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Rebels Surrender Flight 17 Black Boxes; Flight 17 Bodies Arrive in Kharkiv; Gaza Violence: Push for Peace

Aired July 22, 2014 - 04:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news this morning. Black boxes and bodies of victims handed over from the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 crash scene. Pro-Russian rebels cooperating with international investigators.

But days now, days after the tragedy, has there been a cover up at the crime scene? And will evidence lead investigators to Russian president, Vladimir Putin?

We've got live team coverage on all the angles of this developing story.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: A push for peace in Gaza this morning as the death toll skyrockets from more air strikes and stepped up ground invasion. Secretary of State John Kerry hopes now to broker a deal. But is that even possible?

We are live with what's happening right now.

Welcome back to EARLY START. A lot going on today. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. It's 30 minute past the our. We welcome our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world this morning.

All right. The black boxes from Flight 17 have finally been turned over by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. A crucial development from investigators trying to determine who fired the missile that blew the Boeing 777 out of the sky, killing nearly 300 people on board.

President Obama is still not satisfied investigators are getting the full access they need at the crash scene.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Unfortunately, the Russian-backed separatists who control the area continue to block the investigation. They have repeatedly prevented international investigators from gaining full access to the wreckage. As investigators approached, they fired their weapons into the air. The separatists are removing evidence from the crash site. All of which begs the question, what exactly are they trying to hide?


ROMANS: Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin distancing himself from the rebels. Listen to his ambassador to the U.N. He's trying to suggest the downing of Flight 17 was nothing more than a mistake.


VITALY CHURKIN, RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: According to them, the people from the east were seeing that they shot down a military jet. So, if there was -- if they shot down a military, there was confusion. If there was confusion, it was not an act of terrorism.


ROMANS: And while Moscow keeps up the spin campaign, blaming Ukraine and the West for the tragedy, the fighting continues, just miles from the Flight 17 wreckage.

Let's bring in Ivan Watson. He's live from Donetsk this morning.

And it bears repeating, Ivan. You were in the war zone. I mean, this is -- this is an international crime scene happening in the middle of a war.

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely true. With residents here in this separatist controlled city that I'm in right now called Donetsk, describing shelling continuing throughout the night in the northern edges of the city and throughout the day on Monday, we just kind of heard the constant rumble of artillery and witnessed, saw some civilian neighborhoods, residential neighborhoods that were hit by artillery that appeared to have come from Ukrainian government military positions with eyewitnesses telling us that several civilians were killed as a result of what looked like indiscriminate shelling that clearly raised fear among the population here, which is greatly diminished.

I have to say that this city is largely empty at this time. It does not look like a normal city. The streets largely empty, not many people in the streets. And we saw terrified people bidding farewell to their children, their wives, sending them on the train to Moscow, clearly out of the war zone and to safety on Monday.

And it just again underscores the complicated situation here. For example, the train that is carrying the bodies of more than 200 victims of the flight has to cross front lines from rebel-controlled territory today to Ukrainian government controlled territory. And that just underscores how complicated this whole process, the investigation, the recovery effort has been. This is an active and deadly war zone -- Christine.

ROMANS: It sure is, Ivan. Does it feel as though it's changed, though, that now you are seeing more cooperation? That for four or five days of just confusion, does it feel as though now with the trains leaving, with the black boxes turned over, Ivan, that there's a new page here?

WATSON: Well, governments whose citizens died aboard the plane have welcomed some of these positive steps. I spoke with the spokesman for the OSCE international monitors here. He says access improved to the crash site.

The pre-dawn ceremony we saw today where the leader of the separatists here in Donetsk handed over the flight recorders to a Malaysian delegation. At that ceremony, the self-declared prime minister said, "See, his is a sign that we're cooperating", and he once again denied they had anything to do with bringing down the plane.

But it also called into question the credibility of the rebels, because the devices have clearly on the sides of them, written in English, flight recorder. And up until Sunday night, the rebel leader was claiming, yes, we have taken objects but we don't have the technical expertise to recognize whether or not they actually are the flight recorders. Well, it's kind of written in plain English on the side of these devices, and kinds of games like that help lead to the accusations that there's some kind of cover up or at the very least that the rebels are not being transparent when it comes to the investigation period of this terrible disaster -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Ivan Watson -- thanks, Ivan.

You know, John, every time I hear prime minister, self-declared prime minister, I want to put quotes around prime minister. Prime minister suggests the functioning government and, you know, elected leaders -- and that's not what happened.

BERMAN: No, not a lot of people in Ukraine proper call his prime minister, though. It is interesting, the Malaysian leader in making the deal for the black boxes did. So, the pro-Russian leader did get something of a diplomatic coup there.

The long journey home is finally underway for the victims who died on Flight 17 as Ivan mentioned. Trains carrying their remains pulling out of Donetsk last night, headed for the Ukrainian controlled city Kharkiv. Once there, the bodies will be flown to the Netherlands. And for the families who lost loved ones, there's still no end to the pain and anger.


