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Cries Grew For Johnson Resignation; Aid Arrives In Tonga; White House Tries To Clean Up Biden's Ukraine Comments. Aired 2-3a ET

Aired January 20, 2022 - 02:00:00   ET




ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to our viewers joining us from all around the world. You are watching CNN NEWSROOM and I'm Rosemary Church. Just ahead. A minor incursion, Joe Biden's jaw dropping comments on the possibility of Russian invasion. We've got exclusive reaction from Ukraine. Plus.


DAVID DAVIS, BRITISH CONSERVATIVE M.P.: You have sat there too long for the good you have done in the name of God, go.

CHURCH: Boris Johnson under fire members of his own party demanding his resignation. Will his political career survive?

Much needed relief of Tonga. Aid planes filled with supplies have finally made it to the island nation.


ANNOUNCER: Live from CNN Center. This is CNN NEWSROOM with Rosemary Church.

CHURCH: Good to have you with us. Well, the White House is in damage control mode after President Joe Biden's comments about a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. Kiev estimates more than 100,000 Russian troops are masked on the country's border. New satellite images from Maxar Technology show the buildup. And even President Biden is predicting an invasion. But take a listen to what he said about how the U.S. and its allies might respond.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Russia will be held accountable if it invades and it depends on what it does. It's one thing if it's a minor incursion, and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not to do, et cetera. But if they actually do what they're capable of doing with the force of mass on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia.


CHURCH: The White House was quick to clarify saying any movement of Russian forces into Ukraine would be considered an invasion and met with a swift, severe and united response. Anything short of a military aggression including a cyber attack would bring a reciprocal response.

A Ukrainian official told CNN if an exclusive -- in an exclusive interview, he's shocked President Biden would distinguish between an incursion and invasion. He says the comments give a green light to Russian President Vladimir Putin to enter Ukraine at his pleasure. CNN's Fred Pleitgen is in Moscow with the latest on Russia's response. But we begin with reaction from Ukraine. Our Matthew Chance is in Kiev.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, to say Ukrainian officials were displeased President Biden's remarks would be an understatement. One official told me he was shocked to hear the U.S. leader distinguished between an incursion and an invasion. And to suggest that a minor incursion by Russia into Ukrainian territory would elicit a lesser response than a full scale invasion.

That sliding scale may have been discussed privately but in Ukraine, officials say that's the first time they've heard that nuance made, usually U.S. officials that U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken who was actually here in Kiev, as President Biden spoke -- speak of crushing sanctions or serious consequences if there's any kind of military action against Ukraine. Main concern, according to the Ukrainian official that I spoke with is that the new remarks may be seen by Russia as "A green light for Putin to enter Ukraine at his pleasure."

In other words to stage a limited land grab as they have done in the past. We don't need light U.S. sanctions in response. Well, the White House has been quick to issue clarification of President Biden's remarks saying that a minor incursion would include something like a cyber attack but any further seizure of Ukrainian land would be seen as an invasion and be met with a swift, severe and united response. Matthew Chance, CNN, Kiev.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: With President Biden threatening massive sanctions against Russia if there was a full blown invasion of Ukraine, obviously, all eyes right now are on that area around Ukraine with those Russian troops amassing. Now, the Russians for their part claim that they are not threatening anyone in that area. However, I was able to ask the Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia that if Russia is not threatening anyone, why are so many Russian forces amassing in that area.

And what does that mean for the prospect of possible war in Europe. Here's what he had to say. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)


PLEITGEN: How likely or unlikely is it that there could be a large scale military confrontation and possible war in Europe?

SERGEY RYABKOV, RUSSIAN DEPUTY MINISTER: I do believe that there is no risk of a larger scale war to start to unfold in Europe or elsewhere. We do not want and will not take any action of aggressive character. We will not attack, strike invades, "whatever," Ukraine. It has been said dozens of times in recent weeks, and that just reconfirm this. We see the threat of Ukraine becoming ever more integrated in NATO without even acquiring a formal status of a NATO member state. This is something that goes right to the center of Russia's national security interests.


