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Petro Poroshenko has claimed outright victory in Ukraine’s presidential election.

Billionaire Petro Poroshenko, known as the “chocolate king”, won more than 55% of the vote in the first round, exit polls suggest.

Announcing he had won, the 48-year-old businessman promised to forge closer links with the EU and restore peace in restive eastern regions.

Pro-Russian separatists severely disrupted voting there. Some 20 people have died in fighting in recent days.

No polling stations were open in Donetsk city, and across the region only seven out of 12 district electoral commissions were operating. The separatists are in control of large areas of the Donestk and Luhansk regions.

Four hours before polls closed, at 16:00, unofficial estimates put the turnout nationwide at 45%.

Petro Poroshenko has claimed outright victory in Ukraine's presidential election

Petro Poroshenko has claimed outright victory in Ukraine’s presidential election

Addressing supporters in Kiev, Petro Poroshenko said he would support a parliamentary election later this year.

He also said he would never recognize Russia’s “occupation of Crimea”, annexed by Moscow in March. Asked about relations with Russia, he said the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Ukraine mattered most to him.

Petro Poroshenko is the billionaire owner of the Roshen chocolates group, a TV station and several manufacturing plants.

President Barack Obama hailed the election as an “important step forward in the efforts of the Ukrainian government to unify the country”.

Sunday’s poll was called after President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed in February, amid mass protests against his pro-Russian policies.

Local elections were also held on Sunday in Ukraine. Former boxer Vitaliy Klitschko – again quoting exit polls – claimed he had been elected mayor of Kiev.

Vitaliy Klitschko, a pro-Western politician, withdrew his own presidential bid and announced his support for Petro Poroshenko.

On Friday Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would respect the outcome of Ukraine’s election.

Kiev and the West accuse Russia of stoking separatist sentiment – a claim Vladimir Putin denies.

Separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence after referendums on May 11, a move not recognized by Kiev or its Western allies.

The two regions took their cue from a disputed referendum in Crimea, which led to Russia’s annexation of the southern peninsula.

Eighteen candidates were competing in the presidential election, seen as a crucial to unite the country.

The exit polls suggest ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko came a distant second, with over 12% of the vote.

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Ukraine is in the presidential polls after months of unrest following the ousting of former President Viktor Yanukovych.

Eighteen candidates are competing in the contest, which is widely seen as a crucial moment to unite the country.

But pro-Russian separatists in the east who oppose the election have threatened to disrupt the voting process.

Some 20 people have been killed amid an upsurge of fighting between insurgents and government forces in recent days.

The violence in the east, particularly Donetsk and Luhansk, has seriously disrupted preparations for the polls.

Eighteen candidates are competing in Ukraine’s presidential poll, which is widely seen as a crucial moment to unite the country

Eighteen candidates are competing in Ukraine’s presidential poll, which is widely seen as a crucial moment to unite the country

Seven out of 12 district election commissions have opened across the region of Donetsk, and none in the cities of Donetsk or Horlivka.

Two district commissions are open in Luhansk.

The presidential elections were called after the last elected President, Viktor Yanukovych, was deposed in February amid mass protests against his pro-Russian policies.

Confectionary tycoon Petro Poroshenko, known as the “chocolate king”, is the favorite to win.

Former PM Yulia Tymoshenko is lagging behind Petro Poroshenko in opinion polls.

In order to win outright, one candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote, otherwise a second round of voting will be held on June 15.

Interim PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk urged people to vote and “defend Ukraine” in a televised address on Saturday.

“This will be the expression of the will of Ukrainians from the west, east, north and south,” he said.

In an unprecedented move, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that he would respect the outcome of the election and was prepared to work with whoever was elected president.

It comes after months of tension with Russia, which has been blamed by Kiev and its Western allies of stoking separatist sentiment in eastern parts of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has denied the claims.

Over 1,000 observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have been deployed nationwide at polling stations.

But the OSCE has pulled out most of its observers from the eastern Donetsk region over fears for their security.

Some pro-Russian separatists have warned people against voting, with reports of election officials and voter lists being been seized at gunpoint.

“If necessary we will revert to the use of force,” Denis Pushilin, a leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, is quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.

Separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence from Ukraine after holding referendums on May 11, a move not recognized by Kiev nor its Western allies.

The two regions took their cue after a disputed referendum in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March.

More than 75,000 police and volunteers are said to have mobilized to ensure security during the vote.

Polling stations will remain open until 20:00, with definitive results expected on Monday.

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Former boxing champion and leading politician Vitaly Klitschko has pulled out of Ukraine’s presidential elections planned in May.

Vitaly Klitschko said instead he would back tycoon Petro Poroshenko.

Both men played a key role in months of street protests that led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych.

Vitaly Klitschko, 42, announced his decision to pull out of the presidential race at his Udar (Punch) party’s gathering in Kiev on Saturday.

“The only chance of winning is to nominate one candidate from the democratic forces,” he said.

He stressed that a contender with “the highest chances to win should be running” for the presidency.

“Today, Petro Poroshenko is this candidate,” Vitaly Klitschko said, reminding supporters that the two politicians had stood and fought shoulder-to-shoulder at the protesters’ main camp in Kiev – the Maidan.

Petro Poroshenko, 48, has already declared his intention to enter the race.

Vitaly Klitschko has pulled out of Ukraine’s presidential race and he will back tycoon Petro Poroshenko

Vitaly Klitschko has pulled out of Ukraine’s presidential race and he will back tycoon Petro Poroshenko (photo AFP)

The owner of the popular Roshen chocolate company, Petro Poroshenko is widely known in Ukraine as the “chocolate king”.

