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Putin Claims Victory After Sidelining Opposition; State Media: Assad Visits Troops in Eastern Ghouta; Turkish-led Forces Reported Seize Afrin Town Center. Aired 1-2a ET

Aired March 19, 2018 - 01:00   ET



CYRIL VANIER, ANCHOR, CNN NEWSROOM: Vladimir Putin claims victory in Russia's Presidential election and is said to lead the country for another six years.

NATALIE ALLEN, ANCHOR, CNN NEWSROOM: British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson says the UK has evidence that for the last decade, Russia has been stockpiling the deadly nerve agent used to poison a former Russian spy.

VANIER: And Turkey says its troops control the Syrian town of Afrin after intense battle, but Kurdish militia say the fight is not over.

ALLEN: These stories are ahead here on CNN Newsroom, we're coming to you live from Atlanta, thank you for joining us. I am Natalie Allen.

VANIER: And I am Cyril Vanier, your CNN Newsroom starts now.

ALLEN: Russian President, Vladimir Putin is extending his grip on power at home, while fighting accusations from the West.

Shortly after claiming victory in Sunday's Presidential election, Mr. Putin dismissed claims that Russia was behind the poisoning of former Russian spy and his daughter in England.

VANIER: The UK says it has evidence that points to Russia. We will get back to that in a moment, but first, here is Mr. Putin addressing supporters after it became clear that he was on his way towards his fourth term now as President.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA: (Through interpreter). We have to think about the future of our country, the future of our children. We are doomed to success, are we not? Yes.

Thank you very much. Together, we will take up the massive job of work we have before us in the name of Russia. Thank you.


VANIER: So, there was little doubt that Mr. Putin would be reelected. The question is going in to this election where about the level of turnout and his margin of victory.

ALLEN: It appears voters did give him a strong stamp of approval with almost all ballots counted, Russian officials say, "Mr. Putin has won nearly 77 percent of the votes."

Our Fred Pleitgen is in Moscow.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Vladimir Putin coasting to victory in the Russian Presidential election even as the first exit polls came out, shortly after 9 p.m. time in Moscow.

He was at over 70 percent of the votes. Now, the Russian President then came out shortly afterwards and spoke to supporters here right outside the Kremlin. He thanked them for their support. He also said that unity was very important now to Russia. There is a lot of work to be done to make Russia better for future generations.

There was about 35,000 people who turned out here at the square outside the Kremlin, many of them waiving Russian flags. It was a very patriotic event that took place.

No one here really expected that Vladimir Putin is going to lose this election, but two things were in question. First of all, how much of the vote was he going to get and then second of all how high was the turnout going to be, turnout of course, very important because one of the things that Vladimir Putin himself was weary of was whether or not there would be voter apathy. This is a man of course, who has been in power here in this country for a very long time.

The field of contenders running against Putin was quite weak. The next best contender, the runner-up, a communist, Pavel Grudinin, he really didn't get much of the vote. He was miles behind Vladimir Putin. So, it really wasn't in question that Putin was going to win this election. The only question is really how much and also how big the turnout was going to be.

Vladimir Putin also went back to business as usual very, very quickly talking about the case of the former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal and his daughter of course were poisoned and saying that Russia was not behind it and if it would have been a military grade nerve agent that was used that they would have been dead immediately.

So, clearly, the election for Vladimir Putin, not much more than a formality as far as the election itself was concerned and him going back to business as usual very quickly.

Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Moscow.


ALLEN: Yes, Fred just mentioned President Putin didn't waste any time dismissing claims Russia was behind the poisoning of the former Russian spy and his daughter in England. VANIER: The nerve agent used in that attack was developed secretly by

the Soviet Union during the Cold War. No country outside of Russia is known to have developed this substance, yet Mr. Putin says that blaming Russia is nonsense and rubbish.


PUTIN: In the first place, if it had been a military grade poisonous gas, they would have died on the spot, that's absolutely obvious. You have to realize that.

Russia does not have any substances of this kind. We destroyed all our chemical weapons and that was monitored by international observers. Moreover, we were the first to do it as opposed to many of our other partners who promised to do so, but unfortunately, still have not fulfilled their obligations thus far.

So, we are prepared to cooperate.


VANIER: And Russia's ambassador to the European Union is suggesting the nerve agent may have originated from a nuclear facility in


England or possibly other European countries, but he has no evidence to back up that claim.

ALLEN: The British Foreign Secretary says that UK does have evidence that Russia has been making this deadly substance for the last decade. We get more now from Melissa Bell in...


ALLEN: ... London.


