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Terror in Nigeria as Militants Slaughter Hundreds; Is Putin Trying to Solve the Crisis in Ukraine?; New Arrest in Deadly Ferry Disaster; Pistorius on Trial

Aired May 8, 2014 - 04:30   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Terror in Nigeria. Islamic militants slaughtering hundreds of villagers in the streets weeks after hundreds of young girls are abducted from their schools. Those girls threatened to be sold on the human market. Now, a desperate hunt to find those children and bring their captors to justice.

A team of U.S. experts now on the way, but is this enough and could it already be too late? We are live in Nigeria with the very latest.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, could Russia's president be trying to actually solve the crisis in Ukraine? Interesting. This as deadly battles rage on the streets between soldiers and pro-Russian separatists.

Vladimir Putin offering the country some advice about their upcoming election. The question now is why? We're live.

ROMANS: Breaking news this morning: a new arrest in the deadly South Korean ferry disaster and who police say is responsible could surprise you. We are live with the latest developments.

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. About 30 minutes past the hour right now.

We are learning more this morning about a brazen, new attack by terrorists in Nigeria. They're already holding hundreds of kidnapped girls hostage, threatening to sell them into sexual slavery, and now comes word that Boko Haram fighters went after a northern village, slaughtering at least 150 people. This is the very place where the military was staging part of its effort to find the girls.

Our Vladimir Duthiers is live in Abuja, Nigeria.

Vlad, what can you tell us about this latest attack?

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, classic Boko Haram tactic. Dressed in military fatigues, they came in with armored personnel carriers, with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, set fire to the market, hacked people to death, burned people alive. At least 150 people killed. The state senator we spoke to says the numbers may rise to almost 300 people.

And as you said, this is in the area where just three weeks ago, 276 young girls were abducted in the middle of the night from their dormitory by Boko Haram. This has been the campaign of terror that the people in the northeastern part of this country have been living under since 2009 and the rise of Boko Haram, John.

BERMAN: And this is happening while the whole world is watching, Vlad, really in an unprecedented way. There are more eyes on what's going on internally in Nigeria than ever before. For this group to be able to pull this off now seems stunning.

DUTHIERS: You know, it's incredible because a lot of people are saying to themselves, for the first time in a very long time, the entire world is watching what is going on in Nigeria, but this has been consistent since 2009. This is -- you know, Boko Haram just this year alone, these numbers are staggering for audiences in the United States, but 1,500 people in this country have been killed in the first three months of this year alone in Boko Haram-related violence.

And when you let that number sink in, 1,500 people, it's astounding. Any other country in the world would be at a standstill. It's only now that the world is starting to take notice at what exactly the people in northeastern Nigeria are living under.

As one of the parents we spoke to a few days ago, who has two daughters that have been abducted by Boko Haram, told me they feel absolutely neglected, not only by the world, but specifically by their government, John.

BERMAN: And it's happening every day, every week in that country.

All right. Vladimir Duthiers in Nigeria for us -- thanks so much.

ROMANS: Incredible.

All right. Now to Ukraine and statements from Russian President Vladimir Putin that have many people asking, could the nation be on the road back from the brink? Putin calling on pro-Russian separatists to hold off on a referendum to declare their independence, and he's claiming his troops have pulled back from the border, something NATO says so far doesn't appear to be true.

Let's get the view on the ground.

Senior international correspondent Arwa Damon is live for us this morning in Donetsk.

Arwa, you witnessed firsthand some of the fighting yesterday. What are you seeing now?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it seems to be fairly quiet, comparatively speaking, but these lulls in the violence that we see tend to be misleading. With regards to that referendum, the reaction on the ground here one of surprise at President Putin's comments but also caveated with the fact that they do most certainly respect what he thinks and they do respect Moscow's position.

That being said, the self-declared mayor of Donetsk, where we are right now, is expected to be holding a meeting/press conference, probably within the next half hour, a vote as to whether or not they should move ahead with the referendum. In Luhansk, another hotspot, people there saying that as of now, they are still continuing with their preparations for that referendum, but they are going to be holding a vote as well.

One has to go back to what happened after the Geneva talks took place, where we would have expected to see these various buildings evacuated by the pro-Russian camp. That most certainly did not happen. And back then, when the question was posed to the pro-Russian camp's leaders, they said, look, we weren't at the negotiating table. We have a friend in Russia.