RONALD SCHANSMAN, GRANDSON KILLED ON FLIGHT 17: I am very angry about the whole situation. I'm not only angry with the rebellion group (ph), but also this Ukraine government who had been too weak after three months not to be able to silence the rebellion. I hope President Obama finds a way to punish the responsible people for this hideous act.


BERMAN: You know, I can report this just in to CNN, that a team on the ground in Kharkiv has witnessed now the refrigerated train carrying the bodies from MH17 arriving in the rail station there. So, that leg of the journey, at least for one of the trains, does seem to be complete. That will be welcome news to the families of those in the Netherlands, where we find Erin McLaughlin now live in Amsterdam.

Good morning, Erin.


A development will be welcome to the families in the Netherlands. So many of them had told me that they want the bodies of their loved ones so they can bury them with dignity and respect.

Now, I'm here outside Schiphol airport, just meters away from where the victims of MH17 checked in.

And let me give you just a sense of the scene here. There's a makeshift memorial that is growing by the hour. As you can see, people have been taking pictures, leaving flowers and candles. Children have been leaving drawings and toys. There's a condolence book over that they have been signing.

People have been leaving notes. And one reads, we cannot comprehend how this could have happened. We share your deep anguish and despair. We pray for those who have passed to another place.

Now, I spoke to the Calehr family, they lost two boys to MH17. And the mother and the grandmother told me how they are struggling to come to terms with this tragedy.


YASMINE CALEHR, VICTIMS' GRANDMOTHER: Everybody is crying. Everybody is losing something that belonged to them. But, we feel like we have lost ourselves as well.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why didn't they take my life? They still young. They still have a future. Why the children? Why not me?


MCLAUGHLIN: The prime minister said it is this country's priority to identify the victims, repatriates the bodies. Once the bodies have arrived at the train station in Kharkiv, they will be then loaded into coffins and placed onto planes, brought back here for that identification process before being returned to the family so they can be buried with dignity and respect.

BERMAN: Erin, it's so important to remember there are 298 stories, the victims with no role in this conflict lost their lives. And those families now all mourning.

Erin McLaughlin live for us in Amsterdam -- thanks.

ROMANS: Breaking news, 282 bodies from Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 have just arrived in Ukrainian controlled city of Kharkiv. Nick Paton Walsh joining us live on the phone from that location.

Nick, what can you tell us?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, Christine, just in the last half and hour, a train has arrived here at 6:08 (INAUDIBLE), one of them very (IANUDIBLE) down the side, clarifying that it has traveled here from the Donetsk area (INAUDIBLE).

Very few will be said by the men traveling with the train. But it seems the local police will be friendly with them, so we can assume that perhaps (INAUDIBLE) traveling with this train are in fact some separatist militants too.

Now, we understand the train, the doors of which have been sealed by construction gel to keep a sense of privacy to those kept inside. It is now moving away from the station, back down in fact (INAUDIBLE) people are trying to assess part of the processes, the extraordinary complex process that this train is going to have to go through.

(INANUDIBLE) nearly 300 bodies from the journey to the plane which will eventually carry them back to the Netherlands. We understand from a Dutch official here, part of the team has flown in to try to assist with the very sad (INAUDIBLE) and complicated task of taking these bodies and moving them to the airport and eventually back to Netherlands so they can be buried.

We understand the train has been taken to a closed military territory where the bodies will be taken off, placed into coffins and taken to an airfield, possibly the main airport here where they're going to be flown out of the country.

This happens very quickly. There are some suggestions by the end of the day, the Russians point out the complex task simply moving this number of coffins. This journey, the train has had extraordinarily tragic and sad for those relatives of the victims of the crash actually onboard the train. At least one part has ended and the train is now clearly as we can see, outside the separatist territory, and much closer if not in the hands of Ukrainian government -- Christine.

ROMANS: Certainly a complicated process and something we have never seen before. I mean, just complicated and just tragic.

Thank you, Nick.

BERMAN: Those rail cars rolling, seven hours from Donetsk to Kharkiv. And our Nick Paton Walsh on the scene, the first Western reporter who report that the rail car has arrived.

As the investigation unfolds now into who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, all eyes on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Will evidence at the scene link him to the crime? Will he break and admit some culpability (INAUDIBLE) pro-Russian rebels? We'll discuss after the break.


ROMANS: This morning, all eyes are on Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, because while Putin is publicly backing a U.N. resolution to return the Flight 17 victims and allow investigators complete access to the crash scene, his propaganda machine inside Russia continues to blame to the West and Ukraine.

Listen to Sarah Firth, the latest journalist from the show "Russia Today" to publicly resign.


SARAH FIRTH, FORMER RUSSIA TODAY JOURNALIST: RT style guide rule one on a story like this is absolutely not Russia's fault, it's Ukraine's fault, or whatever country that we are trying to fight against. And at that point, you really, really feel the sense that there's no adequate questioning.


BERMAN: Sir Tony Brenton is the former British ambassador to Russia and a fellow Wolfson College. He joins us via Skype right now in Cambridge in England.

Thank you so much for being with us. I suppose the question many are asking is that a day ago, there was extreme stubbornness, you might say stonewalling from the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. They would not turn over the crash site. They would not turn over the black boxes. They would not even turn over the bodies.

