Ukraine leader’s secret residence opened to public

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An ornamental horse stands outside Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s countryside residence in Mezhyhirya, Kiev’s region, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb, 22, 2014. Ukrainian security and volunteers from among Independence Square protesters have joined forces to protect the presidential countryside retreat from vandalism and looting. Yanukovych left Kiev for his support base in the country’s Russian-speaking east, but an aide said that he has no intention of abandoning power. (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)

An ornamental horse stands outside Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s countryside residence in Mezhyhirya, Kiev’s region, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb, 22, 2014. Ukrainian security and volunteers from among Independence Square protesters have joined forces to protect the presidential countryside retreat from vandalism and looting. Yanukovych left Kiev for his support base in the country’s Russian-speaking east, but an aide said that he has no intention of abandoning power. (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)

A man holds a golf club with the name of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich on a golf course at the Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s countryside residence in Mezhyhirya, Kiev’s region, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb, 22, 2014. Viktor Yanukovych is not in his official residence of Mezhyhirya, which is about 20 kilometres north of the capital. Ukrainian security and volunteers from among Independence Square protesters have joined forces to protect the presidential countryside retreat from vandalism and looting.(AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)

Protesters pose in front of the Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s countryside residence in Mezhyhirya, Kiev’s region, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb, 22, 2014. Ukrainian security and volunteers from among Independence Square protesters have joined forces to protect the presidential countryside retreat from vandalism and looting.(AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)

Protesters try to play on a golf course at the Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s countryside residence in Mezhyhirya, Kiev’s region, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb, 22, 2014. Viktor Yanukovych is not in his official residence of Mezhyhirya, which is about 20 kilometres north of the capital. Ukrainian security and volunteers from among Independence Square protesters have joined forces to protect the presidential countryside retreat from vandalism and looting.(AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)

People wait to enter Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s countryside residence in Mezhyhirya, Kiev’s region, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb, 22, 2014. Viktor Yanukovych is not in his official residence of Mezhyhirya, which is about 20 km (12.5 miles) north of the capital. Ukrainian security and volunteers from among Independence Square protesters have joined forces to protect the presidential countryside retreat from vandalism and marauding. Yanukovych left Kiev for his support base in the country’s Russian-speaking east, but an aide said that he has no intention of abandoning power. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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NOVI PETRIVTSI, Ukraine (AP) — The opulent residence of President Viktor Yanukovych has always been a closely guarded secret — and a symbol of the alleged corruption at Ukraine’s highest levels. On Saturday, after he fled the capital and its gates were thrown open, thousands streamed into the compound to get a first-hand look.

Inside the walled compound known as Mezhyhirya, posh mansions stood amid manicured lawns. There were parks dotted with statues, ponds with fountains and wild ducks, a tennis court, a golf course and a colonnaded pavilion.

As throngs of ordinary Ukrainians got their first look at Yanukovich’s luxurious estate, many expressed disgust. Some brought their children — one even brought his dog. They considered the tour a victory for anti-government demonstrators who fought street battles with police this week in which dozens were killed.

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Associated Press correspondent Maria Danilova has covered President Viktor Yanukovych for years, from his defeat in the Orange Revolution to his rise to Ukraine’s highest office. When the opposition took over the capital of Kiev and the gates to his once-secret residence were opened, Danilova joined thousands of Ukrainians who got their first look at the grandeur of the presidential compound.

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At a protest of government censorship of the media in June outside the walls of Yanukovych’s residence, the gates were cordoned off by dozens of beefy riot police in red berets.

On Saturday, the compound known as Mezhyhirya was guarded by the opposition’s self-defense units.

Yanukovych had always refused to talk about his residence, admitting only to living in a modest house on a small plot inside Mezhygirya Park, about 140 hectares (345 acres) of forested hills along the Dnipro River.

Journalists’ investigations traced the property and buildings around it to Yanukovych’s allies.

Now those gates were open to the public.

The protesters’ self-defense units were deployed inside the compound to maintain order and prevent any looting or damage to the property. One of them, a middle-aged man, could not hide his anger: “Look how he lived, son of a bitch.”

Activists described one giant wooden building as a guest house. It was closed and no one was allowed inside but a peek through a window revealed marble floors, crystal chandeliers, a massive stairway with what looked like gold-covered railings, and a giant piano in a reception hall with luxurious beige armchairs.

Activists attached a yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag to the house, and many posed for photos in front of it.

“It’s like we entered Berlin and seized the Reichstag,” said Oleksiy Tiunov, a 33-year-old computer specialist from Kiev. He added that he was proud of his fellow protesters.

“They didn’t flee, they didn’t run, good guys, even when they started getting killed. Everybody stood there, even peaceful citizens. We Ukrainians still have this spirit which cannot be crushed,” Tiunov said, choking back tears.

Many waved Ukrainian and European Union flags, embracing each other and chanting, “Glory to Ukraine.”

A self-appointed guide who introduced himself as Roman told of the construction of the guest house and showed everyone a multilevel pond, surrounded by elegant statues. “This is where our money was wasted,” he said.

People were overwhelmed but also curious. “Where is the helicopter pad? Where is the golf course?” one woman asked. “Where are the ostriches?” questioned another.

One of those inside the estate was Mykhailo Havrilyuk, a well-known activist who had been stripped naked, beaten and humiliated by Yanukovych’s police force last month. He insisted Yanukovych must go, and he

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