MELISSA BELL, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: It was two weeks ago that Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found unconscious in Salisbury since we have seen claims and counterclaims, London and Moscow engaged in a war of words and rhetoric that has seemed to get more intense with every day that has passed.

Once again today, Boris Johnson spoke out having claimed on Friday, not only once again that the Russians were to blame for the poisoning, but that it had been ordered by Vladimir Putin himself.

This morning, speaking on British television, the British Foreign Secretary had this to add.

BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: We actually have evidence within the last 10 years that Russia has not only been investigating the delivery of nerve agents for the purposes of assassination, but it has also been creating and stockpiling Novichok. BELL: Boris Johnson went on to say that on Monday, representatives,

investigators from the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons would be here in the United Kingdom where they would be given access to those samples that the British Authorities had collected. They will then be taking those to labs to check what they say that the nerve agent is and to check the veracity of those British claims.

And their findings will matter a great deal because the entire world is being asked to judge to take sides in this war of words between London and Moscow and this of course, even as Boris Johnson prepares to go to the EU to get not only support from the rest of the European block, but he hopes further measures of retaliation against Russia.

Melissa Bell, CNN, in London.


ALLEN: Here in the United States, lawmakers both Republican and Democrat have a warning for President Trump. Leave Robert Mueller alone. This follows a string of tweets from the President one saying the Special Counsel's Russia probe should not have started.

VANIER: In another tweet, Mr. Trump asks why does Mueller's team have "13 hardened Democrats, some big crooked Hillary supporters and zero Republicans." He adds, "Does anyone think this is fair? And yet there is no collusion." Well, that didn't sit well with some members of Mr. Trump's own party.


LINDSEY GRAHAM, US SENATOR, SOUTH CAROLINA, REPUBLICAN: Well, as I have said before, if he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his Presidency because we're a rule of law nation.

JEFF FLAKE, US SENATOR, ARIZONA, REPUBLICAN: Talking to my colleagues all along, it was -- once he goes after Mueller, then we'll take action. I think that people see that as a massive red line that can't be crossed, so I hope that that's the case and I would just hope that enough people would prevail on the President now. Don't go there.


VANIER: And so, the tweets and the backlash to the tweets sent White House attorney, Ty Cobb into damage control mode.

ALLEN: Yes, the statement late Sunday, he assured lawmakers the President is not considering or discussing the firing of the Special Council.

Boris Sanchez takes a look now at Mr. Trump's tweets.


BORIS SANCHEZ, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: On Sunday, we saw President Trump make a distinct shift in the way that he has talked about the Special Counsel specifically, Rob Mueller and his team, though previously, the President had said that the Russia investigation was a hoax and a witch hunt, he never really singled out Robert Mueller by name for criticism until this weekend in a tweet sent out Sunday morning where the President was arguing that the special investigation was biased because there were no Republicans on Robert Mueller's team.

No one really there to defend the President, that of course is inaccurate. Robert Mueller himself is a Republican, one who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Further, many of the attorneys on his team have prosecuted both Republicans and Democrats. There's no real partisan streak there and perhaps, most importantly, Robert Mueller still maintains a vote of confidence from an important voice in the Deputy Attorney General, Ron Rosenstein who has repeatedly said that Robert Mueller is carrying out this investigation appropriately and that he is not letting anyone's personal political perspectives get in the way of finding the facts.

The President though letting his frustrations boil over on Twitter, not just about the Special Counsel, but also about the FBI, the Department of Justice, the State Department as well, and former Deputy FBI Director, Andrew McCabe.

At least one White House official, the Director of Legislative Affairs, Marc Short went on a Sunday morning talk show to defend the President saying that his frustrations were merited because the Russia investigation had gone on for so long and yielded, in his eyes, few results.

Listen to more from Marc Short.

MARC SHORT, DIRECTOR OF LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS: Everyone in the White House has cooperated on this and what I said is, is that we have cooperated every single way, every single paper they have asked for, every single interview, and I think the reality, Margaret is that yes, there is a growing frustration that after more than a year and millions and millions of dollars spent on this, there remains


no evidence of collusion with Russia.

I think the President is expressing his frustration, which I think is well warranted and merited.

SANCHEZ: Of course, we should point out that the Russia investigation has yielded a lot of results. We have seen not only 13 indictments of Russian nationals for...


SANCHEZ: ... election meddling, but also four indictments of figures within the Trump campaign. People like George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn among others.

On top of all of this, you are seeing many Republican lawmakers now moving to try to defend Robert Mueller and warning the President that perhaps meddling in the special investigation isn't a good idea. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake said that it would be a red line that the

President should not cross, if in fact he were to decide to fire Robert Mueller. There's been some speculation that perhaps, some kind of legislation might be out there that would get passed on a bipartisan basis of course that would -- and so safeguards to give Robert Mueller some job security.