He has held a number of cabinet portfolios under different presidents in the past decade.

On Saturday, Petro Poroshenko said that – together with the Udar party – “we declare our goal is a new Ukraine”.

“Our goal is to live in a new way. To form Ukraine in a way that there will be rich, free and honest citizens happy to be Ukrainians and to live in a country respected by the whole world.”

Vitaly Klitschko’s withdrawal means the race is likely to be between Petro Poroshenko and former PM Yulia Tymoshenko.

Several former supporters of Viktor Yanokovych have also announced they will run. The Party of Regions, to which Viktor Yanukovych belonged, on Saturday backed former Kharkiv governor Mykhailo Dobkin to run for the presidency.

The May 25 elections are seen as a crucial step in leading Ukraine out of the country’s deepest political crisis since its independence in 1991. An interim administration is currently in place in Kiev, led by acting President Olksandr Turchynov and PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

Russia says the current authorities in Kiev came to power in a coup and are, therefore, illegitimate.

Ukraine – backed by the West – denies the claim.

Moscow formally annexed Crimea after the predominantly ethnic Russian region held a referendum earlier this month which backed joining Russia.

Latest opinions polls give Petro Poroshenko about 25% of the vote, ahead of his presidential rivals, while Vitaly Klitschko and Yulia Tymoshenko are lagging far behind.

However, Yulia Tymoshenko, 53, who was released from prison last month following the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, is expected to mount a strong campaign.

In all, 15 contenders are planning to challenge for Ukraine’s presidency.

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Former Ukraine’s PM Yulia Tymoshenko has announced she is planning to run for presidency in May elections.

Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison in February following the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych, after three years in jail.

She has already served twice as prime minister and ran for president in 2010.

Yulia Tymoshenko was a major figure in the 2004 “Orange Revolution” that toppled Viktor Yanukovych’s first administration.

She said she would stand as “a candidate for Ukrainian unity”.

Yulia Tymoshenko told reporters that she had earned the right to be considered a candidate who was against corruption.

Yulia Tymoshenko has announced she is planning to run for presidency in May elections

Yulia Tymoshenko has announced she is planning to run for presidency in May elections

She narrowly lost the 2010 presidential election to pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych.

Yulia Tymoshenko was imprisoned in 2011 for corruption linked to a gas deal she brokered with Russia as prime minister in 2009.

Her supporters say the case was politically motivated and instigated by her rival Viktor Yanukovych.

On Monday Yulia Tymoshenko denied the authenticity of a taped conversation in which she allegedly called for Russia to be turned into “scorched earth” and for ethnic Russians in Ukraine to be killed.

Yulia Tymoshenko said the recording, which featured prominently on Russian news reports, was produced by Russia’s security services.

Former boxer Vitaliy Klitschko and chocolate tycoon Petro Poroshenko are also expected to take part in the presidential election.

Opinion polls suggest Petro Poroshenko, who is one of Ukraine’s richest men, is currently the most popular candidate.

Ukraine’s presidential election is expected to take place on May 25.

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Ukraine’s ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko has been caught in a leaked taped phone call with parliamentarian Nestor Shufrych, talking about it is “time to go grab guns and kill those damned Russians with their leader,” so that “not even scorched earth will be left where Russia stands”.

Translations also capture Yulia Tymoshenko as saying she would “like to grab a machine gun and shoot that motherf***er in the head”.

According to the Moscow Times, the recording, apparently made March 8, details a conversation between Yulia Tymoshenko and Nestor Shufrych from Ukraine’s National Security Council, and has Tymoshenko suggesting that Ukrainians should kill Russians, and, in particular, Russian President Vladimir Putin. The recording, which may have been altered, also apparently features Yulia Tymoshenko suggesting that the 8 million Russians living in Ukraine should be killed with “nuclear weapons”.

Yulia Tymoshenko has been caught in a leaked taped phone call with parliamentarian Nestor Shufrych

Yulia Tymoshenko has been caught in a leaked taped phone call with parliamentarian Nestor Shufrych (photo RT)

The video containing the recording was initially uploaded to a YouTube account under the name Sergiy Vechirko, and has since been widely shared on pro-Kremlin media outlets.

While the Moscow Times reports that Nestor Shufrych has denied the recording is real, a tweet from Yulia Tymoshenko appears to suggest she believes at least part of it is real.

In her tweet, Yulia Tymoshenko says that the recording has been edited, and that she in fact said that the Russians in Ukraine “were Ukrainian”.

She also added: “Hello FSB :)” in reference to Russia’s security agency.

Yulia Tymoshenko, widely considered a potential candidate for the Ukrainian presidential election in May, does not have a reputation for being anti-Russia, which has struck some as strange, and had enjoyed a working relationship with Vladimir Putin in the past.

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Ukraine parliament’s speaker Oleksandr Turchynov has been named as interim president.

Oleksandr Turchynov takes charge following the dismissal of President Viktor Yanukovych on Saturday. He told lawmakers they had until Tuesday to form a new unity government.

Former PM Yulia Tymoshenko, who was freed from jail on Saturday, has ruled out becoming prime minister again.

Her release was one of the conditions of the EU-Ukraine trade pact that Viktor Yanukovych rejected last year.

The move triggered the protests that led to the current crisis.

The health ministry says 88 people, mostly protesters, are now known to have been killed in clashes since February 18.

Thousands of opposition supporters remain in Kiev’s Independence Square, heeding opposition calls not to disperse.