PLEITGEN: Now the Russians say that they want to stop that dynamic, as they put it, with all means, however, the deputy foreign minister said all diplomatic means at their disposal. Nevertheless, of course situation remains very tense there in that border area with Ukraine. We do know that the Russians have also been moving troops into Belarus as well. And of course, the southern border of Belarus is also the northern border of Ukraine.

And Ukrainians certainly are feeling increasingly encircled. One of the things that the Russians also said and this came in the form of the Kremlin, they say that the meeting between Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister and Secretary of State Antony Blinken that set to take place in Geneva on Friday is of the utmost importance. Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Moscow.

CHURCH: David Sanger is a CNN Political and National Security Analyst. He's also the White House and national security correspondent for The New York Times and he joins me now from Washington. David, great to have you with us.


CHURCH: So, the biggest international headline from President Biden's press conference came out of a question from you about the intentions of Russia as President Putin when it comes to Ukraine. Here's what he said.


BIDEN: David, I'm not so sure he has a -- certain what he's going to do. My guess is he will move in. He has to do something.


CHURCH: So David, President Biden predicting their Russia will invade Ukraine, but also saying a minor incursion may prompt a lesser response from U.S. and NATO allies causing the White House to scramble to offer a clarification on his comments after Ukraine said they basically, essentially gave Russia a green light to invade the country. Why would he say this? It's such a tense and delicate moment.

SANGER: Well, he didn't have the answer down just right. It was pretty clear what he was trying to do. I don't think he articulated the way he wanted to. What he was trying to say, I think and what the clarification indicated was that if Russia, did paramilitary exercises inside Ukraine to destabilize the government, did a cyber attack, it wouldn't necessarily trigger the kind of sanctions that NATO has been threatening and that the United States has been threatening.

The problem with that is it invites him of course, to experiment along those lines, and there are many in the Pentagon and the American intelligence agencies who believe he never really planned to take over the entire country and deal with an insurgency that would follow.

CHURCH: Yes. I mean, that's the problem, isn't it? Because despite that clarification from the White House that came a little later, this muddies the waters on a dangerous and critical issue and fails to offer an unequivocal deterrent to Russia invading Ukraine. So what needs to happen now?

SANGER: Well, I think that by issuing the statement that I think they were trying to make the case that a physical invasion of any kind is an invasion. And in fact, just last week, and that background briefing that we got from some State Department officials, one of them said, an invasion is an invasion is an invasion. So in other words, if the Russians stepped over the line, it would trigger this.

But I think the President was uttering a truth here which is that a lot of the NATO countries are nervous about the sanctions. They were afraid that the Russians will take it out on them in energy supply or something else, and therefore it better be a really big invasion in order to take that kind of risk.


SANGER: And I think in some ways he was giving voice to what he's been hearing from the Europeans.

CHURCH: President Biden also said there is room to work with Russia. And he still doesn't think that President Putin wants a full blown war, but added that Putin will test the U.S. and NATO and we'll pay dearly if he does. All pretty different messages there. What would Putin make of Biden's pretty muddled answers on the Ukraine issue?

SANGER: (INAUDIBLE) question. The question I asked him, Rosemary was did he stick by his view of six months ago that Putin had no desire to enter another Cold War. And he answered it by saying he didn't think he wanted a full blown war, that we're all wearing masks during this. And as possible, he didn't hear me correctly as possible. I didn't hear him correctly. But I think that what was going on was that he recognizes that at this point Putin is engaged in pretty cold war like behavior. For all these surrounded the country on three sides with 100,000

troops and declare that he needs a sphere of influence of the kind the Soviets had during the era of the Soviet bloc. So now they're sort of falling back to --he doesn't necessarily want a full blown war. Well, that's good, since these are two nuclear rivals. But I think it leaves a lot of questions probably in Putin's mind about just how well the NATO alliance would hold together if he does something that is more surgical, more asymmetric, more cyber.

