MOSCOW (AP) — Hundreds of protesters clashed with police in Kiev and called for the ouster of Ukraine’s president following a botched attempt Tuesday by authorities to arrest Mikheil Saakashvili, a former Georgian president-turned-Ukrainian opposition leader.
The turmoil is just the latest challenge for the Ukrainian government, which has been weakened by months of political infighting and accused of not halting official corruption.
Tuesday’s standoff began when officers of Ukraine’s Security Service, the SBU, went to Saakashvili’s home in Kiev to detain him. Trying to resist the arrest, he climbed onto the roof and threatened to jump off, but SBU agents took him down and put him into a van.
Several hundred protesters then surrounded the vehicle and blocked it from moving. They clashed with police, who unsuccessfully tried to disperse the demonstrators with tear gas.
After a tense standoff that lasted for hours, Saakashvili was freed by his supporters and led them on a march to parliament to demand President Petro Poroshenko’s resignation.
“I will die for Ukraine,” Saakashvili shouted to the crowd. “I owe you my freedom and my life.”
With the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag around his neck, Saakashvili urged Ukrainians to rise against “Poroshenko and his gang.”
“Don’t be afraid, let them fear us!” he shouted.
Saakashvili has won broad popularity in Ukraine with his fiery campaign against official corruption, riding a wave of public frustration over Poroshenko’s failure to uproot endemic graft. He has staged a series of rallies calling for the president’s resignation, but they haven’t produced any visible impact.
Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko claimed on television that his office has evidence that Saakashvili’s representative received $500,000 from Ukrainian businessmen who have ties to Russia to finance the protest.
Saakashvili rejected the accusation, noting the long-running hostility between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin. When he was president of Georgia, Saakashvili made a failed attempt to reclaim control over Georgia’s separatist province of South Ossetia, triggering a five-day war with Russia in 2008. He has repeatedly mentioned Putin’s reported threat to have him hanged.
Saakashvili won quick support from Tuesday other Ukrainian opposition leaders, including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Speaking in parliament, Tymoshenko criticized the SBU’s attempt to arrest Saakashvili as “political terror.”
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