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More People Found Dead and 215 Still Missing in South Korean Ferry Sinking; Bluefin 21 On Ninth Mission; Pro-Russian Occupiers Refuse To Leave; Russia Says No Influence; Stowaway Story

Aired April 21, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, divers are searching the cold, murky waters for victims of the capsized ferry while South Korea's president is calling the action, of the captain and crew, quote, "akin to murder."

Also right now, a massive anti-terror operation is underway in Yemen, targeting one of the world's most dangerous terror groups.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. In South Korea, the death toll in the ferry disaster is likely to rise sharply now that rescue divers have located many of the victims inside the sunken ship. Most of them are teenagers. One by one, the bodies are brought back to port, identified by their heart-broken families and then added to the total.

Right now, 87 are confirmed dead. Another 215 are still missing. Divers say they're crying either day as they carry out the grim task. Underwater conditions are extremely dangerous. With powerful currents, bone-chilling cold and low visibility. Yet many families continue to hold out hope their loved ones are still alive within air pockets in the hull.

Our Paula Hancocks is joining us live from the port city of Jindo in South Korea right now. Paula, we're six days into the tragedy. How likely is it there possibly could be more survivors?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, at this point, this is still a search and rescue operation. We spoke to the spokesperson of the joint task force and he said that, at this point, they haven't found any air pockets within the ship. But it's not out of the realm of possibility that there could be air pockets. So, he said, basically, the reason he thinks that is because the ship has not sunk any further. It's now about 30 to 50 feet below the surface of the water, according to this official. And he says it's been there for a number of days now. It's maintaining its flotation level. And so, this is why he believes it is possible that there could be air pockets inside.

But, of course, it is incredibly difficult for divers to even get close to the ship, let alone get inside those cabins that they haven't reached yet. The visibility is very poor. We're hearing it's something between 30 and 40 centimeters. And some divers can't even see their hands in front of them, it's such bad visibility. But they are continuing to try to get inside the cabins. They're trying to get inside the cafeteria, at this point, because it did happen earlier in the morning. About 9:00 in the morning is when the distress signal was starting, 8:55 a.m. Most people, they believe, would have been at breakfast and may be trapped inside the cafeteria -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Four more crew members, Paula, they're now facing charges in this tragedy. Tell us about that.

HANCOCKS: That's right, yes, four more crew members. This just adds to the crew members that have already been charged. The captain has been charged on five counts. If found guilty, he has a maximum of a life sentence that he could be conserving. And, also, the third mate, who we know was behind the wheel, was at the helm in steering the ship at the time of the accident. She has also been charged on three counts and also a second crew member.

So, at this point, we are seeing more crew members being brought into litigation. We're also seeing an unusual statement from the president of South Korea. Park Gun Hi basically saying that what the captains and the crew members did was, quote, "akin to murder." So, a very strong statement at a time when an investigation is still ongoing -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Paula Hancocks reporting from South Korea for us. Thank you. And we'll have more on this story later this hour.

We could be seeing some big changes ahead in the search for Flight 370. The underwater robot, that so-called Bluefin 21, is now in its ninth mission to scour the seabed in the southern Indian Ocean. It's already scanned two-thirds of the search zone. So far, has found no, repeat, no sign of the plane. Officials from both Australia and Malaysia say it's now time to regroup and reassess the search operations no matter what the Bluefin 21 comes up with during the course of the next few days.

Erin McLaughlin is in Perth, Australia with the very latest.

ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the next few days are absolutely critical to this operation. Right now, they're looking in the area that is basically their best guess as to where this black box is based on detailed and exhaustive analysis of those pings that had been detected by the towed pinger locator.

The second ping, in particular, was the strongest of the four signals, lasting 13 minutes. And what they're doing is they're searching a six-mile radius around that point. And as of this morning, they were two-thirds of the way through with that particular narrowed search area. Australian authorities said they expected to have completed that search area by the end of the week. That was dependent on a couple factors. It was dependent on the Bluefin 21's performance as well as the weather.

And the weather could be an issue. To the north of the search area today, a tropical cyclone called Jack which was making its way towards the search area, although forecasters said they expect it to largely dissipate by the time it gets there, though it could lead to heavy winds and rains and waves. Now, Australian officials and Malaysian officials already beginning to think next steps if, at the end of this time period, they've exhausted this search area and ruled it out. What will they do next? Authorities saying that it's possible they could broaden out the search area, introduce more submersibles. Something they're definitely thinking about in Perth today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Erin McLaughlin, thank you. Erin is in Perth, Australia.