That previously had not gone anywhere, but now with a more abrasive stance that President Trump and others within the administration are taking to the Special Counsel, we may ultimately see that change.

Boris Sanchez, CNN at the White House.


VANIER: Let's see what our panel thinks, Ellis Henican is a columnist for Metro Paper and is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist and political analyst. Mona, first question to you, Mr. Trump went after the Russia investigation hard this weekend in a series of tweets, and he also attacked Bob Mueller by name, which is the first time. Do you think he wants to fire him and if so, does that concern you?

MONA CHAREN, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST AND POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he clearly wants to. He keeps threatening to apparently. He even ordered it earlier this year only to be countermanded or at least tell the order is not carried out by his White House counsel. You can believe the reports.

VANIER: Yes, that was a "New York Times" report. The White House counsel had to threaten to quit and apparently, that's why the President backtracked.

CHAREN: Exactly.

VANIER: Does it concern you that the President wants to fire Bob Mueller.

CHAREN: Absolutely, but what we don't know is what will be the response of the Republicans on the Hill. Will this be a bridge too far? Will this be the thing that makes them fall back and say, "This far and no further. This is a real assault on the rule of law." Or will they make excuses for him a la Devin Nunes and the House Intelligence Committee.

VANIER: Yes, we heard some Republicans on Sunday, but they were attempted to say the usual suspects of people who have been willing to criticize the President, possibly the most vocal on Sunday was Lindsey Graham saying that firing Robert Mueller would be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency. Ellis, how do you react to the goings on this weekend?

ELLIS HENICAN, COLUMNIST, METRO PAPER: I thought Lindsey was quite eloquent, but it never -- Cyril, never bet against Republicans on Capitol Hill making excuses for this President. Every time we think they are reaching towards some "my rule" moment,

inevitably, they find their way back to say, "You know..." maybe it won't really upset the base by criticizing him. That's been the reality, but most of them, and I assume it's going to be for a while longer.

VANIER: Look, if Mr. Trump actually doesn't fire the Special Counsel and the White House counsel said he wouldn't, then what's the purpose of all of these tweets and all of these attacks?

HENICAN: To undermine, to rev up the base, to make people who are already inclined to not like him, to like him even less and maybe, maybe even though he may not do it yet, grease the way for doing it eventually.

VANIER: Now, his personal lawyer...


HENICAN: But they...

VANIER: Sorry, go ahead, Mona.

CHAREN: I was just going to say, I think they call it in the military preparing the battle space, so that you prepare your audience, in this case, Trump is preparing his audiences -- people to just believe anything that the Mueller investigation may come up with.

So, he's already discrediting them preemptively.

VANIER: So, discredit...

CHAREN: Attempting...

VANIER: ... de-legitimize, and you say preparing the battle space, well, here's something that could potentially prepare the battle space. John Dowd's statements by the personal attorney of Donald Trump over the weekend. He was calling for the Department of Justice to put an end to the Russia investigation.

Listen to how one Republican Congressman, Trey Gowdy, reacted to that.


TREY GOWDY, US CONGRESSMAN, SOUTH CAROLINA, REPUBLICAN: To suggest that Mueller should shut down and that all he is looking at is collusion. If you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it.

Russia attacked our country. Let Special Counsel Mueller figure that out and if you believe as we found, there is no evidence of collusion, you should want Special Counsel Mueller to take all the time and have all the independence he needs to do his job.


VANIER: Mona, that's a fair point. I mean, there's logic to that. If the President is 100 percent innocent, then wouldn't the best outcome for him be -- or the best strategy be to let the investigationhappen and follow its natural course and then just declare him innocent.

CHAREN: Well, exactly, and the fact that the President continues to battle so hard against the very idea of an investigation does not suggest...


CHAREN: ... innocence. Let me say one other thing, Trey Gowdy is very, very forthright now because he is not running office because -- but it's a coincident with the fact that he has announced that he is not running for reelection.

There are a number of other members, Republican members who had done the same thing. They are not running, and now, they are more free in their criticism of the President and it's notable that the only ones you can count on basically on one hand, the number of Republicans who have been willing to speak this forthrightly who are not resigning their seats, and that would be Rubio and Lindsey Graham and one or two others.

VANIER: Yes, that comes back to Ellis's earlier point that Republicans are often loathed to criticize the President. Here is someone, one leading Republican who is in a bit of a weird -- difficult situation for him perhaps which is Paul Ryan, the House Speaker. His statement is, "As the Speaker has always said, Mr. Mueller and his team should be able to do their job."

