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Putin Wins a Landslide Victory; Trump Targets Robert Mueller; Leaders Meet to Plan for U.S.-North Korea Summit; Conflict In Syria; China Presidency; Bush Fires and Cyclone In Northern Australia. Aired 3-4a ET

Aired March 19, 2018 - 03:00   ET



GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR: A big moment for the Russian president. Vladimir Putin winning another election with a landslide victory.

ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN ANCHOR: Meanwhile, the U.K. says it has evidence that Moscow has been stockpiling a poisonous nerve agent and using it for assassinations.

HOWELL: And Turkish troops hang their flag over the center of Afrin, as they push out Kurdish fighters in a bloody battle.

We are live at CNN world headquarters in Atlanta, and we want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm George Howell.

CHURCH: And I'm Rosemary Church. This is CNN Newsroom.

HOWELL: We begin in Russia. And the winner is the Russian President Vladimir Putin, set to lead that nation for another six years. Mr. Putin claiming victory in Sunday's presidential election. And it comes as no surprise. Putin was the only real contender in that race. His main political opponent was banned from running.

CHURCH: Mr. Putin has been in power for 18 years now, either as president or as prime minister. This would be his fourth term as president and should be his last under the Constitution. Here's what he told a crowd of supporters in Moscow.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): 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 in the name of Russia. Thank you.


HOWELL: On the story, CNN senior international correspondent Matthew Chance, live in Moscow. Matthew, the question going into this election is less about which candidate would win, but more about the voter turnout. What more can you tell us about what we're seeing?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you're right. I mean, it was never about who was going to win this. This was essentially a one-horse race. And indeed, that horse Vladimir Putin won the race, as expected.

But the issue of turnout was always a contentious one because of the voter apathy, because of the fact there wasn't a serious democratic challenge to Vladimir Putin. No other candidate came anywhere near Putin in the final vote.

The concern was lots of Russians would simply stay at home and not bother even coming out to cast their ballots. Putin was concerned about it himself because he went on state television a couple days ago before the election appealing to Russians to come out and to, as he said, make their voices heard.

And, you know, it seems to some extent that that happened. I mean, the latest turnout figures that we've got, they're not final figures, but they're quite high, 67.47 percent, according to the Russian election committee of commission, of people eligible to vote in Russia actually turned out. The Kremlin had been floating this idea that they wanted a 70 percent turnout. And so they got somewhere close to that.

HOWELL: Matthew, I'd like to ask you to put this in perspective as well. We heard this from our colleague Jill Dougherty earlier. But for voters who went to the polls, what were the issues mainly on their minds, those who voted for the Russian president? Jill pointed out looking back, a comparison to Boris Yeltsin.

[03:04:54] CHANCE: Yes, and I think that's a good comparison. Putin still benefits from this idea that he represents stability and order, whereas his predecessor Boris Yeltsin was, you know, represented instability and chaos. And Russians I think still vote for Putin on that basis, that he is a strong figure who, you know, has kind of disciplined Russia in some way. And he is immensely popular for that.

People here are, you know, very drawn to the idea that Putin has reinvigorated Russia on the international stage. That it's regarded as a global power once again.

You got to remember after the collapse of the Soviet Union back in the early '90s, this country was humiliated. Many people feel they'd lost their -- felt they lost their place in the world. And it was an impoverished nation.

And throughout the 18 years that Vladimir Putin has been ruling Russia, as president or prime minister, that has transformed dramatically. And it is still now perhaps more than ever before a country that has scored foreign policy victories as it would see it, particularly in Syria and elsewhere.

But basically, a country that has had its pride restored to it. Now having said that, obviously, there are massive problems in Russia. There are economic sanctions against the country. There economy is moribund. And that's something that is playing on the minds of ordinary Russians as well.

HOWELL: Senior international correspondent Matthew Chance, live in Moscow. Thank you for the reporting, Matthew.

CHURCH: Now shortly after claiming victory in Sunday's election, President Putin dismissed claims that Russia was behind the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England.

HOWELL: 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 that substance. But Mr. Putin says Russia is not to blame. Listen.


PUTIN (through translator): We're prepared to cooperate. We said that straight away. We're prepared to take part in any kind of investigation. But for that we need some interest by the other side. And so far that's not been forthcoming. But we are prepared to work together. The issue is still on our agenda.

