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Tension turns to triumph for Ukrainian protesters

Source: Reuters - Sun, 23 Feb 2014 02:07 PM
Author: Reuters
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* Parliament votes to force out president

* Barricades remain on Independence Square

* Divisions over support for opposition leaders

By Timothy Heritage

KIEV, Feb 23 (Reuters) - The Ukrainian parliament's vote to oust President Viktor Yanukovich on Saturday was the end of a journey for Vasily Lyubarets that began in Salt Lake City 18 months ago.

The relief and joy that swept protesters camped out on Kiev's Independence Square reminded the veteran of Moscow's Afghan war of the emotions he felt on the day the Soviet Union died in 1991.

"When I told my friends in Salt Lake City that I was going to Ukraine to see the end of Yanukovich's rule, they laughed at me," the 58-year-old said on Independence Square.

"I am so proud of the Ukrainian people. These are the elite people of Ukraine around us. They've made a lot of sacrifices."

Like thousands around him, he believed there was still a lot to be done to achieve all their goals before they pull down the tents some have lived in for weeks and dismantle the barricades of tyres, sandbags, wood, furniture, metal - anything that came to hand to keep out the police.

"I walked through the door of freedom once before, in 1991. But how do you live on a soldier's pension? I left for America to live with my daughter in 1998. We have to see this through, make sure it is not squandered."

Above all, many protesters say, the fight must go on to ensure the dozens of protesters killed in gun battles with police this week did not die in vain.

NOT JUST ANOTHER DAY

The day began as usual on the Maidan - the city's main square - with people chopping wood to fuel the fires that have kept the protesters warm through the cold winter's nights, and volunteers handing out free tea and sandwiches.

"Lenin should have been here. It's real communism," said Volodymyr Mahonik, from the western city of Lviv, chuckling at his reference to the Soviet state founder whose statues have been toppled around Ukraine, one after another, to show defiance of former Soviet master Moscow's handling of the crisis.

In the morning, there was still some tension in the air after Friday's agreement on resolving the crisis, signed by Yanukovich and three opposition leaders and brokered by three European Union ministers.

Men were still marching about menacingly in balaclavas, army fatigues and helmets, with wooden clubs, baseball bats, metal rods or lead piping as weapons. Bottles were lined up with fuses, to be used as petrol bombs if the police attacked.

"I'm not sure I trust the deal. It could be a nasty trick to force us out of the square, like the one between Germany and Russia that carved up Poland in World War Two," said 46-year-old Olena Netsimina, from the town of Vinnitsa southwest of Kiev.

But hopes rose as the day wore on and the news came in, ever more extraordinary and, for the protesters, ever more encouraging - Yanukovich's flight from Kiev, the capture of the presidential offices, the police changing sides.

For some it brought an elevation to unexpected duties. Construction worker Nikolai Voloshin grinned broadly as he stood guard outside the high metal gates of the presidential offices, on a hill overlooking Kiev.

Asked who was in charge of security at the monolithic, columned building, he said: "I am. It's my job now."

Asked how long they would stay, Ostap Klyvdyk, a former journalist who described himself as the international secretary of self-defence units set up by the protesters, said self-importantly: "Until the next president comes."

DIVISIONS OVER WHAT NEXT

Back on Independence Square, protesters were united by satisfaction over Yanukovich's removal by parliament but far from certain that the three opposition leaders who negotiated with him on Friday were the right men to lead them.

"They betrayed us when they signed the agreement. They serve their own interests, not ours," said Yaroslav Ilkiev, 53, from Lviv. "We wanted only one thing - Yanukovich's departure. This was not part of the agreement."

The dramatic arrival of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the arch enemy of Yanukovich who was freed on Saturday afternoon, failed to restore the protesters' confidence in the opposition leaders.

Tymoshenko, now 53 and looking weary, addressed the crowd from the wheelchair she uses because of a bad back. Her speech hailing the "heroes" of Maidan was full of emotion, but brought whistles as well as cheers.

"Tymoshenko is a wise woman but I don't know whether I'll vote for her. As for the three opposition leaders - they are not ready to be president," said Oleksander Sitnikov, from the town of Ivano-Frankivsk.

As some of the demonstrators started to drift away after Tymoshenko's speech in the falling rain, there was a lasting sense of victory but something was still missing - Yanukovich remained at large and still fighting for his job.

The ultra-radical Right Sector told its members: "It is not the time to celebrate. Now we must be more united than before."

(Additonal reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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