Yes, we do believe that Russia will come to our assistance if we need it, but Russia does not negotiate on our behalf, so we're going to have to wait and see if President Putin's comments do actually lead to some sort of action on the ground here that could potentially ease the tensions, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Arwa Damon for us this morning in Donetsk, thanks.

BERMAN: A lot of political maneuvering happening in Washington right now. The House today set to take a significant vote, deciding whether to create a special committee to investigate the Benghazi attacks and whether the White House tried to cover up what really happened there at the diplomatic compound back in 2012.

U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other State Department employees died in that attack. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insists the administration has been truthful.


HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Despite all of the hearings, all of the information that's been provided, some choose not to be satisfied and choose to continue to move forward. That's their choice, and I do not believe there is any reason for it to continue in this way.


BERMAN: Democrats are pushing for a no vote, calling the idea of a select committee a partisan witch hunt. Republicans say it's necessary to find out what really happened there.

ROMANS: Contempt of Congress, the new charge now officially leveled at a former top IRS official. The House voting to hold Lois Lerner in contempt for refusing to testify about the targeting of conservative groups. She's appeared several times before the House Oversight Committee but took the Fifth, refused to answer questions. Republicans say it's part of a pattern that they have an obligation to investigate. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Who's been fired over the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS? No one that I'm aware of. Who's gone to jail for violating the law?

When is the administration going to tell the American people the truth? They've not told them the truth about Benghazi. They have not told them the truth about the IRS. They have not told the truth about Fast and Furious.

Now, only one would have to guess, if they're not willing to tell the American people the truth, it must not be very pretty.


ROMANS: Lerner's contempt charge will now be referred to federal prosecutors. It's unclear if any further action will be taken after that.

BERMAN: Big changes could be coming to the NSA. The House moving ahead with a measure to stop the spy agency from collecting bulk phone call data. The Judiciary Committee advanced its bill unanimously, and if approved, it would only allow the NSA to gather data about a suspect and their close contacts with court approval. The House Intelligence Committee is set to consider a similar bill today.

ROMANS: Public operations are suspended today at the U.S. embassy in Yemen. The State Department closing the doors to that embassy as officials tell CNN there is credible information of a threat against Western interests in Yemen. This is nearly a year after about 20 diplomatic posts were shut down over similar fears.

Coming up in our next hour, we're going to speak with Mohammed Jamjoom about this threat and why it has officials in Yemen and Washington so worried.

BERMAN: In Washington this morning, many other places, too, there will be a lot of people poring over Monica Lewinsky's tell-all essay in "Vanity Fair." The full version gets posted to the magazine's Web site today. We already know many of the details. She says that her affair with the president was consensual, though she does say she was taken advantage of by her boss.

She says she's breaking her silence now to, in her words, reclaim her narrative. There are some people who don't buy that explanation. One of them, the wife of the former vice president, Lynne Cheney. Listen to what she says.


LYNNE CHENEY, WIFE OF FORMER VP DICK CHENEY: I really wonder if this isn't an effort on the Clintons' part to get that story out of the way. Would "Vanity Fair" publish anything about Monica Lewinsky that Hillary Clinton didn't want in "Vanity Fair"?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's very interesting. I love this theory.


BERMAN: Interesting, indeed.

An effort by the Clintons to get it out of the way. The Clintons calling up Monica Lewinsky.

"Vanity Fair" says this is not the case. The magazine's PR head was asked, told the "Washington Post," quote, "Seriously?" The magazine hits newsstands next week.

ROMANS: All right. Breaking news overnight, a new arrest in the deadly South Korean ferry disaster suggesting a scandal much bigger than a one-time mistake. We're live next.


ROMANS: This morning, there are major, new developments in the investigation into a capsized ferry in South Korea. Authorities there have now arrested the CEO of the company that operated that ship, charging him with death by negligence, this as divers draw closer to ending their search for those victims.

Paula Hancocks is live in Hong Kong with the details.

And, Paula, I mean, on its surface, it sounds like this is a case of profit over safety.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Christine, and the revelations coming out today are just going to anger the country more. South Koreans are furious that this could happen in their country, and as you say, profits have been put before the lives of many of their citizens.