CHURCH: David Sanger, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it and your analysis.

SANGER: Great. Thank you.

CHURCH: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could be headed for a no confidence vote in Parliament, as more members of his own party openly called for him to step down. The Prime Minister faced harsh criticism in Parliament on Wednesday over a series of parties his staff held during strict COVID lockdowns. One conservative lawmaker dramatically crossed over to the opposition side to show his disapproval.

Mr. Johnson apologized again. But his multiple attempts to explain away the gatherings have only provoked ridicule and condemnation from M.P.s on both sides. Take a listen.


KEIR STARMER, BRITISH LABOUR PARTY LEADER: If the Prime Minister's new defense were true, it requires the Prime Minister to expect us to believe that whilst every other person who was invited on the 20th of May to the party was told it was a social occasion. He alone was told it was a work meeting. It also requires us because the Prime Minister to ask us to accept that, as it -- as he waded through the empty bottles and platters of sandwiches. We didn't realize it was a party.

DAVIS: I'll remind him of a quotation altogether too familiar to him of Leo Amory, to Neville Chamberlain. You sat there too long for the good you have done in the name of God, go.


CHURCH: With us from London to talk more about Boris Johnson's political future is John Rentoul. He is the chief political commentator for The Independent and a visiting professor at King's College London. Thank you so much for talking with us.


CHURCH: So, how likely is it that Boris Johnson can survive this growing pressure? And of course the cause for him to resign?

RENTOUL: Well, it depends what timescale you're talking about. I mean, I think the -- what's remarkable about what's happened over the past couple of weeks only is that a prime minister, who was looking at being in position for several years now would be lucky to survive this year because I think once his party has decided that he's going, and that it's only a matter of time, then they will presumably decide to get rid of him sooner rather than later.

CHURCH: And on Tuesday, Boris Johnson said, nobody told him these parties were in breach of COVID rules, despite being the one who put those lockdown rules in place of course. Now he says lawmakers should wait for the findings of an inquiry into the Downing Street parties before drawing any conclusions. Is that exactly what some lawmakers are doing and how extensive will that inquiry likely be in the end?

RENTOUL: Well, it's an internal inquiry conducted by a civil servant who answers to Boris Johnson.


RENTOUL: So it's not an independent inquiry. But if you trust in the integrity of the British Civil Service then Sue Gray, the civil servant responsible, will try to reach an impartial view of what actually happened. And yes, the Prime Minister's words, on Tuesday were unfortunate this nobody-told-me line. What he was saying was the conversation that was alleged to have happened, where his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings warned him that the party wasn't a good idea.

He's saying that didn't happen. And he's saying that he thought the rules were being followed at all times. And you're absolutely right. Conservative M.P.s are giving him the benefit of the doubt or the moment because they don't want to appear to be prejudging the inquiry. But once the inquiry reports, then I think all bets are off.

CHURCH: And if Boris Johnson does go, who are the possible alternatives to step in at this time and lead the country? And how risky is it for the Tories to get rid of Johnson?

RENTOUL: Well, it's quite extraordinary that the Conservative Party should be thinking of getting rid of Boris Johnson. Only he won them an election only two years ago. Something majority, you know, biggest majority of the conservatives have won in 32 years. And he delivered Brexit. And yet the ingratitude of its overdue M.P.s knows no bounds because at the moment, the opinion polls have turned against him and they have turned against him quite sharply they regard him as dispensable because the only thing that he was useful to for was vote winning.

They don't have any personal loyalty to him. They don't have any ideological loyalty to him beyond Brexit which he -- which has happened. And so yes, they're going to -- they're going to get rid of it. But I think I don't think there's any question about that. And he will be replaced either by Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, or Liz Truss, the foreign secretary.