Ukraine parliament’s speaker Oleksandr Turchynov has been named as interim president

Ukraine parliament’s speaker Oleksandr Turchynov has been named as interim president

In response to reports that her name was being mentioned as a possible candidate, Yulia Tymoshenko issued a statement reading: “No-one has agreed or discussed this with me.

“Thank you for your respect but I would like you not to consider my nomination for the post of the head of government.”

Oleksandr Turchynov, a close associate of Yulia Tymoshenko, described forming a unity government as a “priority task”.

“We don’t have much time,” one of the opposition leaders, former world champion boxer Vitaly Klitschko, said as parliament began its debate.

“I want to make Ukraine a modern European country,” he said.

“If I can do that through the president’s position, I will do my best.”

In an address on Saturday, aired before lawmakers voted to remove him, Viktor Yanukovych refused to officially stand down. He is last thought to have been in Kharkiv after travelling there late on Friday night.

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Yulia Tymoshenko has urged opposition supporters in Kiev’s Independence Square to continue their protests.

Ukraine’s former PM Yulia Tymoshenko, who has a back injury, addressed crowds from a wheelchair after being freed from detention.

“Until you finish this job… nobody has the right to leave,” she said.

Her speech came at the end of a dramatic day that saw President Viktor Yanukovych removed by the parliament and fleeing Kiev, but refusing to stand down.

Yulia Tymoshenko broke down in tears as she told cheering supporters late on Saturday: “You are heroes.

Yulia Tymoshenko has urged opposition supporters in Kiev's Independence Square to continue their protests

Yulia Tymoshenko has urged opposition supporters in Kiev’s Independence Square to continue their protests

“Because nobody could… do what you have done.”  

“We’ve eliminated this cancer, this tumor,” she said.

However, while Yulia Tymoshenko was hailed by many in the audience, she does not enjoy universal support among the opposition.

Before she went into prison in 2011, Yulia Tymoshenko’s popularity ratings were dropping and many Ukrainians blame her in part for the chaos of the post-Orange Revolution years, or see her as a member of Ukraine’s corrupt elite.

Dozens of people walked away in disgust when she appeared on the stage in Independence Square.

A vote by parliament on Friday paved the way for Yulia Tymoshenko’s release.

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Yulia Tymoshenko has arrived in Kiev’s Independence Square to cheers of thousands, hours after being freed from jail.

The former Ukrainian prime minister is addressing the crowds there from her wheelchair.

Just hours earlier, Yulia Tymoshenko was freed following a vote by parliament on Friday demanding her release.

Yulia Tymoshenko has arrived in Kiev’s Independence Square to cheers of thousands, hours after being freed from jail

Yulia Tymoshenko has arrived in Kiev’s Independence Square to cheers of thousands, hours after being freed from jail

Speaking after President Viktor Yanukovych had left the capital Kiev, Yulia Tymoshenko said a “dictatorship has fallen”.

Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in jail in 2011 after a controversial verdict on her actions as prime minister.

She left the hospital in the eastern city of Kharkiv, where she had been held under prison guard, and flew to Kiev.

Yulia Tymoshenko told journalists at Kiev airport that those behind violence “must be punished”, the Interfax agency reports.

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In an address televised before Ukraine’s parliament vote to impeach him, Viktor Yanukovych described events in Kiev as a “coup”.

Viktor Yanukovych insisted he was the “lawfully elected president” and compared the actions of the opposition to the rise to power of the Nazis in 1930s Germany.

In his address Viktor Yanukovych also called a raft of votes in Ukraine’s parliament on Friday “illegitimate”, claiming that lawmakers had been “beaten, pelted with stones and intimidated”.

However, he did admit that that some had left his Party of the Regions, calling them “traitors”.

President Viktor Yanukovych also said his ally, parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Rybak, was forced to resign because he had been physically beaten.

He added that both Volodymyr Rybak’s car and his own had been fired at.

In an address televised before Ukraine’s parliament vote to impeach him, Viktor Yanukovych described events in Kiev as a coup

In an address televised before Ukraine’s parliament vote to impeach him, Viktor Yanukovych described events in Kiev as a coup

Volodymyr Rybak resigned on Saturday morning citing ill health and was replaced by Oleksandr Turchynov, a Yulia Tymoshenko ally.

Another Yulia Tymoshenko ally, Arsen Avakov, was appointed interim interior minister, replacing Vitaly Zakharchenko, who was sacked on Friday after being blamed for the deaths of civilians in last week’s crackdown on protests.

Before Saturday’s vote to oust Viktor Yanukovych, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the Ukrainian opposition of being led by “armed extremists and pogromists” whose actions were a threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and constitutional order.

Also before the vote, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski – one of three EU ministers that mediated between the two sides this week – tweeted that there had been “no coup in Kiev”.

Radoslaw Sikorski, along with the German and French foreign ministers, presided over talks that led to a pact on Friday between Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders which now seems to have been overtaken by events.

The deal followed several days of violence in which dozens of people died in a police crackdown on months of protest. It called for the restoration of the 2004 constitution and the formation of a national unity government.

The agreement failed to end the protests overnight with huge crowds remaining in the Maidan calling for Viktor Yanukovych’s resignation.

Ukraine’s parliament has voted to oust President Viktor Yanukovych and hold early presidential elections on May 25.

The vote came after the opposition seized several official buildings in the capital Kiev and parliament appointed high-level officials.

Viktor Yanukovych described events as a “coup” and vowed not to stand down.

Also on Saturday afternoon, prominent opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko was released from detention, hours after parliament authorized the move.

Correspondents say Yulia Tymoshenko was driven away in a car after leaving a hospital in the eastern city of Kharkiv where she was being held under prison guard.

Yulia Tymoshenko is now reported to be heading to Kiev’s Independence Square – also called the Maidan – which has been the focal point of anti-government protests.

