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The Mystery of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370; Crisis in Ukraine

Aired March 17, 2014 - 05:30   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, breaking news overnight. The search expanding for a missing Malaysian jetliner, missing for more than a week, hundreds of passengers on board. It simply vanished without a trace.

This morning the search for the wreckage, for survivors, for any sign of anything, it intensifies. This mystery just deepens by the second. We are live with every angle in just a moment.

Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. I'm John Berman.

ROSA FLORES, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Rosa Flores. It's 31 minutes past the hour. We're going to go live to Kuala Lumpur, where there is a press conference right now with the latest on this investigation.

As we were saying, we've been getting bits and pieces, John, of this investigation, and we're going to listen in to see what's new this morning.

BERMAN: The minister who also works as the Transportation minister, he's been doling out information about this investigation day by day. Hopefully, any second now, we will get a sense of what is new, what has developed overnight. The search area expanded, 26 countries now involved. They're searching an area all the way north from Kazakhstan in Central Asia down to the South China Sea.

I believe he's starting. Let's listen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have the honorable Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein of Defense, acting minister of transport.

To start our session for the day, I hereby call upon the honorable minister of transport to give a statement.

Honorable Minister, if you please.

DATUK SERI HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, MALAYSIAN TRANSPORTATION MINISTER: During the last 24 hours, the prime minister has spoken to the prime minister of Australia and the premier of China. Malaysia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has sent diplomatic notes to all countries involved in the search-and-rescue operation. This includes two groups. First, countries in the search corridors, and second, countries from which we are seeking assistance and expertise.

For countries in the search corridors, we are requesting radar and satellite information as well as specific assets for the search-and- rescue operation. We are asking them to share their land, sea and aerial search, also action plans, rescue action plans, with the Rescue Coordination Center here in Malaysia so that we can coordinate the search efforts.

We have asked for regular updates, including daily reports on both search activities and details of any information required from Malaysia. We are not at liberty to reveal information from specific countries. As the coordinating authority, we are gathering all information as part of the ongoing search-and-rescue operation.

Ladies and gentlemen, over the past 48 hours, Malaysia has been working on the diplomatic, technical and logistical requirements of the search for MH-370. The number of countries involved in the search-and-rescue operation has increased to 26. Malaysia continues to lead the overall coordination of the search effort.

The southern corridor has been divided into two sections, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization demarcation. These demarcations were agreed by the ICAO, of which Malaysia is a council member, before MH-370 went missing. Australia and Malaysia have agreed to lead search-and-rescue operations in their respected regions as demarcated by ICAO.

Today I can confirm that search-and-rescue operations in the northern and southern corridors have already begun. Countries, including Malaysia, Australia, China, Indonesia, Kazakhstan have already initiated search-and-rescue operations. The Royal Nation Air Force and the Royal Nation Navy have deployed assets to the southern corridor.

Two Malaysian ships have been deployed, the offshore patrol vessels KD Kelantan and KD Selangor. This deployment also includes a Super Lynx helicopter, which can operate from either ship.

Australia has already moved a P-3 Orion aircraft to the region of Cocos and Christmas Islands. And today, the prime minister of Australia confirmed that Australia will send an additional two P-3 Orions and a C-130 Hercules. A US P-8 Poseidon aircraft will be travelling to Perth today to help with the search.

Malaysia has been working with international investigators and aviation authorities since day one. Yesterday, experts from Civil Aviation Administration of China joined the investigations team. Today, officials from the French Office of Investigations and Analysis for the Safety of Civil Aviation also joined the team. These authorities are working with Malaysia Airlines and the DCA to refine data that can help with the search.

On Saturday 8th of March, the Royal Malaysia Police started investigations into all crew members on board MH-370, including the pilot and co-pilot, as well as all ground staff handling the aircraft. On Sunday 9th March, police officers visited the homes of the pilot and the co-pilot. Officers also spoke to the family members of the pilot and the co-pilot. Police visited the homes of the pilot and co-pilot again on Saturday, the 15th March. The pilot's flight simulator was taken from his house with the assistance of his family. The simulator was re-assembled at the police headquarters.

