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Israel Launches Ground Invasion of Gaza; Malaysia Airlines Flight Crashes in Ukraine

Aired July 17, 2014 - 16:00   ET



Breaking news on two huge stories unfolding at this hour, a passenger plane crash in Ukraine within 295 people on board, and, of course, in the Middle East, Israel Defense Forces launching a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip after days and days of trading attacks in the air with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group.

We're going to get into all of that right now with our own Wolf Blitzer, host of "THE SITUATION ROOM." He's in Jerusalem.

Wolf, what is happening there and what are the Israelis hoping this will accomplish?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The Israelis hope to try to destroy as much of Hamas' rockets, artillery, mortars, some of the missiles, their underground tunnels. They are now on the ground. They are moving in.

As you know, Jake, they have mobilized about 50,000 reservists over the past few days, and Israel's army is now moving into Gaza. So it's not just an air war, not just Israeli airstrikes against Hamas targets in Gaza, not just naval strikes from the Mediterranean coast into Gaza, but now Israeli ground forces, as I say, boots on the ground, tanks, armored personnel carriers, other heavy equipment moving in.

Here's a couple sentences from the IDF official statement, the Israel Defense Forces statement that was just released only moments ago.

"Following 10 days of Hamas attacks by land, air and sea, and after repeated rejections of offer to de-escalate the situation, the Israel Defense Forces has initiated a ground operation within the Gaza Strip. The IDF's objective as defined by the Israeli government is to establish a reality in which Israeli residents can live in safety and security without continued indiscriminate terror, while striking a significant blow to Hamas' terror infrastructure."

And, Jake, it's significant because the statement then goes on to outline all of the various units of the Israel Defense Forces, the Israeli military, that are involved, not just some selected units, but it looks like the entire team that they have, including, among other things, infantry, armored corps, engineer corps, artillery, intelligence combined with aerial and naval support. So this is a pretty significant operation right now. And, as you

know, the Gaza Strip is a very, very heavily populated area, very small area. About 1.8 million Palestinians live there. The Israelis over the past several days have urged Palestinians in the northern part specifically to leave their homes, go to some sort of safe area.

But as Ben Wedeman and so many other reporters who are there have reported, there aren't a whole lot of safe areas in the Gaza Strip right now. So there will be a lot of casualties. Presumably, Hamas insurgents will be killed, but there will be a lot of civilian casualties, I suspect. There will be Israeli casualties as well.

So far, one Israeli has been killed over the past 10 days of the missile and rocket strikes coming into Israel. I suspect Israeli soldiers will be among those casualties, because Hamas has been bracing for this. They have prepared for it. They have got some heavy weapons. So this could be pretty brutal.

TAPPER: And of course more than 200 Palestinians have been killed since this military back and forth started. And according to the United Nations, most of them have been civilian.

Wolf, has the IDF or the Israeli government said at all whether or not U.S. -- I'm sorry -- whether or not Israeli troops once they go in will be coming out? Because, obviously, there is a history of Israeli forces going into Gaza and occupying Gaza for decades. Are they saying this is a short-term operation or are they not saying anything on the subject?

BLITZER: Well, over the past week that I have been here, I have been briefed and I have spoken to a lot of Israeli military analysts, Israeli military officers. They say that if the order is given by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to go in on the ground -- and that order has been now given -- the Israeli cabinet, the security cabinet has approved a ground invasion of Gaza -- they say the operation will be limited to destroying Hamas military capabilities.

The operation will not be designed to reoccupy Gaza. Israel withdrew from Gaza back in 2005. It will be designed to cripple Hamas' military capabilities as much as possible over the next several days. Everyone knows there's going to be enormous pressure for a cease-fire. I suspect the Israelis will try to destroy as much of Hamas' capabilities as they can and retreat and then they will retreat and then they will go back to Israel.

But that's just my suspicion. I don't know for sure. I don't know how far the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu is willing to go. But military planners and others in Israel have told me over the past few days if they go in on the ground, and all of us anticipated that they would, it would be designed to punish Hamas, destroy their military capabilities and then get out.

TAPPER: All right, Wolf Blitzer in Jerusalem.

