- Associated Press - Sunday, February 23, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - The whereabouts and legitimacy of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych were unclear on Sunday, after he left the capital, his archenemy Yulia Tymoshenko was freed from prison, and one of her top allies assumed presidential powers.

Parliament struggled to work out who is in charge of the country. Fears percolated that some regions might try to break away after three months of political standoff that has left scores of people dead in a country of strategic importance to the United States, European nations and Russia.

Yanukovych maintains that parliament’s decisions in recent days are illegal. But he did not speak publicly Sunday or make any apparent effort to stop them.

A plane with Yanukovych onboard was denied permission to take off Saturday evening from Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine that has been part of the president’s support base, the State Border Guard Service said. The president’s spokesman said Sunday morning that even he does not know where Yanukovych is.

Ukraine is deeply divided between eastern regions that are largely pro-Russian and western areas that widely detest Yanukovych and long for closer ties with the European Union. Yanukovych’s shelving of an agreement with the EU in November set off the wave of protests, but they quickly expanded their grievances to corruption, human rights abuses and calls for Yanukovych’s resignation.

The Kiev protest camp at the center of the anti-Yanukovych movement filled with more and more dedicated demonstrators Sunday, setting up new tents after two days that saw a stunning reversal of fortune in Ukraine’s political crisis.

Russia’s position will be important for the future of this country, since Moscow has been providing financing to keep Ukraine’s economy afloat and the two countries have deep but complicated ties.

Russia’s finance minister on Sunday urged Ukraine to seek a loan from the International Monetary Fund to avoid an imminent default. Russia in December offered Ukraine a $15 billion bailout, but so far has provided only $3 billion, freezing further disbursements pending the outcome of the ongoing political crisis.

Signs emerged Sunday that Russia might throw its weight behind Tymoshenko. And a leading Russian lawmaker, Leonid Slutsky, said Sunday that naming Tymoshenko prime minister “would be useful for stabilizing” the tensions in Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies.

Tensions mounted in Crimea, where pro-Russian politicians are organizing rallies and forming protest units and have been demanding autonomy from Kiev. Russia maintains a big naval base in Crimea that has tangled relations between the countries for two decades.

The political crisis in this nation of 46 million 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.

“We need to catch and punish those with blood on their hands,” Artyom Zhilyansky, a 45-year-old engineer on Independence Square on Sunday, referring to those killed in clashes with police last week.

He and other protesters called for law enforcement chiefs to be held accountable and Yanukovych put on trial.

The newly emboldened parliament, in a special session Sunday, voted overwhelmingly to temporarily hand the president’s powers to speaker Oleksandr Turchinov, a top ally of Tymoshenko.

The legislators also voted to remove a string of government ministers and may name a prime minister later Sunday.

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