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President Putin Breaks His Silence; Flight 17 Victims Piled into Rail Cars; Deadliest Day in Gaza; John Kerry Headed to the Middle East

Aired July 21, 2014 - 05:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17? This morning, new evidence mounting against Russian separatists, who have refused to hand over the crash scene to investigators.

Overnight, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, breaks his silence on the controversy as families of victims plead for the bodies of their loved ones to be returned. We have live team coverage and all the angles of this big developing story covered for you.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Death and destruction in Gaza. Sunday marking the deadliest day yet in the battle there as Israel pounds more neighborhoods with bombs.

Overnight, the United Nations declaring it is gravely concerned over the escalating violence. The U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, headed to the region right now, attempting to broker some kind of cease-fire. We are live on the ground in Gaza with the very latest.

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

ROMAN: And I'm Christine Romans. It's Monday, July 21st, 5:00 a.m. now on the nose in the East. We welcome all of our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world.

All right. "Grotesque", that's the word Secretary of State John Kerry used to describe the pro-Russian rebels who are removing the bodies of innocent victims from the wreckage of Flight 17. They are piling the corpses into refrigerated rail cars. This is triggering international outrage.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, insisting overnight this disaster should somehow unite the international community, not divide it.

Secretary of State, John Kerry, slamming what he calls the drunken separatists who are controlling the crash site. Those same separatists claiming they have recovered the down jetliner's flight data recorders.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's prime minister blasting Russia for supporting, quote, "the bloody gorillas" who are controlling the crash site.

I want to bring in our senior international correspondent Ivan Watson live from Donetsk, Ukraine.

What's the latest there now four days after this crash, what is the latest on the ground politically and in terms of securing the crash site?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The latest is coming from the Dutch government, which confirms several Dutch forensic experts reached the Torez train station near the crash zone where more than 100 of the victim's bodies are currently being stored in train cars. And they are then expected to travel on later to the crash zone. In the meantime, and I have to add, it is the Netherlands that has suffered the biggest loss in this disaster with more than 100 Dutch citizens who were killed aboard this flight.

In addition, Ukrainian prime minister has announced that a delegation of dozens of international experts have landed at the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, that includes again a number of Dutch experts as well as Germans, Australians, Americans, British experts who are presumably going to be headed also towards the crash zone if the way is clear and safe for them.

To get there, they have to cross front lines as we did going between Ukrainian military check points and separatist checkpoints and fighting does continue to rage to the north of Donetsk -- the city that I'm in right now, a rebel held city. We have heard clashes taking place with the separatists saying that Ukrainian military forces, tanks and armored personnel carriers have tried to advance in the direction of the Donetsk train station here.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian prime minister used very harsh words against the rebels. No surprise since this war has been going on for some three months now, describing how he's been forced to negotiate with what he describes as bastards, to try to get access for investigators and emergency workers to the crash zone.

Take a listen to an excerpt from a press conference he just gave in Kiev.


ARSENIY YATSENYUK, UKRAINIAN PRIME MINISTER: Those who committed this international crime, those responsible will be held accountable and together with the entire international community, we will bring to justice everyone responsible.


WATSON: And we're just hearing now, to remind you, Christine, of the precarious situation here, the rumble of distant artillery. This is still an active conflict zone. People are still dying, including at least two civilians killed in the last day of fighting in the nearby rebel held city of Luhansk.

The rebels deny allegations they shot down Flight MH17. They also have not handed over what they describe as technical devices yet, what could be the flight recorders, the black boxes that are still not in the hands of the Ukrainian government or of international experts four days after Malaysian Air Flight 17 went down -- Christine.

ROMANS: Ivan, how much influence do you think Vladimir Putin has on what happens next here in terms of the rebels and this investigation? I mean, he made that statement overnight, breaking his silence on this, saying that this incident shouldn't be used to divide the international community, but to unite it. But there are many who say it is Vladimir Putin who is dividing the international community.