Later in the hour, we will be going to one of our reporters in Gaza. Let's turn back now to CNN's breaking news coverage of the

tragedy in the air over Ukraine. A Malaysia Airlines passenger jet, Flight 17, crashing with 295 people on board, all of them now presumed dead. Officials in Ukraine where the plane went down a matter of hours ago are claiming that pro-Russian separatists shot the jet out of the sky. That's a claim that has so far been denied.

Joining us now on the phone is Pavlo Klimkin. He's the Ukrainian foreign minister.

Sir, your government is maintaining that pro-Russia separatists are the ones responsible. Is that right?

Are you there, sir? Can you hear me? We seem to be having problems with the connection with Pavlo Klimkin.

Jim Sciutto, our chief national security correspondent, let's talk about this incident in Ukraine, although we have no shortage of big stories to talk about worldwide.

Is there evidence that the United States government finds credible that pro-Russian separatists shot down this plane?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: The answer from the United States' government perspective is no. They're saying they don't have conclusive evidence yet.

From the Ukrainian government perspective -- and I have been speaking to a number of officials there since this morning -- they say they have evidence. And I will give you what they give. One is that they believe that it was a Russian Buk, so-called Buk system that was used to shoot down this plane, in part because it has the capability to hit a passenger jet at 33,000 feet, in part because two weeks ago pro-Russian separatists captured just such a weapons system in Eastern Ukraine in a Ukrainian military base.

And in fact they bragged about it and Russian TV aired pictures of them in possession of this Buk weapons system. It doesn't mean that they fired it today, but this is the evidence that Ukrainian officials...

TAPPER: They have the capability to do so.

SCIUTTO: The capability to do so. So they had the weapon that -- this weapon has the range to hit a plane at that the altitude.

And, three, another point that Ukrainian officials have made to me, that it's their judgment, again, this is an early judgment, that the plane looks like it broke apart at altitude, which would indicate or at least support the idea of a missile strike. This is not confirmed by U.S. officials.

It is certainly an early assessment from Ukrainian officials, but Ukrainian -- for what it's worth, Ukrainian officials have no doubt that pro-Russian separatists brought this plane down and in fact they take a step further, saying that these are weapons -- they blame not just the separatists, but they blame the Russians as well.

I was speaking to the deputy foreign minister a short time ago. He said Putin is responsible. In his words, the world needs to stop Putin, because Russia supports terrorist actions like this, which is what the Ukrainian president has called this, a terrorist action.

TAPPER: And, in fact, the former United States ambassador to the Russian Federation, Michael McFaul, earlier today pointing to social media accounts, said that a man named Igor Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov, who is a former member of Russian intelligence, military intelligence, and a former member of the FSB, which is a successor to the KGB, who is now a pro-Russian separatist in Ukraine, head of the Donbass People's Militia, that he admitted and bragged about shooting down the plane, although his people later said that was a fake account.

What do we know about that?

SCIUTTO: This is another piece of evidence.

I was first tipped off to this again by Ukrainian officials earlier this morning, that this pro-Russian separatist bragged about it. This is what Ukrainian officials say. And I have seen the tweet. It came around the time that this Malaysian plane disappeared.

And the tweet claims -- granted it's in Russian, but it's been translated -- it says that -- bragging, in effect, we took down this plane, and some sort of warning, like we warned you to stay out of our skies, that kind of thing.


TAPPER: Thinking it was perhaps...

SCIUTTO: Thinking it was a Ukrainian military plane. In fact, he identified an Antonov 26, which is a Ukrainian military transport. It's actually a propeller plane, doesn't look like a Boeing 777.

But, anyway, in that tweet, at least, he seemed to think that he had shot down a Ukrainian military plane and was bragging about it. That's another piece of evidence the Ukrainian officials cite as a sign that this was intentional on the part of those pro-Russian separatists.

TAPPER: Stand by one second, Jim Sciutto.

Joining me now on the phone is Noah Sneider, a freelance journalist. He is at the crash site nest Ukraine.

Noah, tell us what you are seeing.

NOAH SNEIDER, JOURNALIST: Well, right now, it's gotten dark already. There's rescue teams setting up tents by floodlight.

There's a big field essentially, kind of two halves of a field bisected by a road that all of the debris, the plane, the bodies, the people inside, they're saying are scattered through.

