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News Wrap: Kiev protesters targeted by snipers in deadliest day of Ukraine violence

February 20, 2014 at 6:02 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In Ukraine’s capital city, the standoff between police and protesters exploded into mayhem.

A doctor working with the protesters reported at least 70 people dead and 500 wounded today in Kiev.

We have a report from James Mates of Independent Television News.

And a warning: Some of the images may be disturbing.

JAMES MATES: No one wants to call what’s happening in central Kiev a war, but it’s beginning to look very like one.

As riot police began to redeploy around the city’s central square early this morning, protesters moved forward to fill the empty space. And from that moment, all hell broke loose. For a while, it was hand-to-hand fighting, then headlong retreat, and then the normal vocabulary of riot control or violent protest became redundant.

There was suddenly no restraint. They were shooting, and shooting to kill. This extraordinary footage is of protesters coming under sustained and highly accurate sniper fire. Makeshift shields were beyond useless against live rounds, as one by one they were picked off.

Pictures shot from the other side show police with high-powered rifles methodically taking aim and shooting at targets along the street. Victims were dragged away, some clearly terribly wounded. It’s impossible to know how badly.

There is no evidence from these pictures that any of those shot were armed. At one end of Independence Square, we found a priest giving the last rites to rows of victims, all killed in the previous hour. There were 10 of them. We obviously can’t show you the pictures, but I saw for myself that most had been shot in the head or neck.

At the opposite end of the square, the reception area of the Hotel Ukraine had been transformed into a makeshift field hospital and temporary morgue. Here, another 11 bodies were laid out under sheets. The doctors told us of the scene that had confronted them this morning.

What sort of wounds were they…

OLGA BOHOMOLETS: Directly to neck, heart, and lungs, and eyes.

JAMES MATES: So, you’re sure these were snipers?

OLGA BOHOMOLETS: I’m sure that these snipers are very professional, because they don’t give chance for us to save life for these 13 people who are laying here.

JAMES MATES: In the course of the morning’s fighting, at least 12 riot police have been surrounded and captured by protesters in the square, then given safe passage through the crowd as a priest led them away. There are, though, conflicting reports as to whether they’re still being held hostage tonight.

The sight of so many of their friends being shot in cold blood has only stiffened the determination of the men behind the barricades, tired and dirty after days of fighting.

This is the new front line on ground that just a few hours ago was held by the police. They have thrown this up just this morning. The key point about it is that, if the police attack, they torch it, tires, wooden pallets. It will all make an enormous burning barricade.

There are talks going on, but both sides in this battle now have the look of people preparing to fight to the finish.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Washington, the White House said President Obama discussed the situation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel by telephone.

Spokesman Josh Earnest said the president has not made a decision yet about new sanctions against Ukraine, but is not considering military action.

JOSH EARNEST, White House Press Secretary: When making a decision about sanctions, it can’t just be a knee-jerk reaction. It’s important for us to consider the range of consequences that could ensue from applying some sanctions. So — but, again, we’re — there is a sense of urgency that is being felt because of the terrible violence that we saw overnight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Later, Vice President Biden spoke by phone with Ukrainian President Yanukovych, in the latest of a series of conversations they have had this week. The European Union, for its part, agreed to impose sanctions on Ukraine’s government at an emergency meeting in Brussels. We will focus on the diplomatic efforts right after the news summary.

Iran and six world powers, including the U.S., wrapped up their opening round of nuclear talks today in Vienna. Both sides said they’re hoping to reach a final agreement that sets limits on Iran’s nuclear program. They agreed to hold further negotiations beginning March 17. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, sounded optimistic.

CATHERINE ASHTON, Foreign Policy Chief, European Union: We have had three very productive days during which we have identified all of the issues we need to address in reaching a comprehensive and final agreement. There is a lot to do. It won’t be easy, but we have made a good start.

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, Foreign Minister, Iran (through interpreter): The atmosphere of the talks was very serious, but generally all the parties who were present at the talks agreed that it was a little more positive than expected.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In a related development, the U.N.’s nuclear agency reported that Iran’s stockpile of higher-grade enriched uranium has dropped substantially under an initial agreement reached last year.

A select few North and South Korean families were reunited today at a North Korean resort after six decades apart. Brothers, sisters, spouses and other relatives embraced and cried after years with no contact. They traded photos of relatives who couldn’t attend or had died. Many are now in their 80s and 90s, and this could be their last chance to see each other. These were the first such reunions in three years.

In London, the former editor of the now defunct News of the World was acquitted today on one charge in a phone hacking trial. But Rebekah Brooks took the stand to defend herself against four other charges. She denied knowing that her staffers eavesdropped on voice-mails of celebrities, politicians and crime victims.

At the Winter Olympics in Russia, a Ukrainian alpine skier pulled out of her final event, the slalom, in support of the protests in her homeland. Bogdana Matsotska said she wanted to return home immediately to join the crowds in Kiev.

BOGDANA MATSOTSKA, Ukrainian Olympic ski team (through interpreter): My friends are there, people I know, close friends of mine. To go on the start line when people are dying and when the authorities broke the main rule of the Olympic competition, which is peace, I simply cannot do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As for the day’s competition, a spoiler alert: Tune out for a moment if you don’t want to know results just yet.

In women’s hockey, Canada beat the U.S. 3-2 in overtime to win its fourth consecutive Olympic gold. Russian figure skater Adelina Sotnikova claimed gold in front of the home crowd. And American Maddie Bowman won the women’s free ski half-pipe.

A report out today challenges the U.S. military’s efforts to prevent psychological problems in its ranks. The Institutes of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, concludes that there’s no proof that the efforts actually work. The report says — quote — “A majority of the Pentagon’s resilience, prevention and reintegration programs are not consistently based on evidence.”  It also finds that programs are evaluated infrequently or inadequately.

Flu season has been milder than last year, but it is hitting young and middle-aged adults harder than usual. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today those who are 18 to 64 account for two-thirds of all cases, twice the norm. They also make up more than 60 percent of flu-related deaths. It may be due partly to a surge in swine flu, which tends to affect that age group the most.

New surveys out today raised concerns about the global economy. Chinese manufacturing declined for a second month, while European industrial activity remained slow. But Wall Street rallied anyway on word that U.S. manufacturing growth is the best in nearly four years. The Dow Jones industrial average gained more than 92 points to close at 16,133. The Nasdaq rose 29 points to close at 4,267.