At this point, I would like to stress that Malaysia has been co- operating with the FBI, Interpol and other relevant international law enforcement authorities since day one. I would also like to address the speculation that Malaysia has held back information about the MH- 370's movements.

For the families, I understand that every day prolongs the anguish. I understand because Malaysia, too, is missing its sons and daughters. There were 50 Malaysians on board the plane.

Our priority has always been to find the aircraft. We would not withhold any information that could help. But we also have a responsibility not to release information until it has been verified by the international investigations team.

This responsibility is not only to the families and to the investigation, but also to the search and rescue operation. It would be irresponsible to deploy substantial assets merely on the basis of unverified and uncorroborated information.

As soon as the possibility emerged that the plane had carried out an air turn back to the Straits of Malacca, we expanded our search to that area. I would like to reiterate the U.S. investigating team's statement about that decision based on the information and data given by the Malaysian authorities, the U.S. team was of the view that there were reasonable grounds for the Malaysian authorities to deploy resources to conduct search on the western side of peninsular Malaysia.

As soon as we verified and corroborated the new satellite information as to the possible last known whereabouts of the aircraft, we recalibrated our search efforts to the northern and southern corridors as announced by the prime minister. After my statement we will release a more detailed map of the northern and southern corridors which looks something like these.

Malaysia Airlines has set up operations centers in both Kuala Lumpur and Beijing to care for the families of the crew members and passengers. MAS has allocated each family a caregiver, who will be -- who will be on 24-hour duty. They have sent more than 100 staff and caregivers to Beijing. The airline gives daily briefings to the families. They provide counseling sessions and they contact families that have elected not to come to Malaysia, between two and three times a day.

Ladies and gentlemen, over the past two days, we have been recalibrating the search for MH-370. It remains a significant diplomatic, technical and logistical challenge. Malaysia is encouraged by the progress made during such a short period of time. And we are grateful for the response by the heads of governments that we have spoken to, all of whom have expressed a commitment of assistance.

With support from our many international partners, this new phase of the search is underway. Assets are being deployed and search and rescue operations have begun. And I wish to thank our partners from around the world for their continued support. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Q&A session will start from this corner. Please.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have two questions here. First question is -- (speaking foreign language)

BERMAN: This news conference right now coming from Kuala Lumpur. Obviously, they're answering questions not in English right now, but the minister of transportation and defense did brief in English, revealing some new information, really confirming a lot of the things we knew already.

Some 26 nations now involved with this search. It is an enormous search. He confirmed that the area stretches all the way north from Kazakhstan south into the southern Indian Ocean. He made note of the fact that planes departing from Perth in Australia are now involved in this search. He called it a search-and-rescue operation.

FLORES: And he mentioned that they're both by land and by ocean, so there's a lot of resources that are being pumped into this area. He also mentioned that the prime minister spoke to all of the families, and I believe they're speaking in English again, so we're going to listen in.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: From countries, northern doctor and the southern corridor, especially is there any radar received (INAUDIBLE) and ramp- up costs for China --

BERMAN: Again, they're not speaking in English right now, again. One of the other remarkable things in this news conference so far, the minister of defense right there, also the minister of transportation very, very defensive about criticism that has been levied toward the Malaysians over the course of this investigation.

He's saying that the Malaysians did not hold back information. He claims that their priority has been to find the aircraft from the very beginning, but they said that they would only give out information when it's verified. That was his justification for the sometimes piecemeal or delayed release of some of this information over time.

FLORES: And that was a quote, because I wrote it down. He said, "We would not withhold information." Now one of the other criticisms is that the prime minister going and talking to these families, and he mentioned there in the past 24 hours that the prime minister had talked to some of those families. And I'll quote again, he said, "Every day prolonged is anguish," as they talk about perhaps sharing some of that anguish with the families.