Coming up later this hour, we are going to bring in our panel of experts. I am going to ask them what needs to be done next, as a major reassessment of the search could be coming within the next few days.

Moving to Yemen right now where the government there has launched, and I'm quoting now, "a massive and unprecedented attack on Al Qaeda operatives." They're targeting members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula which certainly is one of the most dangerous groups of the terror organization.

Joining us now, our own -- our own Mohammed Jamjoom who's been following this story for us. Mohammed, you've spent a lot of time in Yemen. You know what's going on. For viewers who haven't been following this, we did see some videotape come up over the past few days, videotape first shown by our own Barbara Starr here on CNN, showing a sort of celebration, Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, then Al Qaeda operatives in Somalia, high definition T.V. images. And now, all of a sudden, the U.S., with the cooperation of the Yemeni government, goes in there, the drone strikes, and starts killing a bunch of these Al Qaeda operatives.

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And there's definitely a connection there. My sources telling me that because this tape that was released was so brazen, was such a display from, you know, Yemeni, Al Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula leaders that they are comfortable there in Yemen which is their home base, that the U.S. and the Yemeni government had to respond. This was a major embarrassment for them. You are talking about two countries that have collaborated so closely over the past several years to try to vanquish AQAP which is the most dangerous wing in the Al Qaeda network.

So, now, after years of drone strikes, you're seeing these leaders really just kind of thumbing their nose at the Americans, at the Yemeni, showing just how at ease they are there in Yemen. So, there had to be a response. And that's what's happened. And what's more interesting of the fact that just -- not that there's just drone strikes but also that there's Yemeni commandos on the ground in parts of Yemen now looking for high-value targets. And that operation is still ongoing even at this hour.

BLITZER: When you have a big group of suspected terrorists together, 30 of them in one particular case, this would require the president of the United States personally to sign off on using these drones with these hellfire missiles to go in there, target, for assassination, these individuals. It's a big deal when you're going after a big target. Do we know if any of the so-called high-value targets were eliminated or killed in this operation?

JAMJOOM: What I've been told is that last night, there were Yemeni Special Forces, an elite group of Special Forces that were on the ground in Shabwa which is a real hotbed for militancy. It's surprising enough that they were actually there because this is a part of Yemen that the military, for a weak central government, doesn't usually go into. There's boots on the ground there. They go in. They ambush a group of militants they suspect of being high-value targets in the AQAP organization. They're all killed. Then a Yemeni helicopter lands there. They whisk the bodies away and they have started DNA testing. They seem to be coming to a consensus that possibly they have killed some major high-value targets in this organization. But they want to be sure before they announce it because they don't know if it will have any kind of degrading effect on this organization.

BLITZER: Because there was some speculation maybe they tried to kill that master bomb maker, Al Asiri, right?

JAMJOOM: We know that there are Saudis -- Saudi members of the AQAP that have been killed over the past few days. There's been a lot of speculation in Yemen that, perhaps, one of those killed is Ibrahim Al Asiri. He is a very, very high-value target. He is possibly the most wanted man in Yemen. He is a master bomb maker. He's been responsible for trying to launch huge attacks against the U.S. and Middle East, neighbors of Yemen and Yemen. And, now, there's speculation that he's been killed. But the Yemenis I'm talking to, they don't want to go that far yet. They want to go proceed with these DNA tests and then see what happens.

BLITZER: Mohammed Jamjoom who has been in Yemen and done some excellent reporting for us on this as other subjects. Thanks very much. If you hear more, you'll let us know. Thank you.


BLITZER: Up next, Ukraine, including the arrival of the vice president, Joe Biden. So, what's the message to the Ukrainian government? We'll take a closer look. Our own Christiane Amanpour standing by to join us.


BLITZER: Now, to eastern Ukraine where Russia is denying again having a hand in that separatist movement. They also say they don't have any troops there. But new evidence obtained by CNN points to the contrary. The Ukrainian government provided these pictures as evidence, they say, of Russia's direct involvement. They show troops in familiar green uniforms in parts of eastern Ukraine. The green uniforms are identical to those worn by the Russian army, though they don't have insignias. The same charges were leveled (ph) during the buildup in Crimea. CNN has not been able to authenticate these photos that were provided.

