Ukraine's opposition has forced out the government and is pressing President Viktor Yanukovich to resign, despite warnings from a former head of state that the country is "one step from civil war".
Prime minister Mykola Azarov resigned yesterday "to create more possibilities for social-political compromise, for the sake of a peaceful resolution of the conflict", he said.
“The conflict situation in the state threatens the social and economic development of Ukraine and is a threat to Ukrainian society as a whole and to every citizen . . . Today, the most important thing is to preserve the unity and integrity of Ukraine.”
The premier’s resignation, which was accepted by Mr Yanukovich, automatically triggered the fall of the cabinet. Ministers will stay in their posts until a new government is formed, led temporarily by deputy prime minister Serhiy Arbuzov. He, like Mr Azarov, is a close ally of the president.
In an emergency session of parliament, pro-Yanukovich deputies backed the annulment of sweeping anti-protest laws that they pushed through just 12 days ago. Debate on a proposed amnesty for people arrested during two months of rallies will continue when the session resumes today. Opposition leaders welcomed the developments but said there would be no end to occasionally violent protests that have claimed up to six lives in Kiev, and have spread across much of Ukraine.
"We have to change not only the government, but the rules of the game as well," said heavyweight boxer turned politician Vitali Klitschko. "A logical step in the current situation would be the resignation of Yanukovich."
Jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko said Ukrainians had "risen up in favour of a different Ukraine – non-mafia, non-criminal, non-oligarchic".
“You have risen up to ‘reset’ the whole system of power and to take back Ukraine – do it! And until you have achieved that result – do not stop!”
Local administration buildings in at least 10 of Ukraine’s 25 regions are controlled by anti-government demonstrators, and “people’s councils” are effectively running several cities.
Mr Yanukovich still enjoys solid support in southern and eastern Ukraine, near Russia, however. "In the streets we are basically one step from civil war," said Leonid Kravchuk, who was the first president of independent post-Soviet Ukraine.
“From protests we’ve moved to the violent seizure of power. The heads of local government have lost the levers of administration . . . and when administration collapses, the state collapses too. Already in some regions local government practically does not exist, people’s councils are being formed,” he added. “Organs of power formed spontaneously are illegitimate,” Mr Kravchuk said.
“Who would dare to have anything to do with illegitimate organs of power?”
The European Union, United States and Russia have called for a negotiated solution to the crisis. The EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, was due in Kiev last night. The unrest is causing alarm among Ukraine's neighbours: former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski has called for the creation of "a government of national unity or national salvation, because the situation is dramatic".
The protests began in late November, when Mr Yanukovich abruptly rejected a historic pact with the EU that would have tilted Ukraine away from Russia and towards the West.