Now, his name is Kim Han-sik. He is behind bars. He is the head of the ferry company that owned and operated the Sewol ship that sunk more than three weeks ago.

And he has actually appeared in front of reporters this Thursday and he basically said victims of the Sewol ferry and their bereaved families, "I am sorry, I am sorry. I have committed a crime that can only be paid back with my life."

He has said this before. It is unlikely to console any of the bereaved families. Remember, there are 35 passengers who have yet to be found. They are still in those frigid waters of the Yellow Sea.

Now, he has been arrested. We know that four of his employees have been indicted over the past couple of weeks. The company's offices have been raided.

And the reason for this, investigators have told CNN that there was too much cargo on the ship when it sank. They said that more than twice the limit of cargo was put on that ship and it was not an isolated event. Since March of last year when this route actually started, more than 50 percent of the ferry trips they had too much cargo on board, and it was simply to make profit. The investigators tell CNN that they made almost $3 million in profit. And this, they believe, was causing the capsizing of the ship.

So, this is the focus of the investigators. And we know that the government now has decided to revoke the operation licenses, unsurprisingly, of this operator of this ferry company, not just for the one route, which is what would normally be expected in South Korea, but for all of their routes. They say that there are serious business faults and practices within the company as a whole, and they have decided to revoke those operating licenses.

So, this will just add to the anger that is felt across the country that this should not have happened -- Christine.

ROMANS: Should not have happened. Profit over safety. Just a national tragedy.

Paula, thank you for that.

BERMAN: Happening right now: severe storms tearing through this country. We will tell you where there is danger of tornadoes touching down this morning. That's coming up next.


BERMAN: Happening today here in New York. Abu Hamza al-Masri is due back on the stand in his terror trial. The fiery British cleric has already testified about moving to Britain from Egypt, working as a bouncer and strip club manager and eventually growing more religious. Al-Masri is accused of inspiring 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, aiding terrorists in Yemen and trying to set up a terror training camp in Oregon. He has pleaded not guilty.

ROMANS: Lawyers for Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are asking a judge to throw out statements he made to the FBI in the days after being captured, saying they're client was wounded, he was on painkillers, he didn't have an attorney present, even though they say he asked for one.

In a series of new filings, the lawyers also say the judge should take the death penalty off the table and declare it unconstitutional, citing recent botched executions in Ohio and Oklahoma. The trial is scheduled for November.

BERMAN: While this is happening, an art student accused of a bomb hoax at this year's Boston marathon has been found competent to stand trial. Twenty-five-year-old Kayvon Edson was arrested last month near the marathon finish line. He was allegedly carrying a backpack with a rice cooker inside. He was allegedly shouting.

Edson is charged with possession of a hoax explosive, making threats and disorderly conduct. He could face up to 20 years in prison, if convicted.

ROMANS: Officials now say there doesn't appear to have been a threat against the first daughters when a man drove through the White House gates earlier this week following a motorcade carrying Sasha and Malia Obama. A Secret Service source tells CNN 55-year-old Matthew Evan Goldstein was confused by unfamiliar traffic patterns and he panicked, thinking he was following traffic, but instead, he was driving on to the White House grounds.


ROMANS: Goldstein is an IRS employee. He is charged with unlawful entry.

BERMAN: This morning, Colorado's marijuana industry is a step closer to having a safe place to put its money. This is a big deal.


BERMAN: Lawmakers have approved the use of financial cooperatives if the Federal Reserve agrees. Now, many banks have refused to take money from pot sellers, saying it's just too difficult to comply with federal guidelines, and the industry instead has been dealing mostly in cash, a lot of it, just cash in drawers. Think of the dangers there. This bill now heads to the governor's desk.

ROMANS: You can do a brisk business in Colorado selling big safes, because that's what they've been literally putting drugs and cash, in the safe.

All right. New questions this morning about a deadly fire at a Florida mansion owned by former tennis star James Blake. Investigators now say the fire was intentionally set. The remains of four bodies, two adults and two teenagers, were found at the scene. None have been identified, but Blake reportedly rents the home to a family who were unaccounted for. The sheriff's office says two of the deceased appear to have suffered upper body trauma.

BERMAN: Deeply troubling story there.