So, Ellis's, he is trying to tow that line. Obviously, he wants to respect the rule of law. He doesn't want Mueller to be fired. He said this before, but he also doesn't want to go too hard against the President.

HENICAN: Yes, and they are the most carefully crafted words, you didn't hear a syllable of criticism of the President. There's a political calculation here. And it's not an irrational one. It's still a big part of the Republican base. He's very supportive of Donald Trump, and so if you look in to winning a Republican primarily, you need people revved for November in what's going to be a tough election year. You know, you're going to be very, very slow to turn those people against you.

That is essentially at this point, the near universal Republican political calculator.

VANIER: This has all happened just over the course of this weekend, of course, so we can expect a lot more reactions to this from Washington as soon as the work week gets underway. Ellis, Mona, always a pleasure. Thank you very much.

HENICAN: Nice seeing you, guys.

CHAREN: Thanks. VANIER: There's a series of diplomatic moves before the potential

meeting between the Donald Trump and North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. We'll go live to South Korea after the break and tell you about those.

ALLEN: Also, the battle for Syria's city, Afrin may not be over. Kurdish forces vow to push back after Turkish-led troops seize the town center. We'll have the report coming up here. You're watching CNN Newsroom.


KATE RILEY, SPORTS ANCHOR, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: I am Kate Riley with your CNN Worlds' Sport headlines. We begin with golf where Tiger Woods made quite a run of it, but in the end, it was Rory McIlroy taking the title at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida.

Woods have pulled himself within just a stroke of the lead early on in the backline but would finish with two bogeys in his last three holes and pulled out of contention.

Out stepped McIlroy with an outstanding four birdies in a row on the backside en route to a three-shot victory, his first in September 2016.

To tennis, in an epic match between Roger Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro, the world number one, Federer was off to a career best 17 and oh started 2018 and has three match points to finish Del Potro off at the BNP Paribas Final in Indian Wells, but he couldn't and the 29- year-old from Argentina would take advantage after a mismatch point of his own to finally top Federer in a third set tie breaker. Del Potros has his first ever ATP Masters' Event Title.

And finally, Cristiano Ronaldo has got four golds as Real Madrid and British Girona's 6-3 on Sunday. The 33-year-old meted his 50th career hat trick in a competition just a few hours after seeing rival, Lionel Messi score in Barcelona's win earlier. Ronaldo now trails Messi by just three goals in Spanish La Liga scoring.

And that's the look at World Sports Headlines. I am Kate Riley.

VANIER: Representatives from North Korea, South Korea and the United States are set to meet in Finland ahead of the pending talks between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.

A top North Korean diplomat was spotted boarding a plane from Beijing to Finland on Sunday. Finnish officials say the talks will not include the US government officials. Remember, the US has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, so they can't talk directly.

ALLEN: And US National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster meantime met with counterparts from Japan and South Korea this weekend. And in other developments, Sweden is helping to negotiate the release of three Americans imprisoned in North Korea. More about that in a moment, but let's go to Paula Hancock now. She is live in Seoul, South Korea to talk about this meeting upcoming in Finland and it has a level attached to it. I believe, we said it's a track 1.5. What does that entail?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Well, actually that basically means that there are governmental officials also -- as well as non- governmental officials, so it's experts that can be officials from the respective governments.

We know the US, South Korea, and North Korea will be involved. We understand that Choe Kang Il, he is a man who is in charge of US affairs in the North Korean Foreign Ministry, he will be going to Finland.

And we also know that he was actually at the Olympics with Pyeongchang Winter Olympics for the duration. He was part of those talks as well between North and South Korea. So, he's been very front and center when it comes to this thaw in relations on the Korean Peninsula.

So, what this has -- the way it has happened in the past is that there has been a more informal conversation between these representatives. The Finnish Foreign Ministry, they are saying that there isn't going to be a US government official represented, but there will be other officials.

The South Koreans saying there will be former officials from here in Seoul as well as experts. So, they would really be discussing what they need to discuss at this point. We're unlikely to hear very much about it. In the past, these have always been very secretive, just really to gauge what each side is looking for at this point, Natalie.

ALLEN: Yes, Paula, speaking of the thaw between North and South, it's been quiet, thank goodness for some time, since the Olympics, it kind of set in motion this diplomatic area. But what are the war games that we see between the US and South Korea. There is a decision upcoming on those and certainly, that is something that very much displeases Kim Jong-un when it occurs.

