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Ukraine’s Tymoshenko rallies protesters in Kiev

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Former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, center, addresses the crowd in central Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Hours after being released from prison, former Ukrainian prime minister and opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko praised the demonstrators killed in violence this week as heroes. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

Former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, center, addresses the crowd in central Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Hours after being released from prison, former Ukrainian prime minister and opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko praised the demonstrators killed in violence this week as heroes. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is greeted by supporters shortly after being freed from prison in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Tymoshenko said she will run for president in May. (AP Photo/Sergey Kozlov)

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is freed from prison in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Tymoshenko said she will run for president in May. (AP Photo/Inna Petrykova)

Anti-government protesters stand guard in front of Ukraine’s parliament in Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Fears that Ukraine could split in two mounted Saturday as regional lawmakers in the pro-Russian east questioned the authority of the national parliament. Protesters took control of Ukraine’s capital and parliament sought to oust the president. (AP Photo/ Marko Drobnjakovic)

A protester waves an EU flag at the Ukrainian President Yanukovych country 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 the Independence Square protesters have joined forces to protect the presidential countryside retreat from vandalism and looting. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Hours after her release from prison, former Ukrainian prime minister and opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko appeared before an ecstatic throng at the protester encampment in Ukraine’s capital Saturday, praising the demonstrators killed in violence this week and urging the protesters to keep occupying the square.

Her speech to the crowd of about 50,000, made from a wheelchair because of the severe back problems she suffered in 2½ years of imprisonment, was the latest stunning development in the fast-moving Ukrainian political crisis.

Only a day earlier, her arch-rival, President Viktor Yanukovych, signed an agreement with protest leaders that cut his powers and called for early elections. Parliament, once controlled by Yanukovych supporters, quickly thereafter voted to decriminalize the abuse-of-office charge for which Tymoshenko was convicted.

Yanukovych meanwhile appeared to be losing power by the hour. He decamped from Kiev to Kharkiv, a city in his support base in eastern Ukraine, while protesters took control of the presidential administration building and thousands of curious and contemptuous Ukrainians roamed the suddenly open grounds of the lavish compound outside Kiev where he was believed to live.

In Kharkiv, Yanukovych defiantly declared that he regarded parliament’s actions as invalid and bitterly likened the demonstrators who conducted three months of protests against him to Nazis.

“Everything that is happening today is, to a greater degree, vandalism and banditry and a coup d’etat,” he said. “I will do everything to protect my country from breakup, to stop bloodshed.”

The reversal of fortune for both Tymoshenko and Yanukovych was an eerie echo of the Orange Revolution of a decade ago — the mass protests that forced a rerun of a presidential election nominally won by Yanukovych. Tymoshenko attracted world attention as the most vivid of the protest leaders, her elaborate blond peasant braid making her instantly recognizable.

On Saturday, Tymoshenko appeared close to exhaustion and her voice cracked frequently, but her flair for vivid words was undimmed.

“You are heroes, you are the best thing in Ukraine!” she said of those killed in the violence. The Health Ministry on Saturday said the death toll in clashes between protesters and police that included sniper attacks had reached 82.

And she urged the demonstrators not to yield from their encampment in the square, known in Ukrainian as the Maidan.

“In no case do you have the right to leave the Maidan until you have concluded everything that you planned to do,” she said.

After the 2004 protests helped bring Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency, Tymoshenko became prime minister. But when Yanukovych won the 2010 election, Tymoshenko was arrested and put on trial for abuse of office, an action widely seen as political revenge.

Her call for protests to continue and Yanukovych’s defiance leaves unsettled the fate of Ukraine, a nation of 46 million of huge strategic importance to Russia, Europe and the United States.

The country’s western regions, angered by corruption in Yanukovych’s government, want to be closer to the European Union and have rejected Yanukovych’s authority in many cities. Eastern Ukraine, which accounts for the bulk of the nation’s economic output, favors closer ties with Russia and has largely supported the president. The three-month protest movement was prompted by the president’s decision to abort an agreement with the EU in favor of a deal with Moscow.

“The people have won, because we fought for our future,” said opposition leader Vitali Klitschko to a euphoric crowd of thousands gathered on Kiev’s Independence Square. Beneath a cold, heavy rain, protesters who have stood for weeks and months to pressure the president to leave congratulated each other and shouted “Glory to Ukraine!”

“It is only the beginning of the battle,” Klitschko said, urging calm and telling protesters not to take justice into their own hands.

The president’s support base crumbled further as a leading governor and a mayor from the eastern city of Kharkiv fled Russia.

Oleh Slobodyan, a spokesman for the border guard service, told The Associated Press that Kharkiv regional governor Mikhaylo Dobkin and Kharkiv Mayor Hennady Kernes left Ukraine across the nearby Russian border.

Saturday’s developments were the result of a European-brokered peace deal between the president and opposition.

But Yanukovych said Saturday that he would not sign any of the measures passed by parliament over the past two

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