CHURCH: Interesting. And just how much is the opposition enjoying this circus?

RENTOUL: Well, as you heard from first Keir Starmer there, he has appeared to be very nervous and diffident up until now. But yesterday he was having -- he was having the time of his life, you could -- you could see his confidence and his humor showing through. He was he was ridiculing the Prime Minister and prosecuting him almost as if he was in a court of law. And so -- but I think the Labour Party needs to -- need to look out because I think Rishi Sunak would be a very formidable opponent because he is -- he's competent where Boris Johnson is chaotic.

And he's the most popular politician in Britain. He's even more popular than Keir Starmer.

CHURCH: We'll watch to see what happens. John Rentoul, thank you so much of The Independent. Appreciate you being with us.

RENTOUL: My pleasure.

CHURCH: And coming up. COVID cases are surging in France, but many are angry over the government's latest move to boost vaccinations. We're live in Paris.

Then an Australian court reveals why it rejected a challenge from unvaccinated tennis star Novak Djokovic and had him kicked out of the country. Back in just a moment with that and a whole lot more.



CHURCH: We are getting new insight on why an Australian federal court dismissed a bid from unvaccinated tennis star Novak Djokovic to stay in the country and compete in the Australian Open. About an hour ago judges said the Immigration Minister's decision to revoke Djokovic's visa was not irrational and within his authority. And they noted the Djokovic's presence in Australia might foster anti-vaccination sentiment and Influence people unsure about whether to get vaccinated. The explanation ends the biggest controversy so far in this year's Australian Open.

Well, France easing COVID-19 cases rise at an alarming rate even as officials make a stronger push for more vaccinations. On Wednesday, the country reported more than 400,000 new cases for a second straight day. France has registered more than one million new COVID cases since Monday according to CNN calculation of government data. CNN's Melissa Bell joins us now from Paris with the latest.

Good to see you, Melissa. So what's likely behind this surge in cases more than 400,000 cases for a second day now?

MELISSA BELL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all -- first of all, let me just put them into context. Those are absolutely staggering figures, more than 15 -- 460,000 new cases in single 24- hour period is way, way beyond the kind of 50,000 new cases in a single 24- hour period that we were seeing at the time of the first wave when the country was so devastated by that.

Now of course, as we've been saying, these last few weeks, the effects tend to be lesser, there are -- there is less pressure on hospitalizations. And yet, as a result of the sheer pressure of the numbers, you are beginning to see hospitalizations reach worrying levels. On Monday, a new record set in France for the first time since November 2020. What it is, Rosemary, is the devastating and relentless spread of Omicron that we're talking about that is sweeping across the European continent.

Just yesterday, fresh record set in Germany, Italy and France. Again this morning, another record announced in Germany in terms of the number of new cases. It is just spreading at such alarming speed, that there is very little that authorities can do to prevent that. Now here in France, they're hoping to give some hope. We have a meeting of the ministers to look at when they can start looking at living -- lifting restrictions.

Not because they can do it anytime soon, but because they feel they've got to give people a little sense of where the country is going, Rosemary.

CHURCH: And Melissa, President Macron is keeping the pressure on the unvaccinated but now those anti-vaxxers are adding pressure of their own, aren't they? What is going on?

BELL: That's right. Here in France the vast majority of people who could get vaccinated have now been vaccinated. What we're talking about is a small minority of people who are still not wanting to get vaccinated on which the government is piling pressure, but also wider movement of people who may have gotten vaccinated but worried about the way the government has gone about trying to encourage people to do it.


BELL (voice over): Three protests in a single week. Medical workers, teachers and ordinary citizens angered by the French government's handling of the pandemic. But with the Fifth Wave bringing record COVID figures, it's determined to keep up the pressure on the unvaccinated.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Make this simple gesture for you, for your countrymen, for our country. The whole of France is counting on you.

