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Heavy Shelling in Northeastern Ukraine by Russians; Chernihiv Mayor is Interviewed about Recent Developments; Chris Rock at Comedy Show: 'Still Processing' Slap; Deputy Mayor of Mariupol is Interviewed about Humanitarian Corridor. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired March 31, 2022 - 06:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to viewers in the United States and all around the world. It is Thursday, March 31. I'm John Berman in Lviv in Western Ukraine, Brianna Keilar in Washington.

The breaking news: Russian soldiers refusing to carry out orders, in some cases sabotaging their own equipment. Supplies are low, and morale is even lower. That's according to the U.K.'s intelligence chief.

Think of that. What are the implications? We'll talk about that at length.

Also this morning, there are signs that Russian forces are regrouping on Belarusian territory. This is after suffering heavy battlefield losses in Ukraine. The Ukrainians say they appear to be replenishing manpower and weapons over the border.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: This as negotiations with Russia are ongoing. But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calls the talks "only words." He adds that Russian troops are now concentrating in the Donbas region for a new round of attacks.

New video shows a bombed-out Russian tank on fire in Sloboda, which is about 12 miles from Chernihiv. Ukrainian troops have retaken the town, further eroding efforts by Russian forces to encircle Chernihiv.

Moments ago, we spoke to Chernihiv's mayor. He says that attacks are increasing. People are being injured by mines. And he added that overnight, seven Russian planes are headed their way. We'll have more on that in a moment.

BERMAN: All right. Let's begin our coverage this morning with CNN's Phil Black, who joins me here in Lviv. And Phil, you heard Brianna talk about President Zelenskyy. Skeptical, I think, of the talks between the Ukrainians and the Russians, or at least cautious.

PHIL BLACK, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Maybe even dismissive, John. He says they're just words. And that's really based upon what he is seeing, what his military is seeing on the battlefield so far. Because Russia, in its alleged good gesture -- goodwill gesture for

these peace talks, is pulling back forces from Kyiv and Chernihiv, as we've been discussing. But on the ground, the bombardment there continues, even though Ukrainian officials, U.S. officials say, yes, some forces are being pulled back. Some are being sent across the border north into Belarus.

But he belief is they're simply being resupplied there, and they will be sent back into battle, probably in the East. And indeed, in the East of the country, that is where Ukrainian officials say they are already seeing an uptick in the intensity of violence that is taking place there, largely because of they're seeing Russian hardware moved into that location. So it's adding to the density of that fight, they say.

That said, the Ukrainians are still pushing back. We were talking about Chernihiv a moment ago. And yes, that town of Sloboda to the South, that is where the Ukrainians say they have retaken ground. What they're trying to do is break the blockade that still exists around that city, where there is still very much a humanitarian crisis.

Meanwhile, backing up what the U.S. intelligence assessment has told us, that Vladimir Putin is not being particularly well-informed over the course of this war, and even in the leadup, U.K. intelligence chief, the chief of JCHQ, which is their electronic surveillance outfit, they -- they, too, agree that he's not being told precisely the truth in terms of what's been going on here.

More than that, has expanded to say that yes, morale is low among the Russian troops. That's perhaps not a surprise. But they're not following orders. And indeed, on one occasion, at least, they may have shot down one of their own aircraft

BERMAN: That's an extraordinary claim.

BLACK: It is an extraordinary claim. And we do not know what that is based upon, as with all of these intelligence assessments. They give us the summary, if you like, but not the -- the information that has led them to that conclusion.

BERMAN: Yes. What's interesting, almost as the information itself, is the motivation for releasing it. You have to wonder what is the United States, the U.K. trying to do by getting this information out there? Clearly, they want Vladimir Putin to see it.

BLACK: You would think so, yes. But I guess it does fit a pattern. The way the West has responded to this in an intelligence sense, releasing as much as possible in real time to counter significantly the disinformation they say is coming from Russia.

BERMAN: Phil Black, great to have you here. Thank you so much for that.

So, Russia continues to shell Chernihiv. This is despite the claims they would scale back operations there. I did speak with the mayor of that city. He was in a hospital with patients. So you get a sense of what's happening there.


BERMAN: Mayor, tell me where you are this morning.

MAYOR VLADYSLAV ATROSHENKO, CHERNIHIV, UKRAINE (through translator): I am at the city hospital, and behind me you can see patients, including Dmitro (ph), who is very seriously injured.

And the patients are in the corridor. They're lying in the corridor, because this is currently the most -- the safest place in the hospital.

Now, Dmitro (ph) was injured when a mine blew up. He was injured by shrapnel from the mine. And the -- when mines go off, when there are explosions, they shatter windows. So it is not safe to be in the wards. So the doctors are treating patients in the corridors.

BERMAN: What change in terms of the Russian attacks have you seen over the last day?

ATROSHENKO (through translator): Since the promises made by the Russian delegation about reducing the intensity of strikes on Kyiv and Chernihiv, we have actually been observing an increase in the intensity of shelling and mortar attacks. And over the past 24 hours, we -- our hospitals have received 20 injured people. And this is both military and civilians.

I just wanted to clarify, so, yes, indeed there are reports that the Russian troops are withdrawing towards the border. And I can confirm those reports.


But in terms of artillery strikes and mortar attacks, these are increasing. And overnight, we have seen seven planes cross the Ukrainian -- into the Ukrainian airspace from Russia. And we are -- towards Chernihiv, and Chernihiv is 70 kilometers away from the Russian border. So we have seen these seven planes heading towards Chernihiv.

BERMAN: We understand Ukrainian forces have retaken the town of Sloboda, which is not far from you. What difference will that make for you?

ATROSHENKO (through translator): So this is Rodanska Sloboda (ph), which is an interesting name, because Rodanska (ph) means Soviet. It's a legacy from the Soviet Union.