Lawmakers had voted to pave the way for Yulia Tymoshenko’s release on Friday. She was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2011 after being convicted of abuse of power over her actions during her tenure as prime minister.

Ukraine’s parliament has voted to oust President Viktor Yanukovych and hold early presidential elections on May 25

Ukraine’s parliament has voted to oust President Viktor Yanukovych and hold early presidential elections on May 25

Yulia Tymoshenko’s supporters have always maintained this was simply Viktor Yanukovych taking out his most prominent opponent, and her release has always been a key demand of the protest movement.

The opposition is now in effective control of the capital Kiev, with Viktor Yanukovych arriving in Kharkiv, near the Russian border, late on Friday night.

The Interfax news agency reported parliament speaker Oleksandr Turchynov as saying Viktor Yanukovych had been stopped by border police in an attempt to flee to Russia and was now somewhere in the Donetsk region.

Earlier on Saturday, protesters walked unchallenged into the president’s office and residential compounds.

Ukraine’s army released a statement on Saturday afternoon saying it would not get “involved in the domestic political conflict”.

The vote to “remove Viktor Yanukovych from the post of president of Ukraine” was passed by 328 MPs.

Such ballots, passed by what is called constitutional majority, are binding and enter into force with immediate effect.

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Ukraine’s former PM Yulia Tymoshenko has been freed from jail.

It follows a vote by parliament to release her after President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital Kiev.

Speaking after her release, the Ukrainian opposition leader said “the dictatorship has fallen”.

Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in jail in 2011 after a controversial verdict on her actions as prime minister.

Ukraine’s former PM Yulia Tymoshenko has been freed from jail

Ukraine’s former PM Yulia Tymoshenko has been freed from jail

The glamorous, fiery orator who helped lead the Orange Revolution – Ukraine’s revolt against a controversial election in 2004 – was convicted of criminally exceeding her powers when she agreed a gas deal with Russia which was seen to have disadvantaged her own country.

Yulia Tymoshenko has always insisted the charges were untrue, inspired by Viktor Yanukovych, the man she helped oust in 2004 who returned to defeat her in the 2010 presidential election.

The EU had demanded her release as one of the conditions of the EU-Ukraine trade pact that President Viktor Yanukovych rejected last year – triggering the protests that led to the current crisis.

Olha Lappo, spokeswoman for the Fatherland party Yulia Tymoshenko leads, said she was heading from prison in the eastern city of Kharkiv to the capital Kiev to join protesters there.

Yulia Tymoshenko’s release was made possible by a European-brokered peace deal between her President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition on Friday.

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In fast-moving events on Saturday, Ukraine’s parliament voted for opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko to be released immediately.

Former PM Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2011 for abuse of power. Her supporters had always maintained this was simply Viktor Yanukovych taking out his most prominent opponent.

Also in parliament, speaker Volodymyr Rybak resigned, citing ill health. He has been replaced by Oleksandr Turchynov, an ally of Yulia Tymoshenko.

Another Yulia Tymoshenko ally, Arsen Avakov, has been appointed interim interior minister. He replaces Vitaly Zakharchenko, who was sacked on Friday after being blamed for the deaths of civilians in last week’s crackdown on protests.

Former PM Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2011 for abuse of power

Former PM Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2011 for abuse of power

Vitaly Klitschko, leader of the opposition Udar party, repeated his demand for President Viktor Yanukovych’s immediate resignation.

Meanwhile presidential aide Hanna Herman said Viktor Yanukovych had travelled to Kharkiv in the east, close to the Russian border, from where he was to give a televised address.

A gathering of deputies from the south-east and Crimea – traditionally Russian-leaning areas – is taking place there, but Hanna Herman said the president had “no intention” of attending, nor of leaving the country.

An opposition figure has announced to crowds in Independence Square that President Viktor Yanukovych has resigned. This has not been confirmed, but the crowds reacted with huge cheers. The presidential website appears to have gone down.

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Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych has taken sick leave amid violent protests in the country.

The presidential website said 63-year-old Viktor Yanukovych had a respiratory illness and a high fever.

The protests began in November after Viktor Yanukovych reversed a decision to sign a trade deal with the European Union, instead favoring a bailout deal with Russia to underpin Ukraine’s ailing economy.

Anti-government protesters demanding the president’s resignation are still occupying government buildings and manning barricades in freezing temperatures in the centre of the capital.

The past week has seen President Yanukovych accept the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his cabinet, and offer senior jobs to the opposition – offers that were rejected.

Ukraine’s parliament has also voted to annul a recently enacted law restricting protests – which appeared to be inflaming the situation – and passed a law giving amnesty to detained protesters, under the condition that occupied buildings were vacated.

Viktor Yanukovych had a respiratory illness and a high fever

Viktor Yanukovych had a respiratory illness and a high fever

Some opposition figures expressed skepticism about Viktor Yanukovych’s reported illness, saying he might be trying to buy time after being forced into concessions in an attempt to calm unrest on the streets.

“This smacks of a diplomatic illness,” Rostislav Pavlenko, a member of boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko’s Udar (Punch) party, told Reuters news agency.

“It allows Yanukovych not to sign laws, not to meet the opposition, absent himself from decisions to solve the political crisis.”

Mykhailo Chechetov, from Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, said the president had told supporters in parliament on Wednesday night that he had come to support the passage of the amnesty bill directly from hospital.

