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Monday February 24, 2014 MYT 12:50:02 AM
Monday February 24, 2014 MYT 12:50:55 AM
by matt robinson
KIEV (Reuters) - Thousands of Ukrainians streamed into Kiev's Independence Square on Sunday, carrying flowers and candles in a spontaneous pilgrimage to commemorate the protesters who died for the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich.
Marshalled through barricades by helmeted members of a self-styled 'self-defence' force, families poured down Institutska Street, the scene last week of the worst violence in Ukraine's 22 years of independence.
They transformed the street, where dozens of people were picked off by police sniper rifles and Kalashnikovs, into an improvised shrine, lighting candles and laying flowers against the cobblestones and bricks that protesters had stockpiled as weapons against the police.
Flowers were stuck to the metal shields of the self-defence members, a hardcore of protesters that grew into distinct, organised units and show no sign of disarming.
Yanukovich was ousted on Saturday, abandoning his Kiev office and country residence to flee for his native eastern Ukraine, stripped of his powers by a parliament packed with defectors from his Party of Regions.
It marked the climax of three months of protests on Independence Square, known as Maidan, over the president's sudden U-turn away from closer ties with Europe in favour of the former Soviet master, Moscow.
More than 80 people were killed in gun battles with police, quickly becoming martyrs to the cause.
Crowds shuffled quietly down the street leading to Independence Square, many as if touring a battle site. Some cried "Glory to Ukraine!" or "Glory to the heroes!"
Men in improvised body armour, holding baseball bats and shields, guarded Ukraine's corridors of power - the parliament, presidential administration and central bank. Some sported battle totems, animal skins hanging from their shoulders or helmets.
"My own relatives didn't die, but I feel a debt to those who did, and I wanted to pay my respects," said Lena Griyevic, 52, a resident of Kiev holding a bunch of pink carnations.
Under Yanukovich, "I felt we'd gone back to the '90s, with all those bandits. I'm amazed by our heroes. I never believed it could happen."
OUSTED PRESIDENT VANISHES Yanukovich's precise whereabouts were not known on Sunday. He was believed to be in the east, the mainly Russian-speaking half of the country and his traditional power base.
Parliament speaker Oleksander Turchinov was made acting president on Sunday, pending an election set for May 25. He is a close confidant of opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was released by her jailors on Saturday as Yanukovich's grip on power crumbled.
Yanukovich refused to resign, accusing his opponents of carrying out a coup.
The protest camp on Independence Square, a highly organised tent village complete with portaloos, medics and a steady supply of hot drinks and food, remains.
"We haven't won yet, not until he's gone" said 23-year-old Mihailo, queuing to sign up for the self-defence force. "We have an illness that must be treated. Maybe when the elections come, then we'll go."
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