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Russia Doubling Down in Ukraine?; Still Safe to Fly?; U.S.: Proof Russia Firing into Ukraine; MH17 Crash Site Unsecured; Journalist Working for CNN Detained

Aired July 24, 2014 - 16:00   ET


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: The three passenger plane crashes in one year would be terrifying enough, but three in one week?

I'm Brianna Keilar, and this is THE LEAD.

The world lead. Incredibly, yet another plane has gone down, while at the same time the U.S. starts allowing flights to Israel's main airport again. But how eager are you to board an international flight right now?

Also in world news, several killed in a strike on a U.N. school turned shelter in Gaza, but who's to blame? The Israelis, who killed so many in Gaza in recent weeks, or Hamas, who is accused of stashing rockets at schools?

And how low can you get? Multiple claims that looters have been using credit cards stolen from the wreckage of Flight 17 in Ukraine.

Hi there. I'm Brianna Keilar, in for Jake Tapper.

And we begin with our world lead. It's almost with a sense of disbelief that I must report for the third time in a week a passenger plane has crashed. This time, it's a plane owned by Spanish company Swiftair, but operated by Air Algerie with at least 116 people on board.

Now, Reuters is reporting the wreckage has been spotted in the West African nation of Mali, according to the president of that country. The plane took off from the nation of Burkina Faso bound for the capital of Algeria, it but lost contact near Mali, which is now where it lies in the northern desert according to Reuters and that nation.

Thunderstorms were in the area during the flight. Burkina Faso's transport minister says the plane was asked to change course. But we should also note Mali is in turmoil with Islamists fighting the government and French forces there. This crash comes just a day after a TransAsia Airways flight crash while trying to land in heavy rain in Taiwan.

At least 48 people on board were killed. And of course it's only been a week since Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down, allegedly from a section of Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists;298 people were on board. Three planes, hundreds lives all gone in a week. And it's tempting to

read patterns into it, isn't it? After all, weather may have played a role in the two most recent incidents and both Malaysia Flight 17 and this latest plane were flying over conflict zones.

I want to bring in our own Joe Johns now.

What can you tell us about the latest crash, the Algerian flight?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the report is that this wreckage of the plane that was just spotted was found between Aguelhok and Kidal. There are reports that now that the wreckage is located they can begin to try to figure out what happened.

This would apparently end a search that started in darkness, though there is still some question right now about how long it took authorities to determine they had a missing plane.


JOHNS (voice-over): 1:17 a.m. Local time, Air Algerie Flight 5017 left Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso bound for Algiers. It was supposed to be a four-hour overnight flight, but about 50 minutes after takeoff, it disappeared from radar over Mali, close to a zone of ongoing conflict between Islamist rebels and the government, an area the FAA had warned pilots to stay above 24,000 feet to avoid becoming a target.

But early indications suggested bad weather in the area may have contributed to what authorities referred to as apparent crash. Air traffic controllers told the pilots to change course to avoid sandstorms in a part of the world where conditions are breeding grounds for hurricanes. The military chief of staff for the Burkina Faso army: "The plane expressly asked to change itinerary because of the bad weather. That may be a reason. Now, there may be other hypotheses linked to other conditions, but we cannot at this time venture in that direction."

Air Algerie said on Twitter that the plane had apparently crashed in the Tilemsi area about 70 kilometers or 45 miles from the southeastern city of Gao.

The McDonnell Douglas MD-83 plane, a staple in small commercial passenger jets, was carrying at least 110 passengers, plus six or seven crew members, including the pilot and co-pilot. About 50 of the people on board were reported to be from France, about 25 from Burkina Faso. Authorities reported a long list of other nationalities on board. None was American.

The plane was owned and operated by a Spanish company called Swiftair. Some experts say the 18-year-old MD-83 aircraft has outlived its prime but any number of factors could have contributed, says Patrick Smith, a pilot and author of the book "Cockpit Confidential."

PATRICK SMITH, "COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL": I think weather is probably the biggest challenge to flying in Africa. And there's a certain, how to call it, improvisational aspect to flying in Africa that you don't have elsewhere. The air safety in Africa gets a bad rap. I think in a lot of respects flying on the continent is very safe.


JOHNS: A lot of questions out there right now, including whether this plane was missing for several hours before news of the disappearance was actually made public. No explanation on that so far.