BERMAN: Now he did confirm that investigators have visited the home of both the pilot and the co-pilot, going back on the 15th, this Saturday, and removing the flight simulator from the home of the pilot. That is still in the possession of investigators right now who are presumably still going through it to learn what they can from whatever information is still on it.

FLORES: So many questions, so many moving pieces, and we're going to be back right after this with more.


BERMAN: We have more breaking news this morning. This morning the West preparing sanctions now that Crimea has voted overwhelmingly to split from Ukraine and join Russia. The preliminary result, about 96 percent of voters saying they want to become part of Russian territory, but President Obama, he had a message for Vladimir Putin, calling the Russian president to warn him that the U.S. thinks that vote is illegal. The president continues to insist there will be consequences if Russia accepts these results.

FLORES: The stakes are really high, and joining us right now, CNN political commentator and contributing editor for Atlantic media, Peter Beinart.

And I know that one of the big things that people are talking about is how does it happen? How does Crimea actually disconnect from Ukraine, when the little things that we all take for granted on a day-to-day basis, I'm talking about power, water, communications, come from Ukraine?

PETER BEINART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. I think this is where a lot of the attention are going to focus now. First of all, you have the Ukrainian troops that have been holed up in their barracks for a couple of weeks now. Is the Ukrainian government simply going to bring them out of there? Can they be brought out peacefully? That would be a real humiliation for the government in Kiev, a government of course does not recognize this.

Secondly, I think one thing that people are going to start to recognize over the next few days is that Crimea is not connected to Russia by land. That's part of the reason why Nikita Khrushchev moved it to the Ukraine in the 1950s to begin with. So dislodging it from Ukraine logistically and connecting it to Russia -- there is not even a bridge that connects it to Russia -- is a very, very serious logistical issue in an environment of extreme tension, and I think that's what people are going to have to watch in the next few days.

BERMAN: We keep hearing from the White House, from President Obama that there will be costs to this referendum, costs for Russia. When do you expect that we will see more of these costs? As soon as today? And how high will those costs be?

BEINART: Well, I think the U.S. and the Europeans have to come up with something in the next day or two. Otherwise they look very weak. The problem is, first of all, the Europeans are divided. Secondly, that I think there is still some effort to use the threat of this to try to prevent further incursions into eastern Ukraine.

And also, Russia is a superpower. Not a superpower, but at least a significant power. It's a big country, very economically intertwined with Europe in terms of oil and gas, and it's not easy to isolate it economically. You can't isolate it economically. Plus, we need it on issues like Syria and Iran. So the balance is, try to make Russia pay some price, but we're going to still need to be working with Russia, for better or for worse, on other global issues.

FLORES: Now one of the other questions is, does this stop at Crimea? I know that a lot of Ukrainian Americans are worried about this continuing on to eastern Ukraine.

BEINART: Right. There's been a lot of unrest in some of the cities in eastern Ukraine recently. The question is, what is Russia's end game here? Do they want to topple the government in Kiev? Do they actually want to bring about secession in eastern Ukraine?

Again, that would be a mixed pill for the Russians. On the one hand, you weaken the government of Ukraine. On the other hand, do you really want to control eastern Ukraine? Very, very economically debilitated area. So I think that -- we know what Russia has already achieved is that Ukraine is never going to become part of NATO. The question is, do they really want to go further and actually make sure you have a pro-Russian government in Kiev?

BERMAN: So the United States, President Obama has said the United States will not recognize this referendum in Crimea. Does that matter in any way? Does it have any effective use?