WATSON: Well, clearly, a number of world leaders believe he does have immense influence over the rebel that controlled this part of eastern Ukraine. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel has made a public appeal for him use that pressure. The Australian prime minister, the Dutch prime minister, as well. They have all lined up to urge Russia to take steps here.

The Australian prime minister saying he's hearing the right words from Vladimir Putin, but it has to be followed up with actions as well.

And as you mentioned, Putin broke his silence Sunday night. He called this a tragic event. He appealed. He said that international experts from the International Civil Aviation Organization should be on the scene coordinating the investigation at the crash site. But he also issued a warning saying that different parties shouldn't be trying to get some kind of political advantage of this tragedy.

When you ask the rebels themselves, hey, are you getting help from Moscow, they are kind of coy about that.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government says, accuses Moscow of arming, training, funding these rebels. And those are accusations that had been backed by the U.S. government, the Australian government now who are all standing by, the Ukrainian government openly accusing the rebels of using Russian supplied surface-to-air missiles to shoot down this airliner on Thursday, charges that the rebels have denied.

ROMANS: All right. Ivan Watson for us, live this morning in Donetsk -- thank you, Ivan.

BERMAN: Two hundred and ninety-eight souls, the majority Dutch, get those bodies out of there. That desperate plea from one Dutch mother, grieving the death of her 23-year-old son and his girlfriend aboard Flight 17, all the family members pleading with the rebels to allow access to the crash site, so many of them -- so many of us sickened by the thoughts of what's being done to their loved ones.

Listen to Drew Ryder of Minnesota trying to stay strong after losing his brother and sister-in-law on Flight 17.


DREW RYDER, BROTHER OF PLANE CRASH VICTIM: It's difficult to lose loved ones. I'm not kidding you that -- in saying that, you know, we are hurting a lot. But we also feel very confident about the fact that we think they are in a better place. We are going to church and it's going to be tough because we're going to have a lot of people. It's not going to do it now. It's very difficult when it becomes personal.


BERMAN: So much of the grieving being done in the Netherlands where they lost so many loved ones on that flight.

Erin McLaughlin joins us now by phone.

Erin, what are you seeing? What are you hearing on the ground there from the families?


Well, this news that a team of forensic experts just arrived in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, Dutch forensic experts, that according to the Dutch foreign ministry. We understand they're going to be checking on the train and they also say that they expect to have no problems in getting access to the crash site later today. It's certainly a welcome development for families of victims here in the Netherlands.

We have been hearing calls of outrage and anger. They are very aware of the media reports coming out of that crash site area of looting and body snatching.

I spoke to one woman yesterday, Silene Fredriks. She lost her son and his girlfriend to MH17. Her son was 23 years old. And they were going on holiday to Bali, a holiday that she purchased the ticket for, to try and help the girlfriend get over the loss of her mother. She had lost her two and a half months ago.

Tremendous stories of tragedy, but she said that she wants to bury her son. She told me that it's her human right. Take a listen to what she had to say.


SILENE FREDRIKS, MOTHER OF CRASH VICTIMS: Mr. Putin, take care of my son and my daughter.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who knows where they are. Who knows where the bodies are. Where did they take them?

FREDRIKS: I can't do nothing but wait for their bodies.

MCLAUGHLIN: Do you have any idea where your son's body and his girlfriend?

FREDRIKS: No idea, I don't even know.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe they took it. Maybe it's there. Maybe it's in one piece, maybe 1,000 pieces.

FREDRIKS: No one knows.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MCLAUGHLIN: One of many stories, one of many families affected here in the Netherlands.

I also spoke to another mother who lost not one, but two sons on board MHh17. She looked at me and said I wish it was me on that plane. Families here very much united in outrage and anger. But there's also this tremendous sense of grief and loss felt in the Netherlands. And they want the bodies to be returned back home as soon as possible -- John.

BERMAN: The families need to be able to grieve the way they should be able to grieve. No one should be going through this.

Erin McLaughlin live for us in Amsterdam, thank you so much.

The flight data recorders obviously could be critical in determining who shot down Flight 17 and the role that Russia may have played in the situation. Pro-Russian separatists have announced they recovered the black boxes, but Ukrainian officials charging the rebels seized them on orders from Russia.