As far as the general context is concerned, I think that any person with an ounce of common sense would realize that this is rubbish, madness, nonsense. To make these kind of attacks on the eve of our elections and the World Cup. It's absolutely unthinkable. Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, we're willing to work together and overcome the problems.


HOWELL: The Russian president there also saying that Russia destroyed the nerve agent used in that attack long ago.

But the United Kingdom now says it has evidence Russia has been making the deadly substance for the last decade.

Our Melissa Bell reports from London.

MELISSA BELL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It was two weeks ago that Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found unconscious in Salisbury. Since we've seen claims and counter-claims, 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 has also been creating and stockpiling Novichok. (END VIDEO CLIP)

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 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 E.U. to get not only support from the rest of the European bloc, but he hopes further measures of retaliation against Russia.

Melissa Bell, CNN, in London.

HOWELL: Melissa, thank you.

Here in the United States, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have a warning for the U.S. president, leave Robert Mueller alone.

CHURCH: Mr. Trump attacked the special counsel and his team in a series of tweets this weekend. The latest calling into question their impartiality. Now that prompted the White House attorney to assure lawmakers the president is not considering firing Mueller.

Boris Sanchez has the details now from Washington.

[03:09:58] BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: On Sunday we saw President Trump make a distinct shift in the way that he's 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, 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 is 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 Rod Rosenstein, who has repeatedly said that Robert Mueller is carrying out this investigation appropriately, 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 Russian investigation had gone on for so long, and yielded in his eyes few results.

Listen to more from Marc Short.


MARC SHORT, WHITE HOUSE DIRECTOR OF LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS: Everyone in the White House has cooperated on this. And what I said is we have cooperated in every single way, every single paper they have asked for every single interview.

And I think the reality, Margaret is 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've seen not only 13 indictments of Russian nationals for election meddling, but also four indictments of figures within the Trump campaign, people like George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn, among many others.

On top of all of this, you're seeing many republican lawmakers now moving to try to defend Robert Mueller and warn 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 has 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 install safeguards to give Robert Mueller some job security that previously had not gotten anywhere.

But now with the more abrasive stance of 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.

CHURCH: So let's bring in Glenn Shive in Hong Kong. He is the executive director of the Hong Kong America Center. Good to have you with us.


CHURCH: So President Trump went out to special counsel Robert Mueller as we said over the weekend, singling him out by name, which he hasn't done before.

SHIVE: Right.

CHURCH: How likely is it, do you think, that Mr. Trump is planning to fire Mueller?

SHIVE: I think Trump likes to fire people. That's the television show that made him famous. Now this is for real. This is not just TV. And this is something I think he is deeply, deeply considering. And he's a got some people that have left him recently who would otherwise restrain him and explain this is not a good idea.

But now he seems to be more, you know, amongst with himself on a weekend, with his tweet. And he can do himself damage. The issue is obstruction of justice. I mean, if he fires, it has to be for some reason, some cause. Otherwise it looks so obvious to so many people in the country and the world that he has something to hide. And what is that?

And so it just raises the stakes. I don't think it benefits him, except for somehow he likes to sort of get people on edge. He likes to sort of do things that cause speculation, because it draws attention to him. And that's the big story for him.

CHURCH: Now, it's worth pointing out that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham thinks that if President Trump goes ahead and fires Mueller, it could end his presidency. What might some Republicans be planning to do to stop this from happening if he does move this way and is not just venting and testing the water?

SHIVE: Well, I think he is testing the water with this. And Schumer, for the Democrats said in as much, these are trial balloons to see what the reaction might be.

[03:15:02] And also, one looks ahead at the election in November. And increasingly, it's possible, it's plausible that the Democrats could control the House or maybe even both, I mean, if there is a big blue wave. And so in a way, isn't it better to do it now than wait when the Democrats might be actually in control of the committees that could really do him damage.

So, I don't know. You know, who knows how Trump thinks. But there may be a sense in which, you know, he is looking into the financial practices of his businesses that goes back in, you know, to '14 and '13, earlier. The question of laundering money from Russians to the U.S. So he is in a sense, Mueller is following the evidence. And there is a lot. It's not overt collusion.

Obviously, we don't see any overt evidence yet, but there is so much that has already been presented by the special prosecutor and all the indictments. So it gets closer and closer to the White House. And he is feeling the heat just as Nixon did in the Watergate era.

