KYIV -- Hundreds of anticorruption protesters clashed with police in Kyiv, calling for the ouster of Ukaine's president, as authorities launched a manhunt to find protest leader Mikheil Saakashvili after his dramatic escape from police custody.
Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office spokesman Andriy Lysenko said late on December 5 that the authorities ordered the manhunt for the former Georgian president after a chaotic scene in which Saakashvili's supporters freed him from a police van after security forces stormed his apartment and detained him.
Lysenko said in a Facebook post that prosecutors had informed National Police chief Serhiy Knyazev that Saakashvili, who is also the former governor of Ukraine's Odesa region whom the authorities accuse of ties to an "organized crime" group, was a wanted man.
But Saakashvili vowed to continue resisting arrest, saying in an interview with the German Bild tabloid due to be published on December 6 that "the secret service won't manage to detain me."
Following Saakashvili's initial detention on December 5, his supporters surrounded the police van and prevented it from taking him away. After a long standoff, they appeared to force a door of the van open and pull Saakashvili out as officers inside fired pepper spray in the melee.
He then led hundreds of people in a march to parliament and urged Ukrainians to rally on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, the epicenter of Euromaidan protests that pushed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's Russia-friendly predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, from power in 2014.
Speaking to a crowd of a few thousand people outside Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, Saakashvili demanded Poroshenko's resignation, calling him a "criminal" and a "traitor to Ukraine."
"An organized criminal group has seized power in our beloved Ukraine," Saakashvili told the rally. "I call on everyone, every real Ukrainian, to demand his resignation."
Saakashvili urged "all Ukrainians to take to the streets and drive out the thieves" as his supporters clashed with police.
"Do not let lawlessness happen. Do not let chaos happen. Do not let Poroshenko and his gang continue the robbery," he said. "Ukraine is under a real threat. These people have completely usurped power."
At least five people were detained amid clashes between Saakashvili's supporters and authorities, the Interior Ministry said.
Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko, meanwhile, alleged at a briefing that an "organized crime" group led by Yanukovych, who is in exile in Russia, had financed protests organized by Saakashvili.
Lutsenko later issued an ultimatum to Saakashvili, telling lawmakers that, if he did not appear before investigators within 24 hours, "the entire law-enforcement system of Ukraine will do everything necessary" to bring him into custody.
Speaking to RFE/RL before addressing the crowd outside parliament, Saakashvili said the accusations against him were "all fake."
"How in the hell would I know these people? Who are they? It’s fake," he said in English. "It’s all fake.”
Saakashvili again rejected the charges in remarks to supporters, saying "all the accusations against me are cynical and ridiculous."
"There is no more bitter foe of Putin in the world than me, and the accusation that I am linked to Russia is completely absurd," said Saakashvili, who also called for Lutsenko's resignation.
Poroshenko's office issued a statement saying law enforcement had found evidence to back up the accusations against Saakashvili.
"These facts clearly demonstrate the true price of all the political and 'incriminating' statements, which were recently made by Mikheil Saakashvili," it said.
Saakashvili won support from other opposition leaders, however. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, speaking in parliament, criticized the attempt to arrest Saakashvili as "political terror."
Oksana Syroyed of the Self-Reliance Party also denounced the attempted arrest as an action by a "despotic machine."
While Saakashvili was speaking to the demonstrators outside parliament, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv called for "all sides to de-escalate tensions and avoid violence."
"We are monitoring the situation closely and expect any investigation will be conducted expeditiously and in accordance with Ukrainian law," the embassy said in a tweet.
The commotion began shortly after 7 a.m. and was first made public by Saakashvili associate David Sakvarelidze.
"They're breaking down the door at Mikheil Saakashvili's home!" he wrote on Facebook, giving the address and apartment number.
The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) said that Saakashvili’s residence was being searched as part of a criminal inquiry conducted by the Prosecutor-General's Office.
"Investigative procedures are indeed taking place. SBU officers are providing investigative support to a criminal inquiry of the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office,” SBU spokeswoman Olena Hitlyanska told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.
Hitlyanska did not specify the nature of the criminal inquiry, but the SBU later said Saakashvili was accused of "complicity with members of criminal organizations and concealing their activity by providing premises and by other means."
At a news briefing, Lutsenko alleged that Saakashvili had held protests financed by allies of Yanukovych, who was pushed from power by pro-European protests in February 2014 and fled to Russia.
The prosecutor-general said the alleged Yanukovych allies included Serhiy Kurchenko, a businessman who also fled to Russia, and claimed that Saakashvili had received $500,000 in a bank transfer from Russia.
As the search unfolded, live videos shared on social media showed a chaotic and sometimes violent scene outside Saakashvili’s building, steps away from Independence Square.
A shoving match between law enforcement agents and supporters of Saakashvili ensued as the latter tried to push their way into the apartment.
Saakashvili appeared on the roof, and officers quickly seized him and moved him away from the ledge before bringing him out of the building.
Video on Facebook showed dozens of riot police around the apartment building preventing people from entering.
The search of Saakashvili's home was conducted two days after his Movement of New Forces party organized a rally in Kyiv calling for Poroshenko's impeachment and for legislation that would allow it to take place.
Poroshenko has accused the protest organizers of seeking to destabilize Ukraine, which is struggling with economic troubles and a deadly conflict with Russia-backed separatists in two eastern regions.
Saakashvili was swept to power in Georgia's peaceful Rose Revolution in 2003 and served as president of Georgia from 2004-13. He conducted major reforms and fought corruption in the former Soviet republic but was accused of abusing his power and is wanted in his home country on suspicion of trying to organize a coup there after leaving office, an allegation he denies.
In the wake of the Euromaidan protests that brought a pro-Western government to power in Ukraine, Poroshenko appointed Saakashvili -- an acquaintance from university days -- as governor of the Odesa region in 2015. Saakashvili surrendered his Georgian citizenship to take the post.
But Saakashvili resigned in November 2016, saying his reform efforts had been blocked by Poroshenko’s allies, and went into the opposition. Saakashvili was then stripped of Ukrainian citizenship by Poroshenko while he was in the United States in June 2017, a move he is challenging in court.
Weeks later, Saakashvili forced his way back into Ukraine and was found guilty of violating the state border. He paid a fine and has since been touring the country, speaking out against Poroshenko and trying to garner support for his fledgling political party.
Saakashvili has indicated he wants to be Ukraine’s next prime minister, a post that he could theoretically hold as it is a position appointed by the president upon ratification by parliament. With his citizenship status in flux, under current law he is forbidden from officially running for president.
While well-known across Ukraine, Saakashvili and his party enjoy little public support, with nearly all polls putting them at around 1-2 percent.
Saakashvili recently claimed that Poroshenko was planning to force him to flee to another country to avoid extradition to Georgia.
During the rally on December 3, Saakashvili alleged in comments to Georgia’s Rustavi-2 television that Poroshenko and former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili had "agreed that a sentence on trumped-up charges will be quickly issued next week.”
Poroshenko's office has not commented on the allegations or Saakashvili's detention on December 5.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Reuters, AP, UNIAN, dpa, and Ukrayinska Pravda