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CNN International: Anti-Putin Russians Claim Attack On Border Region Of Belgorod; Senior Russian Official Dies After Falling Ill On Plane; U-Haul Truck Rams Barrier Near The White House; Biden And McCarthy Meeting "Productive", But No Deal Reached; Millions Being Warned As Popocatepetl Roars Back To Life; What Has Prompted A New Search In Madeleine McCann Case?; Ukrainian Commander: Morale In Bakhmut Is Flagging; TV Personality Rolf Harris Dies Aged 93; Source: Jeff Bezos And Partner Laurence Sanchez Are Engaged. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired May 23, 2023 - 08:00   ET



MAX FOSTER, CNN ANCHOR: Ongoing investigation into the disappearance of British toddler Madeleine McCann. The latest on that case.

Plus, an extremely rare look at Ukraine's front lines, where CNN reports just miles from the embattled city of Bakhmut. We'll bring that to you.

FOSTER: The Kremlin is calling a brazen cross border attack on Russian soil on Monday, a cause of deep concern. The governor of Belgorod region says counterterrorism operations are ongoing, and he's urging residents not to return to their homes. A group of anti-Putin Russian nationals are claiming responsibility.

Ukrainian officials acknowledge the attack but deny any direct involvement. Meanwhile, Moscow says the region was hit again overnight in drone strikes that damaged several private homes. The Kremlin has opened a terrorism investigation into Monday's attack.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen joins me now live in Kyiv. Fred?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL: Hi there, Max. And you're absolutely right. The Russians are saying this is a cause of deep concern for them. And they also say that what they call that antiterrorism operation is still going on in that region, which essentially means that the people who live in that region can't come back. And they also have a more strict regime down in that area near Belgorod where they can check IDs more easily and generally are conducting sweeps of the area as well.

So the Ukrainians -- and I just spoke to the Ukrainian national security adviser, Max, and he quite frankly told me that, yes, these are Russians who did this, Russians who are fighting on the side of Ukraine here inside Ukraine. But he also says that the Ukrainians have nothing to do with this attack and that this is an inner Russian matter. Obviously, the Russians themselves see that very differently. Dmitry Peskov, aside from saying -- he's the spokesman for the Kremlin, of course -- asides from saying that this is a cause for deep concern for the Russians, also said that they hold the Ukrainians accountable. He says that this shows that the Ukrainians are attacking Russian territory and is obviously using this to try and justify Russia's war in Ukraine, what the Russians call their special military operation.

But as of right now, it seems as though, Max, this is still an ongoing situation there in that Belgorod area where these forces, these Russian forces fighting on the side of Ukraine do say that they still have people inside Russian territory.

Now, we don't know whether or not that's true. The Russians are saying that they are sweeping that area, that they're coming to terms with the situation, but it certainly seems like something that's still ongoing. And I think one of the things that's very important to make clear to our viewers is that that region down there is absolutely key for Russia.

It is the Belgorod region. It's close to the town of Belgorod, which is one of the main military hubs for the Russian military, not only in general, as far as bases are concerned, but also specifically for the war in Ukraine.

So certainly, a key area that these mercenary or these people have managed to get into and fight there. And certainly they say that they are not going to leave. The Russians again are calling this a terrorist act, Max.

FOSTER: Fred Pleitgen in Kyiv, thank you.

An autopsy is allegedly scheduled for tomorrow following the mysterious death of a senior Russian official. Russia's Ministry of Science and Higher Education says its deputy minister died after falling ill on a plane on Saturday. Pyotr Kusherenko was returning to Moscow following a trip to Cuba.

A journalist who says he spoke to Kusherenko last year says the Russian minister privately criticized his country's war on Ukraine, calling it a fascist invasion.

CNN's Salma Abdelaziz joins me now. He wasn't a very well-known objector to the war, though, was he? So what's going on here?

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, but that's what adds to the climate of fear, right? Is that any criticism -- and remember, this is not some very open public criticism, he was speaking to a prominent journalist, but again, it's not like it was splashed on the headlines. And yet now this death being considered suspicious.

What we know, of course, of the senior Russian lawmaker is that he was boarding a plane, leaving this business trip from Cuba when he fell ill on the flight. The plane landed in southern Russia near a border region with Georgia. He was treated, but he died on site. Some members of his family have indicated potentially that it was a heart condition. But a prominent journalist, Roman Super, who had been speaking to him just days before he went on this business trip, says that he feared for his life. He said he was essentially being held hostage by the Kremlin, that he was terrified that he could potentially be harmed, that he was taking anti-depressants and tranquilizers.

He urged this journalist to leave himself, to flee himself from Russia. And all of this comes -- and I think we have a graphic to show you -- after a string of other mysterious deaths and apparent suicides, nearly 12 of them, a dozen of them that have occurred since about January of last year. So right around the time of the Russian invasion.

If you look at that graph we have up there, one of those individuals is Ravil Magonov, he is the chairman, or was the chairman of Lukoil, an energy company which made this extraordinary move last year of criticizing Russia's invasion of Ukraine.


And in late September, he fell out of the window of his hospital in Moscow. Again, question marks over this.

Now, Russia has not, of course, commented on this. They are not going to -- you know, there's no claim of responsibility here, if you will, and it's going to be difficult to get answers. Remember, this autopsy is going to take place in Russia, but it adds again to that climate of fear. There's this string of mysterious deaths.

We know of the history, of course, of poisonings that has occurred, you know, of Alexei Navalny, the Salisbury Poisonings that happen here in England. So real sense that anyone who speaks out, there could be consequences.

FOSTER: OK, Salma, thank you.

Now to the fate of an American journalist, the U.S. says is wrongly detained in Russia, a hearing is expected next hour in Moscow for Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. A source says it will focus on extending his pretrial detention. Gershkovich appeared in court last month to ask that he be allowed to await trial whilst under house arrest. But that request was denied and he was sent to Moscow, a Moscow prison.

A fatal car crash in Wales has set off a riot there. It all started when two teenage boys were killed in a car crash or a crash near Cardiff on Monday. It's not clear how the crash and ensuing violence are related, but there are reports the rioters believed police were somehow involved in the boy's deaths. Police say vehicles were set on fire and property was destroyed. Several people were arrested.

The driver who crashed a U-Haul truck into a security barrier near the White House faces a slew of charges. It happened on Monday night in Lafayette Square near the White House. Video shows police inspecting a flag with what appears to be a swastika, a roll of duct tape, and a black backpack that the suspect apparently had with him.

The driver is in custody and is charged with threatening to kill or harm the president, vice president or their family. No one was injured and the driver's name hasn't been released.

CNN's Evan Perez is at the scene of the crash and joins us now live. Lot of mystery around this, but also very worrying to see what they found.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Oh, absolutely. This is a scary scene, certainly that developed around 10:00 p.m. last night. The police say that this man inside this -- driving this U-Haul truck drove up onto the sidewalk. You can see tire tracks right here behind me rammed the security barrier behind me right there a number of times before he was taken into custody. Right now, the U.S. Park Police says that he's facing a number of charges, including assault with a dangerous weapon, threatening to kill or kidnap a president, destruction of federal property. A number of other charges also we're expected to see this morning.

For a while, obviously, this is a scene that caused a lot of concern, certainly because of the truck. The FBI did a search to see whether there were any explosives. None were found, but a nearby hotel was evacuated for a period while the authorities tried to figure out what was happening with that truck.

As you pointed out, you could see some of the video there showing some of the items that were believed to have been taken from that truck. One of them includes a flag with a swastika on it, a backpack, and a roll of duct tape.

Now, this all going down in Lafayette Square, just a few 100 meters from the White House. There was never any threat to the president or to anybody inside the White House, according to the Secret Service.

And, you know, this is normally a bustling area for tourists. Certainly, even at 10:00 p.m. at night, a number of people are out here taking pictures of the White House. Thankfully, nobody was injured. Back to you.

FOSTER: OK, Evan in Lafayette Square, thank you.

U.S. President Joe Biden and White House -- U.S. President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy have not yet reached agreement on how to raise the debt ceiling. The two vowed to keep talking and have called their meeting late Monday at the White House productive. Democrats and Republicans have until June 1st to find agreement, or the U.S. could default on its debt for the first time in its history.

CNN's Lauren Fox joins me live from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. How are you feeling about any progress here, Lauren?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, yesterday I think the readout from the meeting was that these talks were productive, but there was no progress. In other words, they still have a very long way to go. And just nine days to get there, that's what's so significant right now, is just how slowly this progress has been, despite the fact that they have been back and forth in several meetings over the last seven days and still no breakthroughs.


The biggest sticking point remains how much money both sides want to spend in the annual appropriations process. What you have from Republicans is an argument that they want to cut spending back to the levels that it was at last year, with an exception for defense and veterans, that means deeper cuts to other social safety net programs.

Then you have the White House and President Joe Biden specifically calling to freeze spending at 2023 levels for 2024 and 2025, with just a small increase for inflation. So that gives you a sense of just how far apart these two sides are right now. It's about $131 million. That's before you get to any of the ancillary issues related to work requirements for social safety net programs or clawing back some of that unspent COVID money that went out during the pandemic.

All of those issues are also on the negotiating table, but still, a very long ways to go in these talks. And both sides are starting to get some grumbling from their respective flanks. Progressives arguing they're a little worried about any deal that Joe Biden might cut with Kevin McCarthy. Some conservatives arguing they don't want to see that bill that they pass through the House of Representatives watered down at all.

FOSTER: Lauren Fox, thank you.

Typhoon Mawar has been upgraded to a super typhoon strength, and it's bearing down on the U.S. territory of Guam in the Pacific. The storm packing ferocious winds of more than 240 kilometers per hour could hit the island on Wednesday. Authorities were urging people to hunker down and stock up on food, water and medicine.

Mexico's most active volcano roaring back to life as Popocatepetl began spewing smoke and ash in the past week. Towns in the vicinity are being warned to prepare for evacuation. Some 25 million people live in 100 kilometer radius of the volcano, which is south of Mexico City. Mexico City's airport was temporarily closed over the weekend and flights were delayed this week.

Now, still to come, police investigating the disappearance of British toddler Madeleine McCann in 2007, have begun a new search at a reservoir in Portugal. What's prompted this new development? Next.


FOSTER: What's prompted a new search in the Madeleine McCann case? On Tuesday, police investigating the disappearance of the British girl Madeleine McCann began carrying out a new search in a reservoir in Portugal. McCann was three years old when she disappeared whilst on holiday in 2007 with her family in the Algarve region.

Police are reportedly focusing on finding evidence that Christian Brueckner, a German national who's been formally identified by German and Portuguese authorities as a main suspect, carried out activities in that area.


Brueckner lived in the Algarve region between 1995 and 2007 and is now in prison for unrelated sex offenses. He has denied any involvement in the case. Last year, a German prosecutor said he was, quote, sure that Brueckner had killed McCann.

CNN's Scott McLean is following developments for us, joins us live from here in London. Just take us through what they're looking for on what might prompted this latest search, Scott?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, so that's precisely the question, Max. So what we know so far is that this search was prompted by German authorities who asked the Portuguese police to go back and relook at this area, in particular.

And as you mentioned, they are looking for evidence of potential activities of the primary suspect here, a man in his mid-40s, Christian Brueckner, might have had in that area when he lived in Praia da Luz for more than a decade. This area is about 50 kilometers or so north of Praia da Luz.

We're talking about a pretty vast piece of land. There's a large reservoir, obviously, there's some scrub land, some surrounded by parks and walking paths and things like that. It is a needle in a haystack, it seems. Last time, the police searched this, or the authorities searched it privately, I should say, was 15 years ago, and they were actually inside the reservoir with dive teams and they turned up animal -- what turned out to be animal bones at that time, but nothing more.

This time, from the pictures that we've seen, thus far, Max, they are primarily focusing their search on land, though, there are divers and boats there as well. You can see sort of lines of police officers or investigators on the shoreline sort of prodding around with sticks.

And so, what they're looking for precisely, we don't know. We also don't know how precise of an area they actually have to look at because, obviously, this is a pretty big area.

FOSTER: What evidence is there against Brueckner so far?

MCLEAN: Yes, so it seems like there is a lot of circumstantial evidence from what we can see so far. Obviously, he lived in this area at the time. He was a known pedophile. He is now a convicted rapist, serving seven years in a German jail. Brueckner cell phone was also placed in the area at the time of the crime.

He tried to re-register one of his vehicles just a day afterwards. His story has also changed as well. He was actually interviewed back in 2013 as a witness in this case. And initially he said that he was not even in Portugal at the time. Then later he said that he was with his girlfriend on the night that this actually took place. But investigators haven't been able to find any woman to actually support this claim. The prosecutor in this case has also refused to deny the suggestion that they have found something belonging to Madeleine McCann inside of Brooklyn's trailer where he was living at the time. And so there seems like a lot of circumstantial evidence, but under German law, prosecutors need to be able to convince a judge that they have enough evidence to secure a conviction in this case.

Clearly, they're missing something here and the clock is ticking. As I said, he's serving seven years right now for a rape case of an American, and he's more than halfway through that sentence already. So potentially, we could see him released.

FOSTER: There's still massive investigations about this case 16 years later. And, you know, several countries obviously involved. It's still of a huge scale.

MCLEAN: It's actually really fascinating how this has happened because there was plenty of criticism at the outset in this case of how police handled it. Critics would say sloppily. Portuguese police investigated for more than a year, and then they actually closed the case.

And for some time, a few years, the only people who were investigating this actively was actually the McCann family, who, by the way, police had wrongly suggested for a time, for several months that they were suspects in this case. Then all of a sudden, this couple wrote to then-British Prime Minister David Cameron pleading for British police to get involved.

They managed to secure new funding from the Home Office to the tune of, well, it's been more than $15 million has been spent so far to reexamine and reopen this case. And then in 2020, you had this breakthrough with the German prosecutor's office, but again, still no charges.

And so, this case has generated a huge amount of attention because, obviously, when you have missing children, the more you can get this child's picture out there in the world, the more chance you might have of actually finding her. And so right off the get go, this case has attracted a whole lot of media scrutiny. And even 16 years later, we're still talking about it because it remains unsolved, Max.

FOSTER: Yes. OK, Scott, thank you.

Just ahead, CNN goes to the frontline in Eastern Ukraine where morale maybe hurting, but resolve certainly isn't.



FOSTER: Fresh off his whirlwind trip abroad to lock in more support for his troops, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has paid them a visit on the eastern front line. He handed out awards to fighters for their courage in battle. The constant enemy shelling has drained them around, but they tell CNN's Nic Robertson that they'll never stop fighting. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice-over): Barely out of the armored troop carrier, incoming artillery.

(on-camera): We're just going to wait in this little basement until the shelling is over. Then they think it'll be safe to move forward to the front position.

(voice-over): A few minutes later, safe to come out at this army outpost a few miles from Bakhmut.

Last night was hard. A lot of shelling. Call sign Gambit (ph) tells us the soldier is still shell-shocked from an anti-tank rocket attack.

(on-camera): We're going to get back in the vehicle, try to get a little closer to the front lines.

(voice-over): Ten days ago, these troops pushed the Russians back around Bakhmut. But their advance is slowing and harder. We get to a small HQ. Call sign Fox (ph), a former farmer is readying his troops for their coming shift on the front line, stopping the Russians in Bakhmut from advancing.

(on-camera): How hard is that?

(voice-over): It's impossible to describe these feelings, he says. You can only experience it. No words can express it. They shell a lot.

As we talk, it is clear this war is taking its toll.

(on-camera): You only have to look at the soldiers faces here to know how tough this battle is. They all look worn. They say morale is high. But their faces are telling a different story.

(voice-over): We move on towards other positions and stop as the shelling increases.

(on-camera): We've just been told the place that we were going to is under heavy shelling, so we're going to pull back from here, go somewhere else.

(voice-over): In the battalion bunker, the commander tells us the Russians have ramped up their shelling on his troops since they advanced.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Tons of ammo, shrapnel, tanks firing, everything.

His units, drones, recorded their recent successes. But now the Russians have regrouped. And in a moment of candor following losses the previous night, admits morale is flagging.

Let's be honest, he says. We are fighting heavily for more than a year. My soldiers went through many battles and two rotations near Bakhmut. Troops are exhausted, but we endure. (on-camera): Bakhmut, which is just over the hill in that direction, has become an object lesson in how Russia's wealth in men and ammunition can prevail. And that unless Ukraine gets the modern weaponry support from its allies, it's going to struggle to tip the balance.

(voice-over): Call sign Fox (ph) and his unit load up for their hard miles at the front, an end of war getting back to their families, what drives them into the shelling.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Eastern Ukraine.



FOSTER: This just into CNN. Australian born TV personality Rolf Harris, who rose to fame in the U.K. in the 1950s has died at the age of 93. That's according to the British news agency Pi Media.

In 2014, Harris was sentenced to five years and nine months imprisoned for a string of indecent assaults against women and girls. The offenses that Harris committed against four women took place as far back as 1970.

Turning to some other stories, the U.S. Surgeon General has issued an advisory that the use of social media could be harmful to the mental health of young people. Dr. Vivek Murthy urges parents to do everything possible to support their children in the midst of what he calls a mental health crisis.

And he added, "When we look at the collection of publicly available evidence, we can't say that social media is, in fact, safe for our kids. And in fact, what we do see is growing evidence of harm.

Some big news today, if you are one of the 2 billion people using WhatsApp, the messaging platform will roll out an editing feature in the coming weeks. So you'll finally be able to fix that typo or add some context to your chats. But you'll also have a short window to make changes. The company says edits have to be made within 15 minutes of sending the initial message.

And a source tells CNN billionaire Jeff Bezos and his partner Lauren Sanchez are now engaged. The couple first went public with their relationship in 2019. The Amazon founder was previously married to MacKenzie Scott for 25 years. Sanchez was also married before. She is a former broadcast journalist.

There's no word yet on when Bezos and Sanchez will actually tie the knot.

Thanks for joining me here on CNN Newsroom. I'm Max Foster in London.

World Sport with Amanda is next.