So, if he acts preemptively, he attacks the FBI. He attacks law and justice due process. And this is what he has upheld. He is a president sworn to uphold these things. You know, he is in a delicate relationship with his Republican colleagues on the Senate and the House.

And I think if he could just, if he did something like this preemptively, you know, you could kiss goodbye any kind of legislative, you know, success for the republicans in the coming 6, 8, 10 months before the next election.

And you're feeding the democrats with a narrative, as they say these days, that, you know, he is -- you have to vote against Trump.

CHURCH: All right.

SHIVE: Not that he is on the ballot, but they'll make it a referendum on Trump. So he would be not overtly sort of the end of his presidency, but he would become such a lame duck. So difficult to operate. And look, he is focusing in on doing a very high stakes negotiation with North Korea.

CHURCH: All right.

SHIVE: He's got a lot of other things happening.

CHURCH: Indeed.

SHIVE: For him to sort of stir up a lot of dust here when he might be focusing on other some other big things that he needs to get a success on.

CHURCH: All right. We will see what happens. And see where the republicans stand in his way, if indeed this is what he is intending to do. Glenn Shive, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

HOWELL: I want to update our viewers on a story we're following in the southern part of the United States in Austin, Texas. The FBI on the scene of another explosion. Authorities say that two men in their 20s were taken to the hospital with serious injuries. Both are said to be in good condition.

Police say that the men came upon a device left on the side of the road. They believe a trip wire could have caused it to detonate.

CHURCH: Now earlier this month, three package bombs were delivered to different homes in Austin over a period of 10 days. Two people were killed and two others injured in those blasts. Police said last week those explosions were all connected. They now say they are working under the belief that Sunday's explosion might be related to the previous events.

We'll take a short break here. But still to come, a flurry of diplomatic moves are taking place before the proposed U.S.-North Korea talks.

HOWELL: We'll go live to South Korea for the very latest on what the various sides are hoping to accomplish. Stay with us.

[03:20:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK) CHURCH: Welcome back, everyone.

Representatives from North Korea, South Korea, and the United States are set to meet in Finland ahead of the potential 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 members of the U.S. government. Remember, the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea.

HOWELL: That's right, and some other developments to tell you about. North Korea's foreign minister returned to Beijing earlier after three days of talks in Sweden to discuss security on the Korean peninsula. Sweden has also been helping to negotiate the release of three Americans being held in North Korea.

CHURCH: And let's talk more about this. Our Paula Hancocks joins us now live from Seoul in South Korea. Paula, what is likely to come out of the efforts to release those three Americans in North Korea?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Rosemary, this is part of an ongoing effort that we understand would have been happening for some time. Obviously Sweden does represent the United States when it comes to North Korea, as North Korea does not have diplomatic ties or an embassy in Pyongyang. So Sweden has been involved in the past when it comes to trying to secure the release of detained Americans.

Now there are three still in detention. The source close to these discussions tells CNN that they are trying to point out to North Korea that it would show that things are moving in the right direction ahead of that potential meeting between the U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

So, certainly, that's what we are expecting at this point. I don't think it would come as any surprise to hear that there are some efforts to be able to release these three men.

We've also heard from the South Korean side as well independently that there have been efforts to try and secure the release of six South Koreans who were detained currently in North Korea. Ahead of that meeting between the North and the South Korean leaders, experts saying that it really is a fairly easy way of North Korea showing willing and showing that it is moving things in the right direction. Rosemary?

[03:25:01] CHURCH: All right. A lot of fingers crossed in the hope that there will be a breakthrough there. Paula Hancocks joining us live from Seoul, South Korea. Many thanks to you.

HOWELL: U.S. and British lawmakers are calling for investigations into Facebook and a data firm with ties to the president's 2016 campaign.

CHURCH: At issue are reports that Cambridge Analytica gathered private information on millions of Facebook users without their knowledge or permission. Brian Stelter has the details.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, yes. Misuse of Facebook data is at the center of this scandal involving both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Now Cambridge Analytica is a consulting firm that has been in the news largely for its 2016 work in the presidential election here in the United States. There have been various claims about how important Cambridge Analytica was to Donald Trump's election victory, with some giving the company a lot of credit for its detailed voter profiles, enabling the Trump campaign to target individual voters.