KEILAR: All right, Joe, thank you so much.

With two of these plane crashes in two days, what can we learn from these tragic events? Do they have anything in common?

I want to bring in Tom Foreman to explain this to us.

Tom, walk us through these two crashes and to the circumstances surrounding them.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They have wildly different circumstances, Brianna, but some things that are the same. Let's first look at the first flight path of that the jet that is believed to have crashed here in Mali.

It took off on this four- to five-hour flight, and it's a remote area where, yes, the government has we have noted been fighting some Islamic extremists. But that raised concerns early on. The next step though was exactly what you were talking about. Look at the weather patterns here at the time.

This is the area down here where the plane went down. Let's bring that out a little bit and look a little more closely. Look what it was going through at the time, very intense storms, which were active during the flight that the area is known for. Now let's look at the crash from the day before over in Taiwan.

And here is the flight pattern again, and this plane went down also in a period of time where there's no fighting going on around here, nothing like that, but there were heavy rains associated with a typhoon. This is the area we're talking about right over here. We don't know the official reason for either crash yet, but we do know this. Weather really does matter.

If you look at this chart from Boeing, the causes of worldwide air accidents from 2002 to 2012, this bar over here represents the accidents in which the pilot lost control of the aircraft. And in many of these cases, one of the primary causes was severe weather -- Brianna.

KEILAR: What about the other side of this, Tom? Aviation safety analysts worldwide are on alert for possible terrorists or missile strikes on airplanes right now. Do investigators have to consider that right here?

FOREMAN: They absolutely have to. There's no choice about that, Brianna. They have to think about whether or not there was possibly terrorism involved. They have to consider the possibility of some sort of equipment failure in an aging fleet.

They have to look at inadequate training or perhaps distracted pilots, and so many other things. But in these circumstances, weather for these twos crashes has to remain a strong suspect because, statistically, it is one of the biggest reasons that planes go down -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Tom, thanks for explaining that.

Now, if the Air Algerie flight has met the worst, and it appears that it has, that would mean that at least 462 people have died in major airliner tragedies in the past seven days. Is that a sign it's less safe to fly or is this all just a terrible coincidence?

Joining me is now Bob Francis. He's the former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. And he worked on the TWA Flight 800 crash investigation.

We're looking, Bob, at weather as a possibility here. But, you know, I wonder, you have got weather. You have also got two of these crashes happening in conflict zones. And it makes you wonder even just as a passenger, who determines the flight plan? Who is making the call about exactly where the plane goes here?

ROBERT FRANCIS, FORMER VICE CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: Well, I think that in both of these cases, until we see otherwise, that weather is a pretty good suspect.

And then you get back to obviously most directly the pilots and their responsibilities. But, also, you go to the companies and are they dispatching aircraft into areas where there are known to be problems?

KEILAR: Where there's known to be weather issues.

FRANCIS: Exactly.

KEILAR: And also, we look at, for instance, Taiwan, where this crash yesterday happened. Obviously, there are issues over the Malian desert. Are you surprised that there would be crashes when you have pilots and you have airlines that are experienced with there being weather problems in these areas?

FRANCIS: I guess I'm surprised, but I'm disappointed.


FRANCIS: Because -- and it's unfair to point at the pilots. My responsibility is more directed toward the companies and the people that are dispatching these airlines to even fly if they know that the conditions along the routes are going to be such as they are.

KEILAR: Which is alarming, because it perhaps is a more systemic problem, which is what you're pointing to. We look at this past week or so, and it feels like a trend, although I wonder if it really is.

This is the deadliest year though in terms of commercial aviation since 2010. Is it just a coincidence? Is there something going on, or do you think there's sort of a pattern?

FRANCIS: I think it's coincidence. I don't think it's a pattern.

I mean, the two today that are clearly weather-related, I mean, that can happen any time. It just happened to have come about on the same day.


And what about I think -- especially as a lot of people are traveling throughout the summer in the U.S. and they might be thinking I'm traveling domestically or I'm traveling internationally or I'm on a U.S. carrier vs. an international carrier or a smaller international carrier -- is there a difference in safety records between these?

FRANCIS: There is a difference in safety records, not talking specifically about those two airlines, because I don't know that. But certainly the places they fly and the kinds of operations they do are less safe than flying from here to Buffalo or wherever you're going. So I think flying with U.S. carriers, flying in this country is as safe as you can get.

