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Still Searching for Ferry Survivors; Russia to Follow Geneva Pact on Ukraine Pull Out; Crucial Phase for Search of Flight 370

Aired April 19, 2014 - 16:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: You are in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Jim Sciutto, in today for Don Lemon. Thank you for joining us.

Right now we are tracking four major stories happening all over the world. In South Korea the death toll climbs as more than bodies are recovered from that sunken ferry. The captain of the doomed ship gives his version of events after being charged for abandoning his ship before all the passengers were off.

In Yemen, what could be a big hit against Al Qaeda. A drone strike reportedly kills at least 10 suspected Al Qaeda militants. A source tells CNN three well-known operatives are among the dead.

In Ukraine, the mission to avoid an all-out civil war there as Russia, the Ukraine, the U.S. and EU signed a pact to help ease tensions but will that deal hold up? A live report in just a moment.

And the hunt for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is entering a crucial phase. The Bluefin 21 underwater drone will finish scanning the search zone within five to seven days. After that the entire search operation may need a reboot. You'll hear the options being considered. That is all coming up.

But we begin in the Yellow Sea off the coast of South Korea. The ferry that capsized four days ago is no longer poking above the water. Large floating bags mark its location. Despite pumping air into the hull, the ship continues to slip deeper and deeper beneath the waves with hundreds of teenage victims still trapped inside. The death toll now stands at 36.

Divers recovered three more bodies. Family members are providing DNA samples to help with identification. The captain and two crew members now face numerous criminal charges including abandoning ship, negligence and causing bodily harm. The captain was one of the 174 people rescued in the very first hours of this tragedy after being arrested and charged, he appeared in handcuffs to offer his explanation of events.




SCIUTTO: A tearful confession there for the anxious families on shore, the ordeal of recovering their loved ones is agonizingly slow. Our Kyung Lah joins us now from the port city of Jindo.

Kyung, you still hear of a rescue being attempted here. The ship's now under the waves. I know they've been pumping air in there. Is there any realistic reason given to family members that there might still be victims alive inside that ferry?

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They're not willing to go beyond saying that they are still trying to find survivors, in part think about who they are talking to. They are talking to hundreds of parents whose children are trapped underneath that vessel. And so what we're seeing here is an absolute continued 24-hour search operation. We can actually see the night flares being shot into the sky, Jim.

They are about 12 miles away from where I'm standing here at this port. You can see them being shot up. That they are still trying to access this ship. But the conditions here are extremely rough. The water, very cold. About 50 degrees. The ship is completely submerged. Divers have been trying to access the various cabins. They did - after a full day of trying, they did manage to break through one of the cabins with an ax and pull out three more bodies. It is very grim here. Those bodies are returning right nearby where these parents are waiting and then they have to be identified. It's extraordinarily difficult both at the search site as well as here at this port, Jim.

SCIUTTO: A really difficult balance between maintaining hope and of course, not raising unrealistic expectations I imagine. We've seen those pictures of these giant sea cranes on the scene, there to begin lifting and moving the ferry but they haven't started yet. Is there any word on when that might begin and why are they waiting?

LAH: Well, the parents haven't decided if they should be used and part of it is the parents aren't sure if moving to the crane officially turns this into a recovery operation. One of the South Korean divers actually spoke yesterday and what he was saying is that they need the cranes. They need some of the pressure inside the ship to be alleviated, because even if there are survivors on the vessel, on the sunken vessel, that they can't get to them because of the amount of pressure on the windows so they want this vessel to be lifted.

But the process of the cranes trying to lift something that's 6,000 tons, it is not a simple or fast process. So, the parents here, they actually are taking votes on whether or not these cranes should be used. Right now it's split down 50/50. Jim?

SCIUTTO: And they are leaving it up to the parents to decide when those cranes are used?

LAH: They're actually trying to ask the parents whether or not these cranes should be used.