BELL: Emmanuel Macron's tone changing only days later, when he told a newspaper that he wanted with his vaccine pass to piss off France's five million unvaccinated citizens roughly 7-1/2 even and a half percent of the population. It appears to have worked. Protesters angry that the unvaccinated will be excluded from cafes, restaurants, cinemas, theaters, and even transport between regions.

Anger reflected also in Parliament, as lawmakers debated the tightening of COVID regulations.

AGNES THILL, FRENCH M.P.: Soon we will see people hiding in the train's toilets to eat their sandwiches.

BELL: One lawmaker showing the three kilograms of equipment he says he'll be carrying around until the end of his life as a result of catching COVID-19.

RAPHAEL GERARD, FRENCH M.P.: When I take the train, I don't worry about whether or not I'll be able to eat peanuts. Ask myself whether or not I'm going to get out of the train in one piece or whether I'll be going back to hell.

BELL: More than 300 death threats have been reported against elected officials since July 2021 according to the Minister of the Interior.


BELL: The majority of them from anti-vaxxers. This lawmaker from Macron's party now has his home patrolled by the police.

JACQUES MAIRE, FRENCH M.P.: What we feel now is that with the pandemics, some people, we used to be normal, engage citizens who will become more and more marginalized in fact, and will feel themselves in the kind of blockade.

BELL (on camera): The debate here in the National Assembly was angrier and longer than the government had expected. And Emmanuel Macron has words on wanting to piss off the unvaccinated certainly didn't help. So could it be that in using them, he was actually seeking as a reforming president, as a strong president to look ahead to an election that is now less than three months away?

BRUNO CAUTRES, POLITICAL ANALYST: And he said that he's also saying that, if you reelect me I will continue to do this kind of think. I will continue to reform France even if you don't like it.

BELL: The French President has yet to confirm that he'll run. But his COVID policies look sector loom large. Many candidates taking part in recent protests, with several like the far right's (INAUDIBLE) it do not so much to vaccination per se, as to the government's vaccine costs. And there's little doubt that Emmanuel Macron will seek reelection. On Tuesday, he was announcing fresh investments aimed at making the country more competitive and already looking ahead to the next five years.


So much will be in the timing of all this, Rosemary. The French presidential election, both rounds of it will be held in April of this year. So we're just weeks away here in France, as in other European countries, as we were saying a moment ago, Rosemary, it doesn't look like the latest wave has peaked yet. So there are still more days of high contaminations coming which in several weeks will lead to more hospitalizations.

This is a subject that's almost certain to loom large in a campaign that's almost -- that's already looking as uncertain and as fractious as any we can remember, Rosemary.

CHURCH: Yes. Most definitely. Melissa Bell. Many thanks. So joining us live from Paris with that report. Museums and concert halls in the Netherlands opened on Wednesday to

protest their ongoing closure under a COVID-19 lockdown. Although the Netherlands allow gyms, hairdressers and shops to reopen last weekend, cultural venues were ordered to remain shut. In a creative protest, 50 visitors attending an orchestra rehearsal in violation of rules banning concerts for an audience were given haircuts on stage.

Museums across the Netherlands opened their doors despite the risk of getting fined.

Tonga begins a long road to recovery after being hit with a massive volcano eruption and a tsunami.

Next to international aid starts to trickle in as survivors share their stories about the disaster.



CHURCH: International aid flights are beginning to arrive in Tonga. The Pacific Nation was hit by, what's believed to be, the world's biggest volcano eruption in decades. Military planes from Australia and New Zealand landed there over the past several hours. More aid is expected to arrive by air and sea in the coming days.

Officials say at least some phone connections have been restored. Saturday's eruption sent up to 15-meter tsunami waves crashing into beach side communities. Volcanic ash ended up raining down on Tonga while loud explosions terrified many residents.


MARIAN KOPU, TONGAN JOURNALIST: For the first explosion, there have been ringing -- our ears were ringing and we couldn't even hear each other. So, all we do was mimic please, pointing to our families, get up, and get ready to run.