Of course, lots of other political campaigns here in the U.S. and all around the world are trying to do the same thing. It's an increasingly common campaign tactic. But the allegation now, according to the New York Times and the Observer newspapers is that, Facebook data was misused, mishandled by Cambridge Analytica, perhaps involving the Trump campaign.

Now the consulting firm denies that the data was used during the campaign. However, this whistleblower Christopher Wylie says otherwise. He says he saw gigabyte of this data on the company's servers as recently as last year.

Now, Facebook is trying to recover from what is yet another black eye for the company with regards to how its data is managed. And what role it might have played in the U.S. presidential election.

In a new statement on Sunday, Facebook says "We are conducting a comprehensive internal and external review and are working to determine the accuracy of the claims that the Facebook data in question still exists."

At the heart of this is whether Cambridge Analytica deleted the data it had when it was supposed to or whether it secretly held on to users' information for a number of years. Because of the uncertainty, Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica's account on Friday. There is no word on whether it can be renewed.

In the meantime, Democratic lawmakers here in the U.S. as well as outside critics are calling for a further investigation and new regulations to involve Facebook's use or misuse of data.

Brian Stelter, CNN, New York.

HOWELL: All right, Brian, thanks.

Still ahead here on the show, Syrian troops, they get a VIP visit. What we now know about the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad's trip to Eastern Ghouta, ahead.

Plus this.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Trump, Macron, you're vampires who incited Erdogan to attack us," this man says.


CHURCH: Outrage in northern Syria as Turkish troops push into Afrin. How Kurdish fighters are vowing to respond. We'll have that when we come back.


[03:30:00] CHURCH: A very warm welcome back to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. You are watching "CNN Newsroom." I'm Rosemary Church.

HOWELL: And I'm George Howell with the headlines we're following for you this hour. International chemical weapons experts will be in England Monday. They'll be testing samples of the nerve agent used to poison a former Russian spy and his daughter.

Britain's foreign secretary says the United Kingdom has evidence that Russia has been making and stockpiling the nerve agent Novichok over the last decade. Russia, though, denies that accusation.

CHURCH: Sweden is hoping to 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 the pending talks between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.

HOWELL: The Russian presidential election and the winner is Vladimir Putin, set to extend his grip on power for another six years. And as expected, he is claiming victory in Sunday's presidential election. His main political opponent had been barred from running. This would be Mr. Putin's fourth presidential term and should be his last under the rules of the nation's constitution.

CHURCH: And in his 18 years in power, President Putin has led Russia into multiple spats with the west, but his supporters at home continue to back him.

HOWELL: Our Lynda Kinkade explains why so many Russians hold Vladimir Putin in such high regard.


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


KINKADE (voice over): The Russian leader campaigned only a little ahead of the presidential election. Here (INAUDIBLE), 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 strengthened. Moscow's global clout expanded. National pride was restored. Since then, Putin's popularity has rarely faltered, as he continues consolidating power, flexing Russia's vast military might at home and abroad.

Russia's seizure of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and incursions into Syria started (INAUDIBLE) on a collision course with the west.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Mr. Putin in my second term has had an increasing tendency to view the world through a cold war prism.

KINKADE (voice over): Despite the crippling sanctions that resulted, goading international leaders prompted searches of Russian patriotism and sent Putin's approval ratings soaring. In his most recent provocation, Putin boasted of a new invincible 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 interests in a hostile world, and quickly shot down criticism.

[03:35:07] 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 opponents was banned from running in this year's election. Moscow citing a fraud conviction. The E.U. Court of Human Rights says he was deprived of a fair trial.

ALEXEI NAVALNY, RUSSIAN OPPOSITION LEADER (through translator): He is scared of all real competition. We see in these elections that he only allowed those to run who do not even resist, do 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 the sociologists and political analysts love to talk about, they exist in only one scenario. When Putin places the candidates, he controls.

KINKADE (voice over): The Russian leader's talent for self-promotion has also created a cult of personality, carefully crafting his image as a deep sea diving, flying and bared-chested horseback riding, (INAUDIBLE) outdoors man with a soft side.

But some serious problems do lay ahead. For one, sanctions and low oil prices have handicapped the economy with a high unemployment and a tumbling ruble. But the former law student and KGB officer who climbed from city official to Russian president in less than a decade has shown the world one thing. UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice over): Russia! Russia!

KINKADE (voice over): Vladimir Putin is here to stay.

