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Russian Forces Take Frontline Village Near Severodonetsk; Fears Grow Over Fate of Volunteers Captured Fighting Russians; Detained WNBA Star Griner Unable to Speak to Her Wife; Turkey's Erdogan to Welcome Saudi Crown Prince. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired June 22, 2022 - 04:30   ET



ISA SOARES, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Isa Soares. If you are just joining us, let me bring you up-to-date with the top stories this hour. Aid groups are working to get much needed relief to people in southwest Afghanistan after a 9.9 magnitude quake hit an area near the city of Khost. Afghan state media are reporting up to 280 people have been killed. We'll stay on top of that story for you.

And in a key vote on Capitol Hill, the U.S. Senate has voted to push through gun safety legislation. The legislation faces two more votes before being passed.


MERRICK GARLAND, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: This is sending an unmistakable message. There is no place to hide. We and our partners will pursue every avenue available to make sure that those who are responsible for these atrocities are held accountable.


SOARES: U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland there, he's the latest high ranking American official to visit Ukraine. On Tuesday Garland met with his Ukraine counterpart to discuss efforts by the U.S. and others to hold those committing war crimes accountable for their actions. Garland also announced the organization of a team of U.S. experts to help identify as well as prosecute anyone committing war crimes in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops are trying to hold the lines in the east despite Russian gains. On Tuesday we learned Russian troops have seized another village on the outskirts of Severodonetsk. And it appears Ukraine may be losing ground near its sister city Lysychansk. That is according to a new update from the regional governor. Brutal fighting has raged in the area for weeks as we've been reporting. Russian forces push to topple one of the last Ukrainian strongholds in the Luhansk region. Part really of the campaign to seize control of the wider Donbas.

If I take you to the north Russia is intensifying its attacks near Kharkiv. Ukrainian officials say Tuesday at least 15 people were killed and 16 wounded in shelling around the city. They say an 8-year- old girl is among the victims. Ukraine's president accused Russian troops of attacking Kharkiv for no reason just to show that they are doing something. Have a listen.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): In the Kharkiv region, there is brutal and cynical Russian artillery shelling. It will not give anything to the occupiers that the Russian army is deaf to any rationality. It simply destroys, simply kills. In this way it shows its command that it is not standing still.


SOARES: And while allies continue to funnel aid and equipment into Ukraine, troops there remain vastly outgunned compared to the Russian military. But more supplies have started arriving. Ukraine's defense ministry tweeted Tuesday a shipment of powerful German howitzers -- which are long range weapons -- have now arrived in Ukraine. Let's put more perspective on this. Salma Abdelaziz joins me now live from Kyiv.


And Salma, I know in the last few hours we've been hearing from Ukrainian officials who have acknowledged the loss of several communities near Lysychansk. What does that tell you, Salma, now that you've been here several weeks now about the wider battle here in the Donbas?

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN REPORTER: Absolutely, Ukrainian officials are saying that Ukrainian defenders are becoming to succumb to the sheer fire power that is being used on them by Russian forces. Let me just paint you a picture. Again, that sister city Lysychansk, their air defenses are being used by Russian forces trying to push back on those Ukrainian positions. Ukrainians they are outgunned and outmanned, 100 to 200 people are dying on the front lines every single day according to Ukrainian officials.

That city looks very close to falling. There are residents of course still trapped inside. And then in Severodonetsk, of course, that's the all-important city. The one that's been used almost as a regional capital in recent years by Ukrainians there. The three bridges that connect that city to Lysychansk, to that city that is being heavily shelled right now by Russian forces. Those three bridges are now impassable, heavily damaged again by shelling.

Ukrainian officials saying multiple launch rocket systems are being used by Russian forces, that there're three tactical battalions that are standing by for Russian forces meaning that they are able to launch every larger scale offensive on what is already an outmanned and outgunned crew, as I said. So, the situation is extremely worrying. And it's all centered around this chemical plant, the Azot chemical plant, where there is hundreds of civilians sheltering but also again, Ukrainian forces trying to fight that last stand. Trying to hold the line. But it's hard to imagine how much longer it can continue. And President Zelenskyy did allude to that in his nightly address, but

he also said that he is pushing on the diplomatic front. He said, he has always said repeatedly that there is a fight not just for Ukraine, it's a fight for Europe at large. He's been an ever present leader, consistently holding the feet of European leaders to the fire, pushing them to not just speak about helping Ukraine but actually act to help Ukraine. And he's been particularly pushing on the issue of sanctions. He wants to see that noose around Moscow ever tighten. Take a listen to what he said last night.


ZELENSKYY (through translator): In all negotiations, I always emphasize that the seventh package of the European Union sanctions is needed as soon as possible. Russia must feel a constant increase in pressure for the war and for its aggressive anti-European policy. Another Russian threat to Lithuania, another wave of energy pressure, another batch of lies from Russian officials about the food crisis are all arguments to agree on the seventh package of sanctions.