SCIUTTO: I see. LAH: What we're seeing now is more of a give-and-take between the government as well as the parents and we even saw this yesterday when the Coast Guard came out and they were briefing the parents directly. Because one of the biggest complaints here the parents have felt the government is holding back information and not talking to them enough and not trying hard enough to get to the children.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Gosh, similar frustrations to the search for the Malaysian Airlines flight. Thanks very much, Kyung Lah in Jindo, South Korea.

A U.S. drone strike appears to have hit its target in Yemen today. Yemenis defense ministry officials tell CNN three well-known Al Qaeda operatives are among 10 suspected militants killed in that strike. Officials say the drone hit a pickup truck carrying the militants, three civilians in a separate truck were also killed.

The hit follows video evidence of the largest and most dangerous gathering of Al Qaeda in years. The U.S. is the only country known to have conducted drone strikes in Yemen. Coming up, I'm going to be speaking to Christopher Hill. He is the former ambassador to Iraq about the significance of this particular strike.

And now to Ukraine where the war of words between Kiev, Russia and the west continues to heat up. We're two days into an international pact designed to ease tensions in Ukraine but so far there is little indication that any progress has been made on the ground. Pro-Russian separatists are rejecting calls to leave the public buildings they seized in cities across eastern Ukraine. They also refuse to lay down their arms.

The eastern region remains locked in a stalemate as 40,000 Russian troops wait near the border. Russian President Vladimir Putin will not recall his troops saying they are there due to Ukraine's political instability. And he said today his government plans to give awards to the Russian troops who took part in supporting Crimea's self-defense forces last month.

This news just in to CNN - a western official confirms the U.S. will conduct military exercises in Eastern Europe. I spoke to this western official just a few moments ago. About 150 soldiers will take place in operations in Poland, one in Poland, another 150 soldiers in Estonia, about the size of a company.

These exercises will take place in the coming weeks as part of a continuing operation, in other words, they will be rotated in and out on a continuing basis. The operation directly tied to what's happening now in Ukraine. It's meant to be a show of force and a show of the west's and America's commitment to its NATO allies that border Ukraine including Poland and Estonia.

I want to go now to get the latest on the ground in Ukraine. CNN's Frederik Pleitgen is live there now. Fred, you know, one of the key elements of this pact is for these separatists, militants, to depart and disarm. We haven't seen any evidence of that yet. Are you expecting that to happen soon? Are they waiting for word from Moscow to do that?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly at this point, Jim, there's absolutely no indication that they plan to leave those occupied buildings anytime soon. In fact, what they're doing is they're making counter demands to that Geneva communique that was reached. First of all, they said they don't feel bound by that communique whatsoever. Then, they've come forward now and they've said they want the government here in Kiev, the interim government to resign because they say that government is not legitimate at all.

The other thing that they've also said is that they demand what they call nationalist groups like the right sector for instance disarm as well before they would give up their weapons. So at this point in time it seems as though the communique is in a lot of trouble. It seems there are different interpretations as to what it actually means, whether you ask the Russians or whether you ask the Ukrainians and then of course, there are those people who are occupying those buildings who simply are not playing ball at all.

The government here in Kiev is actually trying to deescalate the situation. One of the things it's done over the Easter holidays, I'm actually standing in front of one of the oldest churches in Kiev, over the Easter holidays they called for a truce, a one-sided truce. They said they're not going to conduct any military operations. They want things to settle a little bit but that's not something that is also been mirrored by those people who are occupying those buildings that in the east of the country, they called for no such truce. But certainly the government in Kiev is trying to deescalate the situation. But at this point, they are not getting very much in return from those people who are occupying those building in the east of the country. Jim.

SCIUTTO: And the U.S. and the west now threatening new sanctions if this agreement isn't acted on in the next several days. Thanks very much, Fred Pleitgen. He's in Ukraine.

Coming up, I'm going to talk to the former U.S. ambassador Christopher Hill about these rising tensions in Ukraine and prospects for ending them.

