KIEV - A vast country estate, marble-lined mansions, a private golf course and zoo: the unimaginable luxury of the private residence of departed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych flung open for all to see.
As parliament voted to oust Yanukovych Saturday and he fled to a pro-Russian bastion in east Ukraine after months of bloody protest again his rule, thousands of Ukrainians wondered awestruck around the breathtaking luxury of his abandoned property some 15 kilometres (10 miles) from Kiev after it was taken by demonstrators. "I am in shock," said retired military servicewoman Natalia Rudented, as she looked out over the manicured lawns studded with statues of rabbits and deers.
"In a country with so much poverty how can one person have so much - he has to be mentally sick. "The world needs to see this and bring him to justice." Cars backed up for kilometres and a large crowd queued patiently at the imposing wrought iron front gates to get a glimpse of the former leader's lavish lifestyle - fit for even the most ostentatious billionaire oligarch.
"Don't worry, everyone will get to go inside - it is big enough for all of you," an opposition activist standing atop a column shouted through a loudhailer. He warned people to stay off the lawn in case of landmines and to beware of provocateurs trying to damage the place.
"Welcome to Ukraine," he said as people shuffled by. Guarded just hours before by elite security forces, the property - the scale of which had been kept a closely guarded secret and appears to confirm suspicions of titanic corruption - was now under the control of anti-Yanukovych activists, patrolling the area and keeping people out of buldings to avoid looting.
According to official declarations, Yanukovych's salary as president was around $100,000 a year. The luxury of the estate clearly showed wealth far beyond that. At the entrance a sign was hung reading: "People, do not destroy this evidence of thieving arrogance." Inside, visitors peered with disbelief through the windows of the palatial main house at the baroque, marble-covered living rooms decorated with gold icons and suits of armour.
A few boxes strewn around on the marble floors hinted at a hurried exit. Amused or enraged, others posed for photos in font of towering faux-Greek columns and snapped pictures on their mobile phones of the collection of rare pheasants - imported from as far as Mongolia and Sumatra. For kilometres, they strolled along the waterfront promenade, up to the helicopter pad or over bridges and past horse paddocks to a vast garage housing a museum of soviet military vehicles.
The complex for staff - who were nowhere to be seen - was itself the size of a British stately home. "Mum, where's the golden toilet?" five-year old Ross asked as his mother led him around the edge of a floating banquet hall built to look like an Elizabethan galleon.
"I also want a pirate ship like this for myself," he said. "Don't worry, we've already seized this one," his mother Ivanova replied. Some of the visitors were still fresh from the violent clashes that left scores dead this week and saw central Kiev turned into a war zone. "It makes it feel even more worth it," said Bogdan Panchyshin, a hardware store owner from the Western city of Lvov.
"If only the hundred people who died could see it, I think they'd say the same," he said, still wearing a camouflage bullet proof vest. As they emerged, people struggled to take in the breathtaking scale of Yanukovych's wealth. "That house, that garden, that luxury," mechanic Viktor Kovalchuk, 59, as his wife shook her head in amazement. "It should be turned into a hospital or an orphanage or something for the people killed or injured in the protests," Kovalchuk said. "Whatever happens it needs to be given to the people. It was built with our money after all so it should serve us in the end."
On the other hand, Ukraine's jailed pro-Western opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko walked free Saturday moments after parliament voted to oust the country's embattled President Viktor Yanukovych and set new elections for May.
The latest developments in the ex-Soviet nation's three-month political crisis came after protesters took control of Kiev's charred city centre and seized Yanukovych's lavish residence and official offices, in a day of dramatic twists and turns. Yanukovych denounced the "coup" and branded his political foes as "bandits", comments that won firm support from his backers in Moscow.
But the balance of power swung firmly in the opposition's favour a day after Yanukovych and the opposition signed a Western-brokered peace pact designed to resolve Ukraine's bloodiest conflict since its independence in 1991. Tymoshenko, the fiery 53-year-old co-leader of the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution, waved to hundreds of supporters chanting "free Yulia!" One of her close allies said Tymoshenko was travelling directly to address the crowds on Kiev's iconic Independence Square -- occupied since Yanukovych's decision in November to spurn an agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia.
Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko was freed on Saturday during the dramatic ouster of her arch enemy Viktor Yanukovich, setting up a possible run for the presidency in May. Sporting her distinctive blonde braid, the 53-year-old former prime minister was driven out of the hospital in the northeastern city of Kharkiv where she had spent much of her confinement since 2011.
She waved to supporters, who chanted "Yulia, Yulia!" "Our homeland will from today on be able to see the sun and sky as a dictatorship has ended," she told reporters.
Tymoshenko's Fatherland party said she would go to Kiev's Independence Square, scene of nearly three months of protests against Yanukovich after he spurned a deal on closer ties with the European Union in favor of former Soviet master Moscow. Seventy-seven people were killed in two days of carnage on and around the square this week.
The EU brokered a peace deal on Friday, calling for an election by year-end, but protesters made clear they wanted Yanukovich out immediately. In a day of high drama, parliament voted to remove Yanukovich from office and set an election for May 25, after the president fled the capital and abandoned his offices and residence to protesters. Regretting the deaths of anti-Yanukovich protesters in gun battles and clashes with police, Tymoshenko said everything must be done so that "each drop of blood was not spilled in vain."
Tymoshenko was jailed in 2011 for abuse of office over a gas deal with Russia but her supporters and Western leaders regarded her as a political prisoner. A fiery orator, Tymoshenko shot to fame during the 2004-5 Orange Revolution that overturned a rigged election won by Yanukovich. She became prime minister, but was forced out after Yanukovich beat her to the presidency in 2010.