CHURCH: And we are joined now by Josephine Latu-Sanft, she's a Tongan communication specialist and speaking with us from London. Thank you so much for being with us.

Thank you. Lovely to be here.

CHURCH: So, you are from Tonga and have close friends and relatives there. So, watching this from afar has been pretty tough for you, hasn't it? Have you been able to contact all your loved ones to make sure everyone's OK at this point?

JOSEPHINE LATU-SANFT, TONGAN COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST: No, not all my loved ones. Not nearly as many friends. The communications are partially up. So, you can make international calls at the moment and we can see more and more people, you know, putting on Facebook photos and all of that. But it's -- the lines are clogged. So, we've been trying for the last few hours to get through.

They -- we -- we're being told to just keep trying. But the lines -- everybody, other than the Tongans, there are three or four times more Tongans we need overseas than in the country. And I know everybody is trying to get there. And it's frustrating but at the same time it's encouraging to see that, you know, a lot of the Capital is still intact. People are mobilizing. People are helping each other.

And the little information that does trickle out on social media show that Tongan people are resilient. They're building back. They're not waiting for aid. Everybody from the Royal Family to business people to churches, village communities are already trying to share what little they have for those who are most in dire need.

CHURCH: That is incredible in itself, isn't it? And those loved ones that you have been able to contact, what have they told you about what they experienced during that?

LATU-SANFT: Yes. There's -- definitely there's some parts that have been virtually annihilated in some villages. The Capital, a lot of it is still standing. People are getting back into the business of cleaning up. But there are some villages, such as those in the Westside that I have relatives in and in the smaller islands, where, you know, houses have either been flattened or gutted when the waves come in and it just pulls everything out.

And there are people are -- you know, vulnerable people. Children were supposed to start the school year this week. The elderly, they are in need of water. The dust is still the problem. So people are still -- for example, some are presenting with breathing problems at the hospital.

But for the most part, I think there are -- there is this determination to come through it. People are -- I -- the government had already released its first press release update yesterday. And from what I see, things are coordinated. People have sprung into action. Their search and rescue teams have gone out. We're receiving the assistance from Australia and New Zealand. The plane just landed a few hours ago.

So, things are moving. But again, the Tongans need all the solidarity and the support that they can get. They are doing their bit international community should support them through these tough times.

CHURCH: Yes. And, you know, you mentioned that some of that aid has arrived. And that they need more support. What are the greatest needs at this point, beyond, of course, clean water, which is just critical?

LATU-SANFT: Yes. The critical thing is, of course, clean water. The communications right now, I know that some are just using like satellite link. There are satellite phones but the communication is not on full 100 percent. Neither is the power. So, the power is back on but it goes on and off, from what I am seeing.

[02:35:00] So, those are definitely some of the basic needs. And just everything, I mean, anything you would think of when you have all your belongings swept out of your house and you have nothing. The things that you would need in that situation, clothes, Food. But definitely what is coming out officially from the government is the clean water. Because they tested the local water supply, it's safe to drink but a lot of people had rainwater tanks which were compromised. And people are buying water. You never do that in Tonga. I mean, poor people have to buy water, they're rationing it.

CHURCH: That is a dire situation. Hopefully more suppliers can arrive soon. Josephine Latu-Sanft, thank you so much for talking with us. We appreciate it.

LATU-SANFT: Thank you for having me.

CHURCH: Well, Peru's foreign ministry is calling on a Spanish oil company to pay for a spill. It describes as an ecological disaster. Peru's government said high waves, from the volcano in Tonga, caused the spill as a tanker was unloading crude at Repsol's refinery. The ministry said the incident harmed animal and plant life in about 18,000 square kilometers around the islands and fishing areas.