Lynda Kinkade, CNN.


HOWELL: Lynda, thank you. On the ground in what's left of Eastern Ghouta, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad stopped by for a visit amid the rubble there. State media reported that he visited with troops in the besieged enclave east of Damascus on Sunday.

CHURCH: A government offensive 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.

HOWELL: Also in Syria, Kurdish forces say the battle for Afrin is not over yet. This after Turkey reportedly seized a town, the town center on Sunday with allied rebels. The area had been controlled by the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic forces and the Kurdish YPG.

CHURCH: Video appears to show Turkish-led forces in firm control, but a YPG official says the group will fight until there is no Turkish soldier left in Afrin. Kurdish groups are also outraged over photos like these. They appear to show Turkish allied rebels in Afrin and the toppled statue of a mythical Kurdish hero. The violence in Afrin has been devastating for civilians.

HOWELL: It appears no target is off limits including hospitals. CNN's Ben Wedeman has more and a warning, this report does contain graphic content.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): 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 the Syrian rebel allies took control of most of the town. Relatives tried to comfort Zena (ph). Her 3-month-old son, Asis (ph), was killed in an airstrike.

"I lost my little child," she cries. "Where are you, my son?" The death of Asis (ph) may be just another statistic in the slaughterhouse that is Syria. Not to his mother.


WEDEMAN (voice over): Asha Abdu (ph) can't take the sounds of jets and bombs anymore. Asha's (ph) wounds are inside her head. Dr. Mohammed Deysay (ph) is Afrin's last psychiatrist. He says the rest fled. He can only give his patients half doses. Supplies of medicine are running low.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is psychotic episodes and depression and anxiety and something suicidal to get rid of this war. Some people try to suicidal to injure themselves and kill themselves.

WEDEMAN (voice over): Further to the east, the Kurds were key American and western allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria.

[03:40:01] But here, alone in their hour of need, they're at the mercy of the Turks and thee Syrian rebel fighters.

"Trump, Macron, you're vampires who incited Erdogan to attack us," this man says. Bombs and rockets don't discriminate between soldier and civilians. Everyone is in the line of fire.


WEDEMAN (voice over): Enduring the pain of war, tormented by the agony of those they love.

Ben Wedeman, CNN.


HOWELL: For the very latest, let's bring in CNN's Ian Lee, following the story live in Istanbul, Turkey. Ian, certainly the images in that story that Ben shared with us, they give our viewers a sense of what's happening, what people are dealing with. The hellish situation as the fighting continues.

I want to ask you, though, to tell us about the video. And if we could pull this up, the image of this statue that was toppled. Because, Ian, you were pointing out this is very significant.

IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, George. It is very significant. And that's because this is a statue of Kawa, a blacksmith who is a folk hero among the Kurdish people. And at the beginning of Operation Olive Branch, the Turks were very vocal about how this isn't an operation against the Kurds.

They say this is an operation against who they see as terrorists in the Afrin region, that is the YPG. But toppling the statue does send a message to the Kurds everywhere because all Kurds revere this person and so there is a doubt.

This casts doubt in their hearts that they will be treated fairly when the Turks take over as well with their free Syrian army allies. And there is also pictures we're seeing from Afrin where there is widespread looting taking place as well.

So all of this, you know, when you're a refugee, one of these people who fled from the fighting, when you look at this, it makes -- it raises questions about returning home. Will they be treated fairly? They call this Operation Olive Branch. But will the Turks extend an olive branch to the people who have been displaced? HOWELL: Ian, let's talk about the people. Because, again, we spend a great deal of time talking about the leaders involved in this. We talked about the political motivations of different sides involved in the fighting.

But at the end of the day, the images that we just saw in Ben's report, the people, the civilians, these people who are trying to escape all the violence, what is in it for them right now? Just given the fact that we understand Turkey is seizing the center of Afrin, but the fighting continues.

LEE: That's right. Afrin was the main objective, George, of this operation. But the Kurds to the south as well as their allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces, they still own territory. They vowed to keep on fighting.

This battle has displaced 150,000 people. You know, dozens of civilians have been killed in the fighting, as we saw in Ben's report. You could see some of the people who have been killed. This has been a devastating attack on this region.

And so when it does come to the civilians about trying to go back, a lot of them, you know, would like to go back. They blame the YPG for not supporting them, not defending them. But it's unlikely that the YPG will be able to launch an offensive and retake territory they lost. They've been on the defensive the entire time.