“He looked ill,” Mykhailo Chechetov added.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, is in Kiev for talks with both sides. On Wednesday she said she was “shocked” by the violence in the capital and across the country in recent weeks that has left several protesters and police officers dead.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk has announced that Ukraine’s opposition protests will continue after he rejected President Viktor Yanukovych’s offer to appoint him as prime minister.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk said the opposition was generally ready to accept leadership, but several key demands must be met, including new elections.

Clashes continued overnight. Activists stormed a Kiev building housing police.

Viktor Yanukovych’s proposal came amid new efforts to end the deadly unrest.

He offered the post of prime minister to Arseniy Yatsenyuk and the position of deputy PM to former boxer Vitali Klitschko following talks on Saturday.

The opposition – confident in its position – appears to have taken these offers as a sign of weakness on Viktor Yanukovych’s part, and is forging ahead with the campaign to unseat him.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk has announced that Ukraine’s opposition protests will continue after he rejected President Viktor Yanukovych's offer to appoint him as prime minister

Arseniy Yatsenyuk has announced that Ukraine’s opposition protests will continue after he rejected President Viktor Yanukovych’s offer to appoint him as prime minister

Speaking to large crowds in central of Kiev late on Saturday, the opposition leaders repeated their demands.

“Viktor Yanukovych announced that the government wasn’t ready to take the responsibility for the country and offered to the opposition to lead the government,” said Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

“What is our response to this? We are not afraid of the responsibility for the destiny of Ukraine.”

Later, Arseniy Yatsenyuk tweeted: “No deal @ua_yanukovych, we’re finishing what we started. The people decide our leaders, not you.”

Arseniy Yatsenyuk says that Tuesday, when a special session of parliament has been called, will be “judgement day”.

The opposition is demanding that a free trade agreement with the EU be signed and political prisoners be freed, including former PM Yulia Tymoshenko.

They are also demanding early presidential elections. A vote is not due until 2015.

Vitali Klitschko told the crowd that they would press ahead with their demands and that talks would continue: “We are not turning back and we will keep discussing and trying to find a direction.”

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President Viktor Yanukovych has offered the position of Ukraine’s prime minister to one of the opposition leaders, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

The offer came after talks on Saturday with opposition leaders in a new effort to end the worsening unrest that has spread across Ukraine.

Earlier, protesters in Kiev tried to occupy the energy ministry.

The protests began in November after Ukraine decided not to sign an accord on more co-operation with the EU.

Instead, the government opted to deepen ties with neighboring Russia.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk is the parliamentary leader of Ukraine's second biggest party, Fatherland

Arseniy Yatsenyuk is the parliamentary leader of Ukraine’s second biggest party, Fatherland

The crisis escalated this week when two activists were killed, and another was found dead with torture marks in a forest near the capital.

A fourth, 45-year-old protester is said to have died in a Kiev hospital on Saturday, after sustaining injuries in earlier violence.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, parliamentary leader of the country’s second biggest party, Fatherland, has not commented on the president’s offer.

He is an ally of the jailed ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko.

Viktor Yanukovych has also offered the post of deputy prime minister for humanitarian issues to the former boxer, Vitali Klitschko, who is leader of the Udar (Punch) movement.

In addition, Ukrainian media report that Viktor Yanukovych has said he is ready to amend the constitution to reduce the president’s powers.

The opposition has previously demanded that Viktor Yanukovych step down.

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Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych has said he strongly opposes Western politicians intervening in the crisis in his country.

Asked about their recent visits to the protest camp in Kiev, Viktor Yanukovych said: “I am categorically against anybody coming and teaching us how to live.”

The opposition is furious after Viktor Yanukovych accepted a Russian bailout, seen as a reward for rejecting EU integration.

President Vladimir Putin said he was defending the Russian economy.

“We just want to defend our gates,” Vladimir Putin told journalists in Moscow, days after Russia gave Ukraine a $15 billion (10.9 billion euros) bailout and gas discount.

Ukraine, Vladimir Putin said, was a fraternal state with close industrial ties to Russia.

Protests have gripped much of Ukraine since President Viktor Yanukovych suspended the EU deal last month.

The opposition has been demanding to know what, if any, conditions the Kremlin attached to its decision to buy $15 billion in Ukrainian government bonds and slash the gas price from more than $400 per 1,000 cubic metres to $268.5.

Viktor Yanukovych has said he strongly opposes Western politicians intervening in the crisis in Ukraine

Viktor Yanukovych has said he strongly opposes Western politicians intervening in the crisis in Ukraine

Russia’s financial help averted a debt crisis for Ukraine in the short term.

At a news conference in Kiev on Thursday, Viktor Yanukovych was asked about visits to the pro-EU protest camp by foreign politicians who have included US Republican Senator John McCain, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, former German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and others.

“What is very important is that this is our internal matter, and that other countries do not intervene in our internal affairs,” he said.

He said the deal with Moscow did not run counter to Ukraine’s course towards European integration and blamed Ukraine’s current economic problems on the policies of his predecessors, the leaders of Ukraine’s pro-Western Orange Revolution.

Asked why the Ukrainian economy was in such trouble, Viktor Yanukovych said the gas contract signed with Russia by former PM Yulia Tymoshenko in 2009 had incurred a loss of $20 billion.

Another problem, he said, was the repayment of an IMF loan of $16.4 billion negotiated in 2008, and a third factor was the recent fall in trade with Russia and other ex-Soviet states.

Asked about his position on the Customs Union led by Russia, Viktor Yanukovych said that Ukraine only had observer status but he suggested that it could adopt certain clauses.

“Ukraine’s government is studying these clauses and, once conclusions are drawn, the corresponding transparent decisions will be taken on which clauses we will adhere to,” he said.