Rescue crews have been -- local sort of rescue crews and firefighters have been doing their best to pick through it throughout. And now I think they're trying to figure out what to do overnight.

TAPPER: So the victims are still out there, their bodies are still on the ground strapped into their seats, et cetera?

SNEIDER: Some are strapped into their seats. Some have been sort of blown to bits to the point where you can't tell whether it was a man or a woman.

Some are just kind of scattered. People, locals say that the plane exposed in the air, so it was kind of -- it fell down in pieces, as they said. So bits of the plane, bits of the bodies, bits of people's possessions.

TAPPER: You mentioned investigators on the site. Does it look like there's an orderly process going on right now?

SNEIDER: I wouldn't say investigators. Local rescue crews. They call it (INAUDIBLE) in Russian. It's the ministry of extreme situations, sort of direct translation. And that certainly fits the bill.

They're mostly firefighters and rescue teams. It's orderly in the sense, you know, these guys have a sense of purpose and they're doing the best they can. They have been marking the bodies with sort of white ribbons on sticks in the field, so as you walk through, if you see one of those marks -- but it's a pretty huge territory.

As I said, it's almost pitch black now. So I think everyone is a bit uncertain of what comes next.

TAPPER: I'm told you have spoken to some local rebel fighters. Are they taking any responsibility? What are they telling you?

SNEIDER: Look, I think it's way too early to start talking about (INAUDIBLE) or guilt for this.

They, of course, are not taking responsibility. Neither are the Ukrainians, and I don't -- neither are the Russians. None of the three parties who could potentially be involved in this have made any -- have taken responsibility for it, and I don't think there's any way for anyone at this particular point in time to say whose fault it is. We simply don't know the enough. There's too many possible options.

And, frankly, the thing to be focusing on now is what to do with the people who are on the flight and how to be decent.

TAPPER: Noah, has the site been secured? Or are people picking apart valuables from it?

SNEIDER: No, people are not looting.

I mean, it's hard to say that it's been secured. I haven't walked the entire five-kilometer perimeter, but there are rebel fighters around. Nobody I have talked to has even -- the thought has even crossed their mind to loot. Everyone is in such shock and is so distraught.

Listen, I'm sorry. I'm going to have to get going. There's a fair amount still happening here. And I appreciate you having me on.

TAPPER: Noah Sneider joining us from the site of the plane crash in Ukraine, thank you so much for joining us. Hopefully, we can talk to you again tomorrow.

SNEIDER: Cheers. Bye-bye.

TAPPER: I'm back here in the studio with Jim Sciutto. You just heard Noah Sneider's firsthand account.

It sounds like a tragic and devastating scene. We're obviously not showing you the most graphic and extreme images.

The Ukrainian government really doing a full-court press talking about how this is the handiwork of pro-Russian separatists. They have even produced what they claim to be audiotape. Tell us about that.

SCIUTTO: That's right.

This is a short time ago. The head of the Ukrainian secret service went on camera to say that they have intercepted phone calls between pro-Russian separatists and Russian intelligence on the other side of the border inside Russia discussing the shoot-down of this plane.

And, in fact, a short time afterwards, they released a transcript which we translated. We don't have that to put up on the air yet. But I will just paraphrase for our viewers here. You have someone saying just now a group near the mine -- this is where this plane went down -- shot down a plane. It fell near a local town there. The person comes back, says, where are the pilots?

He says our guys went there to take pictures of the plane. He goes on to say it's definitely a passenger plane. The Russian responds, a lot of people there. He says a lot of people there. What kind of plane is it? I don't know yet. I just have seen parts of passenger seats, bodies.

Anyway, a conversation indicating, say the Ukrainians, that pro- Russian separatists did it, admitted to it in a phone call with Russian intelligence intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence, and then describing what they found on the ground, possibly to the surprise that it was a passenger plane and not a military transport plane.

TAPPER: Again, this is according to the secret service of Ukraine.

Obviously, they're in the middle of a war with pro-Russian forces, perhaps even according to them proxy forces from Russia. They have -- the United States government and we have not verified the authenticity, but it is what a government is saying.

Jim Sciutto, stay right there.