HANCOCKS: Yes, we are expecting on Tuesday to hear exactly when those will start. They have been postponed. They usually happen March- April time. But they have been postponed so that the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the Paralympics could go without a hitch, without raising tensions between North and South Korea.

So, the US and South Korea always insisted, but they would still go ahead so we are expecting to hear that date tomorrow. But we do know from the South Korean officials who actually went to Pyeongyang and met with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un that he was well aware that these drills would go ahead and they seem to suggest that he was okay with it, or he had made his peace with it.

Now, he has been angered by them in the past. The North Koreans always say, officially that they see them as a dress rehearsal to an invasion. The US and South Korea say they are defensive in nature saying that (annually) saying that they always happen, but there has always been this friction and this tension increasing at this time of year.

But it wouldn't seem, what would appear -- from what the South Korean officials has said that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will accept that this will go ahead at this time, so it's unknown whether or not that will follow through and whether there will be any kind of reaction to them, but from the South Korean point of view, they believe that it will go smoothly.

ALLEN: Well, we mentioned that there are three Americans being held by the North Koreans and the door may be a little bit open for negotiating their release possibly and Sweden is involved. What do you know about that?

HANCOCKS: Well, this is something that Sweden as a country has traditionally been involved in. The US has no diplomatic ties with North Korea in Pyeongyang, if the US needs anything, then it is the Swedish embassy in Pyeongyang that will represent their interest.

So, they have been involved in prisoner releases in the past. Now, we are hearing from sources with knowledge of the situation that when the Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho from North Korea was in Sweden over the weekend, there were discussions which did touch on these three detainees. One arrested back in 2015, two arrested in 2017.

So, it is what we would expect. I don't think anybody would be surprised that this is being pushed forward as a potential to show good faith on the North Koreans ahead of this potential meeting between the US President and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

And certainly from the Swedish point of view, they say that they are not setting any ultimatums. They are not pushing this, but they are pointing at that this could be a way to move things forward in the right direction, Natalie.

ALLEN: Hopefully that will happen. Optimism is in the air. Thank you so much, Paula Hancocks for us in Seoul.

VANIER: Still to come on the show, doctors under fire in Syria's Afrin. We'll tell you what we're learning about a reported air strike on a hospital after this.



NATALIE ALLEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: 1:30 in the morning here. We're just getting going in the United States on the East Coast. Thanks for being with us. This is CNN NEWSROOM, I'm Natalie Allen.

CRYIL VANIER, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: And I'm Cyril Vanier. Let's get to your headlines.

International chemical weapons experts will be in England on Monday to test samples of the nerve agents used to poison a former Russian spy and his daughter.

ALLEN: Britain's foreign secretary says that U.K. has evidence that Russia has been making and stockpiling the nerve agent Novichok over the last decade, Russia denies that. VANIER: Sweden is helping negotiate the release of three Americans imprisoned in North Korea, it's acting as a protecting power for the U.S. which has no diplomatic relations with North Korea.

Separately, national security chiefs from South Korea, the U.S., and Japan have met ahead of potential talks between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.

ALLEN: Speaking of Mr. Trump, White House Special Counsel Ty Cobb is assuring the public and lawmakers that President Trump is not considering or discussing the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The statement comes in response to several new Trump tweets partially critical of Mueller and his team.

VANIER: But Russia President Vladimir Putin is set to extend his grip on power for another six years. As expected, he's claiming victory on Sunday's presidential election. His main political opponent had been barred from running. This would be Mr. Putin's fourth presidential term and it should be his last under the current constitution.

Well, experts say Russia's election was not exactly a shining example of democracy. They say it was neither fair nor democratic.

ALLEN: Many critics of the Kremlin have been silenced one way or another. So why do many Russians hope Vladimir Putin in such high regards? Here's our Lynda Kinkade with an explanation.


LYNDA KINDKADE, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Strong president, strong Russia declares a billboard with the president's campaign slogan. Still nurturing an image that the savior of Russia's lost empire, Vladimir Putin is preparing to extend his powerful grip into a third decade.

TEXT: We are proud of Russia, and will be proud in the future. We will ensure its future together! Yes? Yes.

KINKADE: The Russian leader campaigned only a little ahead of the presidential election. Here at a youth's forum, it's likely few could remember a time when Putin was not in power.

When he was first elected president in 2000, nearly a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin sought to strengthen Russia. Under his leadership, the economy is strengthened. Moscow's global cloud expanded. National pride was restored. Since then, Putin's popularity has really folded as he continues consolidating power, flexing Russia's vast military might at home and abroad. Russian seizure of the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 ending (INAUDIBLE) into Syria started Putin on a collision cause with the West.

