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CNN INTERNATIONAL: Ukraine's Interior Minister Among 17 Dead In Helicopter Crash; Ukraine Takes Center Stage At World Economic Forum; U.S. Expected To Announce New Aid Package For Ukraine; Taiwan To Allow Women To Sign Up For Reserve Force Training; Ex-Mercenary Says Prisoners Who Refused To Fight Were Killed; German Police Release Activist Greta Thunberg After Detention; Shots Fired After Basketball Game At Oklahoma High School; French Nun Sister Andre Passes Away At 118. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired January 18, 2023 - 08:00   ET




MAX FOSTER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Max foster in London. Just ahead, a terrible tragedy in Ukraine. Interior Minister and kindergarten children were among those killed in a helicopter crash just outside Kyiv. This comes as Ukraine's President prepares to speak remotely at Davos today just hours after losing that key member of his Cabinet.

And in a first, Taiwan announces women will be allowed to volunteer for reserve force training as tensions with China heat up.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has ordered the country's security services to investigate the helicopter crash near Kyiv that left 17 people dead. On board at the helicopter were the country's interior minister and five members of his team. All of them were killed. Along with three crew members. Eight people on the ground also died, four of them children.

The helicopter went down near a preschool and a residential building. Search and rescue operation continued hours after the crash. The grieving widow of the interior minister's first deputy being comforted at the scene there. CNN's Clarissa Ward reported from the site just a short while ago.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Authorities are saying they don't know exactly how this happened or why this happened. But we've been talking to a lot of people in the area. And the visibility was terrible this morning. One man told us he was outside smoking a cigarette and he could hear the crash, but he couldn't see anything because of the fog.

Another woman told us that after she heard the crash, she ran down to the kindergarten and saw children being taken out of the building, some of them still literally on fire. So this is an absolutely horrifying attack. Clearly, having a big impact on so many people around here. There's been a constant stream of people laying flowers, taking a minute to come and to pay their respects.

And you can see those rescue workers still going through the rubble, trying to ascertain how this happened. They've been picking out large chunks of debris, parts of the helicopter that I think from what we understand sort of clipped that initial part of the kindergarten there and then crashed just over on the other side.


FOSTER: Clare Sebastian has been falling all the details as they trickle in. And Clare, this was a helicopter you normally use for rescues. I mean, everything about it so tragic.

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the state security -- state emergency services rather, saying this was the type of helicopter they often use to transport personnel, it has quite a high capacity. For people, they say that the crew were trained to operate in difficult conditions. They had the right number of flying hours.

But the investigations have started the -- Ukrainian Security Services said that they have launched what they call a pre-trial investigation. They're not ruling anything out. They say they're considering versions of events, including a violation of flight rules, technical malfunction of the helicopter itself, deliberate actions, they say, to destroy the helicopter, but this is now in the early stages of the investigation, Max.

And meanwhile, the search and rescue as you say continues on the ground in addition to the four children that were killed among the 17 in total. There's another child that's unaccounted for, still there. So they are still searching through that building. And we're learning more about the interior minister himself, a top member of Zelenskyy's Cabinet who was killed.

He was a trained lawyer. He took up that position just in 2021, so less than two years ago. This is what the mayor of Kyiv Vitali Klitschko had to say about him.


VITALI KLITSCHKO, KYIV MAYOR: This young guy, very patriotic guy, do a lot of things for Ukraine and make a police reform in Ukraine. And he's actually -- he's (INAUDIBLE) for Ukraine, for his family and also children. I'm not ready to give it so we need to investigate, exactly investigate what really happens. But right now we don't have that information.


SEBASTIAN: So as he says, we don't know what happened yet. They're still looking into it. This is still very early days. But the other two top -- like the top-ranking members of the interior minister also being praised, Max, today as patriots. FOSTER: OK, Clare, thank you. More to you -- from you as we get it.

We'll also be speaking to CNN's Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward. She's obviously on the scene at Brovary. She'll join us shortly with a firsthand look at what's happening on the ground and any more information she's gathered.


Ukraine will take center stage at the World Economic Forum. Next hour, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will speak at the event in Davos, Switzerland. He's under growing pressure to send tanks to Ukraine. We'll also hear from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who will address the forum remotely. All that, in addition to a security roundtable that includes the head of NATO and Poland's president.

Anna Stewart joins us with details of the day's events. And this helicopter crash will be at the front of everyone's minds in Davos today.

ANNA STEWART, CNN REPORTER: I think it will and just adds pressure really on policymakers at Davos to make some pretty quick decisions. And that's certainly what we heard from Ukraine's First Lady yesterday. She wants policymakers to use their influence and to make decisions swiftly.

Now, the German Chancellor will be speaking in the next hour. There's been huge amounts of pressure on him to announce that they will allow the re-exporting of German-made helicopters by other European nations like Finland and Poland to Ukraine, but also perhaps to export their own tanks as well.

This is something we believe will come with the decision and the cooperation of the U.S. and that's what everyone's been waiting for. Yesterday, Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State, hinted there will be further announcements on this later this week. And we know that Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, also spoke to U.S. President Biden last night.

So all that has led up to the speech today. We'll be listening out perhaps for a message of unity for the Western alliance, perhaps something more concrete. Following yesterday's speech by the First Lady, we will also be hearing from President Zelenskyy later today. He will be delivering a remote address. And, of course, we expect him to address the tragic loss of life due to that helicopter crash. Max?

FOSTER: Anna, thank you.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials expected to announce a major new military and aid package for Ukraine soon, one of its largest since Russia invaded nearly a year ago.


ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: As this aggression has evolved, so too has our assistance to Ukraine, making sure that it has what it needs to meet the aggression head on. And I would anticipate that you'll hear more announcements in the days to come.


FOSTER: Well, Kyiv has been pleading for modern tanks like the German- made leopard tank which could make a crucial difference on the war -- in the war. And the U.K. and Poland say they'll grant modern tanks. But the U.S. has resisted this, so far, fearing it might provoke an escalation of the conflict.

U.S. Security Correspondent Kylie Atwood joins us from the State Department in Washington. I mean, it is always a fine line, isn't it? Basically, the Russians seeing some form of suppliers and escalation?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN U.S. SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And I think what you've seen from the Biden administration over the last year is a really slow ratcheting up of what kind of military assistance that they've given to Ukraine. But we should note that it was significant that they -- at the end of last year, they announced that they were giving the Patriot missile defense system to Ukraine, that still hasn't gotten to the country.

And so, U.S. officials are pointing to the fact that that's on its way. They are training Ukrainians to be able to use that. And that was a major development in and of its own. But as we look ahead to this defense ministers meeting later this week in Germany, of course, one thing we will be watching for is specifically Germany and what they do, because the U.S. has given some tanks to Ukraine.

They aren't the kind of advanced tanks that the U.K. announced over the weekend that they are going to be giving to Ukraine. But there are, as you said, specifically, leopard tanks that Germany makes. And Poland has said that they have some. They're willing to give them to Ukraine if Germany signs off. And Germany has been so far resistant, but we've seen pressure building on Germany.

U.K. officials in recent days had been very clear and saying they would like to see other countries follow what they have done and given these battle tanks to Ukraine. And so, it's highly likely that we could see a major announcement on that front later this week. And then additionally, we do expect that there will be more U.S. security assistance to Ukraine.

We aren't at this time expecting that it will include additional capabilities. It looks like it's, you know, continuing more of the same, but that could change. There are constant conversations on this. The Foreign Secretary of the U.K. was just here in Washington, D.C. yesterday. Of course, he was meeting with Secretary of State Tony Blinken. And one of the things that they discussed was how to continue ratcheting up that military support to Ukraine.

FOSTER: OK, Kylie, in Washington, thank you.

Now for the first time ever, Taiwan's military is allowing women to voluntarily sign up for reserve force training. The defense ministry says it'll be on a trial basis for 2023. It comes after Taiwanese lawmakers accused the military of gender discrimination and amid growing military pressure from China.

Just last month, Taiwan announced it's extending the length of mandatory military service for all eligible men from four months to a year. Let's bring in CNN's Marc Stewart, he joins us from Hong Kong. How do you read this, Marc?


MARC STEWART, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Max, this is significant because it will add about 200 additional people into the pool of those who are trained to operate combat weapons. So this expansion of allowing women in this new role in the military is certainly is symbolic, and it's significant.

Now, this does not mean that women who are currently in civilian roles, everyday roles in their lives can just join the military. These are women who have had a role before either as an officer or a soldier. Now, while this is significant, women have served in the military in Taiwan before. They do serve.

About 15 percent of Taiwan's military is comprised of women, that's according to some data from 2021, from the CIA Factbook to attribute that correctly. But these are women who serve in non-combat roles. As you mentioned, this is going to be a one-year trial period, and it will start -- the training, at least, will start in the spring and then women will be introduced into this reservist type of role.

As far as the makeup of the military, it is still a requirement for men to serve. As you mentioned, the time has been expanded, that will still remain in place, but this is going to be a trial. And as you mentioned, there is some symbolism behind this because lawmakers have said that this previous policy of not allowing women to take on these combat roles has been described as discrimination by many lawmakers in Taiwan, Max.

FOSTER: Marc Stewart in Hong Kong, thank you.

Journalist and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa has been acquitted of four tax evasion charges in the Philippines charges. She says, we're politically motivated.


MARIA RESSA, NOBEL LAUREATE: I think our victory, this victory is not just Rapplers. It is for every single person who's been unjustly accused with politically motivated charges.


FOSTER: Ressa's legal battles aren't over yet though. An additional tax charge still looms and she's appealing a cyber libel conviction, whereas, says she has been targeted because of her media company Rappler and it's critical coverage of former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Still to come, another tragedy in a war-torn nation that has injured so much. We'll have more on a helicopter crash live from the scene in Ukraine. Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward is there.


FOSTER: The Ukrainian interior minister is amongst the victims of the helicopter crash that killed at least 17 people in the suburb of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. The helicopter was traveling to the Kharkiv region when it crashed near a kindergarten in the suburb of Brovary.


Ukraine's presidential office says the eight of the -- that eight of the victims were local residents including four children. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy confirmed that the interior minister was killed in the crash along with the Deputy Interior Minister and other ministry officials.

Let's bring in CNN Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward, who got there very quickly indeed. I mean, how did you read the situation, Clarissa?

WARD: Well, it's unbelievably tragic for a country, obviously, Max, that has already been through so much in this last year. You can see, I'm standing now right in front of that kindergarten, it really took a direct hit. When that helicopter, according to eyewitnesses, came flying, peered to lose control here, clip the edge of the kindergarten there, starting a fire and then crashed on the other side of it.

When our team first arrived on the ground, you could see a number of bodies covered and gold foil that had been recovered. But they're saying now that all nine people who are on that helicopter including, as you mentioned, the Minister of Interior, Denys Monastyrskyi, the Deputy Minister of Interior, the Secretary of State of the Interior Ministry, that they were all killed immediately upon impact.

And now we know as well, that the other people who were killed were a number of children and their parents, parents dropping their kids off at school, Max. You can imagine, this is every family's worst nightmare. The question becomes, how did this happen? Because this helicopter was sophisticated. It's a Puma helicopter. Airbus had just updated the avionics on this.

And so, we don't know exactly how this happened. We know that there was a lot of fog, bad visibility in the area. Some people said that they were able to hear the crash, but they couldn't see it immediately, because there was such poor visibility.

Ukrainian authorities say that they are investigating every possible avenue as to how this happened. There is no sense at this stage that there was foul play involved. But, of course, they don't want to eliminate any possibility either.

And so right now, the main effort continues to be as you can see behind me, because you see, it's still smoldering in parts. The effort to go through that wreckage of that kindergarten, make sure that there are no other people who are killed or injured, who've been unaccounted for, and try to get to the bottom of exactly what happened here, Max. FOSTER: It could well be an accident, couldn't it? There's no suggestion that there's any foul play involved here. But how do you think President Zelenskyy --

WARD: There's no suggestion that there's foul play.

FOSTER: How do you think President Zelenskyy might address it today?

WARD: Yes, and I would just say -- to underscore the -- yes, I mean, well, he's already come out and said this is a tragedy. It is a profound tragedy, a member of his Cabinet, the entire leadership, essentially of the Interior Ministry. But it is important to underscore, as you said, there is no suggestion of foul play and the weather here was terrible this morning.

As I said, a lot of people talking about how bad visibility was, how much fog there was. So I am guessing that we will learn more in the coming hours. We continue to see people coming here to pay their respects, to leave flowers. Earlier on, our team was on the ground as the wife of the Deputy Interior Minister came and looked at the body of her husband. You could see how obviously crushed and deeply upset she was.

And I think that for everybody here, there's just a sense that this is a terrible, awful, senseless tragedy. Amid so much pain and heartbreak and devastation already, it's really the last thing Ukraine needed. And no easy answers and no easy person to blame in this situation until we get a much better sense of how this happened.

FOSTER: Clarissa Ward on the scene there in Brovary, thank you very much indeed.

Still ahead, a former Russian mercenary is now seeking asylum in Norway, and he's making disturbing allegations about how recruits are treated in life and in death. That story when we return.



FOSTER: The former Russian mercenary is seeking asylum in Norway, Andrei Medvedev was a commander in the Wagner group often described as the Russian president's off the books troops. His lawyer tells CNN the possibility of war crimes charges against his client is, quote, a thought that is unavoidable although Medvedev denies contact with civilians. But he's making grim allegations about how Wagner operates.

CNN's Nic Robertson reports.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice-over): Andrei Medvedev is lucky to be alive. The former Wagner eunuch commander says he fled Russia in a daring Arctic escape, dodging bullets and dogs across a frozen river to Norway.

ANDREI MEDVEDEV, FORMER WAGNER MERCENARY (through translation): I've been chased. I'm afraid for my life.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Afraid, he says, because he has witnessed the murderous atrocities in Ukraine committed in the name of his ex-boss, Wagner oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, aka Putin chef, and he wants to tell all. Russians killing Russians, some of them former prisoners freed from Russian jails to fight for Wagner.

MEDVEDEV (through translation): I know cases where prisoners were demonstratively shot dead for refusing to fight or for betrayal. They were showing fighters here, this is what will happen to you.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): He says he joined Wagner in July last year, signed up for four months for near Bakhmut and eastern Ukraine. But when Prigozhin began recruiting former prisoners to swell Wagner's ranks, Medvedev saw a deadly change. Wanted out as his contract ended, but wasn't allowed to quit.

MEDVEDEV (through translation): Since the moment the prisoners have come to serve with us, strange things and murders of their own recruited prisoners by the Wagner security service and foolish orders, such as sending us to die as cannon fodder started to happen.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): He is the highest-ranking Wagner fighter to flee to the west. His eyewitness account of Prigozhin's murderous practices in Ukraine is revelatory.

VLADIMIR OSECHKIN, HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST: He is really target for the Russian special forces or security service from Wagner group. It's a very high risk of die.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Human rights activist Vladimir Osechkin helped Medvedev escape. Has made sure his story gets out.

OSECHKIN: It's very important to do the international investigation about this. It's very important to open this information to the Russian people to understand what has happened.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Medvedev's biggest revelation will likely be the most damaging to Putin and Prigozhin's recruitment drives. Last month, Prigozhin recorded this callous video purporting to pose in front of his dead fighters in body bags, claiming their contracts were complete and they were on their way back home.

But Medvedev says he's seen the truth. Many fighters never making it home because Prigozhin is too cheap to pay out insurance on their death.

MEDVEDEV (through translation): The majority of the prisoners were buried and then declared missing. The insurance only pays out money to relatives of the deceased if the body was identified and handed over to the relatives. So they were just declaring everyone as missing.

ROBERTSON (on-camera): Right now, Medvedev is at a secure location in Norway, telling investigators every detail he can remember. He says he didn't commit a crime and wants those responsible for the murders brought to justice. Nick Robertson, CNN, London.


FOSTER: German police said on Tuesday evening, they released Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg after detaining her earlier in the day. Thunberg and others were protesting against the expansion of a coal mine in a village in Western Germany.


After her release, Thunberg tweeted, "Climate protection is not a crime." On Saturday, she addressed her fellow activists.


GRETA THUNBERG, SWEDISH CLIMATE ACTIVIST: The carbon is still in the ground. We are here. Illiterat (ph) is still there. And as long as the carbon is in the ground, this struggle is not over.


FOSTER: Police are investigating after gunfire broke out at the end of a basketball game at the Oklahoma High School on Tuesday.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John Smith Fieldhouse, tonight were the Millwood Falcons fall --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'll go to break.


FOSTER: The game had just finished when the shots were fired, sending fans running and the game's commentators ducking for cover. The school's principal says it happened after a fight broke out. At least one man was shot and taken to hospital. There's no word yet on his condition or whether he's connected to the school.

A pair of train operators in Alaska remarkably emerged unharmed after an avalanche slammed into their freight train. You can see a mountain of snow and ice burying sections of the train. The avalanche derailed two engines and caused a partial derailment of a third in the middle of the night on Tuesday. Firefighters assess the situation for safety before climbing the ice and evacuating the two member crew.

And finally, the world's oldest known person, a French nun has died at the age of 118. Sister Andre passed away on Tuesday in southern France. The city's mayor announced her death on Twitter. According to the Guinness World Records, Sister Andre was the oldest nun to ever live and dedicated most of her life to religious service. She had seen 18 French presidents and 10 different popes presiding over the Catholic Church in her lifetime. Thank you for joining me here on CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Max Foster in London. "WORLD SPORT" with Amanda Davies is up next.