We will be right back with more on this breaking news story and of course the other breaking story as well, Israel launching a ground offensive, invading Gaza. We will go live to Gaza next, plus, of course, new details on what U.S. intelligence knows about the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash today.

We will have that as well. Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Two major international stories unfolding at this hour.

We're continuing our coverage of the Malaysian Airlines crash in Ukraine -- a plane going down with 295 people on board. All of them now presumed dead. We have some breaking news for you on that front. We'll get to in just a minute.

But, right now, let's turn to Gaza. Israel has launched a ground offensive, invading Gaza after several days of trading attacks in the air.

Karl Penhaul and Ben Wedeman are standing by. They are live in Gaza City.

Gentlemen, good to see you. I'm glad you're safe.

Ben then Karl -- what is happening there?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we've seen is steady bombardment for about three hours, Jake, mostly from the north but also to the east of Gaza City, to the east of the neighborhood of Shaja'ia, that's one of those neighborhoods where people receive these so-called robocalls to leave the areas and also leaflets, as well.

People have come from those areas but now, this evening, I was in my hotel. I finally had a chance to get an early night but that was cut short when somebody banged on my door saying the hotel has received orders that all journalists should evacuate hotels along the coast. So, we basically rushed back here. There was a lot of bombardment from Israeli ships off the coast, along the coastline.

So, it's been a very noisy night and it was very clear from about three hours ago that this ground incursion was most likely to happen and, of course, now it has happened -- Jake.

KARL PENHAUL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And while Ben was seeing that going on, we were here from this vantage point and what we see behind us, that is to the east of Gaza, the border there with Israel, we heard and saw what we understand is artillery fire going out very intense ground artillery bombardment there. We also saw flashes of light coming down from the sky which we believe could have been some kind of missiles from Apache attack helicopters. And at some points, as well, we saw flares going up.

Also at one point, we saw a very large cloud of white smoke going up. That could be indicative of some kind of smoke curtain being set up to try and disguise troop movements on the other side of the border. We do know there were thanks prepositioned on the other side of the border and now we're hearing from CNN sources in east Gaza that Israeli boots are on the ground there, tanks, more specifically. We understand tanks have come across.

But, of course, Ben, what we don't know the is what the game plan is here. We have heard from some military analysts that perhaps the game plan is not for the Israelis to launch a full scale invasion as they did when we were both back here in 2008, 2009, but possibly to come in about a mile, a couple of miles and try to shut down these tunnels that they know Hamas militants and Islamic jihad militants have used over the last 24 hours to stage infiltrations into Israel.

WEDEMAN: And, in fact, we've gotten a statement from Fawzi Barhom, one of the spokesmen for Hamas, who says Hamas is ready for what he calls this confrontation and that Hamas also meet Israeli troops with a qualitatively different response.

And it's important to note that compared to 2012 when we were here for the last flare-up between Israel and Gaza, we've seen, for instance, these missiles fired by Hamas and Islamic jihad have increased significantly in range. We've also seen Hamas frogmen trying to make a raid on an Israeli base of Sikkim (ph), just up the coast inside Israel.

And so, the belief is that Hamas really has dramatically increased its military skills and this is why they haven't been particularly eager to sign on to a cease-fire because they want to bloody Israeli troops if they invade.

So, I think we're really set for perhaps a far bloodier conflict than we've seen either in 2012 or in 2008, 2009.

TAPPER: That's --

PENHAUL: Indications speaking to that, Ben, as we were out earlier on the streets earlier during a brief humanitarian cease-fire, a five-hour lull but we were told at one of their independent radio stations on the Gaza Strip that earlier in the day, the Israeli military jammed and intercepted their signal and broadcast their own signal to the Gazan people, telling them to stock up on food and medicine because worse was yet to come. That is what we're hearing now, Jake.

TAPPER: Earlier today, the spokesman for the United Nations in the Gaza Strip reported that 20 Gaza rockets were found in an abandoned U.N. school in Gaza, seeming to add credibility to the claim by Israelis that one of the reasons why there have been so many civilian casualties is because of Hamas embedding itself within the population. Ben, quickly if you would because I want to go to Wolf Blitzer in

Jerusalem, are you seeing evidence of Hamas has they prepare tore in ground invasion by the IDF, are you seeing evidence of themselves embedding in the population, thus guaranteeing there will be more civilian casualties?

