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Fugitive Yanukovich urges Russia's Putin to take firm line over Ukraine

By Denis Pinchuk

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (Reuters) - Viktor Yanukovich urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to take a bolder line with Ukraine's new rulers who had ousted him, telling him on Friday that Russia could not remain indifferent to what had happened in the former Soviet republic.

Appearing in southern Russia where he has taken refuge since fleeing Ukraine on February 21, Yanukovich said: "I think that Russia should act and is obliged to act.

"Knowing Vladimir Putin's personality, I am surprised that he is still saying nothing. Russia cannot be indifferent, cannot be a bystander watching the fate of as close a partner as Ukraine," the 63-year-old Yanukovich said.

"Russia must use all means at its disposal to end the chaos and terror gripping Ukraine," he said, clearly encouraging the Kremlin leader to take a firm tack with the new pro-Europe Ukrainian leadership.

Yanukovich spoke in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, about 200 km (125 miles) from the Ukrainian border, as Ukraine's new rulers grappled with the takeover by pro-Russia armed groups of airports and other strategic points on the Crimean peninsula.

Yanukovich, who fell to a popular uprising against his rule after he pulled out of a trade deal with the European Union, said he would not give up the fight for the country's future.

At a news conference in Rostov, he railed against "nationalist, pro-fascist gangsters" who had forced him out of power and he blamed Western governments for "indulging" protesters seeking his overthrow.

Yanukovich 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, maintained he had been the victim of a coup and 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 new leadership which appointed a new prime minister and cabinet on Thursday and have set a May 25 date for a presidential election.

He also rejected claims that he had operated crooked deals which had drained state coffers saying: "I have never held any foreign bank accounts. All I had was declared. It's empty chatter."

Referring to unrest in 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.

Despite encouraging Putin to take a bold line, 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 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 Philippa Fletcher)

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