"The dictatorship has fallen," Tymoshenko said in a statement released on her official website. "It fell thanks to those people who came out to defend themselves, their families and their country." Ukraine's pro-Russian regime appeared on the verge of collapse as lawmakers passed a resolution stating that Yanukovych was "removing himself (from power) because he is not fulfilling his obligations".
They set new presidential elections for May 25. But Yanukovych defiantly told a local television station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv -- a pro-Russian bedrock of support -- that he would fight tooth and nail against the "bandits" trying to oust him. "I am not leaving the country for anywhere. I do not intend to resign. I am the legitimately elected president," the 63-year-old leader said in a firm voice. Yanukovych said with a hint of outrage that "everything happening today can primarily be described as vandalism, banditry and a coup d'etat."
The president however appeared to have deserted Kiev altogether, as key government buildings were left without police protection and baton-armed protesters dressed in military fatigues wandered freely across his once-fortified compound. "We have taken the perimeter of the president's residence under our control for security reasons," Mykola Velichkovich of the opposition's self-declared Independence Square defence unit told AFP. Thousands of mourners meanwhile brought carnations and roses to dozens of spots across Kiev's iconic Independence Square on which protesters were shot dead by police in a week of carnage that claimed nearly 100 lives.
Coffins draped with Ukraine's blue-and-yellow passed from shoulder to shoulder through the crowd before being taken outside the city for burial. Thousands of residents also took their first-ever tour of Yanukovych's lavish Mezhygirya residence just north of Kiev.
"I am in shock," a retired military servicewoman named Natalia Rudenko said as she inspected the president's rare pheasant collection and a banquet hall built to look like a galleon. "In a country with so much poverty, how can one person have so much?"
The Ukrainian police appeared to retreat Saturday from their entrenched defence of the pro-Russian government by releasing a statement in support of "the people" and "rapid change". The country's vast army issued its own statement hours later stressing that it "will in no way become involved in the political conflict." The next test for the police will come Sunday when a deadline expires for protesters to relinquish public spaces such as Independence Square.
The Ukrainian protests have escalated into a Cold War-style confrontation pitting attempts by the Kremlin to keep reins on its historic fiefdom against Western efforts to bring the economically struggling nation of 46 million into their fold. Russia's foreign ministry on Saturday accused the opposition of "submitting itself to armed extremists and looters whose actions pose a direct threat to the sovereignty and constitutional order of Ukraine." The ruling Regions Party that had previously pushed Ukraine closer toward Russia stood in disarray amid mass defections by lawmakers to opposition ranks.
More than 40 lawmakers had already quit the Regions Party -- once in control of 208 votes in the 450-seat Rada -- since the deadly unrest first erupted on Tuesday. Parliament speaker Volodymyr Rybak resigned in favour of Tymoshenko's right-hand man Oleksandr Turchynov. Deputies also named another Tymoshenko ally, Arsen Avakov, as interior minister in place of Vitaliy Zakharchenko -- a figure hated by the opposition who is blamed for ordering the police to open fire on unarmed protesters.
Britain said Saturday it would support a new government in Ukraine once one is formed and called for an IMF package to help the country recover from the three-month crisis. Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was in close touch with European Union partners over what he called the "extraordinary developments" in Ukraine. "Events in the last 24 hours show the will of Ukrainians to move towards a different future, and ensure that the voices of those who have protested courageously over several months are heard," Hague said in a statement.
"We will work closely with our EU partners in support of a new government in Ukraine, as and when that is formed. "In the meantime it is important that Ukraine's political leaders respond to events calmly and with determination to harness the united efforts of all Ukrainians to work together for a successful future." He said the release of jailed pro-Western opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko was welcome. In a tweet, Hague said he had agreed with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier to push for a "vital" International Monetary Fund financial package for debt-laden Ukraine. A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: "One of the things they talked about was the economic situation and putting together a financial package which will help to stabilise the situation in Ukraine, to enable the Ukraine to receive long-term support from the IMF."
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to step down Saturday and denounced a "coup" by protesters as the emboldened opposition took control of parliament and parts of Kiev in another dramatic turn in the crisis. Yanukovych's regime appeared close to collapse as protesters took control of his offices and lawmakers voted to free former premier Tymoshenko immediately.
Germany and France on Saturday urged the Ukrainian government and the opposition to respect a peace deal agreed a day earlier to end the ex-Soviet country's worst crisis since independence. "It is now up to the two sides in the conflict -- the government as well as the opposition -- to stick to what was agreed and to begin building a relationship of trust," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement, as the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych appeared close to collapse after months of protests.
"The situation remains extremely fragile," Steinmeier said, adding that the priority now was for both parties to hold talks on forming a stable government acceptable to all sides. "It is perhaps the last chance to come to a peaceful development for the future of Ukraine," he warned. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius meanwhile called on both sides "to refrain from violence and adhere to the agreement they reached", according to a ministry spokesman.
The peace deal agreed on Friday and brokered with the help of Germany, France and Poland called for early elections and a new unity government, while granting amnesty for anti-government protesters detained during three days of unrest that claimed nearly 100 lives. But Yanukovych appeared to be losing his grip on power on Saturday, with the emboldened opposition taking control of parliament and key parts of Kiev and pushing for the president's resignation. Yanukovych for his part condemned a "coup" by the opposition and refused to step down.
Fabius, Steinmeier and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski also spoke by phone with their Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Saturday to discuss the rapidly evolving situation in Kiev, according to Moscow's foreign ministry. The ministry said Lavrov had expressed his concern and urged the trio to use their "influence over the opposition to achieve a swift implementation" of the deal. Poland's Sikorski took to Twitter to deny that the events in Kiev amounted to a coup. "No coup in Kiev. (Government) buildings got abandoned," he wrote.