KIEV, Ukraine - In a stunning reversal of fortune, Ukrainian opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko left imprisonment Saturday and spoke to a massive, adoring crowd, while her arch-foe President Viktor Yanukovych decamped to eastern Ukraine and vowed he would remain in power.
Protesters took control of the presidential administration building and thousands of curious and contemptuous Ukrainians roamed the suddenly open grounds of the lavish compound outside Kiev where Yanukovych was believed to live. Parliament, which he controlled as recently as a day earlier but is now emboldened against him, on Saturday called for his removal and for elections on May 25. But Yanukovych said he regards the parliament as now illegitimate and he won't respect its decisions.
The political crisis in the nation of 46 million, strategically important for Europe, Russia and the United States, 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.
Former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko addresses the crowd in central Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday. Hours after being released from prison, former Ukrainian prime minister and opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko praised the demonstrators killed in violence this week as heroes.
Tymoshenko, whose diadem of blond peasant braids and stirring rhetoric attracted world attention in the 2004 Orange Revolution, was both sad and excited as she spoke to a crowd of about 50,000 on Kiev's Independence Square, where a sprawling protest tent camp was set up in December. Sitting in a wheelchair because of a back problem aggravated during imprisonment, her voice cracked and her face was careworn.
But her words were vivid, praising the protesters who were killed this week in clashes with police that included sniper fire and entreating the living to keep the camp going.
"You are heroes, you are the best thing in Ukraine!" she said of the victims. The Health Ministry on Saturday said the death toll in clashes between protesters and police that included sniper attacks had reached 82.
And she urged the demonstrators not to yield their encampment in the square, known in Ukrainian as the Maidan.
"In no case do you have the right to leave the Maidan until you have concluded everything that you planned to do," she said.
The crowd was thrilled.
"We missed Yulia and her fire so much," said demonstrator Yuliya Sulchanik. Minutes after her release, Tymoshenko said she plans to run for president, and Sulchanik said "Yulia will be the next president - she deserves it."