Why do you think they cracked?

SIR TONY BRENTON, FORMER BRITISH AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Well, it's an encouraging sign maybe that Russia is at last beginning to apply pressure to them to conform to what they are demanding.

Russia is undoubtedly been embarrassed by what's happened. I think that in their heart of hearts, they know very well that it was the dissidents who fired the missile which brought the plane down, and they are keen to the extent they can to distance themselves from the crime. That's helpful in another way, because to the extent that it also encourages them to distance themselves to the dissidents, it could be a step towards ending the war.

ROMANS: A step toward ending the war, but when you look at, when you listen to he propaganda machine inside Russia, that this is about a president who's about to do a U-turn on his policy in the eastern part of that country.

BRENTON: Right. Obviously, they can sustain firmly their position in the eyes of the Russian public. I think however, slightly more significant, the Russia has been in the lead in pressing for international investigation in this incident. And as I say, the Russians seem to apply pressure to dissidents to ship the bodies, to ship the black boxes, and undoubtedly, they are very, very embarrassed by being associated with the crime and they're looking for ways of disassociating themselves both from the crime and those who committed it.

BERMAN: What do you make, sir, of the elaborate pageantry of the handover of the black boxes? There was the self-proclaimed prime minister of this pro-Russian region in eastern Ukraine turning over the black boxes to officials from Malaysia that cut the deal with the rebels. Does this provide some kind of international legitimacy to their cause?

BRENTON: No, not really. It feels to them more proper. It gives them the slight feeling that they're having a little bit like a government. There's a little bit of the deal which needed to be done to get the black boxes, which was the important point.

BERMAN: Right.

ROMANS: What about sanctions on Russia? We know the European leaders, they are meeting, financial ministers meeting today. There are many of them are calling for tougher sanctions on Russia. Do you think that's the right strategy here?

BRENTON: Well, first of all, I think today is going to produce no more than a marginal strengthening of what the E.U. has already done. No, I don't think sanctions are the right policy. Sanctions so far have been entirely ineffective and can be counterproductive. It's sort of badge of patriotic pride amongst Russians to be on the sanctions list.

And in order to stop this problem, we have to get Russian cooperation, we have to get Putin backing off backing the president, and separating himself from what's going on there. We are not going to do that by imposing the extra sanctions. We'll simply strengthening nationalist opinion in Russia, infuriate Putin and strengthen his attachment to the rebels into making trouble in Ukraine.

BERMAN: Mr. Tony Brenton, thank you so much for being with us this morning. Appreciate your analysis, your insight into the Russian leader and perhaps the moves going on right now.

ROMANS: And what he's saying about sanctions is exactly what you are hearing, people. Markets and diplomats actually in Brussels talking today. You know, does it strengthen him when you start to really put the pressure on economically.

BERMAN: Of course, they have been weak sanctions so far. The question is, if you issue real sanctions, does it make a difference?

Forty-nine minutes after the hour. Our coverage of Malaysia Flight 17 continues all morning.

But, first, our other major story, the death toll rising in Gaza. Bloody battles on the street, leading to a new push for peace this morning. We're live with what's being done and if there's a chance it will work, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BERMAN: Turning now to the Middle East and the bloody struggle between Israel, Hamas and Gaza. Twenty-nine Israelis have been killed, along with nearly 600 Palestinians, most of them, according to the United Nations, civilians.

Israeli fighter planes relentlessly bombing Gaza City overnight. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Cairo to convince Hamas fighters to put down their weapons and accept an Egyptian cease-fire that has been on the table for days now.

Karl Penhaul live from Gaza with the latest developments this morning.

Good morning, Karl.

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As you point out there quite rightly, John, there are twin developments here, one on the diplomatic field in Cairo, but really, there is very little trust by Hamas of the Egyptian government, that Egyptian government has been very hostile toward Hamas in the past. Also, no love lost at all between the United States and Hamas, either.

And so, really, what they have to do this is do a huge task in confidence-building. Here on the battlefield as well on the Gaza Strip, you've got to raise the question, why would I decided want a cease-fire now because when Israeli launched its ground incursion into the Gaza Strip, their stated aims were to shot down these militant rocket launchers and also to shut down the militant tunnels they have been using to burrow into Israel to launch raids there.

Israel has not achieved those aims. We have rockets going out from the Gaza Strip toward Israel this morning and Hamas continues to get its commandos on to Israeli soil and engage the soldiers on their own turf.

Also, if you look in guerilla warfare terms, Hamas is giving a good account of itself. So far, among the casualties, 27 Israeli soldiers killed. That is more than twice the number killed in 2008-2009. And so, Hamas must feel emboldened by this.

But, of course, maybe one reason why all sides should silence their guns, the huge toll on civilians. United Nation says that more than 70 percent of those killed and wounded are civilians -- John.

BERMAN: You would hope the deaths of 600, around 600 people would be reason enough to find a way to stop the fighting. Karl Penhaul live for us in Gaza this morning, thanks so much.

ROMANS: All right. Russia facing news sanctions this morning in the aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. We have more on those sanctions, next.