Ukraine’s pro-EU protesters have rejected any move to join the Customs Union, which was set up in 2010 and includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Ukrainian opposition leaders have demanded to know what President Viktor Yanukovych has offered Russia in return for a major economic lifeline.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has agreed to buy billions of dollars worth of Ukrainian government bonds and slash the price Ukraine pays for Russian gas.

The announcement comes as Russia tries to stop Ukraine moving towards the EU.

Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko told pro-EU protesters in Kiev Viktor Yanukovych was betraying Ukraine’s independence.

“He has given up Ukraine’s national interests, given up independence,” Vitali Klitschko, a former boxing champion, told the crowd on Tuesday.

“[President] Yanukovych used our country as collateral. According to our sources, he has agreed to a bailout from Russia and put Ukrainian plants, strategic industries, heavy industries, aviation and energy manufacturers up as collateral against it. We want to know what exactly he did put up as collateral, and his reasons for doing it.”

He called on President Viktor Yanukovych to hold a snap election.

“Yanukovych said at our round-table talks that he is not afraid of an early election. If that’s the case, let him prove it in an honest fight,” he said.

Ukrainian opposition leaders have demanded to know what President Viktor Yanukovych has offered Russia in return for a major economic lifeline

Ukrainian opposition leaders have demanded to know what President Viktor Yanukovych has offered Russia in return for a major economic lifeline

Although details of the agreement are unclear, Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of an opposition far-right group, said Viktor Yanukovych had “pawned whole sectors” of the country’s economy to Russia.

Ukraine urgently needs to cover an external funding gap of up to $17 billion (12.3 billion euros) next year to avoid defaulting on its debts.

After talks between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovych in the Kremlin, it was announced Russia would buy $15 billion-worth of Ukrainian government bonds.

The cost of Russian gas supplied to Ukraine has been slashed from more than $400 (291 euros) per 1,000 cubic metres to $268.5.

Vladimir Putin said the assistance was not “tied to any conditions”.

He also said they had not discussed Ukraine joining a Moscow-led customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.

The US has warned the Ukrainian government that the deal with Russia would not satisfy the protesters.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said ties with Russia should not prevent Kiev from looking West.

“At the moment it seems to be an either-or proposition. We need to put an end to this,” Angela Merkel told ARD TV.

“A bidding competition won’t solve the problem.”

The current agreement signed between Russia’s Gazprom and Ukraine’s Naftogaz amends a controversial 2009 deal signed by former Ukrainian PM Yulia Tymoshenko, for which she was jailed two years ago.

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Riot police are taking up positions near Kiev’s City Hall, where thousands of Ukrainian anti-government protesters have massed.

More police are being bussed in with priests urging them not to use force.

The tense stand-off follows weeks of demonstrations after a government U-turn on a free trade deal with the EU.

President Viktor Yanukovych said a short while ago he would hold talks involving the opposition on Tuesday.

A statement on the president’s website said Viktor Yanukovych would hold talks with three of his predecessors on Tuesday to try to find a compromise.

The protesters have given Viktor Yanukovych 48 hours to dismiss the government and are demanding new elections for the presidency and government.

They have condemned Viktor Yanukovych for refusing to sign an association agreement with the EU last month. He said he shelved it because it would put trade with Russia at risk.

The protesters have given Viktor Yanukovych 48 hours to dismiss the government and are demanding new elections for the presidency and government

The protesters have given Viktor Yanukovych 48 hours to dismiss the government and are demanding new elections for the presidency and government

Protesters are blockading government buildings with cars, barricades and tents.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will be in Ukraine on Tuesday and Wednesday “to support a way out of the political crisis”.

President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said in a statement that he had spoken to Viktor Yanukovych over the telephone and asked him “to show restraint”.

Jose Manuel Barroso said he had asked him “to not use force against the people that are demonstrating peacefully, to fully respect the freedoms that are so important for all of us in Europe”.

Hundreds of thousands of people took part in Sunday’s protest – the biggest so far in nearly three weeks of opposition demonstrations in Kiev.

During the evening, a group of protesters smashed the city’s statue of the Russian revolutionary leader Lenin, and brought its dismembered parts as trophies to Independence Square.

The statue stood at the top of Shevchenko Boulevard, and was toppled with metal bars and ropes, then smashed up with hammers. No arrests were reported in the incident.

These are the biggest street protests in Ukraine since the 2004 Orange Revolution, which swept pro-Western leaders to power, though Viktor Yanukovych made a comeback in 2010.

Many of the protesters suspect Russia’s President Vladimir Putin of trying to model a new Russian-led customs union on the Soviet Union. So far only Belarus and Kazakhstan have joined it.

The opposition party of jailed former PM Yulia Tymoshenko has urged people to “chase” the president “until he falls”.

Meanwhile the Ukrainian Security Service said it was investigating some politicians on suspicion of what it called “actions aimed at seizing state power”.

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Hundreds of thousands of pro-EU demonstrators have taken to the streets of Kiev seeking the Ukrainian government’s resignation.

Protesters, who oppose a customs union with Russia, toppled a statue of Lenin and smashed it with hammers.

President Viktor Yanukovych has said he shelved the EU deal after Russian opposition.

Protest leaders have given him 48 hours to dismiss the government.

As darkness fell, protesters were blockading key government buildings with cars, barricades and tents.

Witnesses said a group of protesters toppled the statue of Soviet leader Lenin at the top of Shevchenko’s Boulevard using metal bars and ropes and then began smashing it up with hammers.

Others stood by chanting “glory to Ukraine”.

A group of protesters toppled the statue of Soviet leader Lenin at the top of Shevchenko's Boulevard

A group of protesters toppled the statue of Soviet leader Lenin at the top of Shevchenko’s Boulevard

Correspondents say the statue has symbolic importance as it underlines Ukraine’s shared history with Russia.