The Bluefin 21 is scouring the floor of the Indian Ocean searching for any sign of flight 370 but only for another five to seven days. Then what? We'll have a live report from Perth, next.


SCIUTTO: Right now the hunt for Malaysian Airlines flight 370 is an extremely critical phase. We've learned about a key deadline, the Bluefin 21 underwater drone will finish its search mission in five to seven days. Experts have shrunk the search area to focus the mission more.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The narrowing of the search for today and tomorrow is at a very critical juncture. (END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: So, here is the bottom line - if the Bluefin 21 comes up empty next week, it will be time for all search crews hunting for flight 370 to stop, regroup and reconsider the whole search operation may need a reboot at that stage.

So, I want to bring in CNN's Erin McLaughlin. She is at the search base in Perth, Australia. Erin, as we heard, as we hear this news, is it good news, in other words, is it that they have greater confidence that they are close to finding it or is it if they don't find it in the next week or so that they believe they're looking in the wrong place?

ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jim. As far as we know there's no new information, no new data that they're using. What they are doing right now is they're zeroing in on the area of the second ping. The second acoustic detection that occurred on April 8 and lasted some 13 minutes, it was the strongest signal acquired by that toad pinger locator of the four pings that it had detected.

What they are searching right now is a six-mile or 10 kilometer radius around that area. And according to my math so far they've searched some 42 percent of it. And Australian officials telling CNN that they'll finish the rest in another five to seven days, but that's if the Bluefin 21 performs as it should and if the weather holds.

Now, at the end of that, as you mentioned, they're going to have to figure out next steps if they so far have no sign of missing Malaysian Flight 370. But that being said, at the moment the focus very much being on the task at hand. This is the area where they believe based on a very limited information that they have that this is the most likely place that they will find the black box and it is critical that they either be able to rule it in or rule it out in their search, Jim?

SCIUTTO: It sounds like we're going to know something in the next week, either they'll close or they got a lot more work to do. Thanks very much to Erin McLaughlin. We'll be speaking to Erin in the next hour.

Does a strong new Al Qaeda video signal a new round of plotting by Al Qaeda? We're going to explore that right after this break.


SCIUTTO: Welcome back. I'm Jim Sciutto in New York.

Pro-Russian separatists are digging in this weekend refusing to give up control of government buildings they seized in eastern Ukraine. Their defiance contradicts a deal that Russia agreed to in Geneva this week calling on the armed groups to vacate the buildings and set down their weapons.

Meanwhile, there's new information this hour about a potential U.S. military role in the region. Let's talk about this increasingly tense situation with Christopher Hill. He's former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, now the dean of international studies at the University of Denver.

Ambassador Hill, thanks so much for joining us. We reported just a few moments ago that the U.S. is going to start military exercises in Poland and Estonia. NATO allies, of course, bordering Ukraine, they're relatively small in nature, about a company each, 150 each, but I'm told by this western official that they're meant to be rotational. In other words, they won't be a one-off. How significant a show of support for NATO allies in the region do you think this is?

CHRISTOPHER HILL, FMR. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: I think this is very important. It's not so much important for deterring the Russians. I don't think the Russians are going to attack Poland again, but I think it's very important for the Polish people to know that membership in NATO really means an attack on them, it's an attack on all, and that they can count on our support.

And, you know, this goes back 75 years in September when Britain and France had an agreement with the Poles and when the Germans attacked them, they dutifully declared war on Germany, but nothing happened. So, I think it's very important as reassurance to these members of NATO on the eastern flank.

SCIUTTO: Now, looking at this deal that was negotiated in Geneva, it's already been two, three days now. Those pro-Russian separatists which U.S. officials say are operating under orders from Moscow. They are not freelancing as Moscow claims, they've refused to put down their arms. Why is that happening? And do you expect that that will change in the coming days?