The vice president, by the way, Joe Biden, arrived in Ukraine earlier today. He's meeting with U.S. embassy staff. Tomorrow, he'll meet formerly with Ukrainian government leaders in the capital of Kiev. The vice president is delivering a strong message of support to Ukraine from Washington. The vice president's visit comes at a very tricky time for Ukraine's new government. Pro-Russian militants continue to occupy around a dozen government buildings in eastern Ukraine. And the deal they made last week in Geneva has gone, at least so far, nowhere. Last week's deal should have ended the occupations but militant leaders are ignoring the orders. And now, Ukraine is giving in to some of their demands over language and autonomy.

Joining us now from London is our Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour. Christiane, are the 40,000 Russian troops right across the border from Ukraine? Along that border, they are still inside Russia? Some are suggesting that that is such intimidation and that's to blame for the inaction. What do you think?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, those troops are there precisely to bring pressure on the Ukrainian authorities in this political transitional period. You know, their elections are coming up and Russia's president Putin wanting to get maximum leverage, and to get the maximum he possibly can, in terms of political decentralization in the east. And that is what they're pressing for. All the while, threatening and saying they could invade if they have to.

Now, what is incredibly important are these pictures that the Ukrainian government has provided. Also CNN's Arwa Damon last week got accession to the Ukrainian state security offices, who showed her passports that they had captured of Russian military officers they said, along with weapons and ammunition, also Russian intelligence operatives.

So nobody really who knows this story believes that the systemic taking of buildings and sites inside eastern Ukraine was just sort of, you know, random, rag-tag pro-separatist militias there. They have been described as heavily armed and highly disciplined military formations. Even SACEG (ph), that is the NATO Supreme Commander General Breedlove has said the same in his latest blog.

So, everybody has known that that is happening. Now there is visual proof of it. and, let's not forget, that President Putin himself, in his marathon television address on Thursday, confirmed what he had previously denied, that in Crimea, Russian forces were behind the taking of Crimea and the taking of those buildings and the referendum and the succession that then followed.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Because these pictures that were made available by the Ukrainians -


BLITZER: They show faces - they show faces of individuals -

AMANPOUR: That's right. BLITZER: They say they have identified these individuals by name as individuals who formally worked for Russian security services or Russian intelligence. Has there been any reaction, Christiane, as far as you know from the Russians themselves to this evidence?

AMANPOUR: Yes, the Russians deny it, but they've been denying a lot of things for a long time. And as I say, even some reporters and some residents in those parts of eastern Ukraine, when they have asked these Russians, or rather these masked and camouflaged people who they are, they have said, many of them, that they come from Russia. So, this is now right out into the open. And it's interesting because according to military and security expert, what's happened is there is a gradation of militant separatists personnel. In other words, you've got the very disciplined -- now we're being told Russian operatives who are sort of on the periphery and doing the heavy work, and then you have sort of the rag-tag local residents who come up and sort of, you know, wave some flags and, you know, wear some kind of a bandanna around their head and probably occupy a couple of buildings. But this is actually, they're saying now, being absolutely directed and militarily by Russian military officers. And that is what Ukrainians are saying. As I've said, they have showed evidence to CNN, passports, other such things, that they say they have captured in - from eastern Ukraine.

But beyond that, many in Europe right now, particularly in the Baltics, EU members and NATO members of those former Soviet Republics that border Russia, are very concerned that Europe quote/unquote doesn't get it, that people don't understand how determined President Putin is to, as he sees it, right an historical wrong, grab what he called new Russia, referring to a historic term. He called them -- he called that area that on Thursday. And the Baltic states, particularly the Estonian president, said a lot more needs to be done for deterrence and to really be able to match what Putin is doing and push him back and don't let him go any further.

BLITZER: How important is the Joe Biden visit to Ukraine that has just started?

AMANPOUR: Well, you know, it's really interesting. Obviously, the United States is the new Ukrainian government's biggest and most powerful backer. That has caused - is causing a huge amount of anger in Russia. Even today, the Russian foreign minister lashed out at the United States saying, hey, we're not to blame for any of this, your clients (ph) in Kiev are to blame for the unraveling of this peace deal.

