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Trump: 'There is No Violence' at My Rallies; Trump Holds Last- Minute Rally in Ohio; NAACP President Calls Trump's Behavior 'Contemptible'; Clinton, Sanders Make Final Push for Tuesday Votes; Inside Rebel-Held Syria; Attacks on Ivory Coast Hotels. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired March 14, 2016 - 17:00   ET


[17:00:12] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, down to the wire. As another Super Tuesday looms, it's go big or go home for two of the GOP candidates. They face make-or-break ballots in their home states. Can Donald Trump's rivals stop his march to the nomination?

Swings and a miss. Despite a growing chorus of condemnation, Donald Trump denies there's any violence in his rallies as we stand by for another Trump event. I'll ask the head of the NAACP about his concerns.

Delegate math. As Hillary Clinton looks to complete her sweep of the South, Bernie Sanders hopes for another surprise in the Midwest. But can the numbers ever add up for Sanders?

And Putin pulls out. A stunning announcement from Moscow, as Russian President Vladimir Putin orders his forces to start withdrawing from Syria. In an exclusive, CNN goes inside Syria with a first-hand look at the devastation brought by Russian warplanes.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're counting down to another Super Tuesday, but for Republicans and Democrats alike, this Tuesday may completely change the race for the White House. Five states are holding primaries and more than a thousand delegates are up for grabs.

On the Republican side, there's an all-out effort on the campaign trail today as Donald Trump's rivals try to block his direct path to the nomination. Florida and Ohio are winner-take-all contests, and Senator Marco Rubio and Governor John Kasich, they are desperately needing to win their home states. Trump says one of them has a good chance.

Trump is being widely condemned, meanwhile, for the violence at his rallies. House Speaker Paul Ryan is the latest to call those images very concerning. But in my interview today, Donald Trump insists there is no violence. At an event earlier, he called his rallies lovefests. We're standing by for another Trump rally.

I'll speak live with the president and CEO of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks. And our correspondents, analysts and guests, they'll have full coverage of all the day's top stories.

We begin with the Republican race and CNN political reporter Sara Murray.

Sara, the fight for the GOP nomination has now reached a critical point. How do things look on the eve of these very important primaries?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Donald Trump is trying to sprint to the finish here to try to lock down the nomination. Meanwhile, his rivals, John Kasich and Marco Rubio, are hustling just to ensure their campaigns can survive beyond Tuesday.


MURRAY (voice-over): In the final push before Tuesday's pivotal winner-take-all primaries, Donald Trump is touching down in as many states as possible.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So important tomorrow, North Carolina, you have to go out and vote.

MURRAY: the GOP front-runner campaigning in North Carolina, Florida and Ohio and facing off against another protester.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're obnoxious.

TRUMP: Oh, get outta here.

MURRAY: As Sarah Palin hit the trail to pump up Trump...

SARAH PALIN (R), FORMER GOVERNOR OF ALASKA: We needed a revolution, and we found our revolutionary! Donald J. Trump is that revolutionary.

MURRAY: ... and slammed the protesters.

PALIN: What we don't have time for is all that petty punk-ass little thuggery stuff that's been going on with these, quote unquote, "protesters."

MURRAY: Today Trump dismissing the intense atmosphere at his campaign events after a planned Chicago rally spiraled into chaos. Trump arguing that his rallies are peaceful, despite an injured police officer and incidents of protesters being punched and kicked.

TRUMP (via phone): First of all, let's not even use the word "violence." There's very little disruption generally speaking. But there's no violence. I mean, nobody's been hurt.

MURRAY: Today Trump focusing on a different threat, John Kasich, adding an event in the Buckeye State and admitting to Wolf he may not be poised for victory.

TRUMP: He may win Ohio. It's right now a tie. According to most of the polls, we're literally tied.

MURRAY: The Ohio governor getting an assist as Mitt Romney makes a comeback on the campaign trail. MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Unlike the other people

running, he has a real track record.

MURRAY: As Kasich aims to defeat Trump and fight on to the convention.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I may go to the convention with more delegates than any of them but probably not enough to win.

MURRAY: But without a win on Tuesday, both Kasich and Marco Rubio may be looking at their last stand. Rubio maintaining his optimistic tone, but facing a steep climb in Florida.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Tomorrow is the day where we're going to shock the country. We're going to do what needs to be done. We're going to win the 99 delegates here in Florida.

MURRAY: As Ohio shapes up as ground zero for the anti-Trump movement, a super PAC is pitching in with new nationwide ads like this one.

[17:05:00] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bimbo.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Real quotes from Donald Trump about women.

MURRAY: While Ted Cruz plots Trump's defeat with a quieter strategy. As he rivals battle for the biggest prizes, he's canvassing in Illinois and stopping by Missouri in the hopes of snapping up delegates.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If we stand together, we're going to win this nomination and beat Donald Trump. We're going to win the general election and beat Hillary Clinton. And we're going to turn this country around.


MURRAY: Now, Wolf, we're here in West Palm Beach. We're expecting Marco Rubio to be campaigning in just a little while. But just to give you a sense of the uncertainty surrounding his campaign, a super PAC has mainly been supporting him here in this state. We're now finding out they have not reserved in air time past Tuesday.

Back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very interesting. All right. Thanks very much. Sara Murray reporting.

We're awaiting the start of the Donald Trump rally in Governor John Kasich's home state of Ohio. We'll have coverage of that.

In the meantime, I want to bring in our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's on the scene for us.

This is a last-minute addition to Trump's schedule, Jim, isn't it?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. With the polls showing he's facing a tough battle here with John Kasich, Donald Trump added this event here in Youngstown, Ohio, in the hopes of pulling off a clean sweep on this next Super Tuesday.

After all those problems we've been seeing at Trump rallies the last several days, an extra security measure is in place at this rally. Let us show you this. Buses are being used to bring in the people who will be attending the event. They had to park several miles away at a nearby shopping center, give up their signs, umbrellas and bottles, anything that could be perceived as a threat.

While one law enforcement official here on the scene described it to me as a parking issue, one Trump event organizer told my colleague, Rosa Flores, that this bussing arrangement will make it harder for the protesters to attend the rally.

Now, Trump appears to have had enough of these demonstrations, warning he might start pressing charges against some of these demonstrators. And he's making the case that his rallies are largely peaceful. Here's what he had to say earlier today.


TRUMP: Rather than fighting in Chicago, I did something that was a good move, a good decision, because I don't want to see anybody be hurt. And what happened is -- and we've been given so much credit for that decision. Nobody hurt, nobody -- you know, no problem. It went away. But because of that, people say, "Well, is there violence?" There is no violence. It's a lovefest. These are lovefests.


ACOSTA: Now, there's a follow-up to that rally last week in North Carolina where a Trump supporter sucker-punched a protester. The local sheriff's department there says it's investigating whether Trump himself was responsible or at least partly responsible for what happened.

In a statement, the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department says it is continuing to look into this, including the potential of whether there was conduct on the part of Mr. Trump or the Trump campaign that rose to the level of inciting a riot.

Wolf, one day before these winner-take-all Super Tuesday primaries, that's the last bit of news that Donald Trump needs at this point -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly is. We'll stand by for the start of that rally at that hangar there. Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

Joining us now in THE SITUATION ROOM, the president and CEO of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks. Cornell, thanks very much for joining us. You're an attorney.

Inciting, incitement, do you think that's credible? The sheriff in North Carolina could actually charge Trump with incitement because of that incident where that supporter -- that elderly individual sucker- punched the protestor who was being escorted out?

CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS, PRESIDENT/CEO, NAACP: Certainly, incitement is a hard case to make, but bear this in mind. Where Donald Trump, in rally after rally has engaged in the "otherization" of America; when he's made misogynistic statements against women; when he has launched xenophobic attacks against Muslims; when he's referred to protesters with racial code words like "thugs"; where he has suddenly become mute, tongue-tied when it comes to distancing himself from the Klan, we've seen this kind of rhetoric over and over again. When you offer to pay the legal fees of someone who's punched a young man for no reason.

The fact of the matter is he's engaged in rhetoric that represents a kind of apologetics, if you will, for violence; apologetics of the "otherization" of America.

So is it incitement in the context of a criminal charge? I'll leave that for the prosecutors in North Carolina to determine. But the fact of the matter is, he is engaged in demagogic behavior that is absolutely contemptible.

The fact of the matter is this man is talking about his rallies being a lovefest when in fact he's converted this political campaign into a hatefest.

BLITZER: Is there a racially motivated aspect? You're the head of the NAACP. You see race being part of all of this?

BROOKS: Absolutely, absolutely. When you refer to Mexicans as rapists; when you use code words like "thug"; where you -- where you suddenly can't find a way to distance yourself from the Klan, the fact of the matter is we've been in this ugly movie before.

In the 1920s, the Klan combined an anti-immigrant sentiment in the country with a kind of un-American patriotism with a veneer of Christianity. We see that in the Trumpist appeal, a kind of 2 Corinthians, thin Christianity with an anti-immigrant fervor, anti- black, anti-Latino, anti-woman thrust.

The fact of the matter is this is hateful; it is racist; it is bigoted; it is xenophobic. It is -- it represents a kind of Jim Crow with hairspray and a blue suit. Let's not mistake this; let's not underestimate what we're dealing with. This is a very, very ugly moment in America. And the fact that we have a demagogue who's worth billions does not make it any less frightening for the country.

BLITZER: Those are pretty powerful words, and I'm sure you've thought through exactly what you're saying.

Now, the president of the United States when he was in Austin the other day, he told -- he basically said Trump was very divisive. And I asked Trump about that when I spoke to him today. I want you to listen to how he responded to President Obama.


TRUMP (via phone): The fact is he's been the most divisive president I think we've ever had. I would be a total unity president.

You take a look. We have an African-American president, and what he's done for African-Americans is a shame. Fifty-eight percent and even 59 percent of African-American youth has [SIC] no job. African- Americans in their prime -- 30 years old, 40 years old, 50 years old -- they are way, way behind. So he's an African-American president who, frankly, has done very, very little for African-Americans.

And frankly, I think I'll do a great job for the African-American population in our country. I think that what's happened over the last seven years and soon to be eight years for African-Americans is -- is really a shame and really disgraceful. And I think the president of the United States should be ashamed of the job that he's done for African-Americans in our country.


BLITZER: All right, Cornell, your response.

BROOKS: Mr. Trump's comments are morally silly and politically dangerous. This is the very man who called into question the president's citizenship, his being an American. This is the same man who has declined to disown and distance himself from the Klan. This is the same man who purports to be a uniter when it comes to this country, but who refers to "those people" and talks about taking the country back or restoring it to greatness.

What does he mean when he says, "We want to take the country back"? Does he mean from a place or from a people? That is a more diverse electorate, a more diverse country. We need to be very clear about this.

This candidate for president has dragged this country into the mud. We are Americans. We believe in -- in a country that includes the whole of us, all of us, not some of us. And certainly, there is no room, no room whatsoever in the America that we envision, most people envision, for the "otherization" of this country.

BLITZER: He did disavow the Klan, but he didn't do it right away in that interview with Jake Tapper on "STATE OF THE UNION." He subsequently did -- he actually did it once before.

On the point that he's making here about the president of the United States, he's been in office for seven years, that there's worse race relations today than there were seven years ago, you study this. You spend all your time trying to make it better. What do you say to him when he makes that point, there's so many African-Americans, young men, for example, who are unemployed, some in their prime, don't have opportunities?

BROOKS: Absolutely. This is a problem that predates President Obama. The youth -- the African-American unemployment rate has long been twice the majority rate, the rate for white Americans. So we can't blame this on President Obama.

The fact that we have record low unemployment, that African-American -- the economic well-being of African-Americans is improving, is a good thing. It needs to improve much more.

But the fact of the matter is Donald J. Trump has a thin, as in invisible, as in microscopic record with respect to improving race relations. The fact is all one need do is look around his rallies to see the kind of America he envisions, which represents not an American dream but, in fact, an American nightmare.

BLITZER: What does it say to you that millions of Americans are voting for him in these Republican caucuses and primaries, and he's poised now, potentially, to be the Republican nominee?

BROOKS: I don't blame people, American citizens, for their economic anxieties and sense of desperation. The fact that they're grasping at straws and they've grasped onto a bigoted demagogic billionaire speaks to their desperation, not necessarily his appeal or the strength of his platform.

BLITZER: Cornell, stand by. There's more to discuss. We've got other information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Lots more coming up, including more of my interview with Donald Trump. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Once again, we're joined by the president of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks, as we stand by for a Donald Trump rally in Ohio, one of five key states holding presidential primaries tomorrow. It comes with increasing concerns about disruptions and violence at some of his rallies.

[17:20:13] I spoke with Donald Trump earlier today and asked him if he was concerned about his personal safety.


TRUMP (via phone): No, I'm really not, Wolf. If you look at what's been going on, we have had not only tremendous security, but we have tremendous love in the room. We have thousands and thousands of people. I have massive crowds, by far the biggest. And we'll have 25,000 people, and we'll get through sessions where we have absolutely no protesting; or when you say protesting, disruption or protesting, we have absolutely none. We -- very rarely do we have a problem.

BLITZER: I'm sure when your family, your wife, your kids, see all those Secret Service officers standing around you, as they did this weekend, they're probably worried about your safety, aren't they?

TRUMP: Well, I think the Secret Service -- first of all, they do a fantastic job. But I think, generally speaking, you know, it was the idea of the Secret Service because of the crowds I get, because I do get -- we do have very big crowds. And frankly, I don't think anybody thinks of it that way.

But the Secret Service is evident. There are quite a few people, because the crowds are so big, Wolf. That's the only reason.

BLITZER: Yes, but this seems like a new development based on that protester trying to jump through a line on Friday night that we all saw. That was obviously very disturbing.

TRUMP: Well, I haven't noticed -- I haven't noticed that much of a difference. We've always had the Secret Service around. And you know, I feel very -- I feel very secure.


BLITZER: Cornell, what needs to be done now to calm things down across the board?

BROOKS: Well, first of all, we need to begin to think about the American people and understand that they are the central characters in this narrative.

So in other words, what we have seen heretofore is a sideshow in which the voters have become exhibits. This has become a circus. The fact of the matter is we have people concerned about their well-being and concerned about their communities; and we need to focus on them and stop engaging in the politics of demagoguery. You have to call this out for what it is.

Every time Donald Trump engages in an attack, on a group, a person, a candidate, on the country's values, his poll numbers go up; his votes go up. But the fact of the matter is, those votes are being extracted from who we are as a country. These racist, bigoted, xenophobic attacks may be good for the short run, but as the GOP establishment is coming to appreciate, and as the country is coming to appreciate, this is dangerous.

When the hate crime rate goes up 300 percent in recent months and you have Muslim parents who are concerned about their children going to school, that is a consequence of this kind of rhetoric. A consequence of this kind of demagogic campaign.

So to get back to where we need to be, we need to focus on the values that we long held; and those are values that speak to civility and speak to the way we treat one another, a respect for the Constitution, a respect for one another and the fact that America includes everybody in America, not -- including "those people."

BLITZER: Cornell, thanks very much for coming in.

BROOKS: Thank you.

BLITZER: Cornell William Brooks, the president and CEO of the NAACP.

We're standing by once again. Donald Trump, he's got a rally that's about to take place in Ohio. Ohioans vote tomorrow. We'll take a quick break; we'll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back and joining us now, our political experts as we await the start of a new Donald Trump rally in Ohio.

Joining us in THE SITUATION ROOM, Real Clear Politics national political reporter Rebecca Berg; CNN political director David Chalian; and "Washington Post" assistant editor David Swerdlick.

David, I want to get your reaction. Cornell William Brooks, the president of the NAACP, he did not mince any words at all. Your reaction.

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Right, no, I think he spoke pretty forcefully on the issue. And I think that what he said made sense to a lot of people, especially his constituency.

Look, you can never know as a journalist what is in someone's heart. We don't know what's in Donald Trump's heart. What we do know -- we talked to enough people, I've talked to enough people to know that when he says things about Muslim Americans, what Muslim Americans hear is that, no matter how many Corporal Kareem Rashad Sultan Khans there are, their patriotism is going to continue to be questioned.

When Latinos hear that Mexican immigrants are rapists, what they hear is that they're undesirable in this country. When African-Americans hear, "Let's make this country great again," it sounds like he's saying, "Let's make this country like it was before there was a black president."

So I think that, whether Donald Trump means it to come across that way, that is how it's coming across.

BLITZER: Rebecca, he's getting criticism, Donald Trump, from Democrats and Cornell William Brooks but from fellow Republicans -- Republican candidates -- Paul Ryan, the speaker, now -- to calm things down. And they're clearly very worried about where all this is leading.

REBECCA BERG, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: And for good reason. We're at the point where we're talking about a candidate who's under investigation for potentially, at one of his rallies, inciting a riot. This isn't the normal course of events for a campaign.

And certainly, Republicans who wanted this election to unveil a nicer, softer, more caring version of the Republican Party are startled and a little bit panicked about the sort of Republican Party that Donald Trump would be the standard bearer of. It's pretty much the opposite of what the party had in mind for this election cycle.

[17:30:04] BLITZER: All this playing out on the eve of five critically important contests tomorrow, primaries, including two make- or-break states, all -- you know, all or nothing as far as Florida and Ohio are concerned. How is all of this going to impact tomorrow's votes? DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: And remember, Wolf, of the

five states tomorrow, three of them are general-election battleground states, as well. You mentioned, Florida, Ohio. North Carolina has been competitive in recent cycles, as well.

So all of this happening not just the immediate short-term goal but obviously, to Rebecca's point, it is leaving impressions about the party writ large for the general election.

Listen, tomorrow you couldn't be more right: the stakes are huge. And here's the thing. In states like Ohio where it's open, where people can choose which primary they want to play in, everyone is watching to see, is Donald Trump starting to turn off independents? Is he getting the Republican base out in stronger force for him, due to these controversial events at his rallies? That is what we're going to be watching for tomorrow night, to see if he's starting to somehow push independents or late-deciders away from him.

BLITZER: Any evidence that that's happening?

CHALIAN: Not yet. We'll see in the results tomorrow night.

BLITZER: Because every time in the past, over these past many months, David, there has been the suggestion he's gone too far, it hasn't exactly turned out that he's gone too far, as far as his support is concerned.

SWERDLICK: Right. No, I think that's right. The folks that do like Donald Trump and the folks that have been supporting him, I think will continue to support him. You see basically what the poll numbers show right now, I think is probably going to be borne out tomorrow. That John Kasich, Governor Kasich has some strength in Ohio, but in the other states -- North Carolina, Illinois -- Trump appears poised to, you know, pull his election wins out. And I don't see any reason...

BLITZER: Because Rebecca, there are a lot of analysts who say, based on what we've seen so far, every time he does something like this, his popularity with that base of his goes up.

BERG: Exactly. And this is completely anecdotal, but I was speaking with a few voters, Republican voters in Missouri today who are actually -- who were on the fence prior to the events in Chicago over the weekend around Donald Trump's rally. And that event and all of the events in the past week with Donald Trump have actually encouraged them to support him tomorrow in the Missouri primary, which is, of course, another pivotal contest that we're going to be following.

BLITZER: On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders now apparently says he doesn't want the support of the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel. That whole -- Illinois is one of the states that has a primary tomorrow, so that could be potentially significant.

SWERDLICK: Yes, sure. And it seems to me that the Sanders campaign has figured out that some of the same folks, the younger millennial voters, a broader cross-section of a younger, more diverse electorate, that also is supporting him also has problems with the way they've been represented by Mayor Emanuel in Chicago, so they're playing on that.

They want to paint him and everybody else like -- that's been affiliated with the Clinton years and the Clinton administration as the establishment and Sanders as the outsider.

BLITZER: There are other developments happening on the Democratic side, as well. Let's take a quick break. Much more right after this. We'll be right back.


[17:36:35] BLITZER: Tomorrow is also a critical day for the Democrats. Hillary Clinton is looking to complete her sweep of the south, while Bernie Sanders is looking to pull off another surprise in the Midwest.

Our senior political correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is out there on the campaign trail of North Carolina right now. Brianna, five primaries tomorrow and certainly a lot at stake.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and it was a busy, busy -- it still is a busy, busy day today, Wolf. Bernie Sanders on a three-state swing today through Missouri, Ohio and North Carolina. Hillary Clinton and former President Clinton covering three states between them -- Illinois, North Carolina and Florida -- on this eve of a day that could decide who's in and who's out.


KEILAR (voice-over): The final push to another big Tuesday.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I hope very much that Ohio will be one of the states to lead this country forward toward a political revolution.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is time for us to unite as a country, end divisiveness. Because we have work to do.

KEILAR: As voters in five states prepare to go to the polls tomorrow, the Clinton campaign is eyeing the contests in the industrial strongholds of Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, after Bernie Sanders' surprise win in Michigan last week.

SANDERS: A few weeks ago, people were saying, "Bernie Sanders winning Ohio? No way." Well, guess what? We have a good vote tomorrow, people come out, we're going to win here in Ohio.

KEILAR: Clinton is trying to convince voters she hears their frustration.

CLINTON: I'm always being told that, when I talk to you I should talk in a very calm and measured voice. But I am so worried about our country and what could happen if we don't band together to elect a president who can represent all of America.

KEILAR: Both candidates are trying to rally voters by taking swings at Donald Trump, making these charges at CNN's town hall.

CLINTON: What Trump has done is like a case of political arson.

SANDERS: Donald Trump is a pathological liar.

KEILAR: They took questions from Ohio Democrats...

RICKY JACKSON, WRONGFULLY CONVICTED OF MURDER: There are documented cases of innocent people who have been executed in our country.

KEILAR: ... including Ricky Jackson, a man who spent 39 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. He asked Clinton about her support for the death penalty.

CLINTON: Given the challenges we face from terrorist activities, primarily in our country, that end up under federal jurisdiction for very limited purposes, I think it can still be held in reserve for those.

KEILAR: And Sanders quizzed about his ability to reach across the aisle.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Who is the person that is closest to you with whom you disagree the most, on politics?

KEILAR: His answer, surprising for a candidate who has made environmental concerns a focus of his campaign.

SANDERS: One of the most conservative members of the Senate is a fellow named Jim Inhofe from Oklahoma. And Jim is a -- is a climate change denier. He is really, really conservative. But you know what? He is a decent guy; and I like him, and he and I are friends.


KEILAR: Now, Sanders is trailing Clinton considerably in the delegate count. She clearly has her eye on the general election, Wolf. She's been talking about unifying not only the Democratic Party but the country today. And she's hoping that tomorrow will solidify her position as the presumptive Democratic nominee.

But you talk to the Sanders campaign, Wolf, and it's pretty noteworthy: they say he's in this all the way to the convention. That's in July, months ahead.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar, thanks very much.

More on the Democratic race, that's coming up. Also Donald Trump now shrugging off the criticism of the violence at his rallies, but there's growing concern about the tone at those gatherings. We're standing by for another Trump event.


[17:45:55] BLITZER: Breaking news. A stunning announcement out of Moscow today. President Vladimir Putin has ordered Russian forces to start withdrawing from Syria, saying they've achieved their goals.

And we've just received word that President Putin and President Obama spoke by phone today about ways to end the Syrian civil war.

Russia began carrying out airstrikes in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime last September and the impact on the civilian population has been devastating.

We're about to give you an extraordinary look inside war-torn Syria.

CNN's senior international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, and producer Salma Abdelaziz, went undercover into rebel-held areas where virtually no Western journalists have gone for more than a year. They worked with Syria-based filmmaker Bilal Abdul Kareem on this exclusive report.

We must warn you, it contains graphic images.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Moving through rebel-held northern Syria is difficult and dangerous. As foreign journalists in areas with a strong jihadist presence, we had to travel undercover to see a war few outsiders have witnessed.

The city of Idlib is the only provincial capital under rebel control. This was its courthouse until it was hit by an airstrike in December. Dozens were killed.

Forty-year-old lawyer, Tala al-Jaway, told us he was inside the building when it was hit. His arm was smashed but he was lucky to survive.

TALA AL-JAWAY, VICTIM OF BOMBING (Through Translator): The Russian planes target anything that works in the interest of the people. The goal is that people here live a destroyed life, that people never see any good, that they never taste life.

This is the tax of living in a liberated area.

WARD: An hour later we saw that tax for ourselves while filming in a town nearby. We heard the scream of fighter jets wheeling overhead. Moments later a hit.

(On camera): There was just an airstrike here in the town of Ariha so we're now driving very quickly. It's not clear yet what was hit but we are hearing that there are still planes in the sky.

(Voice-over): Arriving on the scene our team found chaos and carnage. Volunteers shouted for an ambulance as they try to ferry out the wounded. For many it was too late. A woman lay dead on the ground, a jacket draped over her, an attempt to preserve her dignity.

Russia has repeatedly claimed it is only hitting terrorist targets. This strike hit a busy fruit market.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (Through Translator): This is just a civilian market. This is not a military area.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (Through Translator): There are no military installations here or anything. It's a market. Look, it's a market, a fruit market. Is this what you want, Bashar?

WARD: We couldn't stay long. Often jets circle back to hit the same place twice. It's called a double tap.

(On camera): We've just arrived here at the hospital where they're bringing the dead and the wounded from those three strikes in Ariha which hit a park and a fruit market. We don't know the exact number of casualties there but the scene of devastation, blood on the ground, dismembered body parts, and the injured and dead that we've seen arriving here indicate that this was a very bad strike indeed.

(Voice-over): Among the injured brought in a young boy moaning in pain, died moments later.

[17:50:04] The strikes on Ariha that day killed 11 people, among them a woman and two children. Rescue workers wasted no time in clearing away the rubble. In this ugly war massacres have become routine.


BLITZER: And Clarissa Ward is joining us now live.

Clarissa, really incredible reporting. Thanks for doing this. Let me get your reaction to the news that Russia now says it will start pulling out its forces from Syria claiming its goals have been met.

What do you think?

WARD: Well, I have to say, Wolf, that I was flabbergasted by this news and everybody I've spoken to feels the same way. It seems to have come out of nowhere in terms of completing the task as President Putin talked about. The task was allegedly to destroy terrorist networks within Syria. And yet ISIS is still in control of large swaths of territory.

Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate, has a lot of support and a strong presence in the area where I was and it's really -- it appeared to us on the ground the civilians who have been bearing the brunt of the Russian aero bombardment. I have spoken to several people who we spent time with inside the country. They are of course welcoming this but they are very skeptical at this stage.

They say there are still a lot of questions. Is this a complete withdrawal? How long will this withdrawal take to complete and most importantly does this include a complete cessation of aero bombardment which is what has really been impacting the lives of people on the ground -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Lots of questions unanswered. Clarissa, thank you so much. Clarissa Ward, one of our very, very courageous journalists. Thanks to you and our entire team. I know you have more reports coming up throughout this week. Thank you. Turning now to a deadly terror attack on resort hotels in the Ivory

Coast. It's the latest in a series of assaults by al Qaeda's affiliate which has put Westerners in its sights.

CNN's Brian Todd has been looking into all of this. Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight we have new information on that al Qaeda affiliate. It's called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. We've learned new details of the group's competition with ISIS for the upper hand in that region and of its selection of Western targets to step up its profile.


TODD (voice-over): You can hear the shots first. Terrified hotel patrons run for their lives, then a terrorist carrying an assault rifle appears on the screen.

This attack on three hotels in Ivory Coast left more than a dozen people dead Sunday. Many of them Westerners. And tonight Western counterterror officials are scrambling to contain a deadly and growing threat from al Qaeda's lethal affiliate in Northern Africa.

J. PETER PHAM, ATLANTIC COUNCIL: For some time now we've picked up intelligence that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, and its offshoot organizations, were seeking to hit beyond their normal operational areas.

TODD: This is now the third major attack AQIM has claimed since November on hotels frequented by Westerners in Africa. Analysts say the group is driven by a fierce competition with ISIS and a desire to kill.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: They've seen ISIS grow in Nigeria, in Libya, in other parts of the region. And they want to make sure that al Qaeda is able to compete with ISIS for recruits and for funds in the region. Also there's been a split off faction from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb that have gone over to the ISIS side. So they want to make sure that they can keep hold of that foot soldiers.

TODD: Tonight perhaps even more concerning is that experts say the Ivory Coast attack bears the hallmarks of a notorious terror mastermind who has already killed Americans. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, sometimes called the Jihad prince, the uncatchable. Bearing a battle scar through his eyebrow and down his face, Belmokhtar, one of AQIM's top commanders, is known for his desire to target Westerners.

His group is believed to have been involved in the other hotel attacks and led the 2013 assault on an Algerian gas facility that killed three Americans and more than 30 others.


TODD: It's not clear tonight if Mokhtar Belmokhtar is still alive. He was targeted in a U.S. airstrike in Libya last year but there was no solid proof that he died in that strike. If he survived, terrorism analysts tell us he likely did have a hand in this attack in Ivory Coast and he'll be planning more hits on Westerners in the region in the future -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And this terrorist, Brian, as you know, he's known for his savvy, known for his elusiveness. Give us some more details about, let's say, his signature.

TODD: Well, that is his signature. He's very good at getting away, Wolf, to put it bluntly. Mokhtar Belmokhtar has got a reputation as a man who can slip away from Western counterterror forces. He knows the rugged terrain of Northern Africa very, very well. He's got extensive kidnapping and black market networks to tap into. It was very unclear whether he died in that strike in Libya last year. There's a good chance he's still alive.

BLITZER: All right, Brian. Thank you.

Coming back, get back to politics here in the United States. Facing sharp criticism for violence at his campaign events, Donald Trump now says there is no violence.

[17:55:03] We're standing by for another Trump rally. Much more coming up right after this.


BLITZER: Happening now, winner-take-all. Republican presidential hopefuls campaigning fiercely tonight ahead of critical primaries tomorrow, including must-win contests for Marco Rubio and John Kasich in their home states.

Can either of them deny Donald Trump a trove of delegates that could put the GOP nomination within his grasp?

Denying violence. Trump turning a blind eye to the clashes and attacks erupting at his campaign events claiming no one has been hurt even as new disturbances break out today.

Buckeye battle. Bernie Sanders fighting aggressively to win tomorrow's Ohio primary, hoping for a repeat of his upset victory over Hillary Clinton in Michigan.