A cyberattack has exposed the personal information of more than 500,000 highly vulnerable people linked to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Hackers targeted a program used by the group to reunite separated families, forcing the Red Cross to shut down their IT systems. The committee's director general says, they are appalled and perplexed that this humanitarian information could be targeted and compromised. Well, now the Red Cross is attempting to contact all those affected to inform them of the data breach. So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the cyberattack.

A Roman villa filled with family drama and priceless artwork is hitting the auction block. But so far, no one wants to buy it. CNN goes inside the royal estate to see its precious masterpieces.


Archaeologists say the partial destruction of this iconic mosque in Mosul, Iraq has led to an important discovery. In 2017, ISIS militants blew up the Al-Nuri Mosque where they announced the creation of their so-called caliphate. But last year archaeologists started excavating the site and they discovered the foundation of a prayer room that dates back to when the mosque was originally built in the 12th century. Officials say that the discovery should shed more light on that period of Islamic civilization.

Well, now for an inside look at a historic Roman villa worth hundreds of millions of dollars which is at the center of an ugly family dispute.


The aristocratic estate features the world's only ceiling mural by the famous Baroque painter Caravaggio. And now, the entire property is up for sale. An American turned Italian princess gave our Ben Wedeman a tour.


RITA CARPENTER BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI, VILLA AURORA OWNER: Caesar Augustus. And here is Gwen Lyntell (ph) with the Earl of (INAUDIBLE) daughter who married Mark Antonio De Giuseppe (ph) and they had a child named (INAUDIBLE) who became my husband's great, great, great grandmother. I think that the --

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voiceover): Texan born, Rita Carpenter, better known in these parts as, her Serene Highness Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi shows me around Rome's 16th century Villa Aurora, her home for almost 20 years. But not for much longer. The villa, valued at around $535 million has been at the center of a bitter legal dispute between Carpenter, who was the 3rd and final wife of her late husband, Prince Nicolo Boncompagni Ludovisi and his sons by a previous marriage.

WEDEMAN (on camera): What is this water leak?

BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI: Actually, there is --

WEDEMAN (voiceover): An Italian judge ordered the house to be put up for auction with a starting price of just over $400 million. In real estate, it's all about location, location, location. But in this case, it's also about the villa's interior, jam-packed with priceless artwork in almost every room.

BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI: It is the only ceiling painting ever done by Caravaggio. This was done in 1597 when he was 23. And --

WEDEMAN (voiceover): The village just a few minutes' walk from Via Veneto, Rome's most exclusive shopping district. It's brimming with art but it needs about $10 million worth of renovations, starting with the heating.

WEDEMAN (on camera): What's it like to live in this house? It's cold. It's --

BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI: It's very cold. I'm freezing right now.

We didn't think about the pipes bursting. All the other things you have to think about -- don't normally think about in a modern house in America. I mean, there are things that go wrong here all the time. And so, trees that fall down and hit a car on the street or whatever it might be.

WEDEMAN (voiceover): Villa Aurora is out of the price range of all but the billionaire class. Carpenter, who has spent years documenting the villa's history looks at the heavenly buyer.

BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI: I hope that an angel buys it and that they understand the depth of history here.

WEDEMAN (voiceover): By law, the Italian government can match the winning bid and take possession of the villa. A stretch, perhaps, in a country where the estate is in a perennial financial crisis. For art historian Elizabeth Lev, that would be the ideal solution.

ELIZABETH LEV, ART HISTORIAN: Well, as an adopted Italian, there nothing I would love more than to see it in the hands of the Italian State so that we could continue to enjoy our tremendous works from one room to another. You are looking at masterpieces, exciting moments in the history of art and then the absolutely, absolutely unique exemplars in history of art.

WEDEMAN (voiceover): As it turned out, there were no takers in the auction which closed Tuesday. Villa Aurora goes back on the block in April. Prepare your bids.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, Rome.


CHURCH: And thank you so much for joining us. I'm Rosemary church. World Sport is coming up next. And I'll see you at the top of the hour with more news. You're watching CNN. Do stick around.