ROMANS: There's been a lot of criticism leveled at Malaysia Airlines for flying over Eastern Ukraine. But top officials of the airlines, they insist that proper international protocol was followed.


HUGH DUNLEAVY, COMMERCIAL DIRECTOR, MALAYSIA AIRLINES: Malaysia Airlines does follow advice from the International Civil Aviation Authority on what are safe corridors to fly and what altitude. We, along with other airlines, have flown that route safely for quite some time. Obviously now that that incident has happened, we will be reassessing that.


ROMANS: Meanwhile, Dutch officials have just announced a team of forensic experts from the Netherlands has arrived at the crash scene as Erin McLaughlin just reported. If that forensic team from Netherlands expects full access.

We want to go to London now and bring in our next guest, former British Airline pilot, aviation consultant, Alastair Rosenschein.

Thank you for joining us.

How important is it to have those Dutch -- those Dutch forensic experts on the scene? We're told they expect to have access to the site later today.

ALASTAIR ROSENSCHEIN, AVIATION CONSULTANT: Well, it's vitally important but it's not just important they are allowed access. They have to have continued access. They also have to secure the crash site. You can't have people tampering with the evidence and taking away bits and bobs to different locations. We know from the past that there will also be souvenir hunters perhaps

amongst the rebels themselves. And all this compromises the investigation into this accident. And I assume it was an accident being shot down seems unlikely it was deliberate.

But the point is, it really is so important that everything there on the ground is left untouched and for the investigators to have free and unfettered access.

BERMAN: We know, unfortunately, four days in, practically, Alastair, already it has not been left untouched. The bodies have been moved. They are now in these refrigerated rail cars in some cases. Some of the debris has been touched and tampered with. We know that there has been some looting already. What has been lost at this point do you think in terms of the investigative possibilities?

ROSENSCHEIN: Well, I mean, the most important part, the copy of the black boxes as they are referred to in the media. And those two items are absolutely critical to any investigation. It is absolutely essential they are returned to the Ukrainian government itself or to the Americans or the British or, you know, another independent nation that is able to analyze them properly.

As for the bodies, they also are part of the investigation. You know, I find it difficult however to overly criticize the collection of the bodies and putting them in bags and moving them to refrigerated units because indeed, if they don't do that, it becomes a far greater problem.


ROSENSCHEIN: So, I would be careful on the criticism that is on the recovery even if it is done by the rebel side.

ROMANS: All right. Alastair, thank you so much for joining us. And, you know, I think there's s so much of the criticism has been not necessarily on the recovery, but it took so many days. And there's no --

BERMAN: There's a lack of transparency. The families are not being taken into account, their needs, their right to dignity for their loved ones.

But Alastair correctly points out, there are many people there on the ground -- locals, you know, miners. They are helping because they need to help and something needs to be done there.

ROMANS: All right. We are following the very latest developments on Flight 17 all morning.

But, first, the deadliest day in Gaza. Israeli increasing its airstrikes. More troops moving in. Americans -- two Americans now among those killed. We are live with what's new overnight right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BERMAN: There's another huge story developing this morning. The deadliest day yet in Gaza, 13 soldiers and as many 96 Palestinians, many of them civilians killed reportedly killed on Sunday.

Two of the casualties on the Israeli side also share American citizenship. Max Steinberg, a native of San Fernando Valley, California, and Sean Carmeli of South Padre Island in Texas.

Secretary of State John Kerry calling for a cease-fire in Gaza as soon as possible. He's on his way to the region right now.

But Israel expanding its offensive. And despite the deaths of innocent Palestinians, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showing no sign of backing down.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: I'm very sad. When I see that, I'm very sad. We are sad for every civilian casualty. They are not intended. This is the difference between us. The Hamas targets civilians and deliberately hides behind civilians.


BERMAN: I want to bring in Karl Penhaul now live inside Gaza, with the developments this morning.

And, Karl, you know, behind you all morning, we've seen more explosions. This conflict only intensifying.