WEDEMAN: Well, what we've seen, for instance, Jake, is that we went to one house where 18 people were killed in an Israeli strike. And as we were walking around the compound, we found some reinforced tunnels next to a wall, next to a school, an abandoned school. Now, we weren't able to actually go in those tunnels because they had collapsed but they very well could have gone into the school.

But it's important to point out it's not as if they're somewhere in Gaza that a military organization, Hamas or whatever it might be, can go to separate from the civilian population because there isn't a lot of open territory where they can function.

So, indeed, they are embedded within the local population because they're part of the local population -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Ben and Carl, stay with us. We're going to come back to you in a second.

But turning back to our continuing breaking news coverage of this horrific plane crash in Ukraine, 295 people on board.

Ukraine, of course, blaming pro-Russian separatists, claiming they shot this plane out of the sky.

Let's bring in senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh, who just got off the phone with a pro-Russian separatist.

Nick, what did he tell you?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they say they've been to the site. They have now left the site. They say they have left militants to take control of the area and remove journalists from it saying it was totally open for anyone to walk around. They say there are now consultations, negotiations he said happening between the separatists and what they refer to as the consultation contact group. That's a number of pro-Ukrainian officials, dignitaries involved in the discussions about the conflict generally understand that mechanism is being used to begin talks.

So, the separatists about potentially securing a corridor may be having a cease-fire of some description to permit access to the crash site himself. I should say the man I spoke to clearly himself quite shaken up by what he had seen -- bodies on the road, bodies on the field -- said they were beginning the task of drying to collect some of the bodies that would be brought to some of the morgues in the main city when that task begins.

But he says right now it's pitch black. Little they can do. And he went on to confirm still at this point, as well, they do not have access or control over the black box so-called flight recorder. These negotiations though about potentially allowing that access they're happening between the OSCE, the militant group active in the area, Russia and Ukrainian officials, as well.

TAPPER: Nick, did your source, your pro-Russian separatist source, say whether or not his organization or one of its affiliates was responsible for shooting down its plane as the Ukrainian government has charged?

WALSH: Clear from the start, Jake, this is in their words a Ukrainian provocation. They say this is something which the Ukrainian military has done to shed a bad light on the separatist movement there. And we'll see the blame game continue for the days ahead.

The key issue is that everyone keeps saying now, it's pitch black at the crash site. (INAUDIBLE) evidence tampering. Is there going to be any evidence investigators do finally manage to get there?

This is an active conflict situation. It's pretty dangerous. And the separatists say they're under siege from the Ukrainian military who are nearby.

There has been fighting there recently, too. The idea of installing a forensic investigation team there for a number of days to try and comb through the site seems a little farfetched no matter how noble the ambitions. People are trying to get them there. I think people are going to be looking to see quite how fast consultations between the separatists and Ukrainian authorities can come up with some sort of cease-fire everybody trusts given the fact they're on such opposing sides in terms of their version of how events happen.

The Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko quite clear, saying this is, quote, "a terrorist attack" -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Nick Paton Walsh in London -- thank you so much.

Let's get back to the phone, to Pavlo Klimkin, the Ukrainian foreign minister, joining us again.

Sir, first of all, let me just make sure the connection is there. Are you there?


TAPPER: Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

You've been speaking with the Ukrainian president. What's the very latest you can tell us about this tragedy?

KLIMKIN: Of course, it's an extremely tragic case, and I would like to express once more my condolences for the relatives and friends of anyone who were involved.

And we intercepted a number of phone calls between the terrorists talking about shutting down the plane now. And another proof on the terrorist activity and as a result of that, the plane has been shut down.

And as you know, in the recent days, we had extremely development and two Ukrainian military planes have been shot down. As we believe also from the Russian -- from the Russian territory. And now, we have Boeing 777 shot down by the terrorists.

TAPPER: Sir, as you know, the pro-Russian separatists are saying the Ukrainian government was behind this as a provocation. I'm not saying I believe them. But who exactly do you hold responsible? Is it Igor Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov?