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Blinken Returns To Middle East On High-Stakes Trip; Blinken, Saudi Crown Prince Focus On Gaza In Riyadh Meeting; IDF Warns civilians to leave parts of Gaza City, Khan Younis. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired February 06, 2024 - 00:00   ET






MAX FOSTER, CNN ROYAL CORRESPONDENT: He is in good spirits. But, of course, we're talking about cancer here.


VAUSE: We're talking about the king's health. Buckingham Palace reveals Charles III has cancer but Little House, sparking a frenzy of speculation.


YOAV GALLANT, ISRAELI DEFENSE MINISTER (TRANSLATED): Surrender or die. There is no third option.


VAUSE: Israel's stark warning to Hamas, the IDF now bearing down on Rafah in the south, home to almost the entire population of Gaza displaced by war and nowhere left to run. And the Pineapple Express turns deadly, delivering historic rain to California, triggering flash flooding, landslides and statewide power outages.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Live from Atlanta, this is CNN Newsroom with John Vause.

VAUSE: The U.S. Secretary of State is once again on an urgent diplomatic tour of the Middle East, trying to prevent regional conflicts which erupted in the wake of Israel's war with Hamas from escalating further. Well, at the same time, the U.S. military is striking Iran-backed militant groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Blinken is also hoping to make progress on a hostage deal as well as an end to the war in Gaza. Blinken's fifth trip to the region began in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and a two-hour long meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. They discussed regional coordination to end the fighting in Gaza, as well as what comes after that. But, for now, there is no let-up in Israel's military offensive on

Hamas, now underway for almost four months. Palestinians in neighborhoods west of Gaza City and in Khan Younis to the south have been advised by Israel to evacuate. But, many are asking where? And with the Israeli officials again declaring the next stage of their operation set to focus around the city of Rafah in the south, fears are growing for the safety of almost 1.5 million civilians who fled there in search of relative safety.


GALLANT (TRANSLATED): We will continue this action and we will reach the places where we have not yet fought, in the center and south of the Gaza Strip, and especially in the last remaining center of gravity in the hands of Hamas, Rafah.


VAUSE: Almost the entire population of Gaza has been displaced, and with the IDF now bearing down on Rafah, there seems there is nowhere left to run.

CNN's Nada Bashir has more. But first, a warning, her report contains graphic and disturbing images.


NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER (VOICE-OVER): Surrounded by chaos and panic, the wounded lay quiet. This little girl's pain masked by shock. It is all too much. This mother shields her child's eyes from horror, telling him, don't look. In the morgue at the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, the bodies of those who did not survive lay shrouded on the ground, the tiles beneath still bloodied. A doctor here says at least 14 were killed as a result of a series of airstrikes by the Israeli military on this mosque in the central region of Deir el-Balah. The IDF, however, did not respond to CNN's request for comment on the incident.

Locals here are left to sift through the rubble, retrieving fragments of bodies, those killed said to have been leaving the mosque following morning prayers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (VOICE-OVER): This neighborhood is full of people who have been displaced, all taking shelter in schools.


Clearly, there is nowhere safe anymore, not on mosques, not on schools, not in the streets. Nowhere in Gaza is safe.

BASHIR (voice-over): But, just as there is no escape from the airstrikes, it seems there is also no escape from grief. The families of Gaza's latest victims, old and young, left to share in their unending morning.

Elsewhere in this hospital in central Gaza, at least 20 women and children have arrived seeking safety, forced to flee once again after being ordered by the Israeli military to evacuate their shelter in Gaza City.

WALLA AL-ARBEEL, DISPLACED GAZA RESIDENT (TRANSLATED): The Israelis came and surrounded us with tanks. We were not able to go out. There was no food, no drinks, no water. We were not even able to turn on the lights. We were scared they would see us.

ISRAA AL-ASHKAR, DISPLACED GAZA RESIDENT (TRANSLATED): They took all the men and started beating them. They stripped their clothes off and took them to the tanks. After that, they told all the women to go down to the basement, and they deployed explosives. They wanted to lock us in and then blow up the whole building. They wanted to kill us. We told them that we are civilians, that there are children with us, that we have done nothing to deserve this. We begged them and then they agreed to let us out.

BASHIR (voice-over): Troubling accounts like this shared with CNN by several women forced to flee central Gaza, though CNN has received no comment from the Israeli military. What comes next for these families and for all in Gaza is unclear. But, there is little hope left. In the Rafah, now home to more than a million Palestinians, tent cities for the displaced continue to grow. This region once said to be a safe zone now facing relentless airstrikes. Israel's Defense Minister has warned that troops will soon enter the southern city, they say targeting terrorist infrastructure. But, there are deepening fears over the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe, and the looming threat of untold bloodshed miss out.

Nada Bashir, CNN in London.


VAUSE: Steven Cook is a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome back. Good to see you.


VAUSE: So, the Israeli Defense Minister, he has left no room for any doubt, the military offensive which has certainly worked its way down from northern to central Gaza will not stop there. Here he is.


GALLANT (TRANSLATED): Every terrorist hiding in Rafah should know that his end will be the same as in communists in Gaza City or anywhere else in the Gaza Strip. Surrender or die. There is no third option.


VAUSE: So, Rafah is the southernmost part of Gaza. It's on the border with Egypt. And assuming the IDF pushes on and does to Rafah what it has done to the rest of Gaza, so, what else needs to be done before the Israelis can actually declared mission accomplished here, before they can end this conflict, if you like? COOK: Yeah. The Israeli Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, has been good

to his word from October, vowing to take all of the Gaza Strip and rid the Gaza Strip of Hamas terrorists. I think, though, that in order for the Israelis to declare mission accomplished, they're going to have to, from their perspective, it's important for them to kill Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader who is widely believed to have been the mastermind behind the October 7 attacks. They have focused on him. They had spoken about him. They have talked about closing in on him. This is the revenge part of the Israeli military operation here. And I suspect that the Israeli public will not tolerate a mission accomplished declaration without some evidence that the IDF has killed Yahya Sinwar.

VAUSE: It will so as Rafah is concerned. Here is part of the UN situation report from February 1, "Tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee to the south due to bombardment and fighting in Khan Younis over the last week, adding to more than 1.4 million people already crammed in the southern governorate of Rafah. Most are living in makeshift structures, tents, or out in the open." 1.4 million people. That is more than half the entire population of Gaza. And keep in mind, the city of Rafah had a pre-war population of around 270,000. This is not a state secret. The IDF, the Israeli Defense Minister, the entire Israeli government, knows all of this, and yet, not a word on how -- any of that will factor into their military plans as they move south.

COOK: This is literally nowhere to run nowhere to hide moment for those poor Palestinians caught in this crossfire.


The Israelis have prosecuted this campaign as they have wanted to, and with only very little regard for the civilian population that is caught between them and Hamas. They have said that they were seeking to protect civilian life, but I think the results speak for themselves. This is going to be extraordinarily difficult to watch the Israelis attack Rafah, given how many people are crammed into that very small part of the Gaza Strip.

VAUSE: Well, at the moment, the U.S. Secretary of State is on another visit to the Middle East since the war began. This is his fifth trip, partly to up negotiate a deal for the release of Israeli hostages currently being held by Hamas in exchange for an extended month-long pause in fighting. And on that, here is where the Israeli Prime Minister stands.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAEL PRIME MINISTER (TRANSLATED): This is the essence of our policy, total victory over Hamas. Total victory is essential because it guarantees Israel's security. Total victory is the only way in which we can secure the further historic peace agreements that await us.

(END VIDEO CLIP) VAUSE: Total victory means don't negotiate a settlement. No extended ceasefire. So, o are the odds that Blinken can get a deal for a significant pause in fighting and spare Rafah from what's coming about the same as Blinken preventing the outbreak of a much wider regional confrontation, which was the goal of his last trip?

COOK: Yeah. This is, once again, almost a mission impossible for Secretary Blinken. It's almost as if you have to wonder why he is there in the first place. From what we understand from the negotiations that are underway, the Qatari government has said essentially that the Israelis have agreed to a broad set of proposals, but they are waiting to hear from Hamas, which is not going to respond any yes or no, but it's going to send back further questions and explicit proposals of its own.

Meanwhile, the IDF is continuing to bear down on Rafah, and at least publicly, Prime Minister Netanyahu is saying that there will be no ceasefire. Part of that is the fact that he is under significant political pressure from his own coalition partners who have said that they'll bring down the government if there is any agreement that leads to the release of thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. That is something that Hamas is likely to demand.

VAUSE: Steven, it's always good to have you with us. Thanks for your time. Thanks for you insights. Steven Cook there, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, thank you.

COOK: My pleasure.

VAUSE: For Buckingham Palace, the decision to break tradition and announce King Charles had been diagnosed with cancer was about transparency to try and avoid rapid speculation. But, lack of detail has in fact now sparked a frenzy of speculation of just what type of cancer the king has, as well as possible treatments and side effects. This is what we know. Something was detected last month during treatment for an enlarged prostate. A source tells CNN it's not prostate cancer. The 75-year-old monarch will step back from what the palace describes as public-facing duties while undergoing regular treatment. Charles will continue with state business, but other members of the royal family, including Prince William and Queen Camilla, are expected to step up their public duties.

Meantime, many across the UK are offering their support to the king.


ANDY BLOOMER, HOTEL MANAGER: It sounds it's a bit of a shock. Like, I'm genuinely heartfelt thoughts to him. That sounds pretty scary.

STEVE COSTELLO, RETIRED ARCHITECT: I wish him well. I wish him well. It's very sad. Very sad.

DOLORES, SEMI-RETIRED NURSE: I'm very sad to hear this. Very sorry to hear. And I pray that he will recover.

LAURA DUDLEY, CARE HOME WORKER: We've got all the best doctors. He has got the best chance. Age against him. Rest up, boy. Abdicate. Give up the throne. Give it to William. You get better. Crack on. Enjoy Camilla.


VAUSE: Some good advice there. Now, ow British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted on X, "Wishing His Majesty a full and speedy recovery. "I've no doubt" he went on to write "he'll be back to full strength in no time and I know the whole country will be wishing him well."

We have more details now from CNN Royal Correspondent Max Foster.


FOSTER (voice-over): Buckingham Palace announcing that King Charles III has been diagnosed with a form of cancer just over a week after undergoing a corrective procedure for a benign enlarged prostate. The palace outlining that during that procedure, a separate issue of concern was caught, resulting in the diagnosis. The type of cancer hasn't been specified. But, a source tells CNN that it's not prostate cancer. The statement released by the palace revealed that the British monarch has already commenced a schedule of regular treatments, and announced that he'll postpone public-facing duties as advised by his doctors.

Monday statements also saying that Charles decided to share his diagnosis to prevent speculation and help spread awareness for those affected by cancer.


The king will also continue state business and official paperwork as usual as head of state, and CNN hearing that he'll continue his weekly audience with the British Prime Minister. CNN also understands there are no current plans to appoint counselors of state, which refers to designated members of the royal family who had delegated the monarch's duties temporarily if he becomes too unwell. The public would be told if that were to change.

The diagnosis, less than a year into Charles's reign, also becoming a moment of unity for the royal family. CNN is learning that Queen Camilla is preparing to play an important role during this time, continuing her full programme of public duties. Kensington Palace also announcing earlier in the day that the Prince of Wales would return to public duties this week, after taking time off to support his wife Kate after recovering from her recent abdominal surgery.

Meanwhile, Prince Harry is set to fly back to the UK in the coming days to visit his father. The family, despite their fractures over the last few years, coming back together amid this crisis.

Max Foster, CNN, London.


VAUSE: We are live now to London. Broadcaster and Journalist, Bidisha Mamata, thank you for being with us.


VAUSE: So, according to a statement released by Buckingham Palace, King Charles remains wholly positive about his treatment, and looks forward to returning to full public duty as soon as possible. Given this announcement was made in the spirit of transparency, is it notable then that the statement makes no mention of doctors are optimistic about the prognosis or words to that effect? Should we take something from that absence?

