By Denis Pinchuk
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (Reuters) - Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, appearing in public for the first time since he fled from Ukraine to Russia, said on Friday he would not give up the fight for his country's future.
In the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, he told reporters he had been forced from power by "nationalist, pro-fascist gangsters" and blamed the crisis on the West for "indulging" protesters seeking his overthrow.
The 63-year-old former electrician said lawlessness and chaos had followed an agreement he signed with his opponents last Friday, which was brokered by the European Union and had been intended to end three months of crisis.
The agreement would have allowed him to stay in power until early elections in December. But protesters, angered by about 100 deaths in clashes with police, shouted down the agreement on Kiev's Independence Square and he fled for his life.
Yanukovich, dressed in a suit and tie, denied he had ordered police to shoot at protesters before he was forced out of power.
He implied that responsibility for the bloodshed in Kiev lay with the demonstrators, praising the Berkut riot police - despised in Kiev and since disbanded by Ukraine's new rulers - for their "courage" in withstanding petrol bomb attacks by protesters.
"I want to ask for forgiveness for all those who are suffering and all those who suffered ... if I was in Ukraine I would bow before everyone," he said.
FEARED FOR HIS LIFE
Saying he was still the legally elected president, Yanukovich said he had fled Ukraine only because he feared for his life and that of his family. He was ready to return to Ukraine - but only when his safety was guaranteed, he said.
He called on Ukrainians to reject the leadership of the country's new rulers who appointed a new prime minister and cabinet on Thursday and have set a May 25 date for a presidential election.
Referring to unrest in Ukraine's Crimea and the seizure there of airports and other strategic points by pro-Russia armed groups, Yanukovich said this was a perfectly "natural reaction to the action of bandits" in Kiev.
But he was adamant that the region, where ethnic Russians are in a majority, should remain part of Ukraine though enjoying broad autonomy.
Yanukovich said he would not ask Russia for military support in dealing with the crisis where he said power had been stolen by "a bunch of radicals".
He said he had spoken by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin after arriving in Russia with the help of "patriotic officers". They had agreed to meet at some point in the future.
Accusing the West of pursuing "irresponsible" policies by patronizing the "Maidan" - the name given to the uprising against his - he said he had trusted in the "decency" of Western ministers when he had signed an agreement in which he made many compromises to end the crisis.
He added he would not take part in the May presidential election fixed by Ukraine's new parliament, declaring it illegal.
(Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Giles Elgood)
- Politics & Government
- Unrest, Conflicts & War
- Viktor Yanukovich