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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Ukraine: Pro-Russia Separatists Shot Down Plane

Aired July 17, 2014 - 16:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Is it Igor Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov or is there some other individual who is part of these pro-Russian militias who you hold responsible?

PAVLO KLIMKIN, FOREIGN MINISTER, UKRAINE (via telephone): Unfortunately we don't know yet. We've just created special government permission to investigate the case and we've been talking to the terrorists on the ground about the crash to the place of crash and, of course, about the possibility for the commission to carry out these activities. It's of course, difficult but we will definitely do the job.

TAPPER: Just to clarify here, Ukraine does not control this Ukrainian land. This is in the pro-Russian separatist territory?

KLIMKIN: Yes, it's exactly one piece where the separatists have operational control at the moment.

TAPPER: You don't happen to know if there were any Americans on board the plane, do you, sir?

KLIMKIN: Yes, I can't give you any sort of official information on that. We have now the preliminary data, but I would be reluctant to give those at the moment.

TAPPER: All right, I certainly can understand that. Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, thank you so much for coming on our show. More breaking news now, I want to go straight to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. Barbara, you've got some new information from the intelligence community about this plane crash. What can you tell us?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, what everyone has suspected the U.S. now willing to say is true. A senior U.S. official telling me that the U.S. government now has concluded that the plane the civilian airliner was shot down. How did they come to this conclusion? They have a couple of pieces of data that they are looking at.

First, they have information from intelligence assets that tells them that a surface-to-air missile system turned on in the area, one of these complex surface to air missile systems and that radar was tracking an object. They believe it was the aircraft. So there was a tracking of an aircraft from a surface-to-air missile system that was turned on.

The second piece of data is, they have another asset that gives them a heat signature at essentially the same time as would have been when the plane was being shot down. An infrared heat signature that tells them there was a massive event at that time. They put both of these pieces of information together and they have now concluded that the plane was shot down.

What they don't know the still and what they are looking at is working that trajectory backwards, doing the analysis that will help them to understand where the launch point was, was it on the Ukraine side of the border? Was it on the Russian side of the border? They need to figure that out. Find out where the trajectory leads them to, what the launch point was and then try and determine who might have been operating ha system.

That remains the big question. Russian forces, of course, have that system. Russian forces have given equipment to the separatists, but other officials, U.S. officials are saying so far, there's no indication that the separatists would have had the ability or the opportunity to use one of these systems. That's -- none of this is ironclad.

It could have been separatists, it could have been Russian forces or from either side of the border, but this is a pretty sophisticated operation. The question will be, whether any of the separatists had the equipment, had the ability, had the knowledge to operate it and shoot down an airliner. Right now, the U.S. working it all backwards trying to figure out where the launch point was, where this missile came from.

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Jim Sciutto here in studio with me. You've heard Barbara's report that U.S. intelligence officials have concluded the plane was indeed shot down. We should take a moment to note the human tragedy of this, which the reporting has largely not contained because we do not yet know the identities of the victims.

We have kept the images showing the bodies and the real human cost, the human toll off the screen for now. But just to make a note, earlier today, I received word about one of the victims. I was able to get on to her face BUK page, see pictures of her with her children and this is a tragic and horrific event.

And the human toll of this, the cost of this is going to be very difficult for people to bear, especially people in the Netherlands, people in Malaysia, and who knows? You know, that maybe even the United States. We don't know who was there.

And the fact that it was intentional, the fact that this happened that more people have now died in this plane crash than have died in this horror going on between Israel and Gaza. That somebody did it on purpose has serious ramifications beyond the human tragedy, but when it comes to world events.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question. Barbara raises the question, U.S. officials have not established on which side of the border where this missile originated. Neither possibility is good. Right? If it came from the Russian side, that's tremendously bad. That could mean Russian forces possibly or maybe without the Russian OK from senior Russian leadership, but Russian forces raises the game here.

You know, Russian involvement attacking a plane, civilians possibly Americans on board. Even if it came from the Ukrainian side of the border, certainly from the Ukrainian perspective, but this is also true from the U.S. perspective that these are pro-Russian separatists supported by Russia.

They've been armed by Russia and that in their ranks are Russians. Even if it came from the Ukrainian side of the border, U.S. officials and Ukrainian officials would still in many ways hold Russia at least partly responsible for this. So no matter which side it came from, there is a Russian element to this, which has tremendous ramifications for U.S.-Russian relations, European-Russian relations. This is an end to 20 years of warm post-Cold War relations between the U.S. and Russia.

TAPPER: We should note it's not just suspicions from the Ukrainians when it comes to the involvement of Russia in these pro-Russian militants. Igor Girkin or Igor Strelkov, who reportedly took credit when he thought this was a different plane earlier, the head of the militia, the Donbass People's militia. He is former KGB. He's former GRU, which is military intelligence in Russia. So the idea that he has no relationship whatsoever to the Russians is hard for Ukrainians to believe.

SCIUTTO: Absolutely. U.S. intelligence officials have documented this. It's not just the Ukrainians who say that there are Russian nationals fighting inside Ukraine. Some are volunteers, guys who cross the border and said I'm going to fight for this cause, but there's been previous documentation of communication between commanders on the eastern side of the border and Russian intelligence, et cetera.

So we know that there is -- U.S. officials know that there is a connection there, there's a nexus there, and this is -- this has tremendous ramifications going forward. To some degree, it's been a reminder that there's been a low level war going on for weeks. We've been looking at Iraq. We've been looking at Gaza.

You almost forget for a moment about Ukraine. This is not the first plane shot down over Eastern Ukraine. Earlier this week, there were two others, a Ukrainian transport plane on Monday and in the last 24 hours, a Ukrainian military jet shot down by pro-Russian separatists so say the Ukrainians.

TAPPER: Right now, let's go to the sound bite moments ago in Detroit, Vice President Joe Biden spoke about the disaster, the Malaysian airlines passenger jet is that just crashed. It was shot down U.S. intelligence officials now say. Let's listen to the vice president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Apparently had been shot down, shot down not an accident. Blown out of the sky. We've seen reports that there may have been American citizens on board. And obviously, that's our first concern. We're now working of every minute to try to confirm those reports as I speak. This is truly a grave situation. Nearly 300 souls have been lost. The families need consolation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And let's be clear, Vice President Joe Biden would not say that there are reports of Americans on board if it were not likely if not a certitude that there were Americans on board. So now we have not just Ukrainian officials, but the U.S. government saying this plane was shot down. The question who did it is up for debate.

The Ukrainian say it was shot down by terrorists. They say by a BUK, surface-to-air missile system. Is that possible? Well, Tom Foreman joins us now from the virtual studio. Tom, how does this BUK missile system work? Could it hit a plane traveling 30,000 feet in the air, 500 miles an hour?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Let's bring in the map and talk about the lay of the land here because that's part of the answer to your question. The plane took off from Amsterdam and was headed over to Kuala Lumpur. It passes right over the Ukraine space and at the moment that this happened, all indications are this plane was about 32,000 feet in the air. Is that in the range of some surface-to-air missiles?

Yes, it absolutely is. Not the lower level ones. There are some that cannot reach this, but some that can. It was about 30 miles from the Russian border. We're not saying it came from Russia, but we are saying that this is what you should know about the lay of the land. So if someone wanted to strike this plane from Russia or from here in the areas where the pro-Russian separatists are or from over in Ukraine, could they do it, yes, this he could with one of these systems.

The BUK anti-missile system that we're showing here is about half the size it is in real life. This is a state-of-the-art system operated by four people, it comes with four ready to launch missiles. It is highly mobile. It can move around from the time it's rolling, it can stop and fire in 5 minutes. Acquiring a target and shooting in just 22 seconds.

Here's a little bit about those missiles up on top there. Each one is about 16 feet long. Each one weighs about 1500 pounds, carries a warhead of 154 pounds of high explosive. Doesn't have to hit the target. Simply has to get close. But these are all guided throughout their flight to get very close and do tremendous damage.

And look at this last number, the speed, 2,684 miles per hour. Top speed for these missiles. That makes them supersonic. Somewhere around more than three times the speed of sound. By comparison, a passenger jet like this would be traveling, 500, 600 miles an hour. What that means is even if you fired one of these from 30 miles away, in about 40 seconds, it would be on that plane.

