Safe in Russia, defiant ousted President Viktor Yanukovych insists he is still Ukraine’s leader

63-year-old blamed the West for 'indulging' protesters seeking his overthrow

Appearing in public for the first time since he fled from Ukraine to Russia, the ousted President Viktor Yanukovych said yesterday that he remained his country’s legitimate leader, and would not give up the fight for its future.

Speaking in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, Mr Yanukovych told reporters he had been forced to flee by “nationalist, pro-fascist gangsters” and blamed 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 over a week ago, which was brokered by the EU 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. He said protesters angered by the death toll from demonstrations against his government instead shouted down the agreement on Kiev’s Independence Square, and he fled for his life.

Mr Yanukovych 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 elite 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 were in Ukraine I would bow before everyone,” he said.

Mr Yanukovych told reporters that he is still the legally elected President and is ready to return to Ukraine – but only when his safety is guaranteed. 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 25 May 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, Mr Yanukovych 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.

Mr Yanukovych said he would not ask Russia for military support in dealing with the crisis in which, he said, power had been stolen by “a bunch of radicals”. He said he had spoken by telephone with the Russian President Vladimir Putin after arriving in Russia with the help of “patriotic officers” and they had agreed to meet at some point in the future.

He added he would not take part in the May presidential election fixed by Ukraine’s new parliament, declaring it illegal.