Protesters took control of Kiev yesterday, seizing the pro-Russian president’s luxury compound as parliament voted to remove him and hold new elections.
Yanukovich described the events as a coup and insisted he would not step down.
Parliament arranged the release of Tymoshenko – the pro-European Union former prime minister controversially jailed over a gas deal made while in office.
“Our homeland will from today on be able to see the sun and sky, as a dictatorship has ended,” she told reporters after her release from the hospital where she had been held under prison guard for most of her sentence since 2011.
Speaking of her regret for the deaths of anti-Yanukovich protesters in gun battles and clashes with police in recent days, she said everything must be done so that “each drop of blood was not spilled in vain”.
Tymoshenko later arrived in Independence Square in the heart of Kiev and told huge crowds, “You are heroes, you are the best of Ukraine,” before breaking down in tears.
But she warned the protesters that their job was not yet done. “Until you finish this job and until we travel all the way, nobody has the right to leave,” she said.
“Because nobody could do it, not other countries, nobody could do what you have done. We’ve eliminated this cancer, this tumour.”
After a tumultuous week that left the official death toll at 82 and Ukraine’s destiny in flux, fears mounted that the country could split in two – a Europe-leaning west and a Russian-leaning east and south.
Earlier asked by crowds gathered at the hospital about her plans, Tymoshenko said: “I will run for president”.
Yanukovich said he would not recognise any of the MPs’ decisions as valid. He left Kiev for his support base in the country’s Russian-speaking east, where politicians questioned the legitimacy of the newly empowered legislature and called for volunteer militias to uphold order.
“They are trying to scare me. I have no intention of leaving the country. I am not going to resign. I’m the legitimately elected president,” Yanukovich said in a televised statement, clearly shaken and with long pauses in his speaking.
“Everything that is happening today is, to a greater degree, vandalism and banditry and a coup d’état,” he said.
“I will do everything to protect my country from break-up, to stop bloodshed.”
Ukraine, a nation of 46 million, has huge strategic importance to Russia, Europe and the United States. The country’s western regions, angered by corruption in Yanukovich’s government, want to be closer to the European Union and have rejected Yanukovich’s authority in many cities.
Eastern Ukraine, which accounts for the bulk of the nation’s economic output, favours closer ties with Russia and has largely supported the president. The three-month protest was prompted by the president’s decision to abort an agreement with the EU in favour of a deal with president Vladimir Putin’s government.
Yesterday’s developments were the result of a European-brokered peace deal between the president and leaders of the opposition.
But Yanukovich said that he would not sign any of the measures passed by parliament over the past two days as a result of that deal.
They include motions:
• saying that the president removed himself from power
• setting new elections for 25 May instead of next year
• releasing Tymoshenko
• trimming the president’s powers
• naming a new interior minister after firing the old one.
The decisions were passed with large majorities, including votes from some members of Yanukovich’s populist Party of Regions, which dominated politics until this week but is now swiftly losing support.
Russia came out firmly against the peace deal last night, saying the opposition was not holding up its end of the agreement, which calls for protesters to surrender their weapons and abandon their tent camps.
The defence ministry said it would side with the people, but did not specify whether it still supported the president or backed the opposition.
Protesters also gathered around the country, often taking out their anger on statues of Soviet founder Lenin, using ropes and crowbars to pull them off pedestals in several cities.
The past week saw the worst violence in Ukraine since the break-up of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago.
In Independence Square, demonstrators clashed with police and snipers opened fire. The health ministry put the death toll at 77, and some opposition figures said it was even higher.
In the square yesterday, protesters heaped flowers on the coffins of the dead.
“These are heroes of Ukraine who gave their lives so that we could live in a different country without Yanukovich,” said protester Viktor Fedoruk, 32.
“Their names will be written in golden letters in the history of Ukraine.”