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News Wrap: Kiev breaks into violent, fiery battle after weeks of protest standoff

February 18, 2014 at 6:02 PM EST
In our news wrap Tuesday, more than a dozen people were killed in Ukraine’s capital city Kiev, as thousands of police attacked thousands of anti-government protesters, who have been demanding closer ties with the West. Meanwhile, in Iraq, a string of car bombings left 49 people dead and 90 wounded.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The capital of Ukraine erupted in fighting and fire today, with officials reporting more than a dozen people killed. The battle in Kiev stretched into the night, pitting the pro-Russian government against protesters demanding closer ties with the West.

We have a report narrated by James Mates of Independent Television News.

JAMES MATES: For almost three months now, much of Europe has been asking when the Ukrainian authorities would move to clear the demonstrators from Kiev’s main square.

They got their answer tonight. At 8:00 p.m. local time, ranks of riot police, armored vehicle behind them moved in and were met with volleys of petrol bombs and fireworks. The demonstrators had prepared their defenses well, barricade, tires, anti-vehicles. All were quickly ablaze to stop the advancing troops, but stun grenades, rubber bullets and then water cannon all slowly beat down the resistance in their path.

Even before nightfall in Kiev, nine people have died, including two policemen. That toll is now known to be raising with every passing hour. The violence had begun to spiral out of control much earlier in the day, as police lines blocked a march towards the country’s heart.

Even by the standards of the last three months, this was very nasty. A loan piper playing amid the fighting all around may have lifted spirits. But the sight of police marksmen firing what may have been rubber bullets, may have been something worse, was a forewarning that the gloves were coming off.

Inside the country’s parliament, supporters of President Yanukovych were acting with similar high-handedness, physically preventing opposition M.P.s from tabling a motion to debate the country’s constitution. The man who now leads the opposition, former heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko, pleaded with the president to step back from confrontations.

“I am addressing the president,” he said. “In his hands lies all responsibility and authority. Only he can manage the situation.”

There may be no managing this situation. This extraordinary picture has just emerged on YouTube in the last few minutes of a police armored personnel carrier being engulfed in flames as it tried to drive back protesters. A short time ago, reports spoke of 14 dead, six of them police officers. Judging by these pictures, the real figure may yet be much higher.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The White House condemned the violence, saying force will not resolve the crisis.

Protests also turned deadly in Thailand, where at least four people were killed and dozens hurt. Gun battles broke out in Bangkok when riot police tried to clear demonstrators from multiple sites. They have been demanding that the prime minister step down.

Tensions escalated in Venezuela today after an opposition leader was arrested on charges of inciting unrest and violence. Thousands of people flooded the streets, demanding the ouster of socialist President Nicolas Maduro. His supporters staged a counterdemonstration.

In Iraq, a string of car bombings left 49 people dead and 90 wounded. Explosions hit mainly Shiite sections of Baghdad and in and around the Southern city of Hillah. The car bombs left wreckage and burned-out buildings in their wake. A police chief in Hillah blamed an al-Qaida faction that’s taken responsibility for previous attacks.

An Islamist group in Egypt has claimed responsibility for Sunday’s bombing that targeted tourists. The group also warned all tourists to leave Egypt by February 20. Two South Korean tourists and their Egyptian driver died in Sunday’s attack. Officials say a suicide bombing ripped their bus apart near the resort town of Taba.

The U.S. may trade with the Taliban in Afghanistan to win the return of captive Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. He was taken prisoner there in 2009. Now The Washington Post reports, the Obama administration has refreshed a previous offer to release, in exchange, five Taliban militants from the Guantanamo prison.

That drew this response from White House spokesman Jay Carney.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: We are not involved in active negotiations with the Taliban. If negotiations were to resume, we would certainly press the case of Sergeant Bergdahl. In the meantime, we are actively engaged in an effort to see his return. I can’t document every effort, but that includes our military, our intelligence and our diplomatic tools.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In recent months, U.S. officials received new video of Bergdahl in captivity. It apparently showed him in declining health, but not gravely ill.

Formal talks began today on a long-term nuclear deal with Iran. The U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany convened in Vienna with Iranian negotiators. But the Iranians quickly rejected any demand to get rid of nuclear facilities. This round of talks is expected to last three days.

Opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin grabbed some of the spotlight at the Winter Olympics in Sochi today. Two members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, in their trademark ski masks, were detained by police for several hours. They charged that they have been harassed since arriving on Sunday.

NADEZHDA TOLOKONNIKOVA, Pussy Riot (through interpreter): We were constantly stopped by people from various departments, like the police, federal security service, border control officers. We are constantly surrounded by people, not you journalists, but people who are shadowing us, following our every move and looking for any excuse to detain us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The band members already served prison time for an anti-Putin event in 2012. They have urged a boycott of the Winter Games.

As for the competition, a spoiler alert: Tune out for a moment if you don’t want to know results just yet. American David Wise won the gold in the men’s ski halfpipe. The Dutch swept the men’s 10,000-meter speedskating. And Slovenia’s Tina Maze captured the giant slalom. We will talk more about events in Sochi later in the program.

The Winter Olympics may need more snow, but, in Japan, it’s just the opposite. Thousands of people remained cut off today, four days after a major storm. At least 23 people have died. The storm dumped more than three feet of snow across the central part of the country, breaking a century-long record. The military’s been called out to help clear roads and deliver food and supplies.

Winter’s latest blast in the United States blew from the Great Lakes region into New England today. Snowfall ranged from six inches in Western Pennsylvania to 10 inches in Northern New England. For many, it was another day of plowing streets and removing snow from roofs. Others took advantage of yet another day off to get in some recreation.

In economic news, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the president’s plan to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would boost earnings for more than 16 million people. It also estimated that employers would cut half-a-million jobs.

And on Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average lost nearly 24 points to close at 16,130. The Nasdaq rose more than 28 points to close at 4,272.

Canadian-born writer Mavis Gallant, known for her mastery of short stories, died today at her apartment in Paris. She was born in Montreal, started out as a journalist and went on to publish more than 100 short stories. Scores of them appeared in The New Yorker and in collected form. Mavis Gallant was 91 years old.