”
Police and security forces appear to have withdrawn from most of central Kyiv, allowing protesters to roam freely around parliament and the presidential administration.
But amid the apparent power vacuum in Kyiv and Yanukovych’s flight to eastern Ukraine, fears remained over the potential threat of separatism in a country still largely split along cultural and linguistic lines.
Particularly worrying was an announcement by Kharkiv Governor Mykhailo Dobkin — a staunch pro-Yanukovych official — of a special congress on Saturday for pro-regime delegates from Russian-speaking southern and eastern Ukraine, where support for Yanukovych and his ruling party remains strong.
The president’s top advisor, Hanna Herman, denied suspicions that Yanukovych was taking part in any separatist plans, but Ukraine’s parliament nevertheless pushed through a resolution condemning separatism and urging the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) to pursue criminal action against threats to the country’s territorial integrity.
At the congress, Dobkin sought to bat down rumors of separatism, but remained defiant in the face of the protest movement’s surging authority.
“We are not prepared to split the country — we are prepared to save it,” local news agencies quoted him as saying.
Meanwhile, the ruling Party of Regions suffered from continuing defections. Most remaining pro-Yanukovych lawmakers in parliament appeared to vote in favor of the rapid-fire laws pushed through by opposition parties.
Local media reports suggest parliament may vote on Yanukovych’s impeachment later today.
This is a developing story. Follow our live blog for the latest news.