BEINART: I don't think it matters very much. I mean, there are countries that go decades, places that go decades calling themselves countries and are not countries -- considered countries by most of the world, right? So you could have an indefinite period in which we don't recognize this and the Russians consider it a part of Crimea. I think the more important question is, what actually happens on the ground in Crimea and what happens on the ground in eastern Ukraine, and can this government in Kiev, a weak government, under tremendous military and economic pressure, assert itself, legitimize itself so as to be able to hold control over the areas of Ukraine it still controls?

FLORES: And is Russia just testing the waters as to what it can achieve?

BEINART: Right. We know that Vladimir Putin's big goal is to reconstitute a kind of Eurasian sphere under Russian control. It won't be the old borders of the Soviet empire, but to reverse the Russian decline that we've seen since 1989, and he seems well on his way to doing that.

BERMAN: Peter Beinart, an historic morning for everyone in the United States, but especially for the people waking up in Crimea, Ukraine and parts of Russia also. Thanks being here with us.

BEINART: Pleasure.

BERMAN: We really appreciate it. All morning of course we've been following the mystery into the disappearance of Flight 370. There have been developments overnight. We will tell you what they are right after this.


FLORES: Welcome back. It's 56 minutes past the hour.

An important meeting at the White House today between President Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The two will sit down to talk about the Middle East peace process, now seemingly stalled again. The U.S. wants Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a framework for new talks. Abbas has made clear he objects to some of the provisions, including recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

BERMAN: At Ft. Bragg today, a former top army general expected to admit to some charges in his sexual assault court martial. Defense lawyers say that Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair has reached a plea deal with the Army that drops the most serious counts against him and will not require him to register as a sex offender.

Sinclair had been accused by a female captain of forcing her to perform sex acts, but the case ran into trouble in recent days amid questions over whether there was enough evidence to actually prosecute.

FLORES: Pakistan's military may be the beneficiary of U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan at the end of the year. The "Washington Post" says military planners are considering giving Pakistan some $7 billion of armored vehicles and other equipment, giving Pakistan additional tools as it fights the Taliban. It's apparently too expensive to ship them out of -- to ship all of that equipment back to the U.S.

BERMAN: Other news happening now at the Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa, a gun dealer on the stand talking about his dealings with Pistorius as the mother of Reeva Steenkamp makes an appearance in court for the first time in two weeks. She and Pistorius reportedly spoke briefly, despite his facing murder charges for shooting and killing her daughter.

This, days after a former police commander admitted to the mistakes made during the initial investigation, including the theft of a watch from the Pistorius home.

FLORES: Scary moments on a flight from Canada to Mexico, leaving two flight attendants hurt and the plane diverted to Montana. The Sunwing Airlines 737 had to touch down early because of turbulence. No passengers, we should add, were injured, but the two flight attendants were thrown and had to be treated for minor injuries.

BERMAN: And take a look at this picture right now. Delta this morning is investigating what caused this panel to come off the wing of a jet flying from Atlanta to Orlando. The 757 was able to land normally. Airline officials say the loss of the panel did not impact the jet's ability to fly. Still an awfully scary picture. Crews today plan to inspect that plane, give it a thorough going over, you can imagine. It certainly needs it. Good to hear everyone on that flight is safe, though.

FLORES: Yes. Definitely so. And our time is up. Thank you so much for joining us.

NEW DAY starts right now.


DATUK SERI HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, MINISTER OF TRANSPORTATION: Our priority has always been to find the aircraft. We will not withhold any information that could help.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news, new information on the missing Malaysian plane. Could it have flown too low for radar detection across three countries? How low would it have to fly to do that? We'll test the theory.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Here in Kuala Lumpur, investigators searching the homes of the pilots. We have new pictures that may be them the day they boarded the plane as families here are waiting desperately for answers.

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: Also breaking overnight. The votes are in in Ukraine. Residents there saying they want to join Russia. Will the U.S. now sanction top Russian officials?

Plus over night U.S. Navy SEALs stormed a ship, taking it from Libyans carrying illegal cargo. We're live with the very latest.

CUOMO: Your NEW DAY starts right now.