Now, to your weather. There is danger today for millions of people. Severe thunderstorms expected to move east, likely causing big problems from Texas all the way up to the Great Lakes.

ROMANS: The impact already seen in Colorado, where tornadoes touching down about 150 miles east of Denver. Two funnel clouds were spotted. Luckily, no damage was reported. These storms are bringing big hail, too. Hail on the seventh of May, a few inches piled up on the ground.

BERMAN: There's some winter weather in Wyoming as well. Look at pictures from Casper -- 5 inches of snow falling there. Tornadoes also reported in that area.

ROMANS: Kansas this morning cleaning up from high winds that knocked over a train.

BERMAN: Really?

ROMANS: Uh huh. Look, the winds blew that train right off the tracks. Gusts north of Wichita topped 60 miles an hour. Damage in that area said to be widespread, a lot of windows blown out.

BERMAN: We've been talking about weather in Wichita.

ROMANS: I know.

BERMAN: Today's forecast, more possible thunderstorms, maybe even tornadoes. Our Chad Myers has the latest on that and the rest of today's weather -- Chad.


Not such a nice day across the Northeast today -- 57 for the high in New York City with clouds, a couple showers around. You are north of the warm front. South of the warm front is where it's hot, right along this red zone is where there will be severe weather today, even a couple of tornadoes possible.

Not a huge outbreak, but one area up here that we could see some tornadoes and another down across parts of Oklahoma. Another severe fire threat day for today across the southern plains, as the dry air rips out of the mountains. Relative humidity across parts of west Texas yesterday was like 5 percent and the winds were blowing at 50. So, if something catches on fire, it's going to burn for a while, 84 Chicago, 85 in Memphis.

For tomorrow, the severe weather moves a little bit farther to the east. Showers all the way across the Deep South. Still some rain in the Rockies. And you still don't warm up in the Northeast for tomorrow afternoon, a high of only 60 in the city, whereas 83 in D.C.

It's where that front is just between you and D.C. and Baltimore, and that's keeping the cool air into Boston and in the city, across all of New England, and the warm air well down to the South. High tomorrow in L.A., right the same as today, high of 69.

John, Christine, back to you.

ROMANS: All right. Happening now. Thanks for that, Chad.

An Olympic athlete in court right now accused of killing his girlfriend. We're live, next.


BERMAN: Happening now at the Oscar Pistorius trial, an expert on the witness stand for the defense testifying about Reeva Steenkamp's final hours before Oscar Pistorius shot and killed her.

CNN legal analyst Kelly Phelps is live at the courthouse in Pretoria.

And, Kelly, you know, this morning's testimony seems to be fairly technical. What's the idea here?

KELLY PHELPS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, it is technical. We're speaking now about the evidence that we heard early in the trial around what we call gastric emptying. So, in other words, how long it takes food to essentially exit the stomach.

Now, in the state's case, the postmortem had suggested that one could read off her stomach contents that she had eaten, they suggested, about two hours before she died. That would materially contradict what Pistorius' version of events, where he had said they had eaten dinner at 7:00 p.m. and had been asleep by that stage.

So, the defense has now put their own gastric emptying expert on the stand, and she is speaking about the imprecise nature of this area of medical science and has argued that any findings based off it would be wholly speculative in nature, thereby trying to undermine this conclusion that the state sought to draw from the gastric emptying evidence.

BERMAN: Oscar Pistorius himself on the stand, the prosecution was withering and aggressive in its attacks. How are they now when they have the more technical experts testifying?

PHELPS: Well, in fact, with the technical experts, we start to see some glimmer of Nel's aggression come back, and this has been in stark contrast to Nel the rest of this week when we were dealing with lay witnesses and the neighbors, for example. And I think the explanation for that is partly due to the fact that the lay witnesses, the neighbors were actually originally state witnesses.

So, Nel was very familiar with their evidence and he would have had very few gaps and holes to exploit and essentially, therefore, kept it short and to the point. Whereas with the expert evidence, we can see him dueling with the expert, trying very hard to reassert the prominence of their expert evidence.

BERMAN: All right. Kelly Phelps for us live in Pretoria watching this trial for us, really in its final stages. Appreciate it.

ROMANS: All right. EARLY START continues right now.