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Orange Revolution leader freed from prison as president leaves Kiev

Yulia Tymoshenko spearheaded Ukraine’s pro-democracy 2004 Orange Revolution.

A uniformed anti-government activist walks past a poster depicting jailed former Ukrainian premier Yulia Tymoshenko.
A uniformed anti-government activist walks past a poster depicting jailed former Ukrainian premier Yulia Tymoshenko.
Image: AP Photo/Darko Bandic

Updated 12.15 pm

FORMER UKRAINIAN PRIME Minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko has been freed from prison according to a spokesperson.

It follows an overwhelming vote by Ukraine’s parliament to Tymoshenko who spearheaded the nation’s pro-democracy 2004 Orange Revolution.

A motion “to immediately free Tymoshenko based on the decision of the European Court of Human Rights” was backed by 322 deputies of the 331 registered for Saturday’s Verkhovna Rada session.

Tymoshenko was jailed for seven years on disputed “abuse of power” charges in 2011.

A close ally of Tymoshenko was also as named interim interior minister today, replacing Vitaliy Zakharchenko who has been blamed for ordering the police to open fire on unarmed protesters.

Arsen Avakov was elected to the post during an animated parliament session shortly after Tymoshenko’s right-hand man was voted in as parliament speaker, as the regime of embattled president Viktor Yanukovych appeared close to collapse.

The beginnings of political transisitons comes as opposition leader Vitali Klitschko has said that Yanukovych has left Kiev.

But a spokesperson for Yanukovych says that the embattled leader has no intention of leaving the country.

Thousands of protesters remained in central Kiev last night despite Ukraine’s embattled leader signing a deal in a bid to end the ex-Soviet country’s worst crisis since independence which has left nearly 100 protesters dead.

Yanukovych’s decision to hold early elections and form a unity government while granting amnesty for protesters detained during the unrest was met with scepticism by many who simply want their leader to step down.

“Elections in December are not enough — he has to leave now,” said 34-year-old Oleh Bukoyenko as he joined 40,000 protesters on central Kiev’s main square earlier Friday evening.

Ukraine’s parliament quickly adopted a flurry of opposition-backed laws that still need the president’s backing before entering into force.

The new unity government would have the authority to reverse the inflammatory decision Yanukovych made in November to ditch an historic deal promising a path to EU membership in favour of closer ties to former master Russia.

imageA woman lights candles in memory of the victims of clashes between police and protesters in Ukraine. (Pic: AP Photo/Octav Ganea/Mediafax)

Pact comes ‘too late’

But many protesters said the deal represented too little and did nothing to repair days of vicious bloodletting in which police used snipers and armoured vehicles against demonstrators who fought back with bats and shields.

One ultranationalist speaker grabbed the stage on Kiev’s iconic Independence Square late on Friday to call on protesters to storm the president’s office at 08.00 GMT this morning should Yanukovych fail to relinquish power overnight.

The call was met with cheers and rounds of applause. Several top opposition leaders meanwhile were whistled in derision for signing the compromise agreement allowing Yanukovych to keep his post until snap elections are called by December deadline.

“I received no pleasure from signing this deal,” charismatic boxer-turned-lawmaker Vitali Klitschko told the restless Independence Square crowd during a candle vigil ceremony for the scores killed in the unrest.

“If I offended any of you, I apologise,” said Klitschko. “But I am honestly doing all I can to make sure that Ukraine itself will emerge victorious from this.”

Kiev authorities have put the death toll from the past few days at 77.

But opposition medics said more than 60 protesters were shot dead by police on Thursday alone — a toll that combined with the 28 victims on Tuesday put the final count at nearly 100 dead.

The radicalisation of the opposition — furious at the live ammunition used against it — saw tens of thousands chant “death to the criminal” on Independence Square on Friday night.

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imageAnti-government protesters rest at a barricade in central Kiev. (Pic: AP Photo/Darko Bandi)

Russia refuses to sign

The deal was worked out after two days of intense mediation by the foreign ministers of European powers France and Germany along with Ukraine’s cultural ally Poland. Officials said US Vice President Joe Biden also placed repeated calls to both Ukrainian negotiating sides.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski described harrowing negotiations in which he impressed on the opposition the possibility of even more violent unrest.

“We were getting signals that in case the agreement fails, President Yanukovych was preparing to use Interior Ministry forces,” Sikorski said after returning from Kiev.

The pact finally came into force at a solemn ceremony in the presidential palace attended by Yanukovych and top opposition leaders who included Klitschko as well as three top EU envoys.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s representative pointedly skipped the meeting. Envoy Vladimir Lukin explained on his return to Moscow that it was “because several questions remain unanswered”.

“The consultations will continue,” Lukin said in comments that suggested Moscow still held out hope of somehow revising the deal.

A senior US official said President Barack Obama held “a constructive” phone call with Putin as he pressed for the swift implementation of a deal he called “very, very fragile.”

- Additional reporting from Associated Press.

Read: The text of the deal to end crisis in Ukraine >

Read: EU adopts sanctions against Ukraine; dozens killed during fighting >

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