KEILAR: All right, Bob Francis.

FRANCIS: And that's pretty safe.

KEILAR: That is pretty safe. Yes, even though some people get scared obviously of flying, it is safer than driving, for instance.

Bob Francis, thanks so much for your time.

FRANCIS: You're welcome.

KEILAR: Coming up, Russia doubling down in Ukraine, new evidence the U.S. says it has that Russia is planning to deliver more powerful missile launchers to rebels.

Plus, more than a dozen victims are unaccounted for, yet the crash site still not secure. How long will grieving families have to wait before someone takes charge?


KEILAR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

It could be the smoking gun -- actually several smoking guns -- and I mean big ones, Russian artillery guns.

The State Department making this announcement a short time ago.


MARIE HARF, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We have new evidence that the Russians intend to deliver heavier and more powerful multiple rocket launchers to the separatist forces in Ukraine and have evidence that Russia is firing artillery from within Russia to attack Ukrainian military positions.


KEILAR: This despite repeated denials from Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia has any involvement in the stirring up of the violence in Ukraine, or any connection to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

I want to bring in our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, when you look at this -- does this alleged evidence suggest that Russia is going to perhaps invade Ukraine?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, that, Brianna, of course, would be the most dire circumstance, wouldn't it? Right now, what U.S. officials say, though, is they simply don't know. Putin is building up the forces there and they have been monitoring these artillery firings for the last several days. U.S. satellites, U.S. radars in the region have been able to determine that these artillery firings are taking place. You know, it would be the ultimate dire possibility if he went ahead and invaded into Ukraine.

What they think at the moment though, sources are telling me is that Putin's Russian forces are doing this at his orders to try and open up some maneuvering space, if you will, for the pro-Russian rebels. Those rebels have been pushed backing in recent days into smaller areas because the Ukrainian forces, the government forces, are making progress. Putin doesn't want to see the Ukrainian government forces make progress. He starts shelling to try and push those government forces back and open up more areas back to the rebels.

But this is a hair trigger situation because at any minute, those Russian forces could cross the border. The belief is they are completely under Putin's orders, Putin's control right now, and it is going to be up to him as to what happens next -- Brianna.

KEILAR: It's moment by moment. We'll be watching.

Barbara, thank you -- Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Now, a week after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed in Eastern Ukraine with wreckage spreading out for miles, the site is still not secured. Journalist and others are still walking around. Once investigators leave, taking photos like this one.

And Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he has sent 50 Australian police to London so that they can deploy to help lockdown the crash site in Ukraine. Abbott says that he realizes the rebel- controlled area could be dangerous but that he has Vladimir Putin's support.


TONY ABBOTT, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: I absolutely accept that there is potential for difficulty, but President Putin has said all the right things. He wanted to see as a father himself grieving families given closure.


KEILAR: And this is incredible. Investigators on site have discovered a huge new piece of wreckage.

Joining me now from Ukraine to talk about this is Michael Bociurkiw, the spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is the group that's monitoring the crash scene.

I mean, first off, Michael, can you tell us about this new piece of wreckage, where you -- where it was found and if it gives any more clues?

MICHAEL BOCIURKIW, OSCE SPOKESMAN: Thanks, Brianna. Good to be with you.

So, yes, today was pretty much day seven for us. We were out today with the Malaysians, their third day here and the Australians, their first day here. And we covered a very, very large piece of territory today.

And then closer to the end of the day, we went into this very heavily wooded area and it was a jaw-dropping experience. We found this big piece of fuselage.

And I think, Brianna, the best we to describe it, it's basically intact for quite a few meters of what most people would recognize as part of a commercial airliner in the sense that the windows are still intact. If you wanted to, you could almost go inside and you would be covered.

So and the odd thing that struck us too is that there was no real broken trees or branches. It just appeared there. It was extraordinary. In addition to that, we documented today with our Malaysian and Australian friends quite a few big, big pieces of jagged fuselage. And sadly, as well, for the second day in a row, we did find signs of human remains yet again today.

KEILAR: Oh, and you mentioned, Michael, your Australian friends. So who is there from Australia at this point as we know that many Australians are really waiting to kind of come if at this point? It strikes so many people as unfathomable that the perimeter here isn't secure yet.

