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Attack on Flight 17; Day Mourning in Netherlands; Gaza Violence: Flights Suspended

Aired July 23, 2014 - 04:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: U.S. intelligence officials revealing their belief that pro-Russian rebels shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 most likely by mistake. But who pulled the trigger? And could Russia be responsible in some way for this crime?

This as the Netherlands marks a day of mourning. The first shipment of bodies set to arrive there today.

We'll bring you live team coverage of all the angles on this major story.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Flight suspended. The U.S. and Europe halting air travel to Tel Aviv after a rocket from Hamas comes dangerously close to the airport. This as violence intensifies again in Gaza. No end in sight. We're live with the very latest.

Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BERMAN: I'm John Berman. It's Wednesday, July 23rd, 4:00 a.m. in the east. We'd like to welcome all our viewers here in the United States and around the world.

Up first for us, U.S. officials coming this close, directly blaming Russia for the downing of Flight 17. Here's the very latest on this tragedy Malaysia's prime minister charging pro-Russian rebels continue to interfere with investigators at the crash site. The crime scene clearly contaminated. The plane's cockpit found sliced open by a diesel-powered saw.

Here in the United States, the White House is ratcheting up the rhetoric, insisting it was the Russians who created the conditions that led to this disaster.


JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We know that for months now, heavy weapons have been moving across the border from Russia into Ukraine. We know that the Russians have been training Russian-backed separatists in the use of those weapons, including anti-aircraft weapons. We know that the separatists have claimed credit for shooting down three different aircraft in the last several weeks.


BERMAN: I want to bring in Ivan Watson now live from Donetsk in Ukraine, not far from that crash site.

Ivan, what's the latest this morning?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now, there is a plane that is being loaded with bodies of at least 200 of the victims of the doomed Malaysia Air Flight 17 from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, which is controlled by the Ukrainian government. It will be delivering this very valuable cargo to the Netherlands where it will be met at the airport we're told by the king and queen of the Netherlands, by the prime minister of the country as well, which has declared a day of mourning. The Dutch lost more than 190 citizens aboard that flight. They had the largest losses out of all of the 298 passengers that were aboard that plane.

In addition, the diplomacy continues between the governments of countries that also had citizens aboard the plane. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the Malaysian prime minister, and had a discussion, that included concerns about, quote, "hindering at the crash site that has to be stopped." Angela Merkel and the Malaysian prime minister agreeing that Russia has to do more to put influence on the separatists who control the crash site in an unacceptable way.

So, the separatists here under immense international pressure. I spoke with a senior separatist official here in the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk last night. He continued to deny that the rebels shot down the airliners last Thursday, as has been alleged by the Ukrainian government, by the U.S. government. He said, if the rebels had these types of surface-to-air type missiles systems in their armory then they would be winning the war right now that they're fighting against the Ukrainian government.

And that war continues to rage. Throughout the night, John, we heard artillery again throughout the north coming from this rebel-held city. We've talked to residents who had to hide in their basements during these terrifying nights. Ukraine's ugly civil war continues to rage even as world leaders call for access to the crash zone, so that a proper investigation can take place -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Ivan Watson, the war does very much continue there. Our thanks to you.

ROMANS: All right. A day of mourning has been declared in the Netherlands today, that nation preparing for the return of the victims from Flight 17. That return happening later today. It turns out there were only about 200 bodies on those death trains leaving Donetsk, meaning the remains of nearly 100 people on the doomed jetliner still missing.

Nick Paton Walsh joining us on the phone from Ukraine where remains being put on an airplane bound to the Netherlands.

This is such a -- it's such a tragic and sad operation here, Nick. What can you tell us is happening next?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): What I'm seeing in front of me here is (INAUDIBLE) four coffins laid out. (INAUDIBLE)

We have just seen the arrival of the first diplomats. I can see the Australian ambassador here. (INAUDIBLE)

And a very quiet, somber moments, speeches are (INAUDIBLE). (INAUDIBLE) and I can see in front of me, two C-130s. (INAUDIBLE) the same as far as I can see here, they have crews standing on the back ramps. We've seen bodies being loaded on to some of those planes.

These are the first 50 which were taken from the first refrigerated (INAUDIBLE) of the train that arrived. As you mentioned, there are concerns that train may not have contained all of the aircraft's dead, the discrepancy in numbers. These Dutch investigators (INAUDIBLE) so far there were 200 bodies on board that plane, although they have the other officials in the past.

Even as much as yesterday, in fact, Malaysian security on the train said the number was as high as 282. But compounding the tragedy and trauma for all those people who lost relatives aboard MH17 is that continued (INAUDIBLE) when exactly will it be clear that all the bodies are there for the final act of burial (INAUDIBLE) to begin, Christine.

ROMANS: There's so much work to be done. So much investigate give work with the hurdles at the crime scene, at the crash site.

Nick, can you tell us? Who are the officials there, who will be accompanying the bodies back to the Netherlands? Are there Malaysian officials still, obviously Dutch officials and Ukrainian officials.


I am not familiar with exactly, (INAUDIBLE) trying to provide as much dignity and ceremony as possible after this terrible event of the air crash itself. (INAUDIBLE) disrespectful way which bodies were put on to the plane that brought them here.

We understand there will be speeches here, as they load bodies onto plane, and it will take off and land in Netherlands where a much more substantial sermon awaits for the day of national mourning declared there. (INAUDIBLE) I just heard the announcer say that the officials, Australian officials here, and officials from the Netherlands as well.

ROMANS: Nick Paton Walsh for us. Thanks so much for reporting on that for us, because the world is really watching that those bodies can be returned home.

BERMAN: Well, it gives you the sense of the international scale of this tragedy, representatives from so many countries on the scene there, to see those bodies off.

And, remember, it's six days now since this flight was shot from the sky. And only now are these bodies being given the dignity that they so deserve, that the world requires.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin is promising to use his influence on the pro-Russian rebels who many suspect did shoot down Flight 17. In a televised speech, he reassured Russians that they face no direct military threat at the moment, while at the same time he seemed perhaps to distance himself from the separatists saying, "We are being urged to use our influence with the militias in southeastern Ukraine. We, of course, will do everything in our power, but that is not nearly enough."

Meanwhile, Ukraine's top intelligence official claims that President Putin has the blood of 298 people on his hands. Listen to what he told CNN's Kyung Lah.


KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This wasn't a drunk rebel sitting on top of the missile?


LAH: You believe that was a Russian?

NAYDA: Absolutely.

LAH: A Russian-trained --

NAYDA: Russian-trained, well-equipped, well-educated officer.

LAH: Who pushed that button?

NADYA: Who pushed on the button. Deliberately.



Right now, there say lot of scrutiny on this man, rebel leader Igor Girkin. He reportedly bragged about shooting down a Ukrainian plane at the same time that Flight 17 fell from the sky.

Diana Magnay joins us now live from Moscow this morning.

Diana, what can you tell us?


Well, Igor Girkin is better known in Ukraine anyway and here in Russia as Igor Strelkov. That's his known (INAUDIBLE). He was the rebel commander in the Slavyansk, which was the separatist stronghold for quite a long time in April, May, June, this year. And he held that city until it was eventually overrun by Ukrainian forces.

And he's now pushed back to Donetsk. We know he is Russian. He fought alongside the self-proclaimed prime minister of Donets, Alexander Borodai in Transnistria in the '90s. That's the breakaway republic in Moldova. So, they were both friends from then.

And they both appeared in Crimea, when Crimea was being annexed with the newly appointed premier there, Sregey Aksyonv. And it's interesting, I was there at the time at Aksyonv's appointment and his adviser then popped up in Donetsk a couple of months later as an adviser to Alexander Borodai.

And all of these individuals are Russian. And the question is, how much are they following the Kremlin's orders?

And when you ask them, I asked Mr. Borodai, do you speak to Vladimir Putin, he said, no, I have no contact with Mr. Putin. They position themselves as having really come to Ukraine of their own free will to support those people in the east who want to stay affiliated and close to Russia, presumably believing in this sort of grander idea of another Rossiya.

So I think it's not particularly controversial to hear from the head of intelligence that it is a Russian and a possibly trained Russian who pulled the trigger, because so many people fighting in the east are clearly of Russian origin.

But that is a different story than saying it was Mr. Putin who told that man to pull that trigger. And that is something, you know, question marks, over whether that will ever be proven, John.

BERMAN: Indeed, that's a very good point. Diana Magnay for us.

Again, U.S. intelligence officials say they have no proof on exactly who pulled the trigger right now or who gave the order if an order was in fact even given.

Diana Magnay in Moscow, thanks so much.

ROMANS: But they see Russian fingerprints behind the chaos and armaments --

BERMAN: Certainly for arming and training and creating the situation that allowed this perhaps tragic accident to happen.

ROMANS: We're following the latest on who shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. We're following that all morning.

But, first, flights to Tel Aviv suspended. The FAA advising the war on Gaza has made flying unsafe. And just moments ago, John Kerry arriving in Israel, the secretary of state.

We are live, next.


ROMANS: All right. Right now, the U.S. airlines are banned from flying into or out of Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. That's Israel's largest airport. The FAA taking this drastic step after a missile slammed into a home a mile away from the airport. Now, the ban will be reassessed shortly after noon Eastern Time.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg urging the FAA to reverse its decision. He boarded an El-Al flight to Tel Aviv to make a pretty significant point.


REPORTER: What are you trying to prove by going there today?

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, FORMER NYC MAYOR: I'm not trying to prove anything. I'm just trying to show that it's safe and it's a great place to visit. And Israel has a right to defend its people and they're doing exactly what they should.


ROMANS: Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry has arrived in Tel Aviv despite the flight ban. He's there trying to broker a cease- fire.

Martin Savidge is standing by live at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv.

Good morning.


Whether you measure, I should point out by the tarmac behind me or by the drop off for the passengers here at the departure terminal, extremely quiet this morning. We've already explained the reasons why.

The Israeli government, though, believes that really they are being punished for something they have nothing to do with. In fact, they believe they are the victims of the terrorist attack. You mentioned that the rockets fell in Yahud (ph), which is a neighborhood about a mile or so away from here. That happened yesterday, and, of course, the Israeli military said that is one of 2,000 fired at Israel from Gaza.

But that may be perhaps the most damaging rocket so far, because the impact its had. You know, this is damaging Israel. It's reputation, of course. It's damaging its commercial enterprise. It's damaging tourism. It's damaging business.

But on top of it, most of all, they say it is rewarding to terrorists, Hamas. They believe that Hamas deliberately targeted or tried to interfere with the airport. They have stated that is something they were trying to do. And as a result, it is Israel that suffers, even though Israel maintenances they're the victim in all of this, Christine.

ROMANS: Meantime, you have -- later day, you got the former New York mayor expected to arrive. John Kerry just arriving now, trying to broker a cease-fire.

What's happening next in terms of the big -- sort of international figures on the ground there?

SAVIDGE: Yes. You know, there's a lot of focus, of course, the international community here would very much like to see a cease-fire. Israel maintains that it would like to see a cease-fire. And, in fact, Israel would say it has agreed to a cease-fire twice before in this particular conflict and each case they accused Hamas of breaking that cease-fire.

Hamas will say that it, too, wants to see a cease-fire but under certain condition. It maintains that it is not simply good enough to stop the shooting, but there are other requirements they have in order for Hamas to stop its attacks on Israel. Primarily, they'd like to see the borders open and the trade more freely be allowed between Gaza and the rest of the world.

Israel is not going to go along with that because then Hamas would claim a victory. And certainly, Israel does not want Hamas doing that -- Christine.

ROMANS: Martin Savidge at Ben Gurion Airport at 11:18 a.m., usually don't see that quiet there at Israel's busiest airport. Thanks for that.

BERMAN: The Israelis take great pride in Ben Gurion Airport. I have to say out of a lot of airports, it is the tightest security I have seen anywhere on earth. So, I think to have that kind of disruption is in fact embarrassing there.

Eighteen minutes after the hour.

A mystery on the Brooklyn Bridge. Who raised these white flags? And were they trying to send a message?

ROMANS: Plus, new court rulings could change the future for Obamacare.

And the latest from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 -- right now, victims' bodies being loaded on the plane headed for the Netherlands. More on that emotional scene when we come back.


ROMANS: Pro-Russian rebels continue to interfere with investigators at the crash site of Flight 17, that accusation from Malaysia's prime minister as we get clear evidence of the crime scene. This crime scene is badly contaminated. The plane's cockpit found sliced open by a diesel-powered saw.

Here at home, the White House is not letting up on the Russians, insisting it was Moscow that created the conditions that led to this disaster. The bodies of about 200 victims are being loaded on to a plane in Kharkiv, Ukraine. They'll be flown to the Netherlands this morning. That process happening right now.

BERMAN: So, the Brooklyn Bridge is supposed to be one of New York's most secure landmarks. But this morning, police are trying to find out how two American flags on top of the bridge were replaced with bleached white ones. They said to be searching for four or five eople who they believe scaled the two towers in the dead of the night, covered the flights, illuminating the flags and made the switch. Officials say clearly a whole lot of preparation went into this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No matter what the motive was, that is the matter of our concern. I am not particularly happy about the event and have charged Commissioner Miller to conduct a full and thorough investigation into the circumstances. And, again, we're requesting the help of the public on this issue.


BERMAN: I got to say, I mean, clearly, it's embarrassing for law enforcement officials but the NYPD says there's no connection at this point, that they can see, to terrorism, and they have no knowledge of any direct political statement either.

ROMANS: All right. Conflicting court rulings putting the future of Obamacare in doubt this morning. Two appeals court, one in Washington, the other in Virginia, at odds over whether the federal government can subsidize health insurance coverage for millions of Americans. Plaintiffs in both cases claiming that the subsidies only apply to insurance purchase through state exchanges. That would rule out subsidies to millions of consumers in 36 states that don't have exchanges but operate on a federal exchange.

The issue is expected to be decided by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, those subsidies will be paid as prescribed.

Now, time for the --an EARLY START to your money this morning. European shares higher, Asian stocks mostly higher. U.S. futures higher right now.

All of this unrest and uncertainty in the world, stocks still moving up. It's actually pretty remarkable. The S&P 500 hit an intraday high yesterday, gained half a percent for the day. The Dow and the NASDAQ higher as well. It's really been a great year for stocks so far.

I want to give you a progress report. Despite all the geopolitical tensions, the Dow is up 3.2 percent this year. The NASDAQ and S&P 500 are up 7 percent. There are a lot of short-term risks, no question.

So far, investors are looking to companies who are reporting better earnings. They're looking to an economy that seems to be recovering in the U.S. Fed seems to be pulling the stimulus out of the economy without too many negative consequences. So, stocks keep moving higher.

BERMAN: Slow but steady growth.


BERMAN: Twenty-five minutes after the hour.

New U.S. intelligence revealing the belief that pro-Russian rebels most likely shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by mistake. As right now, the bodies of the victims being loaded on a plane

heading for the Netherlands. We are live on the tarmac with new developments, right after the break.