Let's not forget that those separatists have not gotten out of any of the buildings in eastern Ukraine as they were meant to, but Russia - rather Ukraine obviously needs U.S. support. They're not going to get U.S. military support, but they need U.S. political support, U.S. financial support, and maybe even some kind of advice and help on how to form the kind of military security service to confront and be able to stand up to what Russia is doing.

BLITZER: Christiane Amanpour reporting for us from London. Christiane, thank you. We're going to have more on Ukraine a little bit later this hour, including Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House. He's weighing in passionately on the dispute. We'll get his thoughts on the actions of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

And still to come, a teen's incredible story, supposedly being a stowaway. It's raising more than just a little eyebrows, raising security concerns. That and more coming up.


BLITZER: Truly an incredible story if - and it's a huge, huge if - if it turns out to be true, and a lot of folks are very, very skeptical. A 16-year-old claims, claims he survive a flight from San Jose, California, to Maui in Hawaii, in the landing gear wheel - wheel well of a Boeing 767. Dan Simon is joining us now from San Jose International Airport.

A lot of folks are totally doubtful that this is possible, that someone, 16-year-old, can survive at 35,000 feet without oxygen for four or five hours or whatever at 40 degrees below zero and emerge, walk away. What are they saying at San Jose Airport where you are, Dan?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, first of all, you can certainly understand that skepticism for the reasons you outlined. But you talk to the public information officer here, the woman who represents the airport, she says she's been in touch with both the TSA and the FBI and at this point they are believing this young man's story. And if, in fact, it did occur, there are really two separate issues here, Wolf. First we're talking about a security breach, which would be monumental, the fact that he could scale a fence here at the airport, at least that is what this young man saying, that he scaled a fence and then somehow made his way to the Hawaiian airliner and then got into the wheel well. That is a huge security breach. And then, obviously, the survivability angle. The fact that he could go some 38,000 feet in the air, as you said, Wolf, with limited oxygen, temperatures 80 below zero, that he could survive that is truly remarkable.

I want you to listen now to the public information officer address those security concerns. Take a look.


ROSEMARY BARNES, SAN JOSE AIRPORT PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICER: We have a security program here at San Jose Airport that we coordinate in conjunction with TSA, with our San Jose Police Department and so many other people that work hereby at our airport. However, no system is 100 percent. And it appears that this teenager scaled a section of our perimeter and was able to proceed on to our ramp under cover of darkness and enter the wheel well of an aircraft.


SIMON: So one of the unspoken things here, Wolf, is that if we had this young man do it, and as you said there is some skepticism here, but if in fact it did occur, it raises the concern that a terrorist could essentially do the same thing, that a terrorist could get on to a tarmac and maybe even put a bomb inside the wheel well of a plane. Those are the questions that are being asked at this point.

In terms of the survivability angle, if, in fact -- again, we want to stress we don't know, in fact, this did occur, but if it did, we've spoken to medical experts who theorize that one thing that could have happened, that his body could have gone to a so-called hibernation mode, almost like a bear, where when the temperatures get that low, that your body doesn't need a whole lot of oxygen to survive and that whatever oxygen was available, his body used that in a very efficient manner. At least that's what the doctors are saying at this point.


BLITZER: Yes, to me, a stowaway is possible but he probably stowed away some place where it was warmer, where there was some oxygen. Maybe he said he was in the wheel well or whatever, but it doesn't pass the commonsense test that somebody could survive that long of a period at that kind of altitude with no oxygen really for all practical purposes at that freezing, freezing temperatures, and survive and be in relatively good condition as apparently this boy is. What is the condition of the boy right now?

SIMON: He's apparently in decent condition. He was taken away by ambulance, went to a hospital simply for observation purposes. What he told authorities is that he got into some kind of argument with his family. He was a runaway child. And that's why he made his way to the San Jose Airport, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, maybe he got on the plane and hid out someplace else and survived that flight to Hawaii. We'll find out. Dan Simon reporting for us from San Jose, thank you.

Much more coming up on the ferry disaster in South Korea, including charges of abandoning ship filed against the captain. An expert in maritime law will join us with some legal insights.

And later, Vladimir Putin's plans for a new Russia. Is expansion and occupation part of the plan? We'll take a closer look.