So fast that people on board including the crew likely could never see it coming before they were hit. We don't know where they were fired from if in fact it was fired on, Jake. But that's the capability of the BUK system and one of the reasons people are looking at it so closely.

TAPPER: Tom, just to be clear, we have no idea who fired this rocket, but U.S. officials now say that it was a rocket that or a missile that brought the plane down. Could there have come from -- is there any way right now to ascertain whether it's more likely that it came from Ukraine, came from pro-Russian space in Ukraine, the territory taken over by militias or it came from Russia? Is it possible it came from any of it?

FOREMAN: It is physically possible that it could have come from any of them because this type of missile. You're talking about a really robust missile system. In some ways the idea it's in the hand of separatists, sort of rebel groups out there, is probably one of the most alarming things because this is really state-of-the-art big-time military hardware.

Yes, the Russians have it. We know that they have had troops along the border for quite a number of weeks and they built them back up. Certainly they would be capable of doing it if they had the right people commanding such a thing in this disputed region right here, they could do it.

But it's also worth noting, Jake, that central to the Russian missile program for many, many years have been many technicians and facilities in Ukraine. So certainly Ukraine has a lot of, as well.

TAPPER: Tom, I hate to interrupt you, but the Malaysian prime minister is giving a press conference. We're going to go right there right now.

NAJIB RAZAK, MALAYSIAN PRIME MINISTER: -- the next of kin are the passengers and crew. All possible care will be provided to the next of kin. The government of Malaysia is dispatching a special flight to Kiev carrying a special Malaysia disaster assistance and rescue team as well as a medical team.

According to information provided by Kiev air traffic control, the location of the plane's emergency locator beacon is 48 degrees seven minutes and 23 seconds north and 38 degrees 31 minutes and 33 seconds east. The Ukrainian authorities believe that the plane was shot down. At this stage, however, Malaysia is unable to verify the cause of this tragedy.

But we must and we will find out precisely what happened to this flight. No stone will be left unturned. If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down, we insist that the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice. Emergency operation centers have been established in the last few hours, Malaysian officials have been in constant contact with their counterparts in Ukraine and elsewhere.

And I will be speaking to a number of world leaders over the coming hours. I've had several conversations with the prime minister of the Netherlands. I have also spoken to the president of Ukraine. He has pledged that there will be a full, thorough and independent investigation, and Malaysian officials will be invited to take part.

The Ukraine -- also confirmed that his government will negotiate with rebels in the east of the country in order to establish a humanitarian corridor to the crash site. Just now, I received a call from President Obama. He and I both agreed that the investigation must not be hindered in any way. An international team must have full access to the crash site and no one should interfere with the area or more any debris including the black box.

This is a tragic day in what has already been a tragic year for Malaysia. As we work to understand what happened, our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those on board the flight. I cannot imagine what they are must be going through at there the painful time. The flight passengers and crew came from many different countries. But today, regardless of nationality, we are all united in grief. Thank you.

TAPPER: That was Najib Razak, the prime minister of Malaysia giving comments about another airplane that has gone down, another Malaysia airlines flight. This one we have more information about, obviously.

Let's go straight to CNN's Miles O'Brien and Richard Quest for reaction to what the prime minister said. Miles, let's start with you. We know a lot more about this plane than we did about Flight 370, no less tragic, but there is information at that crash site where we can find out what happened exactly.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Yes, watching the day unfold, it was amazing how quickly we were able to fill in a lot of blanks that are still blank when it comes to the MH-370 story. It was quite evident very early on that this was an inflight breakup. The question is, was there something on board that would have caused that or did something happen? Was there a shoot down from the ground?

U.S. intelligence sources now confirming that. There were plenty of assets that were trained on this region from already. We talked about that during the MH-370, how the assets were pointed in this part of the world, which would detect not only visually, but the heat signature of a rocket launch like that.

So they have the data there, very specifically on exactly where this rocket began and where it ended. So this information is all going to come together very quickly. Any party in this conflict has the ability to do this. The Ukrainians shot down mistakenly an airliner, a Siberian Airlines airliner in 2001 over the Black Sea. So this capability exists on both sides. Now the investigation moves in that direction.

