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Malaysian Airlines MH17 Shot Down; Malaysian Officials Hold A Press Conference

Aired July 18, 2014 - 04:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And we do begin with breaking news this morning. A passenger plane shot down over Ukraine, 298 people killed.

Now, the hunt to find those responsible begins. Ukraine blaming pro- Russian militants, Russia blaming Ukraine for the situation.

This morning, live team coverage with new information we are learning about the crash. This morning, possible motives for the crime and the innocent passengers caught in this awful, awful cross fire.

LARA BALDESARRA, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, certainly a lot to tell you about.

Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Lara Baldesarra, in for Christine Romans.

BERMAN: And I am John Berman. It's Friday, July 18th, 4:00 a.m. in the East.

And we begin with the very latest on the attack that brought down Malaysian Flight 17. Wreckage, human remains strewn across miles of Eastern Ukraine. This jet was blown out of the sky by what officials believe was a surface-to-air missile.

An administration source tells CNN that right now, the evidence points to pro-Russian separatists as the suspected attackers. President Obama warning the world is watching as concern grows as the crime scene, the area where this plane was brought down is being compromised.

Our coverage of the crash of Flight 17 begins with senior international correspondent Nic Robertson live from Kiev.

Nic, what's the latest this morning?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The very latest, 121 bodies recovered so far. Ninety-five search and rescue people involved, sent by the government here in Kiev. They say they are using 18 vehicles to get around but they are hampered they say in this recovery effort in the beginning of the investigation by the fact the debris is strewn over such a large area. They also because the government doesn't control the territory there, they also they are being hampered this time by armed separatist groups on the ground.

We have seen evidence that the crime scene, as it's called, has been tampered with. There's a possibility of debris and wreckage being removed. The Ukrainian government says it has already established a committee to begin an investigation that has Malaysia, the Dutch government and the United States have had a hand in getting the committee established, John.

BERMAN: And, Nic, to be clear, there's finger pointer going on in a serious nature. The Ukrainian government says they believe these it was these pro-Russian separatists who shot this plane down.

ROBERTSON: Indeed. The president here and the head of the security chief presented evidence, audio tapes, video tapes they have made that they say are recordings of phone conversations between separatists and what they call their Russian agents. We cannot independently verify these recordings, but they do appear to indicate that the separatists fired at what they thought was a Ukrainian military aircraft. They have shot down at least two in recent days in that same area.

Then, there's a discovery. You can hear it on the audio recordings. No, it's not a military act, it's a civilian. There is civilian bodies discovered, women, children, and civilian effects, suitcases, holiday brochures discovered on the ground.

So, the government here is saying this points very clearly that the separatists were involved. Again, we cannot independently verify those recorded phone conversations, but the government convinced it was pro-Russian separatists that fired at the plane, John.

BERMAN: And it comes at a very dangerous time, a tense time for this region. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, not saying it was the Ukrainians that shot it down says the Ukrainian government bears responsibility. Explain that.

ROBERTSON: Yes, he doesn't say they are responsible for bringing the plane down. He doesn't say that the separatists shot the plane down, either. But he does say that the Ukrainian government, because it reengaged in hostilities with those pro-Russian separatists is somehow responsible for what happened here.

We also know this morning the organization for security corporation in Europe that's had monitoring teams here on the ground since the conflict got under way has a team headed in that area. Those pro- Russian separatists will get the international monitoring team access to the site there. But it continues to be a very tense situation. Monitors from the same group have been held captive by the separatists in the past, John.

BERMAN: Let's hope they can make it to the site, because what we need this morning, Nic, is facts.

Thank you so much, Nic Robertson, for us in Kiev, this morning. We'll check in with you in a bit.

BALDESARRA: Well, what we do have are our witnesses and the people who witnessed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 crashing in the rural area in Eastern Ukraine are describing what they say was a gruesome scene as the Boeing 777 exploded in the sky and everything rained down in bits and pieces, not just the plane itself, but the people inside.

Now, one of the witnesses, freelance journalist Noah Sneider, he described the scene to CNN'S Anderson Cooper.


NOAH SNEIDER, FREELANCE JOURNALIST: My sense is that the rescue crews number one priority right now. Get as many bodies as they can and gather it under the gathering points. Some people are walking straight by them. It's also, you know, keep in mind, it's long grass. Like I said again, a really wide field and finding things like passports.


BERMAN: We are waiting to find out the identities of the 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.

President Obama reacting to the tragedy during an appearance in Delaware.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll offer any assistance we can to help determine what happened and why. As a country, our thoughts and prayers are with all the families and passengers, wherever they call home.


BERMAN: The president has directed Secretary of State John Kerry and the rest of his team to reach out to the countries directly impacted by the downing of Flight 17. The secretary released his own statement saying, quote, "We are horrified by the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. The United States government remains prepared to assist with a credible international investigation anyway we can and we will continue to be in touch with all relevant partners as we seek the facts of what happened." The U.S. joined a host of countries banning flights over Eastern Ukraine.

And this morning, we learned the nationalities of many passengers and crew on board this flight. More than half, 154 were from the Netherlands, some of them believe to be heading to Australia to attend the 20th International AIDS Conference. Forty-five others were from Malaysia, 27 from Australia. So far, we don't have any word of victims from the United States, but, but, 41 of the fatalities and nationalities remain unverified.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, insisting Ukraine is responsible for the attack on Flight 17. The Russian president ordered the top military officials to provide the help needed to shed light on what he calls a criminal act. The Russian leader going on to say, "There's no doubt the country whose territory this happened in bears responsibility. This tragedy would not have happened if there was peace in the country, if military operations had not resumed in the southeast of Ukraine."

BALDESARRA: Well, U.S. officials have already determined the Ukrainian military did not have the ability to launch a missile from pro-Russian region where the attack took place. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the evidence looks pretty clear.


HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: There does seem to be some growing awareness that it probably had to be Russian insurgents. Now, how we determine that will require forensics but then if there is evidence pointing in that direction, the equipment had to have come from Russia.

What more the Russians may or may not have done, we don't know. I read as I was walking in today to talk to you, the Russian stock market has dropped. There's a great deal of concern that not only was a civilian plane shot down, but what this means about the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine and the role Russia is playing.

BERMAN: Let's go to Moscow now and bring in independent Russian analyst Maria Lipman. She joins us by phone.

Maria, thank you so much for joining us.

I want to talk about the statement and actions by the Russian leader Vladimir Putin. He has said the Ukrainian government is responsible for the situation that brought down this plane. However, the Russian leader has not said who pulled the trigger that fired this missile.

What do you make of his words so far? Can you please parse them for us?

MARIA LIPMAN, INDEPENDENT RUSSIAN ANALYST (via telephone): What President Putin implied by saying that the Ukrainian government is responsible, I think, is happened in Ukraine territory. Other than that, I think president Putin is being cautious and would not say who is to blame.

He also had a conversation with President Obama last night, shortly after the crash and he's somewhat blamed Russian officials (INAUDIBLE), he informed President Obama -- apparently, President Obama known about the tragedy before that.

However, this conversation in itself, I think, shows President Putin, right now, is being cautious, is being careful. He knows there are people pointing to Russia as the responsible party and what he says is the Ukrainian government is responsible. It is ridiculous to blame Russia and denies like they have before, that there is any involvement of the Russian military in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.

BALDESARRA: Maria, as someone who's written several books about Putin and the media, I'm very curious to know how Russian television is covering this terrible tragedy right now especially because in Eastern Ukraine, really Russian television is all they are able to get.

LIPMAN: Yes, indeed. Eastern Ukraine only receives Russian television. Ukrainian television is blocked. Russian television, some of the early reaction tried to suggest -- not to make statements, but to suggest that it is the Ukrainian side that's maybe to blame for that focusing on tragic episode many years ago when a passenger jet was hit over the Ukrainian territory and it seemed, at the time, it was a military maneuver that was to blame for that.

And the suggestion that happened before his time, also venturing some of the wildest theories. This is what Russian television did not necessarily citing it but they did not sound credible at all.

BERMAN: While those theories are played and replayed on Russian television, the fact remains, at least according to U.S. officials, that several flights and planes, military transport, cargo planes have been shot down in this region very, very recently, including over the last several days by the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Is there any Russian response to that so far, Maria?

LIPMAN: Well, the Russian respond to what goes on in eastern Ukraine has beamed out. There's a brutal operation by the Ukrainian government, Ukrainian military. And there are people who are referred to as militants or in other ways who are fighting for their cause. Going into detail is not part of the Russian coverage.

However, it is well known that planes have been down several times already during this conflict by the pro-Russian separatists. This, in itself, serves as indirect evidence pointing to pro-Russian separatists as maybe responsible for the tragedy.

BERMAN: Maria Lipman in Moscow for us -- thank you so much, giving us an interesting perspective on the situation going on. We appreciate your time.

In response to the downing of Flight 17, the FAA has now expanded U.S. flight restrictions over Eastern Ukraine.

LIPMAN: Yes, and there are questions about the route Flight 17 pilots took on their way to Kuala Lumpur. Most major airlines have been avoiding that air space for weeks and even months now, because of this fighting below.

BERMAN: Indra Petersons is taking a look at the dangerous air space over the region.

Good morning, Indra.


It's important to know, this was not in a restricted air space for international air space, or the FAA. The original air space included Crimea peninsula and also portions of the Black Sea. But, nonetheless, prior to the conflict, we were seeing about 400 flights going to that border, between eastern Ukraine and Russia. But since the conflict time, only 100 flights were going in this area.

Now, since the downing of the plane yesterday, we have what the FAA expanded the restricted zone. Now, including eastern portions of Ukraine. Just take a look, though, during the actual incident. Many planes were flying in that restricted or non-restrictive air space. They actually had about 21 planes in Eastern Ukraine. So, it was not the only plane there.

Of course, since the downing of the plane, things drastically changed. Two hours after, only six airlines in that region. So, definitely a lot of things are changing and evolving. It would be important to note it was not restricted at the time.

BERMAN: It is now, and I think it will dramatically affect how people look at conflicts in the future and commercial aviation over those conflicts. Indra, thanks so much for that interesting look.

We are going to continue to follow the latest on who shot down Malaysian Flight 17. There are many, many developments and some live events planned over the next several minutes.

But, first, breaking news in Gaza. Israel launching a ground assault. Thousands warned to evacuate. The tanks and troops have moved in. And the violence, it has already turned deadly. We are live in Gaza with the latest on this breaking story, next.


BERMAN: Welcome back.

Breaking news right now: the shooting down of Malaysia airlines flight 17 over Ukraine. You're looking at live pictures now of a news conference in Malaysia. Malaysian officials talking about the downing of this plane and the 198 souls lost on board.

Let's listen right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- in the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines fly this route over Ukraine. European airlines also use the same route, and traverse the same airspace. In the hours before the incident, a number of other passenger aircraft from different carriers used the same route.

There were no last minute instructions given to the pilots of MH17 to change the route of the flight.

Earlier today, Malaysia Airlines released a statement on the aircraft's service record, which showed the aircraft had a clean bill of health. They have also confirmed that all the aircraft's systems were functioning normally. ACARS and the aircraft's transponders were working and transmitting as normal.

So, ladies and gentlemen, before I take your questions, I would like to reiterate Malaysia's condemnation of any attack on innocent civilians; its support for an independent international investigation; and most of all, its sympathies with those affected by this tragedy. MH17 was carrying 298 passengers and crew. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families at what must be an incredibly difficult time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, the floor is now open for session. We will start the questions with the local media first, following by the foreign and international. So -- yes. Could you please identify yourself, your name and agency that you represent?


BERMAN: All right. You have been watching a news conference by Malaysian officials talking about the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Eastern Ukraine. The point that officials there I think wanted to make, Lara, is that the route that this flight was taking was one that was taken by other planes.

European planes had been in that area. I think they're a bit defensive over the questions why this plane was over the war zone to begin with.

BALDESARRA: Absolutely. And I think also, because of what happened with the other Malaysian Airlines flight, he -- the man he did say that this aircraft, all systems were inspected. They were functioning perfectly. The aircraft was given a clean bill of health. Really just emphasizing what we already know that, this plane was shot down.

BERMAN: He condemned what he called an attack on civilians.

When we come back, we'll show you the weapon most likely used to shoot down the plane. And what terrorists, evil doers would have to do to carry out an attack like this.


BALDESARRA: Nearly 300 people killed on board and all killed when the jet liner was brown out of the air over eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian separatists are suspected in the attack. And as Tom Foreman tells us, the surface-to-air missile system apparently used to take down the jet was developed by the Russians.


TOM FOREMAN: If you want to figure out what could have hit the plane, you have to think about the circumstances of the plane at the time. It was about 32,000-33,000 feet in the air over Ukraine. It was about 30 miles away from the Russian border. So, you cannot hit this with a shoulder fired antiaircraft missile. They are not strong enough.

What you need is something much more like this. This is the BUK antimissile system. It's one that is talked about in this case. It is a four-man unit. It has four ready-to-fire missiles on top. It can set up and fire quickly and it can move away after firing quickly. Those missiles have a tremendous amount of power.

Let's bring one in and talk about that. Each one is 16 feet long. We are showing them smaller here to make it fit. It will weigh 1,500 pounds and it has a 154-pound warhead on it. That means 154 pounds of high explosive.

It doesn't have to hit the target, it just get close to it. With electronic guidance systems, it can get very close and in a short period of time, 22 seconds from the time it's radar acquires a target to the time it can be launched.

And look at the speed. It travels at a top speed of 2,684 miles per hour, more than three times the speed of sound. That means even if it were fired from 30 miles away, it could have hit a plane like this in 40 seconds or less. That means people on board would absolutely never ever see it coming.


BERMAN: All right. Our thanks to Tom Foreman for that.

I want to go back to the news conference in Malaysia from government officials. They are talking about the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.

They gave us the nationalities of the passengers that were verified. There are 20 remain to be verified. As of now, they have no knowledge of Americans on board. But again, 20 still remain to be verified.

Let's listen back into the conference.

REPORTER: -- the airline going forward in the future.

UNDENTIFIED MALE: The prime minister contacted the president and prime ministers and they had several discussions. (INAUDIBLE) the ambassadors in Malaysia. So, we will give the support to the next of kin and any assistance to the families by the time this --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That will be a separate issue. I will just focus on MH17.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, the gentleman standing.

REPORTER: John Starks from Channel 4 News in the U.K.

Some airlines have decided to reroute their aircraft around Ukraine. Do you accept, now, that a terrible mistake has been made by allowing MH17 to pass over Ukraine?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As I mentioned many times that this is an approved route by ICAO. Fifteen out of 16 (INAUDIBLE) used this route. They are using this route unless there's other notice. So, all the times, we are not doing any notice on this.


I got two questions. I know you mentioned the route is approved route, but there's a war going on. Do you think it is wise to actually fly that route (ph)? Second question is, do you intent to fly family members over Ukraine?