MAMATA: I don't think we should take anything dark from it. In fact, the statement is cut through with King Charles' typical sort of quirkiness. And there is a sort of fondness and familiarity about the statement in terms of his address to people. I think that the statement is true and exactly what you are reporting is what's happening. They found something. They clearly caught whatever it was quite early. He does have access, of course, to the absolute best medical care. And he is determined to get on with it. He is also hopeful. I don't think he would have used the phrase optimistic whether he was putting it into his own mouth or the doctors' mouths if the prognosis wasn't essentially good.

The sheer amount of public, I don't know if it's affection, but sort of fellow feeling that's coming from world leaders and ordinary people all over the world is quite telling in this regard because it very much humanizes him.

VAUSE: Well, with that in mind, here is President Joe Biden, U.S. President Joe Biden, when he was asked about the king's cancer diagnosis. Here it is.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, do you have a message for King Charles? A message for King Charles?

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Yes, I'm about to call him. I'm concerned about Just heard his diagnosis. I'll be talking to him, God willing.


VAUSE: I played that because it gets back to my first question, because often when there is an absence of information, people tend to assume the worse, especially when it comes to cancer. So, is there a sense in the UK, I guess, everything is OK, but that just hasn't been sort of parlayed (ph) around the rest of the world? Are you there? Bidisha? I think we have a bit of a problem there with our link there to London, unfortunately. But, we'll move on.

Well, a lot to come up here on CNN Newsroom. We also have the rising death toll in Chile as well-qualified crews try to contain blazes across the country. Also ahead, dangerous flooding and mudslides and damaging some of the most -- world's most expensive neighborhoods as a powerful storm pummels California. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)



VAUSE: Welcome back, everyone. We'll have more now on the cancer diagnosis of Britain's King Charles. Let's get back to London Broadcaster and Journalist, Bidisha Mamata. Thank you for staying with us. We fixed the problem. I want to hear a little more from the statement which was released by Buckingham Palace on the king stepping back from public appearances while undergoing treatment. They wrote "Throughout this period, His Majesty will continue to undertake State business and official paperwork as usual."

So, with all due respect, Britain has a constitutional monarchy, and King Charles is the figurehead. He is important for stability but has no real power. So, what is it that the state business? What is it that must continue despite his cancer treatment?

MAMATA: It will be signing things. He'll probably also be having meetings behind the scenes that we don't see. Charles is very interesting, because of course that monarch is not supposed to be meddling about in political affairs, he is very politicized. He often weighed in during that long, long apprenticeship when Queen Elizabeth was on the throne on all sorts of things, and that became part of the reason why there is fondness towards him now. I have no doubt at all that should something arise which regards, let's say environmental policy, a huge passion of his, there will be some phone calls from his desk and a few memos being sent out.

I think that what we know of him is what will guess, and people would not have it any other way. What he is not going to be doing clearly is getting out and about shaking hands and perambulating and meeting the people. That's not going to happen. He is clearly undergoing a course of treatment as we speak. Clearly, he has known about this for longer than the statement indicates. But, he will certainly be at his desk. I don't think he'd be able to help himself from feeling and wanting to do things regarded to matters of state. Even if he promised his doctors that he would not, it would just be, I don't know, daytime TV and cups of tea.

VAUSE: We also know that the other royals will be stepping up to fill that void in the public role that -- with King Charles indoors. At the same time, Prince William returning -- Harry rather, returning to the UK, Meghan, we assume, raising a possible speculation of any kind of brotherly reunion or some kind of family make good at the end of this sort of rift between the two. Is this possible in a family crisis like this?

MAMATA: Yes. I do think the fact that they made this transatlantic visit public is quite significant, partly because, of course, they know that people are going to be talking about it. And I think the royal family and indeed Harry and Meghan very much want to avoid the feeling of last year, which was that this might be the royal family, but it's also an ordinary family, but it's also a telenovela, or a soap opera, and people are going to be wondering, is the rejected, the errand brother going to fly over? I hope that in fact this is exactly what happens. I hope it's just a visit. It should not be seen in the light of a worse prognosis than what has been made public, kind of midnight flit at the last moment. I really -- I am hopeful that that's not the case at all. If this is what it takes to bring a family together, then so be it, I suppose.

VAUSE: It often happens like this at a crisis. It is the time when people do come together, out their squabbles to one side.

Bidisha, thank you so much for sticking with us, especially through our few technical problems there. But, thank you very much for being part of the show.

MAMATA: My pleasure.

VAUSE: We'll move on now. And the death toll from dozens of wildfires in Chile has risen to 123 with hundreds more unaccounted for.


Two coastal cities, popular with tourists, are among the hardest hit, with many homes reduced to rubble. Chile's Finance Minister estimates the damage in one region alone will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Fires come in the midst of a summer heatwave. Scientists say climate change, and the El Nino weather pattern are making fires worse. Chile's president says it's the deadliest disaster the country has faced in more than a decade.


GABRIEL BORIC, CHILEAN PRESIDENT (TRANSLATED): The fire in Valparaiso is a serious emergency, the most catastrophic in our country since the earthquake of February 27, 2010.


VAUSE: CNN's Patrick Oppmann reports now on those who survived the disaster but lost so much.


PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (VOICE-OVER): Abraham returns to the place where his home one stood. Nothing remains. The home is reduced to rubble. Memories of his life burned to ashes. He says he has nothing left but the clothes on his back, a pair of overalls and some slippers.

ABRAHAM MARDONES, VINA DEL MAR RESIDENT: Everything was consumed in its path, memories, comforts, your home, our things, I was left with nothing. At the moment, I have nothing but overhauls. I'm wearing slippers that were given to me. So, I have nothing. I'm left with nothing.

OPPMANN (voice-over): A haunting reality for many as wildfires tear across swaths of Chile, killing more than 100 people and leaving hundreds missing. Coastal cities like Vina del Mar and Valparaiso are choked in smoke. Chile announced a two-day mourning period as firefighters raced to battle fires and save lives. The governor of the Valparaiso region, Rodrigo Mundaca, announced curfews to help authorities battle the blazes.

BORIC (voice-over): It is the whole of Chile that is suffering and mourning our dead. And from the region of Valparaiso, I send a hug of solidarity, and my heartfelt condolences to each of the victims who have lost a loved one, and also to those who have lost their homes, their memories and their belongings.

OPPMANN (voice-over): Loved ones embrace each other, as they find themselves forced to live makeshift tents surrounded by what was once their homes, now raised the round. Chileans are calling on younger people to volunteer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (TRANSLATED): If you have the possibility to come and help, come, because what is needed most are hands. This is not the first time Chile has gone through this type of thing. So, we know that Chileans know how to get up, how to prepare, how to help others.

OPPMANN (voice-over): This satellite imagery showing the areas of Chile before and after the fires, illustrates how old consuming the fire was. Chile's wildfires are not an isolated incident, as the continent faces the growing impact of climate change, particularly from El Nino, a natural phenomenon characterized by warmer than average waters in the tropical Pacific that influences weather around the globe. Compounded with a drought the country has been facing for years, the wildfires were lethal. December through February are the peak months of the fire season in Chile. And officials warned more deadly blazes could be in store.

Patrick Oppmann, CNN.


VAUSE: California is set for another day of dangerous weather from a system known as an atmospheric river. More than 120 mudslides are being reported across Los Angeles, including in the ultra-wealthy communities of Beverly Hills and Bel Air. Hundreds of thousands of homes statewide are without electricity.

More details now from CNN's Veronica Miracle.


VERONICA MIRACLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (VOICE-OVER): Catastrophic flash flooding leaving a path of destruction across many regions of California.

KAREN BASS, LOS ANGELES MAYOR: Let me be clear, this storm is a serious weather event. This has the potential to be a historic storm.

MIRACLE (voice-over): Nearly 40 million people under flood watches, a state of emergency in place for eight counties with evacuations in some areas. On Sunday, Los Angeles experiencing its wettest day in nearly 20 years, more than a month's worth of rain in 24 hours, prompting high water rescues, three people plucked from this tree after escaping their flooded car, vehicles stranded, some completely submerged. And for LA, it's nowhere near over. Parts of the area are forecast to receive close to half a year's worth of rain by Tuesday.

The storm also bringing widespread hurricane-force winds to parts of the state, including the Central Coast and Bay Area. At least one person has died due to high winds after a tree fell on him while he tried to clear debris from his home in Northern California. In Santa Cruz, residents woke up Sunday to a mess.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't remember a storm since we've lived here where we had so many trees come down. All of the neighbors here have no power.

MIRACLE (voice-over): On Monday morning, more than half a million people faced power outages, others contending with the mud.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the foundation. This is where the house sits now. And that's the culprit.

MIRACLE (voice-over): The National Weather Service warning of numerous damaging landslides in Los Angeles County along the Santa Monica mountains and adjacent foothills.

SCOTT TORO, RESIDENT OF STUDIO CITY, CALIFORNIA: We were in the house, my wife and I, and it was like -- like, it sounded like a plane crashing or maybe of a freight train or something like that. Just boulders and mud.

MIRACLE (voice-over): All from an atmospheric river slamming into Southern California, moving at a snail's pace. Parts of San Diego reeling again after just getting back on their feet after a storm two weeks ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is all hands on deck, but we could use a break from Mother Nature an incredible amount of destruction here.

MIRACLE: Now the neighbors have done a really good job of cleaning up the mud. But if you take a look at this garage here, you can see massive boulders. Those came pummeling through the back of the house.

I'm going to take a step back and show you where that debris came from: the top of this hillside. This area has become so oversaturated that the hillside has become so unstable.

And the rain is not over yet, so the threat continues.

Veronica Miracle, CNN, Los Angeles County.


VAUSE: Let's go to Karen Maginnis now, tracking all of this, live from the CNN Weather Center. Karen, it's good to see you, but what's the update for California?

KAREN MAGINNIS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes. We are still dealing with the effects of the atmospheric river, and that's because it is moving so slowly. The hillsides become supersaturated.

Now, this is the Pacific Coast Highway, one of the most impressive, most beautiful highways in the country. But it is now closed, at least in this portion, Monterey County, because so much debris has gone onto the highway. And this next imagery may be very disturbing, but many of us who own pets can really sympathize with this gentleman who jumped into the Los Angeles River to rescue his dog, who gotten caught up into these floodwaters. He had to be rescued. He had some minor injuries. He was sent to the hospital.

The dog was also rescued, and the dog was in for treatment for some minor injuries, as well.

All right. This is what's happening right now. More of that atmospheric moisture, the Pacific moisture. And there's quite a bit of it, as you can imagine.

But it is causing those snow levels to rise. So generally, above five or 6,000 feet, you're going to see significant snow.

So in addition to the potential for flooding, once again, in places like Calabasas and for Malibu, Bel-Air, Santa Monica, we're also looking at that across sections of San Diego, as well.

And this is going to transition inland. So if you're scared, you're thinking this is right' lots of snowfall in store. Well, it's great, except it's going to be extremely challenging to get to those resorts, and the visibility is going to be greatly reduced.

Well, I'll be back in the next hour to give you more details about what we can expect over the next 24 hours. John, back to you.

VAUSE: Karen, thanks for the update. Appreciate that.

When we come back, how a secretive Ukrainian unit is using sea drones held by jet skis to attack Russian ships.



VAUSE: A rare bipartisan deal on border security in the U.S. looks to be dead on arrival, possibly in the Senate. A vote is scheduled for Wednesday, but at least 23 senators publicly oppose the bill. Only 41 votes are needed to sink it.

Even if it survives the Senate, the speaker of the lower House says it won't be passed by the Republican-controlled chamber.

The $118 billion agreement would give President Biden the power to restrict illegal crossings on the Southern border. It also includes vital funding for both Israel and Ukraine.

Ukraine's relying more on drones to try and level the playing field with Russia, both in the air and on the sea. CNN's Fred Pleitgen spoke with members of a secretive Ukrainian unit who say they've used sea drones to sink a Russian warship just last week.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): It was one of the most brazen and most successful operations by Ukraine's military intelligence service, sea drones attacking and, the Ukrainian say, sinking a Russian warship inside occupied Crimea.

And he was one of those involved. His call sign is 13 from the elite sea drone unit named Group 13, so secretive, we had to hide his face and change his voice.

"We used ten drones in the operation," he says. "Six of them hit the Corvette (ph) Ivanovets. CNN cannot independently verify that the Ivanovets was sunk. But video provided by the intelligence agency seems to show the mini sea drones evading machine gunfire from the warship, and then massive explosions.

"Their weapons are not designed to deal with such small sea drones," 13 says. "In most cases, they use anti-ship guns."

Ukraine barely has a functioning navy, but the Magura drones pack a massive punch: around 500 pounds of explosives.

PLEITGEN: These sea drones might not look like much, and they might not go very fast. But the Ukrainians say they've been extremely effective at attacking Russia's Black Sea fleet and even sinking warships.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): "The main thing is to feel the drone," 13 says. "Not everyone can hold a firm grip. If you squeeze a little, you can lose control of the drone. I would say it's like working with jewelry."

Asymmetrical warfare, they call it, and the Ukrainians, outmanned and outgunned, say they need to do a lot more of it.

After visiting the Southern front this weekend, Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, telling Italian media he not only plans to fire his top general, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, there could be a larger government shakeup.

A front runner to become the new commander in chief, the defense intel boss, known for brazen attacks against Russian military and infrastructure targets.

"The Russians are waking up at night to explosions," he says. "Explosions in the air, explosions directly at the facilities. They see the real picture of war. They see burning oil depots, destroyed buildings and factories, and so on. This is all beneficial."

And the Ukrainians vow to continue hunting Russian military vessels in this battle of David versus Goliath on the high seas.

Fred Pleitgen, CNN, in Southern Ukraine.


VAUSE: It's that time of year, the largest mass movement of humanity on the planet. So cue the winter weather chaos in parts of China. When we come back, creating a travel nightmare for the lunar new year holiday. More details in a moment.



VAUSE: Heavy snow, rain and ice have arrived just in time for the lunar new year celebrations in China, the nation's biggest travel holiday. More now from CNN's Marc Stewart, reporting in from Beijing.


MARC STEWART, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Parts of China at a standstill during one of the most treasured times of year.

Cars are stuck. Some highways look like parking lots.

There is such desperation people are doing whatever they can to chip away the ice-covered pavement. It's all part of a winter blast hitting as hundreds of millions of travelers head home for the lunar new year holiday.

Tang Zitao is in the middle of it.

TANG ZITAO, TRAVELER (through translator): This journey has been too long, and it is indeed a torture.

STEWART (voice-over): He told me his six-hour drive is now taking more than 24 hours.

STEWART: What are the road conditions like? Are you seeing snow? Are you seeing ice? How bad is it?

ZITAO (through translator): The snow has been falling since the day before yesterday. It has melted a little, but it then turned into ice. So the road is very wet and slippery.

STEWART (voice-over): He is one of many on a treacherous journey that has left some travelers stranded without food and water.

"Who needs warm water?" this little girl asks as she goes car to car with her mother, other villagers offer noodles and porridge from over the fence.

It's not any easier if you're taking the train. It's packed inside the station in central China as passengers deal with delays.

Much of this mess a flashback to 2008, when blizzards left 24 people dead and hundreds of thousands of people stranded.

Yet, there's a spirit of determination to make it home.

ZITAO (voice-over): No matter what, always head home for the spring festival. It is a Chinese tradition.

STEWART (voice-over): A tradition that could be hindered by unforgiving forces of nature.

Marc Stewart, CNN, Beijing.


VAUSE: 2008 was bad. I remember. I was there. And I'm John Vause, back at the top of the hour with more CNN NEWSROOM. But first, WORLD SPORT starts after the break.