In another development on Sunday, the Ukrainian Security Service said it was investigating some politicians on suspicion of what it called “actions aimed at seizing state power”.

It did not name the politicians.

Amid rising tensions, the European Commission said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton would travel to Ukraine this week “to support a way out of the political crisis”.

Waving EU and Ukrainian flags, protesters on Sunday congregated on Kiev’s Independence Square – the scene of previous clashes with police.

Ukraine’s special police force, Berkut, has been widely condemned for beating protesters in the square – known as Maidan.

The opposition party of jailed former PM Yulia Tymoshenko has urged people to “chase” the president “until he falls”.

“We are on a razor’s edge between a final plunge into cruel dictatorship and a return home to the European community,” Yulia Tymoshenko said in a message to the crowd read out by her daughter.

“Don’t give in, not a step back, don’t give up, the future of Ukraine is in your hands,” the message read.

The protests are the largest since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004.

A smaller pro-government rally was held close to the opposition march with police separating the two.

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New mass protests against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to sign a trade deal with the EU are planned for Sunday at noon.

They are demanding new elections, and the impeachment of the president.

Rallies continued through the night, with thousands gathered on the main square in the capital Kiev.

Police violently dispersed an opposition camp on Saturday, injuring dozens of people.

New mass protests against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's refusal to sign a trade deal with the EU are planned for Sunday at noon

New mass protests against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to sign a trade deal with the EU are planned for Sunday at noon

President Viktor Yanukovich said he was “outraged” by the police action.

The new rally is planned for Sunday at 12:00.

Jailed opposition leader and ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko urged Ukrainians “not to leave the authorities’ actions unanswered”.

In a message read by her daughter on Saturday, Yulia Tymoshenko urged Ukrainians: “Fly, drive, walk to Kiev from all parts of Ukraine, but gather everyone on 1 December.”

“We can and should remove these authorities,” an opposition party leader Vitali Klitschko told thousands of demonstrators outside Kiev’s St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery.

“We should come out and show that we will not allow them to humiliate us, we will stand up for our rights.”

Vitali Klitschko said that supporters were travelling from the western city of Lviv and other Ukrainian cities to take part in Sunday’s rally.

Meanwhile, a court in Kiev has banned protested in Independence Square, European Square and at other locations in the city centre until January 7, 2014.

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EU leaders are gathering in Vilnius, Lithuania, for a summit rocked by Ukraine’s shock decision not to sign a far-reaching agreement.

The conclusion of the trade and reform deal was planned as the highlight of a summit aimed also at building ties with other East European states.

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych is likely to face tough questions from EU leaders on why he stopped the deal, apparently under Russian pressure.

Viktor Yanukovych has requested more EU financial aid.

Pro-EU protests are continuing in Ukrainian cities against the government’s decision to back out of the deal.

EU leaders are gathering in Vilnius for a summit rocked by Ukraine's shock decision not to sign a far-reaching agreement

EU leaders are gathering in Vilnius for a summit rocked by Ukraine’s shock decision not to sign a far-reaching agreement

Viktor Yanukovych has dismissed an EU condition for signing the agreement – that Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and opposition leader, be freed from jail.

The dispute has increased tension between the EU and Russia, with Ukraine complaining it is becoming a “battleground” between the two.

EU leaders said in a statement that they “strongly disapprove” of Moscow’s pressure on Ukraine not to sign – while Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the EU of “blackmail”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is expected to have talks with Viktor Yanukovych on Friday, said Russia should not view relations between the 28-state bloc and ex-Soviet republics as a threat.

“We should overcome the ‘either us or them’ mentality,” Angela Merkel said.

“The Cold War is over.”

The two-day event, billed as the third Eastern Partnership Summit, is being held in the capital of Lithuania, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU.

The leaders are due to hold informal talks at a dinner on Thursday evening, with the official business of the summit to be conducted on Friday.

Initial political association agreements with Georgia and Moldova are due to be signed, as well as a visa agreement with Azerbaijan.

However, the centrepiece of the summit had been the association agreement with Ukraine. Such agreements, which promote democratic values and economic co-operation, are seen as a key step towards EU membership.

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A mass rally has taken place in Kiev following Ukraine’s decision to delay an association agreement with the European Union.

Opposition leaders including former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko have joined the protest on Independence Square.

Activists are comparing the rally to Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. They plan to make it a permanent rally.

Anti-riot police have been deployed.

A Kiev court has ruled that tents must not be erected on the square. In 2004 tents were a big feature of the protests against Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Moscow presidential candidate whose election was marred by voting abuses. He is in power now and his arch-rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, is in jail.

Activists are comparing the rally to Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution

Activists are comparing the rally to Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution

Ukraine came under intense pressure from Russia not to sign the historic EU deal at a summit next week.

Ukrainian activists are using social media to mobilise supporters, and on Thursday night opposition demonstrations also took place in the cities of Donetsk, Ivano-Frankovsk, Lutsk, Uzhgorod and Lviv.

Ukraine’s PM Mykola Azarov has said the decision not to sign a wide-ranging trade and association agreement with the EU next week was motivated solely by economics and was “tactical”. He said it did not alter Ukraine’s overall development strategy.

“The decision to suspend the EU association agreement signing is difficult, but the only one possible in the current economic situation in Ukraine,” Mykola Azarov told parliament.

The Ukrainian government said on Thursday that it was instead looking into setting up a joint commission to promote ties between Ukraine, Russia and the EU.