ABDELAZIZ: So, there he is calling for more sanctions. And this comes on a very important week, the European Union will be considering the candidacy status for Ukraine. If that happens, if that takes place. And during his speech President Zelenskyy said that he was doing everything he can to convince European leaders to push that through. That it is one step closer for Ukraine for it to join the European community. But it's important to note here, Isa, that this could take years if not decades before Ukraine actually ascends to the EU if it ascends to the EU. So right now, on the front lines, President Zelenskyy pleading for the immediate help that he needs.

SOARES: And no doubt that the EU sanctions would rattle the Kremlin as well and that has such a huge impact on the battlefield as you just clearly outlined. Salma Abdelaziz for us in Kyiv. Thanks very much, Salma, good to see you.

Now fears are growing about the fate of two Americans held by Russian or pro-Russian forces in Ukraine. The Kremlin has suggested the men could face the death penalty, a threat the White House calls, quote, appalling. Have a listen.


JOHN KIRBY, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: It's appalling that a public official in Russia would even suggest the death penalty for two American citizens that were in Ukraine.


SOARES: CNN's Kylie Atwood takes a closer look at the flight of Americans being held by Russia and its proxies in the heartbreaking spring for their loved ones back home.


KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A dire new threat from Russia to the lives of two Americans captured in Ukraine, the Kremlin spokesperson claiming Alexander Drueke and Andy Huynh are soldiers of fortune, and not protected by the rules governing prisoners of war. Dmitry Peskov saying this when asked if they would be spared the death sentence.

DMITRY PESKOV, KREMLIN SPOKESPERSON: No, I cannot guarantee anything. It depends on the investigation.

ATWOOD (voice-over): Their families tell CNN both men were fighting in the Ukrainian army.

JOY BLACK, FIANCEE OF ANDY TAI NGOC HUYNH: Andy and Alex are not mercenaries. They are not soldiers of fortune. They are a part of the Ukrainian military. They are part of the military, meaning that they are prisoners of war, and they should be treated as such under the Geneva Convention.


NED PRICE, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: We have both publicly, as well as privately, called on the Russian government and its proxies to live up to their international obligations in their treatment of all individuals, including those captured fighting in Ukraine.

ATWOOD (voice-over): One American still wrongfully detained in Russian prison is WNBA star Brittney Griner. This week, her wife, Cherelle Griner, expressed deep frustration with the Biden administration after Brittney unsuccessfully tried to call her 11 times on their anniversary on Saturday. The call had been planned for almost two weeks, she said.

Quote: I find it unacceptable and I have zero trust in our government right now. If I can't trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife's behalf to come home. Because that's a much bigger ask than to catch a Saturday call. Cherelle told the Associated Press.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price expressed regret and said the call has been rescheduled.

PRICE: It was a mistake.

ATWOOD (voice-over): Today, in an open letter to the president, the families of more than a dozen Americans wrongfully detained around the world are demanding a face to face with the commander-in-chief.

Mr. President, we need you. We need your clear leadership to prioritize the expeditious resolution of these cases, they wrote. And describing themselves as exhausted, traumatized and beleaguered.

And the family of Matthew Heath, who's being held in Venezuela, voiced dire concern after he tried to take his own life this week. Now urgently asking the White House to act before it's too late. EVERETT RUTHERFORD, UNCLE OF MATTHEW HEATH, AMERICAN DETAINED IN VENEZUELA: We do not think he's out of the woods, this particular suicide attempt was not successful, thank goodness. We have every confidence that he will try again.

ATWOOD: Secretary of State Tony Blinken will have a virtual conversation with the families of American hostages and of Americans wrongfully detained abroad on Wednesday. That's according to a senior State Department official. We know Matthew Heath's family is going to be a part of that conversation, that's what his aunt told CNN.

And it will be interesting to see how this conversation goes given the circumstances that have happened, the situations that have happened over the last few days and weeks. And particularly because these families, many of them have been demanding to meet with President Biden, not to have a meeting with the secretary of state.

Kylie Atwood, CNN, the State Department.


SOARES: And still to come right here on CNN NEWSROOM, a jury has ruled in a civil suit against Bill Cosby over sexual assault allegations. The details of the verdict, that's next.

Plus, officials are opening an investigation into a plane landing gone wrong. We'll have more on that incident in Miami, next.


SOARES: Three people have been hospitalized in the U.S. after a commercial plane's landing gear collapse flying in to Miami International Airport. More than 120 people were on board the flight which was coming from the Dominican Republic. A spokesperson from the local fire rescue crew says firefighters jumped in to action as soon as they arrived on the scene.


ERIKA BENITEZ, MIAMI-DADE FIRE RESCUE SPOKESPERSON: When our fire crews arrived, they saw the wing of the aircraft was on fire. They quickly began working on putting out the fire, utilizing specialized foam trucks.


SOARES: Both U.S. and Dominican officials are investigating the incident. Red Air Airline has released few details of the incident saying the plane had, quote, technical difficulties.

A jury in Los Angeles has found Bill Cosby liable in a civil trial ruling he sexually assaulted Judy Huth in 1975 when she was just 16 years old. Cosby now 84 is being ordered to pay $500,000 in damages. He continues to deny any allegations against him. Huth says that she was elated by the verdict. Have a listen.


JUDY HUTH, BROUGHT SUIT AGAINST COSBY: It has been torture, it has, just to be ripped apart, you know, thrown under the bus, backed over and this to me is a such a big victory, it really is. To all victims.

GLORIA ALFRED, ATTORNEY FOR JUDY HUTH: Today our client Judy Huth won real change because she fought Bill Cosby one step at a time for over 7 1/2 years.


SOARES: Judy Huth there and her attorney. Well, Cosby spokesman claimed it wasn't a victory because no punitive damages were awarded and insisted that Cosby is happy with the verdict.

A major food company, Kellogg is splitting into three new companies. The first will first will include its cereal like Rice Krispies and All Bran. The second on snack foods like Pringles and Cheez-It. And a third will be a plant based food brand. The snacking business said to be the largest of the three. Kellogg says that division raked more than $11 billion in sales last year. Spinoffs are expected to be completed by the end of next year.

And Uber is now letting customers carpool again after a more than two- year hiatus due to the pandemic. The revamped rideshare option called UberX Share is now available in nine major cities like New York, L.A. and Chicago with plans to expand to more cities this summer. The company is limiting the number of people in a car pool at once in an apparent nod to pandemic concerns. For now, customers can only request one seat and will share the ride with only one other passenger at a time.

And still right here on CNN NEWSROOM, Turkey's president is set to welcome Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince. How the two nations plan to mend relations after journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder. That story just ahead.



SOARES: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is expect in Turkey in the coming hours with talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The visit comes nearly four years after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Let's get more on all of this. CNN's Jomana Karadsheh is live this hour in Istanbul with more. And Jomana, I mean, a few years ago I suspect this meeting probably would have been unthinkable. Especially after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. So, has all been forgiven and forgotten or for the interests of perhaps the economic interests there?

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Truly unthinkable, Isa, if you look back at 2018 and that brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi here at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. For Turkey, for the Turkish President, this wasn't only the brutal murder of a prominent figure, it was seen as an attack on Turkey, on this country, sovereignty. And if you think back to the statements that were made by the Turkish president and officials who were vowing to bring those responsible to justice.

President Erdogan blaming and accusing the highest levels of the Saudi leadership of involvement in the killing. And then you look back to April of this year and this one180 degree shift in Turkey's position ending and suspending the trial that was taking place here absentia for those accused of being responsible for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. That death squad that was sent here to Istanbul, closing the case and transferring it to Saudi Arabia. That was seen as a prerequisite for any sort of normalization in ties between the two countries.

President Erdogan in April visiting Saudi Arabia. And those images, Isa, if you recall, President Erdogan embracing and kissing the Saudi Crown Prince. Really signaling the end of a very turbulent phase in Saudi and Turkish relations and the beginning of a new one. And a continuation of that today with the visit of the Saudi Crown Prince. And this has really been a shift in Turkish foreign policy in general, over the past year or so trying to mend ties with former rivals and foes in this region. Whether it is Israel, the United Arab Emirates, now Saudi Arabia and perhaps also Egypt.

And analysts and experts here would tell you that this is very much about the state of the Turkish economy. Right now, this economic and this currency crisis, inflation that hit more than 70 percent in May.


And President Erdogan is under a lot of pressure right now to turn the economy around before the June 2023 elections, or that is going to cost him dearly at the polls. And it seems one of the kill pillars of the strategy to try to turn the economy around is attracting investments from rich Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, hoping to bring in billions of dollars into this country.

But while this day might be quite a significant one potentially for the Turkish economy, Isa, it is quite a sad day for those who have been fighting for justice for Jamal Khashoggi for years, including his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. Who are now going to see the man that the CIA concluded was responsible for ordering the killing of Khashoggi arriving in their country where the murder took place.

SOARES: Such important context there from Jomana Karadsheh in Istanbul. Thanks very much, Jomana, good to see you.

Well, one of the most colorful characters in the NFL is calling it a career again. Tampa bay buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement Tuesday on social media. He retired once before in 2018 after winning three Super Bowls with the Patriots. His quarterback and good friend Tom Brady pulled him out of retirement to join him on the Buccaneers where they won another Super Bowl together in 2021. Gronkowski's agent told ESPN he wouldn't be surprised if the 33-year- old decides to make another comeback. And speaking of comebacks, after missing nearly four years, Serena

Williams made a victorious return to tennis on Tuesday. She played with Ons Jabeur of Tunisia in a doubles match at the Eastbourne International in England. The pair won the match in a deciding set tie breaker. Williams using this as much needed practice before returning to singles next week of course at Wimbledon. The 40-year-old hadn't played since suffering a leg injury in the first round here last year.

And that does it here for me on CNN newsroom. Thank you very much for your company. I'm Isa Soares in London. Do stay in touch. "EARLY START" with Christine Romans and Laura Jarrett is next. I shall see you tomorrow, bye-bye.