BARRACK OBAMA, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Mr. Putin in my second terms has had an increasing tendency to view the world through a cold war prison. KINKADE: Despite the crippling sanctions that resulted, (INAUDIBLE)

international leaders prompted surges of Russian patriotism and sent Putin's approval ratings soaring. In his most recent provocation, Putin boasted of a new invisible nuclear weapon in an animated video showing strikes on what appears to be Florida.

With tight control over the media, Putin can cast himself as the defender of Russia's national interest in a hostile world and quickly shutdown criticism. Hardly an eyebrow was raised in 2008 when he ushered constitutional amendments extending Russia's presidential term from four to six years.

Past protests have had little long-term impact on his popularity. Opposition figures tend to be mysteriously silenced or quickly sidelined. One of Putin's most prominent opponent was banned from running in this year's election. Moscow's siding a fraud conviction. The E.U. code of human rights has seems deprived of a fair trial.

ALEXEI NAVALNY, Russia OPPOSITION LEADER (through translator): He's scared of all real competition. We see in these elections that he only allow those to run who do not even resist, to not even do any campaigning. When they saw that we are actually fighting for people's votes, they got scared. The famous Putin's ratings, all these 86 percent, 70 percent.


All of that sociologists and political analysts love to talk about. They exist in only one scenario, when Putin places the candidates he controls.

KINKADE: The Russian leaders (INAUDIBLE) promotion has also created a call of personality carefully crafting his image as a deep sea diving, flying and bare-chested horseback riding viral outdoorsman with a soft side.

But some serious problems do lay ahead for one, sanctions and low oil prices that handicapped the economy, retire and unemployment, and its humbling rubles. But the former law student and KGB officer reclined from city official to Russian president in less than a decade is showing the world one thing, Vladimir Putin is here to stay. Lynda Kinkade, CNN.


ALLEN: We turn now to Syria and the president there, Bashar al-Assad, another leader who seems to be staying. He has now visited Eastern Ghouta. State media report, he met with his troops in this besieged enclave East of Damascus on Sunday.

VANIER: A government defensive has been gaining ground against rebels in the area but at a huge human cost. Thousands of people have been displaced and more than a thousand civilians have been reported killed since mid-February.

And in Northern Syria, the town of Afrin has also been the scene of intense fighting. Turkey says its troops seize he town center on Sunday alongside allied rebels, they've been battling the Kurdish YPG which has been backed by Turkey's NATO ally, the U.S.

ALLEN: A YPG spokesman says the group will keep fighting until there's no Turkish soldier left in Afrin. A local official went further saying the area will become a nightmare for Turkish troops. The violence in Afrin has been devastating for civilians. It just seem civilians are always caught up in the middle.

VANIER: And CNN has obtained exclusive footage showing some of the aftermath of the conflict. Ben Wedeman has more but as is often the case with Syria, we have to warn you his report contains graphic content.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Afrin's main hospital was a busy place until that is doctors say Turkish jets struck it Friday killing nine.

Turkish officials deny the hospital was hit. CNN has obtained exclusive footage shot last week in the Kurdish-Syrian town of Afrin. Early Sunday, Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies took control of most of the town. Relatives try to comfort Zanib, her three-month-old son Aziz was killed in an airstrike.

"I lost my little child" she cries. "Where are you my son?" The death of Aziz maybe just another statistic in the slaughter house that is Syria, not to his mother. Asiah Abduh can't take the sound of jets and bombs anymore. Asiah's wounds are inside her head. Dr. Mohammed Issa is Afrin's last psychiatrist. He says the rest fled. He can

only give his patients half dozes, supplies of medicine are running low.

DR. MOHAMMED ISSA, AFRIN'S LAST PSYCHIATRIST: If there is psychotic episodes and depression and anxiety and something suicidal to get rid of this war, some people try to suicide to injure themselves and kill themselves.

WEDEMAN: Further to the east, the Kurds were key American and Western allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria but here, alone in their hour of need, they're at the mercy of the Turks and their Syrian rebel fighters.

"Trump, Macron, you're vampires who in sighted Erdogan to attack us" this man says. Bombs and rockets don't discriminate between solider and civilians, everyone is in the line of fire. Enduring the pain of war, tormented by the agony of those they love. Ben Wedeman, CNN.


VANIER: U.S. law enforcement sources say helicopter carrying Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner had to make an emergency return to a Washington airport after an engine failure. President's daughter and son-in-law were not hurt. ALLEN: They were flying from Washington to New York on Thursday in a dual engine helicopter when one of the engines failed. The couple ended up taking a commercial flight instead when they returned to Washington.

Well for Chinese communist party members, a trip to the village where Xi Jinping once lived is an education. Our reporter in China Matt Rivers will take us there, coming up.


VANIER: Plus, a bushfire destroys dozens of homes in a small Australian coastal town and authorities are warning people to stay alert, we'll have more on that as well. Stay with us.


ALLEN: China's mostly rubberstamp parliament has reelected its Premier. The vote for Li Keqiang was widely expected, there were only two no votes against him.

VANIER: And President Xi Jinping has officially began his second term after his unanimous election. Remember China's constitution was recently amended to list presidential term limits which means that Mr. Xi can now stay in office indefinitely.

President Xi's unanimous reappointment has intensified the comparisons between him and Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People's Republic of China. State television called the vote a solemn and sacred historic moment.

ALLEN: And though Mr. Xi's own family suffered under Chairman Mao. His support of China's political system does not waiver. Here's CNN's Matt Rivers with that.


MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Critics call him China's new emperor but in this small village, adoration of balance for President Xi Jinping. "All we need are Chairman Mao and President Xi" says this visitor.

Xi lived here for years in the early 1970s, transformed recently from an unknown backwater to a shrine for a living president. This smartly-dressed tour guide shows us where Xi slept, that old picture on the wall, we see a well he helped dig and a sewing shop he set up. Old farmers who knew Xi back then still roam about the pseudo mascots of this bizarre theme park. "Three of us including Xi and I joined the communist party together" says this man.

Communist cadres flood the village each day (INAUDIBLE). There is a practical purpose for making this visit if you are an ambitious communist party member. It shows that you want to learn from the experiences of the party's most important person in decades.

[01:45:25] It's the kind of propaganda push driven by a cult of personality that the country hasn't seen since the days of Mao Zedong, Founder of Communist China. Not far from Xi's village we see where Mao once lived during World War II, similar caves, similar old photos in the wall, Mao held up as a great revolutionary leader with no mention of his ruthless reign that saw tens of millions of die from starvation and political violence.

His unchecked power led to disastrous policies like the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. Xi's father, the senior politician was persecuted and imprisoned. And like young people from cities across China, Xi himself was sent for "reeducation" in a small village. That's how he ended up here. His family was ripped apart and yet his belief in the system has held firm ever since he spent his nights in a cold cave.

Xi's recent power grab has drawn inevitable comparisons to the perils of the past with critics saying his clamp down on personal liberties and jailing of political opponents harkens back to a darker time. Only a brave few have spoken out in protest. "I have a sense of historical responsibility. When my children look back and ask me how I reacted, I want to be able to tell them I was firmly opposed to it" a former state run newspaper editor told us.


RIVERS: We were followed by security the entire time we spent in Xi's old village even as we took photos with some visitors. They want to make sure that no one criticizes the leader. In the China that once belonged to Mao and now to Xi Jinping, there is no room for descent, a system of one-man rule coming full circle. Matt Rivers, CNN Shanxi Province, China.


ALLEN: The FBI is now on the scene of another explosion in Austin, Texas. Authority say two men in their 20s were taken to the hospital with serious injuries but both are said to be in good condition. Police are also examining a backpack found near the scene.

VANIER: Earlier this month three package bombs were delivered to different homes in Austin. All of this over a period of 10 days. Police said last week that those explosions were all connected, two people were killed, two others were injured in those blasts and it's not yet clear if Sunday's explosion might be related to the previous events.

Now Cirque du Soleil s cancelling performances in Tampa, Florida after a tragedy Saturday night. An aerial performer, Yann Arnaud fell during a show and later died at a hospital.

ALLEN: Just last month Arnaud posted this video from a performance on his Instagram page. He spent 15 years with the Cirque du Soleil and was an accomplished and well loved performer according to the company's president. Cirque du Soleil is working with authorities to investigate what happened. Cleaning up after a cyclone is an immense task and Australia is getting very familiar with that process. We'll have that story for you, coming up here.



PEDRAM JAVAHERI, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Your weather season not too far away, Meteorologist Pedram Jahaveri watching what's happening across the Southeastern United States.

Some thunderstorm is possible as we go from Monday into Tuesday, some of these storms could exhibit some severe weather potential there across Eastern portions of Alabama into Georgia. Notice some lightning activity already this morning into parts of Louisiana as well. And, of course, as you into April eventually May and June, now we're talking about peak season in (INAUDIBLE)

We're sitting at about 50 percent of the normal tornado count which should be about 150 in the United States in -- so far in 2018, we're sitting at roughly 80 tornadoes. So sitting about half that mark. But 21 is the average -- the temperature expected in Atlanta, some afternoon thunderstorms. Dallas, the warm spot there at 23, Miami makes it up to 31, Los Angeles, a beautiful day here on the final day of winter, up around 19 degrees.

But you notice, we do want to see temps cool off a little bit as we go in towards later in the week. We think the Southeast will be one of the first places to see I think some amount of cooling in-store. Now (INAUDIBLE) Bahamas, sunny sky, 28 degrees, same score out of Mexico City remaining dry with partly cloudy conditions expected.

Working your way towards South America and places like Manaus, about 31, in Rio makes it up to 34 degrees, looking at sunny skies across the board there while in Bogota maybe a few showers there but the upper teens is what we expect, and farther towards the south, Rio Gallegos around 11.

VANIER: OK, welcome back. We want to take you to the CNN Weather Center, we've got the drums on the (INAUDIBLE) for us there.

ALLEN: And Pedram, among your stories, Australia for sure and, well, it's just kind of busy out there.

JAVAHERI: It is. You know, it ended up to transitional seasons right across the southern hemisphere. We're talking about going in from summer wrapping up in autumn, around the corner about 24 hours away for the astronomical start there for the autumn season.

We take a look at the perspective, what's happening across portions of Australia, well just west of Darwin, this was an area in the past couple of days Tropical Cyclone Marcus was near Darwin, now pushing in just north of (INAUDIBLE) but officials really saying a real wakeup call across there for folks in the Darwin area because they (INAUDIBLE) they're immune to such storms. And I want to show you the damage that has been in place across this region of Australia, a tremendous winds over the past several days. So frankly, this is the storm system that had winds only gusting to 120 kilometers per hour, uprooting trees left and right causing significant damage in the wake of this particular storm coming ashore. And, of course, when you take a look at what is in-store with this particular feature, it is now moving away from land.

It is forecast to become a tremendous storm, potentially getting up to what would be 240 kilometers per hour, category four equivalent and this particular storm is going to strengthen dramatically. But you notice it stays well offshore. If it does come close to land, there would be ways down the road here and it could potentially (INAUDIBLE) a little bit towards, say, Perth within the next five or so days. But as of right now, it is a system that is going to move away from land as it strengthens.

This is one that we like to see when it comes to such storms. When there goes again well away from the western coast of Australia. Now, on the opposite end of the continent and really opposite end of the spectrum is what's happening south of Sydney in small community of Tathra, that's about 450 kilometers south of Sydney. Video from this region showing you some bushfires that have consumed over some 40,000 hectares of land over the past couple of days. We now know officials across this region they were saying in September, "Hey, we've had a very dry winter, expect the bushfire season to be a tremendous one."

And unfortunately as we wrap up the summer season here, and it certainly has been the case and you see the conditions across this region, very dry, temps as hot as 38 degrees or hotter than 1 Fahrenheit in the past couple of days across that region. And we take a look at what is in storm, some better news, we do have some cooler temperatures coming in there. The front trying to sneak in to the south as well, so you look at places like Sydney and if the season's change, some of the temperatures drop down to 22, they're on the first full day of autumn.

And you know those temps remaining that way for a few days and rainfall also in the forecast. (INAUDIBLE) a little closer to where that fire is where we know several people have been injured so far with this and also some evacuations in place, also looking at some cooler temperatures. So better news for firefighting effort, guys.

ALLEN: All right. Australia, a busy place --

JAVAHERI: Absolutely it is.

ALLEN: -- in many different ways. Pedram, thank you.


VANIER: Thanks Pedram.

ALLEN: Well many of us know that one teacher that really just mean a lot in our lives and that it made a huge difference. Well there is a teacher in London who is making a big difference and she's getting a proper reward for that in a tune of $1 million.

VANIER: Her name, Andria Zafirakou, she's an art teacher. She works in a disadvantaged area in North London and she won the Global Teacher Prize from the Varkey Foundation, that's an education charity. It's for her work building up students and keeping them safe in and out of the classroom.

Also hundreds of athletes have bid farewell to Pyeongchang as the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games came to a close in South Korea. Competitors said that they were proud to have been a part of what South Korea's president called the "Peace Games."

ALLEN: More than 500 athletes from around the world competed in skiing, hockey, snowboarding, and wheelchair curling. The closing ceremonies kept nine days of sports. Thanks for watching, I'm Natalie Allen.

VANIER: I'm Cyril Vanier. You've got Rosemary Church and George Howell up next. You are in great hands, have a fantastic day.

ALLEN: See you.