Ukraine has suspended preparations for a trade deal with the EU after a government statement said the decision had been taken to protect the country’s “national security”.

Hours earlier MPs rejected a bill that would have allowed jailed former PM Yulia Tymoshenko to leave the country – which the EU had demanded as a condition for the deal to proceed.

Ukraine had come under intense pressure from Russia not to sign the historic EU deal at a summit next week.

The Ukrainian government said on Thursday that it was instead looking into setting up a joint commission to promote ties between Ukraine, Russia and the EU.

Russia wants Ukraine to join its own customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus, which it sees as a prototype rival to the EU.

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych was later quoted by AFP as saying Ukraine “will work further on this path, this path to EU integration”, although it is not clear how this tallies with the suspension of preparations for the deal.

On Thursday MPs threw out six drafts of the bill which would have allowed Yulia Tymoshenko to travel abroad for medical treatment.

Ukraine has suspended preparations for a trade deal with the EU

Ukraine has suspended preparations for a trade deal with the EU

The EU is sending a top envoy to Kiev.

Stefan Fuele, European commissioner for enlargement, is travelling to the Ukrainian capital on Thursday, for the second time this week.

The bill failed to pass after MPs from President Viktor Yanukovych’s ruling Regions Party refused to cast their votes on any of the six proposed drafts.

The drafts all fell short of the 226 votes needed.

“It is President Viktor Yanukovych who is personally blocking Ukraine’s movement toward the European Union,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, parliamentary leader of Yulia Tymoshenko’s opposition Fatherland group, told parliament after the vote failed.

Opposition MPs responded by shouting “shame” as the bill was thrown out.

The legislation proposed that convicts be allowed medical treatment abroad.

Yulia Tymoshenko, 52, is serving seven years in jail after a controversial conviction on charges of abuse of power over a gas deal with Russia.

The EU has made clear it believes the judicial campaign against Yulia Tymoshenko has been politically motivated.

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The Ukraine’s parliament vote, on which hangs the fate of both jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko and the country’s EU hopes, looks like it may not take place.

Attempts to agree a bill that would allow Yulia Tymoshenko to leave the country for medical treatment have stalled.

The EU has made the move a condition for it to sign an association and free trade deal with Ukraine this month.

But Ukraine has come under intense pressure from Russia not to sign.

Attempts to agree a bill that would allow Yulia Tymoshenko to leave Ukraine for medical treatment have stalled

Attempts to agree a bill that would allow Yulia Tymoshenko to leave Ukraine for medical treatment have stalled

Russia wants Ukraine to join its own customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus, which it sees as a prototype rival to the EU.

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych made a secretive visit to Moscow at the weekend.

MPs said on Wednesday that attempts between the government and opposition to finalize a bill allowing convicts to receive medical treatment abroad had failed.

The leader of the opposition Fatherland group, MP Arseniy Yatsenyuk, blamed Viktor Yanukovych’s ruling Party of the Regions for the failure, and said it was deliberately trying to destroy the EU deal.

“They are hindering Ukraine’s movement towards the European Union,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk said.

European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has found that Ukraine’s pre-trial detention of former PM Yulia Tymoshenko in 2011 was illegal and her rights to a legal review and compensation were violated.

Yulia Tymoshenko, who is still in jail, also alleged physical mistreatment, but that complaint was not upheld by the ECHR.

The former prime minister was jailed for seven years for abuse of office over a gas deal.

Tuesday’s verdict does not overturn her prison sentence.

The ECHR will examine that verdict later, in a separate case.

ECHR has found that Ukraine's pre-trial detention of former PM Yulia Tymoshenko in 2011 was illegal and her rights to a legal review and compensation were violated

ECHR has found that Ukraine’s pre-trial detention of former PM Yulia Tymoshenko in 2011 was illegal and her rights to a legal review and compensation were violated

According to the Associated Press, a Ukrainian government official stormed out of the courtroom after Tuesday’s ruling.

The judgment is not final as the parties involved have three months to lodge any appeal.

Yulia Tymoshenko did not enter any claims for damages.

She was a key figure in Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution and went on to become prime minister twice.

In 2009, Yulia Tymoshenko signed a 10-year contract for the supply of Russian gas to Ukraine.

At her trial two years later, prosecutors argued that she had not obtained the approval of her cabinet to sign the deal, and that it had proved ruinous for the Ukrainian economy.

The Strasbourg-based ECHR found that Yulia Tymoshenko’s detention ahead of her trial had violated her right to liberty and security because it had been ordered for an indefinite period of time.

“No risk of absconding was discernible,” it said, noting that the former prime minister had not breached her obligation not to leave town or failed to attend a court hearing.

The Ukrainian trial judge, Rodion Kireyev, had ordered her to spend the trial in custody for contempt of court.

However, the ECHR judges ruled that this “reason was not included among those which would justify deprivation of liberty”.

The ECHR also ruled that Ukraine’s judiciary lacked a procedure for reviewing the detention of suspects.

A complaint that Yulia Tymoshenko had been denied proper medical treatment in detention was thrown out by the ECHR judges.

On the contrary, they found that the local authorities “had invested efforts far beyond the normal healthcare arrangements available for ordinary detainees in Ukraine”.

They also threw out an allegation that Yulia Tymoshenko had been beaten during a transfer from prison to hospital in April 2012, pointing out that she had refused to undergo a full forensic examination at the time.

Though the ECHR did not rule on the legality of Yulia Tymoshenko’s actual conviction, her daughter Yevgenia hailed the verdict as the “first victory” on the way to her release.

“Today we are saying that this is the first victory, the first step to her full political rehabilitation and her immediate release,” she told reporters in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.