Fugitive Ukraine leader wanted for murder, Russia sounds alarm

KIEV Mon Feb 24, 2014 6:21pm EST

1 of 11. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (3rd R) visits a memorial for victims of last week's clashes in Kiev February 24, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Viktor Gurniak

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KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine's fugitive president was indicted for "mass murder" on Monday over the shooting of demonstrators as new leaders in Kiev sought urgent Western aid to make up for a loss of funding from Russia, which is angry at the overthrow of its ally.

Moscow said it would not deal with those who led an "armed mutiny" against Viktor Yanukovich, who was elected in 2010, and said it now feared for the lives of its citizens, notably in the Russian-speaking east and Crimea on the Black Sea.

Russia's top general agreed with NATO to maintain contact on a crisis that has raised fears of civil war and which U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said called for an "inclusive political process" that "preserves Ukraine's ... territorial integrity".

While Russia, its strategy for maintaining influence in its former Soviet neighbor in shreds, made clear its $15-billion package of loans and cheap gas deals was in jeopardy, the European Union and United States offered urgent financial assistance for a new government that may be formed on Tuesday.

They were responding to warnings from Ukraine's acting head of state that the country was heading for bankruptcy.

The acting interior minister - appointed by parliament when Yanukovich fled at the weekend after mass protests sparked by his rejection of closer ties with the European Union - said the 63-year-old was now on the wanted list and had last been seen at Balaclava in Crimea, near Russia's Sevastopol naval base.

"An official case for the mass murder of peaceful citizens has been opened," Arsen Avakov wrote on Facebook, referring to the shooting by police marksmen of many of the 82 people killed in two days of bloodshed in Kiev last week.

"Yanukovich and other people responsible for this have been declared wanted," he added.

The ousted president was still at large, Avakov said. He had left by helicopter on Friday from Kiev, where his lavish residence was quickly overwhelmed by curious compatriots who took its lavish fittings as proof of grandiose corruption.

Having arrived in his power base in the industrial east, Yanukovich was prevented from flying out of the country and then diverted south to Crimea. He had later left a private residence at Balaclava for an unknown destination, by car with one of his aides and a handful of guards.

Pursuing a political opponent who had already appeared last week to have lost the confidence of Moscow and of Ukraine's wealthy business "oligarchs" is popular with protesters still occupying Kiev's Independence Square, close to parliament.

But many are wary of opposition leaders like Yanukovich's arch-rival Yulia Tymoshenko, whose record in government before him was mixed. Tymoshenko, who was released from a prison hospital on Saturday having served more than two years on graft charges, said on Monday she will go to Berlin for treatment.

She is widely expected to run in a presidential election parliament has set for May 25. Underlining how that vote could be as divisive as previous ballots, the governor of Kharkiv region, on the Russian border, said he would run.

Businessman Mihailo Dobkin has been prominent in calling for military veterans and others to form militias to challenge anti-Yanukovich militants. Over the weekend, small groups of political activists clashed in a number of towns and cities.

FINANCIAL HELP

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was in Kiev on Monday to discuss measures to shore up the ailing economy, which the finance ministry said needs urgent financial assistance to avoid default.

After her talks with acting president Oleksander Turchinov, she was quoted in a statement from the Ukrainian parliament as saying: "We are ready to support Ukraine and give a signal to other countries that your country is not only solving the problems of the past but also looking ahead."

EU officials have said that a free trade pact, spurned by Yanukovich in November under pressure from Moscow, could be available to Ukraine once it has a government to negotiate.

In Washington, the White House spokesman said the United States was ready to provide financial help to complement aid from the International Monetary Fund that would support reform.

Whoever takes charge in Kiev - possible prime ministers include Tymoshenko ally Arseny Yatsenyuk and billionaire former minister Petro Poroshenko - faces a huge challenge to satisfy popular expectations and will find an economy in deep crisis.

The Finance Ministry said it needed $35 billion in foreign assistance over the next two years and appealed for urgent aid in the next one or two weeks. It called for a donors' conference involving representatives of the European Union, the United States and the International Monetary Fund.

The EU has contacted the United States, Japan, China, Canada and Turkey to coordinate aid for Ukraine, a senior EU official said. [ID:nL6N0LT2C6] France's foreign minister said an international donors' conference was being discussed.

Ukraine's parliament, exercising power as leaders try to form an interim government, replaced the head of the central bank, appointing lawmaker and former banker Stepan Kubiv.

AMBASSADOR RECALLED

Russia recalled its ambassador from Kiev for consultations on Sunday, accusing the opposition of having torn up a transition agreement with the president it supported.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow had grave doubts about the legitimacy of those now in power in Ukraine and their recognition by some states was an "aberration".

"We do not understand what is going on there. There is a real threat to our interests and to the lives of our citizens," Medvedev was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.

Russia cited a duty to protect the lives of its citizens in 2008 as one justification for military intervention in Georgia, another former Soviet republic, in support of Kremlin-backed separatists in South Ossetia.

On Independence Square in Kiev, cradle of the uprising, barricades of old furniture and car tyres remained in place, with smoke rising from camp fires among tents occupied by diehards vowing to stay until elections in May.

The mood among the few hundred on the square was a mixture of fatigue, sorrow for the more than 80 people killed last week, and a sense of victory after three months of protests.

A large video screen by the side of the stage was showing the faces of the dead, one after another, on a loop.

"Now is not the time for celebrating. We are still at war. We will stay here as long as we have to," said Grigoriy Kuznetsov, 53, dressed in black combat fatigues.

Galina Kravchuk, a middle-aged woman from Kiev, was holding a carnation. "We are looking to Europe now. We have hope. We want to join Europe, " she said.

The cost of insuring Ukraine's debt fell on hopes that the country would avoid default, while bonds recorded gains on expectations that a new government would focus on the economy.

Ukrainian stocks soared to their highest since September 2012, but the hryvnia currency tumbled to a five-year low against the dollar as expectations grew the new government would focus on using dwindling foreign reserves to repay debt rather than defend the currency.

While bond markets reacted jubilantly to the possibility of Western aid, major investors fretted about how fast Kiev can secure a rescue and whether an IMF bailout may reschedule its debts, costing them money.

(Additional reporting by Timothy Heritage, Matt Robinson, Alessandra Prentice and Richard Balmforth in Kiev and Elizabeth Piper in Moscow; Writing by Giles Elgood and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Paul Taylor and David Stamp)

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