HILL: You know, this is very reminiscent of some of the things that went on in the Balkans. Milosevic, the Serbian president was certainly the instigator of a lot of this. but once you instigate this stuff you don't necessarily have minute-by-minute control. So there's no question the Russians started this dance. There's no question that they have the greatest leverage in bringing it to an end, but I think there's a question whether they can stop it on a dime.

So I think we're quite right to be pushing the Russian government on this, with the understanding that things may - that some of the people in Donesk and elsewhere may be kind of feeling their oats and may be doing things on their own. So, we'll have to see in the next couple of days what this really means. I mean I think the Russians understood when they signed something, they took on some responsibility for trying to end it.

But it may not be that easy for them, and, of course, I think one has to allow for the fact that they've been pretty cynical about this kind of thing in the past and they could be doing that again.

SCIUTTO: Fair question, because I was going to ask you, is it your sense that Moscow is trying to control them and cannot or that Moscow is dragging its feet on complying with this deal?

HILL: You know, as often in these situations, it's a little bit or I should say a lot of both. So, I think the Russians have been about as cynical in their handling of Ukraine as you can imagine. I mean, listening to the U.N. security council discussion a few nights ago and hearing the Russian ambassador say things like they should get on the telephone, I mean, he knows better than that. So, I think they really handled this very cynically. However - however - and, you know, having gone through this in the Balkans, I know that people who use these nationalist symbols which is what Putin is doing and which is what Milosevic did often find, they get dragged a little along with the events themselves.

SCIUTTO: And now a new round of sanctions hanging over Russia's head, at least threatened by the U.S. and the west if this deal doesn't, they didn't complied within 20 days.

Thanks very much, Ambassador Hill. Please stick around because we're going to bring you back after this break for your thoughts on this strike on Al Qaeda in Yemen. Stay with us. We're going to look at a strike that's claimed to kill several senior militants of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula right after this.


SCIUTTO: Now let's turn to the U.S. drone attack in Yemen. Yemeni defense officials tell CNN 10 well-known Al Qaeda operatives are among 10 suspected militants killed in the strike. The hit follows video evidence of the largest and most dangerous gathering of Al Qaeda in years in Yemen.

Back with me now former ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill. Looking at this attack and there are a number of attacks that happened and you have Yemeni officials at least claiming several of those killed here were senior members. How significant is this strike appear to you, at least in the early stages?

HILL: Well, first of all, we've done this before, we'll do this again. I don't think it's significant in and of itself. I mean we'll have to get a sense of how many senior people we were able to get. But I think there is a significance about its timing, that is, Al Qaeda just brazenly has this meeting and then a couple of days later the U.S. goes after some of their senior leaders and presumably with some success.

So, I think it shows two things - one, this war on terrorism is not over and, two, we are pursuing it vigorously. And for people who look for differences between the Bush administration and the Obama administration, they shouldn't look in this area because I think both administrations have been very vigorous about going after these people.

SCIUTTO: No question. Interesting you made that connection. So, you think that there was a bit of a message here after something of an embarrassment, right, with this video that we're seeing now on the screen showing this meeting that took place, something to show a sign of strength after that embarrassment?

HILL: Possibly. But, you know, these are often targets of opportunity. Often they're events that have followed months and months of surveillance. So, I'm not in a position to say they were trying to make a statement. But certainly a statement was made and heard.

SCIUTTO: Now, just one brief question before I let you go. It also just to remind our viewers Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has its targets set on the U.S., its eyes set on the U.S., a sign this is still a serious threat.

HILL: It is a serious threat. They do have their - they are set on the U.S., but don't forget, of course, there's a broader sectarian conflict going on in the middle east, Al Qaeda being an extremist Sunni, you know, outlier has been responsible for killing more Shia than Americans. So, there's a big sectarian dimension to this.

SCIUTTO: Well, thanks very much, Ambassador Hill. I'm Jim Sciutto. CNN NEWSROOM continues at the top of the hour. Right now, stay here for Sanjay Gupta.