BOCIURKIW: Yes. I think the best way to put it almost is baby steps. I mean when we came here on day one, we had three representatives from the Ukrainian government from their service and then we had the Dutch briefly here, the Malaysians for three days, and today, the Australians arrived, three of them. I think two or three moral are coming tomorrow.

And, Brianna, just to give you a sense to your listeners of the very, very complex situation in here it -- I mean, not too long ago, we had eight colleagues here held in captivity for a month. And when that happened, it really already limited our ability to go out. We had new security protocols.

But when the crash happened, quick talks happened with the rebels here and a route or a channel, if you will, was opened to the crash area.

It was very difficult at the beginning. I won't say it was easy. But then if today or yesterday were an example, we had lots of time to explore and we covered a lot of territory, so that was very, very helpful.

KEILAR: New evidence today you said of remains that had not been identified or really seen before, located before. Will those be transported soon?

BOCIURKIW: Well, our job here is to report to establish the facts and report and definitely we reported that tonight. We located the geographic area it was in. We documented it photographically and the time really has come for experts for far, far better place than we are to come here and either collect that or go further with that investigation. Of course, once again, big concerns here about the security situation.

But we do view this as an achievement that four different groups have come in by now.

KEILAR: Yes, it is certainly something, but -- there's so much frustration that it hasn't gone beyond that even at this point.

Michael Bociurkiw, thank you so much. Really appreciate you being with us.

And coming up next, armed men kidnapped him just outside of his hotel and he works for CNN -- one of our own being held by pro-Russian separatists. Now, a public request to those rebels to let him go.

Plus, a horrific scene in Gaza as a school used as a U.N. shelter for women and children is hit. And both Israel and Hamas knew it was there. So, how did this happen?


KEILAR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

It's not often that CNN is put in a position like this, but we have a request for the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Please release the journalist behind me, a man who's been on our payroll. His name is Anton Skiba, and he's a Ukrainian freelancer who worked for CNN for all of one day as a translator and guide before pro- Russian gunmen detained him outside of a hotel.

CNN has been working to arrange his release and is now calling for it publicly.

And I want to get to our correspondent Phil Black who is standing by in Donetsk, Ukraine.

And, Phil, you were actually with Anton when he was dragged away. Tell us what happened.

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, we were returning from a day at the MH17 crash site, to this very location. And when we pulled up, there were a number of heavily armed pro-Russian militants outside of this hotel. When we got out of our vehicle, they started looking at us very intensely.

I noticed a man in civilian close was with them. He had a photo of the journalist we're talking about, Anton Skiba. And within moments, they had moved in on him, taken him into custody and taken him away.

That was two days ago. We haven't seen him since, Brianna.

KEILAR: What did they accuse Anton Skiba of doing?

BLACK: Well, during that detention process, if you like, we tried to talk to the men and engage them. And they made a number of accusations against them him.

They told us that he was allegedly dangerous. They used the word terrorist. They told really quite an extraordinary story, saying that he had been making postings on social networking sites offering rewards, financial rewards for the deaths for killing pro-Russian separatists. These are the allegations that have been made against him.

As you mentioned, we only worked with him for 24 hours but he has worked with another a number of other international journalists and media outlets here in Donetsk over a number of weeks and months covering the civil conflict here. There are a lot of journalists here who are very much worried about his safety and his well-being and indeed, human rights groups, journalist protection groups, even the U.S. State Department have all issued statements calling for his release, Brianna.

KEILAR: And tell us, Phil, what CNN has been doing to try to get him released in conjunction with these other entities.

BLACK: Well, in the interests of transparency, the reason we're reporting this now is because for the last two days, we have tried to engage the leadership of the pro-Russian groups here, the so-called Donetsk People's Republic directly. We've tried to talk to them directly, explain our concern, explain our desire to have him released, the fact we see him as a fellow journalist and so forth.

We have tried diplomacy, if you like. And it hasn't worked. There has been no result.

We received a very brief phone call from him yesterday. It was very short. We have reason to suspect that it was perhaps made under duress.

And so, because of the failure, if you like, of that softer approach, we are now reporting this publicly. And we are now calling publicly for his release -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And we will continue to do so.

Phil Black, thank you.

Coming up next, women, children and U.N. workers reportedly killed in a strike on a shelter in Gaza. Now, both Israel and Hamas are pointing the finger at each other. But the U.N. is making one thing clear, Israel knew civilian were staying there.