So the question is, what happens to these 150,000 people? Will they be able to go back? And we've seen the looting. Will they be treated well by the FSA and the Turks if they try to go back? That's the question now, George.

HOWELL: That is the question. Ian Lee, live for us, thank you for the report.

CHURCH: We will take a very short break here. Still to come, for China's Communist Party members, a trip to the village Xi Jinping once lived in is an education in itself. The tributes paid to China's powerful president.

HOWELL: Plus, I want to tell you about a bush fire that is destroying dozens of homes in a small Australian coastal town. Authorities are warning people to stay alert. More on that ahead.


CHURCH: Xi Jinping's unanimous reappointment as China's president is generating language once used to describe Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People's Republic of China. The Communist Party's people's daily is calling Mr. Xi the helmsman of the country.

HOWELL: Matt Rivers reports the adoration has spurred thousands of ambitious party members to visit the village where President Xi himself was sent years ago for re-education.


MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Critics call him China's new emperor. But in this small village, adoration abounds for President Xi Jinping.

"All we need are Chairman Mao and President Xi," says this visitor.

Xi lived here for years in the early '70s, transformed recently from an unknown backwater to a shrine for a living president. The smartly dressed tour guide showed us where she slept. An old picture on the wall. We saw 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, paying homage.

(on camera): 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.

(voice over): 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 on the wall. Mao held up as a great revolutionary leader with no mention of his ruthless reign that saw tens of millions die from starvation and political violence.

His unchecked power led to disastrous policies like the cultural revolution in the 1960s and 70s. Xi's father, a senior politician, was persecuted and imprisoned. And like young people from cities across China, Xi himself was sent for, quote, re-education 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.

[03:49:58] Xi's recent power grab has drawn inevitable comparisons to the perils of the past, with critics saying his clampdown on personal liberties and jailing of political opponents harken 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, that guy is following us.

RIVERS (voice over): 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 dissent, a system of one-man rule coming full circle. Matt Rivers, CNN, Shanxi Province, China.


CHURCH: And we'll take a short break. Still to come, cleaning up after a cyclone is of course a huge task. And Australia is getting very familiar with the process. We'll have the forecast for you next here on "CNN Newsroom."


CHURCH: All right. We do want to turn to the weather now around the world and meteorologist Pedram Javaheri joins us now. And let's focus on Australia first because there is brush fires and a cyclone to deal with.

[03:55:02] Bring us up to date on the situation there.

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, CNN WEATHER ANCHOR: It's on the opposite ends of the continent too. This video incredible coming out of Darwin here, showing you what has been happening in the last couple of days. Tropical cyclone Marcus that came ashore here, literally uprooting trees across this region, winds breaking everything apart.

We're talking about 120-kilometer per hour winds at a storm that is going to strengthen tremendously over the next couple of days. We'll put the maps in motion, show you what we have in store with this, because the storm does strengthen, in fact goes up to what would be almost a Category Five equivalent-type storm but it does so as it pushes away from land. Fantastic news.

I do want to bring it a little bit closer towards the coastline by the end of the week, but again, comfortably enough away from the communities there to not be a major concern. On the opposite side of the continent, we go Tathra, which is a few hundred kilometers south of Sydney.

Look at the scenes across this region. It had major, major brush fires in the last couple of days across this area. Temperatures needless to say have been scorching high in the upper 30s, around 40 degrees in this part of New South Wales. And we know, of course, the last season. When the winter season ended, very little rain had come down.

Folks were saying this region of Australia, you could be in for a brush fire season. That would be one to remember. And of course, that has been the case now in the past several weeks and several months.

We know 40,000 hectares with this particular set of fires have been consumed now. Seventy structures lost in the last several days. Seven hundred evacuated as well, sitting there just southeast of Canberra where the location of this latest fire is which I believe to be a lightning strike set it off there on Saturday.

But you notice as we transition into the season here, autumn around the corner, look at this. Rainfall, beneficial certainly and the cooler temperatures, all of it going to help with the firefighting effort. Guys?

CHURCH: All right. Thanks so much, Pedram. A lot for Australia to deal with there. And thank you for watching "CNN Newsroom." I'm Rosemary Church.

HOWELL: And I'm George Howell. The news continues here on CNN.