TAPPER: Richard Quest, one hopes that the international community will be a little bit more on the ball when it comes to making sure that the information at this crash site is investigated thoroughly and properly.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: That's going to be the first major operation of any investigation. They've got to secure the site. They've got to find the black boxes. They've got to get the debris, which they can then use to actually find out what happened. This is not going to be that difficult. There will be plenty of residue, plenty of traces, plenty of evidence if you like of what took place.

The question of course, is who bears the responsibility of that the investigation. And what seems to be already from the Ukrainian president, he's already said Ukraine will do the investigation. It's the state of occurrence. Now we've got to make sure that the cease fire or the proposed cease fire by the rebels in that area is brought into the being so that they can get the debris and, of course, most crucially they can get the bodies away from the site.

So there's a lot of logistics that need to be put in place, lots of negotiation and what's interesting is the prime minister said that he's getting assurances from all parts that they will be allowed to proceed.

TAPPER: Richard Quest, Miles O'Brien, stay where you are. Much more on this breaking news story in a moment including some new information on the area in which the plane was flying and the warning the federal government issued to U.S. airlines about this very same region just months ago.

Of course, we are continuing to monitor the situation in Gaza where an Israeli ground offensive has begun. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. We are following breaking news on two major stories at this hour, Israel launching a ground offensive against Palestinian militants in Gaza, and of course, the crash of another Malaysia airlines flight. This one flying over Ukraine and crashing with 295 people on board.

A senior U.S. official telling CNN that a missile did indeed shoot that plane out of the air. The question now the mystery, of course, who fired that missile? Let's bring in our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh. Rene, we just heard from the Malaysian prime minister saying that there was no distress call from the plane. What else do you know?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we just saw that wonderful report from the Tom Foreman and it would just suggest that perhaps whatever happened it happened so quickly, that there was no time for that distress call. We can also tell that you both the FAA and the ICAO, which is essentially the United Nations organization that coordinates international aviation entities.

They put out a warning to airliners saying that there was an unsafe situation along the border of Ukraine and Russia within this air space. But we now know today that the area where this crash happened was outside of the area in which these two agencies gave airliners this warning. That information we know also, Jake, if you're getting on a flight today and flying internationally, you may want to hear this.

The FAA does tell CNN that U.S. carriers have all voluntarily said that they will no longer be flying in this area while this is all unraveling or unfolding as this investigation gets under way because obviously there is still a security issue here.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: OK, Rene, we're going to break into a press conference going on right now in Amsterdam. Let's listen in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, it's not a question of denying. I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you know?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think they would then fall within the 47th. That's what I would imagine. I don't have any mention of any French passengers at this point in time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But on the list of passengers, do you have French passengers on this list?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sorry. I don't know yet. Obviously, we know the names but you go through a very careful verification process to make sure that you do not mix up names or nationalities.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is a team and we're hoping to partner with KLM.

TAPPER: You're watching a press conference in the Netherlands and Amsterdam. These are executives with Malaysian airlines. Let's listen in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I apologize. The family of the passengers are accommodated here at location and we are looking forward to the help from KLM and our manpower senior dedicated to helping them.

TAPPER: That was a press conference or is it continuing now? These officials we're told executives with Malaysian airlines talking in Amsterdam about what happened.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Inaudible). We lost the aircraft.

TAPPER: We're going go to Nick Paton Walsh right now in London who may have more information about this crash. Nick, since we last spoke, U.S. officials have said they do believe that this plane was shot down. A missile took it down. You also heard the Malaysian prime minister announce there was no distress call from the plane indicating what happened, happened very quickly. What else do we know? NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We just heard the first comments from really I think the one figure in Russia whose opinion counts in this matter. That's Vladimir Putin. According to the state news agency, early comments, we haven't got them in full. But the two things is that stand out in this is he says, Ukraine should have responsibility for what happened with the Malaysian airliner and he says the tragedy with would not have happened had the Ukrainian military not renewed its military operations in the east of the country.

We don't have all that he said, but these early comments certainly don't necessarily get into much detail on the blame game. He's parking responsibility for Ukraine's government and this happened in Ukrainian territory and he makes the comment about had there been military operations there, had there not have been military operations there, this wouldn't have happened. No specific finger pointing at this early stage in terms of details on what happened -- Jake.

TAPPER: Nick Paton Walsh in London. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer who is covering a big story on the ground in Jerusalem -- Wolf.