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Malaysia Airlines Jet Explodes Over Ukraine; Israel Launches Ground Offensive

Aired July 18, 2014 - 05:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

LARA BALDESARRA, CNN ANCHOR: We begin with breaking news as a passenger plane is shot down by terrorists over Ukraine and 298 people are killed.

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

This morning, live team coverage on new information we have been learning about the crash and possible motives for the crime and the innocent passengers who were caught in the crossfire.

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

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm John Berman. A lot going on this morning. It's Friday, July 18. It is 5:00 a.m. in the East.

And we do begin with the very latest on the attack that brought down, that shot down Flight 17. Wreckage, human remains strewn across miles of eastern Ukraine. A Malaysian Airlines jet was blown out of the sky by what officials believe was a surface-to-air missile. An administration source tells CNN that the evidence right now points to pro-Russian separatists as the suspected attackers.

President Obama has been warning that the world is watching as concern grows that the crime scene there is being compromised.

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

Nic, give us a sense of the latest developments this morning.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the very latest from here, emotions running very high. In a statement, the prime minister appeared very emotional, said there should be just this -- I'll delete the expletive here -- but expletive, that should be justice for those responsible for committing this crime.

At this moment, we understand the international monitors are just a couple hours drive away from the crash scene. We have to stress that these are military monitors who've been monitoring the ongoing conflict, they are not international investigators. But they do say they will try to determine when and if they arrive at the scene if they can play a role in handing the black boxes to the Ukrainian government.

So far, pro-Russian separatists say they have control over the black boxes. The Ukrainian government here says they have intercepted phone conversations between pro-Russian separatists and the Russian handlers saying they accidentally shot down this civilian airliner in mistake, thinking it was a Ukrainian military aircraft.

The government here says 121 bodies recovered so far, 95 people representing the government here in this area. We have to stress, again, an area that government doesn't control. They have 95 people searching the area using 18 vehicles. However, they are hampered by the separatist armed groups, hampered by the scale of which -- and the size of the area which this debris is strewn, John.

BERMAN: Who has control of that area is so crucial, Nick, because that is who has control over the investigation. The debris, the black boxes, which could point further to how all this happened. The Ukrainian government says, in addition to the phone calls and the U.S. evidence of radar signals and signals of things being fired into the air. They have what has happened in the last several days with planes being shot down.

ROBERTSON: They do. They point to the fact that three days ago, a Ukrainian army Antonov 26, a transport aircraft, army transport aircraft was shot down in that area. The day after a Ukrainian fighter jet, Sukhoi 25, was shot down in that area. The pilot ejected safely. And another fighter jet, SU-25, again, was shot at as well within the last 48 hours as well.

This, all of this, evidence the government is putting forward phone calls we cannot verify. But all of this is painting a very clear picture of the Ukrainian authority at least that the pro-Russian separatists are responsible. That they are saying they will allow access to international investigators and international teams to get in. But again, they -- the separatists don't come under a unified command and there are many cases over recent months where these international monitors have been taken prisoner and held for days, if not weeks at a time, John.

BERMAN: All right. Nic Robertson live for us in Kiev this morning, thanks so much for the update.

BALDESARRA: Well, we are still waiting to find out the identities of the 283 passengers and crew members on board Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.

Here is how President Obama reacted to the tragedy during his appearance in Delaware.


will offer any assistance we can to help determine what happened and why. And as a country, our thoughts and prayers are with all the families and passengers wherever they call home.


BALDESARRA: The president has directed Secretary of State John Kerry and the rest of his national security team to reach to the countries directly impacted by the downing of Flight 17. Now, Kerry has released a 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.

Now, the U.S. has joined a host of countries now banning flights over eastern Ukraine and this morning, we have learned the nationalities of many of the passengers and crew on board the plane. More than half the passengers, 173 people, they were from the Netherlands. Some of them were believed to be heading to Australia to attend the 20th International AIDS Conference, 44 people were from Malaysia, 27 people were Australians.

Now, so far, there's no word of any of the victims from the United States but 20 of those fatalities do remain unverified.

BERMAN: Meanwhile, Russian leader Vladimir Putin insisting that Ukraine is ultimately responsible for the attack on Flight 17, for creating the situation that allowed it to take place. The Russian president says he has ordered his top military officials to provide all the help needed to shed light on what he does call a criminal act. Mr. Putin going on to say, "There is no doubt that the country on who's territory this terrible tragedy happened bears responsibility." "This tragedy," he says, "would not have happened if there was peace in the country, if military operations had not resumed in the south- east of Ukraine."

BALDESARRA: U.S. officials have already determined the Ukrainian military did not have the ability to launch a missile from the pro- Russian region where the attack took place.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the evidence, though, it 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 some forensics but then, if there is evidence pointing in that direction, the equipment had to come from Russia.

What more the Russians may or may not have done, we don't know. I read as we were 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 that Russia is playing.


BERMAN: All right. Let's bring in Retired Colonel Cedric Leighton. He's a former intelligence officer in the United States Air Force and a former senior service advisor at the joint staff at the Pentagon. He joins us now live via Skype from Qatar.

From an intelligence perspective, Cedric, how problematic is it now that it's the pro-Russian separatists that control this crime scene?

RET. COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, FORMER DEP. DIRECTOR FOR TRAINING, NSA: Well, it's a huge problem, John. I mean, one of the best things we have, of course, is the evidence you pointed out in terms of the phone intercept that the Ukrainians have already revealed to the public.

The other part of it are the -- what we call measurement and signatures intelligence or MASINT type signatures. And that includes the signatures from the rocket itself, from the missile itself, that downed -- allegedly downed the aircraft. But, in terms of physical evidence, not having access to the crash site can severely impede the investigation not only from an intelligence perspective, but also from a crash reconstruction perspective and that's a significant issue.

BALDESARRA: Now, U.S. officials, they do tell CNN that Ukraine did not have the capability in the immediate, in the region, let alone the motivation to shoot down this plane. But is it at all possible that they might have had weaponry that the U.S. is not aware of?

LEIGHTON: Well, I think, Lara, we have a very good idea what the Ukrainians have in their inventory. Two reasons, we have been examining that region for quite some time now, ever since before the end of the Cold War. The other part of it is that the Ukrainians have shared a lot of what they have in terms of their inventory not only with us, but with the European powers and the OSCE.

So, I think we have a very good idea of what they have. What is as risk, though, is the fact that there could always be a rogue operator involved. There's the possibility there may be a piece of equipment such as a BUK missile system that was moved from one location from the other, and we may not be aware of that movement. That is a certain risk we have in terms of determining exact origin and exact knowledge of where this missile was fired from.

But 90 percent chance is that we have a very good understanding of where it came from. The question now will be, walk it back and make sure we have the exact geographic co-ordinates where the missile was launched from. And when we have that and we have a better ability to understand who actually did the launching.

BALDESARRA: I have a question about the missile itself. Is it possible that when such a missile is launched, it can be aiming at one target, let's say, like a transport plane, but then it hones into a larger target such as a passenger plane? LEIGHTON: Yes. It's theoretically possible, especially if the

planes are flying at similar altitudes and in close proximity to each other. So, because these missiles known by the NATO code name of SA- 11 and SA-17, are basically heat-seeking missiles. It is possible that they could be targeted in one area and moved over to and automatically moved to the bigger, more heat emanating target.

But if that's the case, it's fairly rare. And there's no indication there were two aircraft in close proximity to each other, at least not at this time.

BERMAN: It may be more likely, in fact, the people shooting didn't have the training or didn't have the knowledge of what they were shooting at and thought they were shooting at one thing and, of course, it ended up being a tragic, criminal mistake.

LEIGHTON: Absolutely. And one of the key things in a war environment is everybody is on a hair trigger. The adrenaline is pumping. They are looking at how to actually score another kill in the vernacular of the military. And that's the mind set that you are dealing with.

And because you are dealing with that kind of mindset, the mistakes are going to happen. We had a similar incident involving the U.S. Navy when we shot down the Iran air jet back in 1988. It was flying from Tehran and Dubai. And when that happened, big mistake was made by the U.S. Navy, all because they misidentified the Iran air jet as an Iranian F-14 fighter.

A lot of difference in flight characteristics and that misidentification that should not have happened. But because it did, it happened because the U.S. forces were engaged with the Iranians in an active shooting war at that time. And that can lead to big mistakes and people aren't thinking about the fact that commercial airliners are flying over their territory when they're engaged in conflict like this.

BERMAN: Yes, the mistakes no solace to the families of the 298 people on board that flight.

Colonel Cedric Leighton, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

I think really important insight there and perspective.

For the second time now in four months, the Malaysian government and its people, they are reeling from the loss of the passenger jet. That country's prime minister vowing to find out precisely what happened there and bringing the attackers to justice. He is demanding international investigators have full access to the crash site.

I want to bring in Andrew Stevens who's live right now for us in Kuala Lumpur.

You were at a news conference held by Malaysian officials there. There were a lot of questions they were facing about why this plane was on this route to begin with.

ANDREW STEVENS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. A lot of questions considering that there have been many carriers in this region who have actually changed the route because of safety concerns. Now, the Malaysians are -- they are saying 15 of the 16 carriers in this region are using that route or have used the route and they continually described it as safe and approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO.

Now, this is their defense, that they were told it was safe. So, they said if it was good enough for ICAO, it is good enough for them.

Having said, there was -- the questions here, John, repeatedly came back to why did you put the passengers at risk? Is this your responsibility for what happened? They denied all that. They kept on coming back to the fact that this was a safe and approved route.

They also made it quite clear that the investigation here is going to be handled by the Ukrainians. That's under international protocol. So, they will be contributing to that.

But as you say, John, the second air disaster, tragic air disaster in just five months -- shock and grief are words you hear here in the Malaysian capital a lot. So, 239 people are still missing from flight MH-370. Now, another 44 Malaysians on MH Flight 17 went down with that plane.

So, there is counseling going on here. They have learned lessons on how to handle the release of information. Also, how to handle the grieving process and counseling the next of kin here. It's going to be a very, very difficult next few days, John.

BERMAN: Devastating to have twin tragedies like this in just a few months.

Andrew Stevens, thanks so much for that report. Appreciate it.

BALDESARRA: And we will be continuing to follow the very latest on who did shot down that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 throughout the morning.

But, first, we do have breaking news in Gaza, as Israel is launching a ground assault. Thousands have been warned to evacuate as tanks and troops have move in. And the violence is already turning deadline.

We are live in Gaza with the very latest this morning, and it's coming up right after the break.


BERMAN: Another big story breaking this morning.

Israel launching ground invasion into Gaza. The Israeli army confirming this morning that one of its soldier has been killed, along with nearly a dozen Palestinians. The tanks rolling into the northern -- over the northern border of Gaza after 10 days of aerial bombardments against targets from Hamas.

Our Karl Penhaul is live from Gaza City this morning.

Karl, give us a sense of what is going on and what you are seeing.

KARL PENHAUL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, well, a new phase of the Israeli campaign is now more than 12 hours old. It is a combined operation. There's been intense bombardment of the Gaza Strip, to the north, to the east, and to the south, from the air, from the sea and from the ground. Artillery pieces on the eastern border, we saw those pounding positions in eastern Gaza. At one point, we saw a daisy chain of what appeared to be cannon or artillery fire firing positions into eastern Gaza.

Now, what the Israeli military says is that they want to push across into the border as they have done, both with infantry troops and with armored units, to try to shut down Hamas militant tunnels because the Hamas militants have been trying to infiltrate Israel, tunneling through Israel and carry out actions there. That is what this phase of the fight is about right now.

Overnight, Israel says it has managed to detect more Hamas rocket launchers and destroy those targets that they weren't able to destroy previously from the air.

But, of course, the civilian population is right in the firing line. And according to Palestinian health ministry officials, they gave an updated figure just a few moments ago. And in the hours since this Israeli offensive started, the death toll spans at 24 people killed and 200 more wounded. That gives an overall total since this offensive began more than ten days ago now of 260 people killed, more than 2,000 wounded.

Now, the key figure there, the U.N. says that 70 percent to 80 percent of the casualties are civilians. And we, ourselves, yesterday evening saw that. We watched from our bureau window, as Israeli air fire went into a building, about 300 yards from where we were. And the toll from that strike, another three children killed, women and children among the dead here.

Israelis, though, this morning, are pushing ahead. We have been hearing airstrikes. We have been hearing artillery throughout the morning. That seems as if it's going to be the picture to come until the Israelis achieve their objectives shutting down Hamas tunnels and silencing their rockets.

Back to you, John and Lara.

BERMAN: All right. Karl Penhaul for us in Gaza right now, where Israeli troops are on the ground. Thanks, Karl.

We are going to get back to the other breaking stories this morning Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 shot down over Ukraine. The new warnings and why other airlines had been avoiding this dangerous path for months. That's ahead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: In response to the bombing of Flight 17, the FAA has expanded U.S. flight restrictions over eastern Ukraine.

BALDESARRA: Yes. And there are certainly questions this morning about the route Flight 17 pilots took on their way to Kuala Lumpur. Now, most major airlines, they have been avoiding that air space because of the fighting.

Now, luckily for us, Indra Petersons is here to take a closer look at this very dangerous flight path.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Really diving into a little bit closer as to why this flight path changed yesterday. Remember, there are a lot of reasons that flight paths do change. One of them can be weather.

Notice the typical flight path farther down to the south, but the path they took yesterday is about 200 miles to the north.

Now, let's take a little bit a closer look. The reason for this is actually because there was rain in the region. So, what we were looking at with some thunderstorms in that region. So, typically, they fly farther down to the south. Right the day before, they flew right in that middle zone, and then yesterday, they flew there, 200 miles to the north.

Now, I find this even more interesting because what you want to consider it is rain that brought it further to the north. But if you look at the FAA guideline, the flight path they typically took, the one that was farther to the south, that would have been more dangerous. Only now have they actually expanded the restrictions to include the flight path area that they did take yesterday.

So, remember, Malaysia Airlines does not have to follow the FAA regulations. But, regardless, that was actually considered a safer area by the FAA. The one thing to show, though, is there were 21 other planes in the region. Not to say there were no planes there right now, because right now Russian airlines as well as private jets were flying in what is that FAA restricted air space.

BALDESARRA: Indra, it's incredible to think they wouldn't move these flight paths at an earlier time. They would just not have them fly over areas that are so dangerous.

PETERSONS: And that safer area may be just mistaken identity.

BALDESARRA: Exactly. All right. Thank you very much.

Well, lots of new information about the deadly crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 coming in overnight and we will be bringing it to you with live team coverage. That is all coming up next.