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, John. And what we have to remember, of course, all wars are dirty, but this war is shaping to be dirtier than most. And right now, the casualties that the Gazan militants have inflicted on the Israelis have, for the most part, been soldiers on the Palestinian side. A very different picture, because according to the United Nations figures, between 70 percent and 80 percent of the dead and injured are civilians. And there is no let up in that fight as you say across eastern Gaza.

All morning, we've heard Israeli aircraft pounding positions there. We have heard artillery pounding and we've seen tanks marking positions in some eastern neighborhoods and proceeding to pound them with a barrage of tank fire. We don't know precisely what the targets are.

In general terms, what the Israeli military is doing is looking to shut down what they say are militant tunnels that Hamas has used to borrow into northern Israel and also just -- across the northern border with Israel, I should say, and also across the eastern border to wage war against the Israeli military on its own turf.

So, Hamas is certainly not giving up the fight. And that was clear, also, last night in a statement from the military wing. They are claiming they have now taken prisoners and Israeli soldier. There's no confirmation as yet from the Israeli military on that. But if it proves true, then Hamas will use this soldier as a bargaining chip for both military and political gains, pretty much as they did back in 2006 with the capture of an Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. That deal took more than five years to broker, but ended up with more than 1,000 Palestinians eventually being released from Israeli prisons.

So, we're going to look closely now to see how Israel responds, whether it looks to lower the tone of what it is doing here in Gaza to come to an agreement with Hamas or simply it is going to step up and continue its campaign unabated but certainly a lot going on across in eastern Gaza once again this morning, John.

BERMAN: Karl Penhaul on the ground for us in Gaza -- we do appreciate you being there. Thanks, Karl.

ROMANS: All right. Here in this country, deadly wildfires burning out of control in Washington state. Nearly a million acres torched. We've got 100 -- more than 100 homes destroyed. Will cooler weather bring relief?

Indra Petersons is tracking the latest for us, next.


ROMANS: Here at home, more than 20 wildfires burning across the Pacific Northwest. Nearly 1 million acres in Oregon and Washington state have now burned. More than 150 homes lost in one Washington county. One person died trying to save his home from those flames.

Officials say some 35, 35 hot shot crews are now on the fire lines and they may be getting a break from the weather with cooler temperatures and lighter winds in the forecast.

BERMAN: We want to get an early look at this forecast now with Indra Petersons.

How do things look now, Indra?

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Always a mixed bag. You talk about the temperatures going down. But there's a storm making its way in. When you see that, you still have the threat for more lightning, the dry conditions out there, you have concern of dry lightning fueling even more wildfires.

And another concern in the region is really going to be the smoke. You are talking 1 million acres burned. So, this is a concern. As the winds blow, you talk about all that ash and smoke really reducing the air quality, cross the region. It's a huge concern really over the next several days.

Now, let's talk about what is going on in the Upper Midwest, look at these temperatures. These are the highs without adding in humidity. We're talking about Chicago, 88. Notice places like St. Louis, a high today for about 91.

Let me factor in what we are looking for once you talk about the heat index. Look at these temperatures soaring up above 107 out towards Wichita, Omaha also 107 today. Looking for heat warnings out towards Minneapolis, with the temperatures there soaring over that century mark.

Of course, you talk about temperatures like that, you have the humidity in there, you do have the threat for some of these larger thunderstorms as the low goes through. So, a moderate risk today for some very strong winds, especially kind of going through that Fargo region. It's about a million people there looking for that threat.

The other side of the equation is going to be in the Southeast. The one we told you last week, still here, guys. We are talking a lot of rain heading their direction, another several inches. But this is in addition to what they have already been seeing. Up to the Northeast, the conditions are getting nicer and warmer.

S, a lot of mixed bags going on across the country.

ROMANS: I'll say. All right. Indra, thank you.

A new development in the investigation of downed Malaysian airline Flight 17. Chaos, controversy at the scene there. What Russian President Vladimir Putin is now saying? He's breaking his silence overnight and why families of those on board are so outraged. Live team coverage, next.