So Rodanska (ph) Sloboda is a -- is a suburb of Chernihiv. And if this is true, I don't actually have this information confirmed to me, but this is military -- specific military information, so I wouldn't necessarily hear about this.

But if this is true, than it may mean a reduction in the shelling. But it is practically Chernihiv. It's a suburb. It's very, very close. So it won't mean a radical change.

BERMAN: Might it mean that you can get some assistance? Might it mean that Chernihiv would not be as surrounded anymore?

ATROSHENKO (through translator): It doesn't mean getting more assistance at the moment, because the road through Sloboda is the Western direction, and it leads to the ring road and to the village of Yahidne. We need to go via the village of Kolohivka (ph) and Yahidne.

So if they -- if those villages are liberated, then we can get the direction towards Kyiv, and we can get the assistance. We can't -- to go through Sloboda now and towards the Yahidne, there's a bridge over the Desna River which is blown up. So that direction isn't particularly helpful to us.

BERMAN: Mayor, you mentioned that people are being injured by mines. Have you seen evidence that the Russians are using land mines in and around your city?

ATROSHENKO: (through translator): So we see two types of mines in use here. They are shot using these devices like Stinger-type devices. And they're shooting mines.

And there are two types of mines. One is designed to explode immediately, and one is designed to just lie there as an unexploded ordinance. And then they explode when people come across them.

So -- so of course, we see a lot of it being used. And we have a lot of unexploded mines. So this causes us a lot of injuries both among the military and amongst civilians. A lot of injuries and deaths.

So I just wanted to make a point which is very important, that this is a deliberate attack on civilians. The Russians are using mortars, which is like a very old, very old weapon. And it's not a precision weapon. And they're shooting mortar shells at us, four or five kilometers away from the city, so shooting that into the city and also flying aircraft and dropping bombs from a low height.

So aiming deliberately at the destruction of civilian population and residential neighborhoods. And this is being done deliberately. We see proof of that, because they're using these low-precision weapons and low heights flying.

So we know this is being done deliberately. This is genocide. This is Putin's -- this's no special operation. This is Putin's war on Ukrainian civilians. He just wants to destroy civilians.

BERMAN: We understand. And it leads to so much suffering. Mayor Vladyslav Atroshenko, we appreciate the window you have given us into your city. Thank you for being with us.

ATROSHENKO: Thank you.

BERMAN: So Russia and Ukraine announcing the opening of an evacuation corridor from Mariupol, the city in ruins. We're going to speak with the deputy mayor there on whether people are getting out. Plus, Chris Rock --

KEILAR: Especially the --

BERMAN: -- addresses the elephant in the room. His first sold-out comedy show since he was slapped by Will Smith. What he told the audience.



KEILAR: For the first time, comedian Chris Rock breaking his silence after being slapped by Will Smith in the Academy Awards. Rock got emotional at his comedy show last night in Boston, saying that he's still processing the incident and will address it in more detail at some point.

CNN's Chloe Melas is live in Boston. You actually went to Chris Rock's shows last night. What happened, Chloe?

CHLOE MELAS, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, I went to both of them. And everyone was hoping that Chris was going to address the slap at the Oscars by Will Smith, and he did. Not fully, but he did.

So here's what happened. So in the first show, he gets two standing ovations. He appeared to get emotional. He said, Let me get all misty. I've got a show to do.

And then he explained to the audience, Look, I wrote a whole show before the incident happened. I'm still processing this. I'm going to address this at some point. It's going to be serious, and it's going to be funny. But I have a show to do, so let's move on.

But then, in the second show, he went a little bit further, and he seemed to address reports that claimed that he and Will Smith had squashed things and settled things behind the scenes on Sunday night at the Dolby Theatre. And he said, "Despite what you've heard, I haven't spoken to anyone."

And it's sort of similar, along the lines of what Chris Rock's brother had tweeted earlier in the day, when a fan asked, Do you guys accept Will Smith's apology? Do you accept Will Smith's apology? And he wrote back, "No."


So we actually, Brianna, spoke to some of the show attendees right afterwards to get their take on how they think Chris handled the situation. Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE It was emotional at first. Because the crowd just went crazy when he came on stage. So they were really happy to see him and support him. He kind of got emotional at the beginning, because everybody was cheering for him, which was nice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. He seemed to appreciate how much the crowd loved him. And I guess that's what made him misty. Didn't seem like he wanted to talk about it, which it didn't really bother us, because he was so entertaining. He didn't really need to talk about it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he handled it great, honestly. I mean, you know, he -- he didn't joke about it too much. But he was just being humble and being the comic that we all know. And I know he handled it well overall.


MELAS: Brianna, in a sincere moment during his second show, he basically told the crowd that, "I don't know what I'm going to do yet." Meaning the reason that he's not addressing it is not only is he still processing it, he's not sure what he wants to do, how he wants to handle it.

KEILAR: That is fascinating. Just fascinating. Obviously, so much more to come from him on this as he figures out what he wants to do.

But Chloe, we're also learning that, after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, the Academy actually asked Will Smith to leave. Seems like he didn't want to. He stayed. He stayed on and won an award. What are we finding out about this?

MELAS: Yes. So the Board of Governors at the Academy, they hold an annual postmortem after the Oscars. And this particular meeting yesterday afternoon in California that was held via Zoom was priority No. 1 to talk about what to do about Will Smith.

There are 54 Board of Governors. They include Steven Spielberg, Laura Dern, Rita Wilson, directors, producers, and many more.

And they released a letter. They released a statement. And CNN obtained it. And in it, right at the bottom, it states that they actually asked Will Smith to leave the Dolby Theater, which answers the questions that so many have had as to why Will Smith was allowed to stay. And they say it's because he refused to leave -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Hmm. They have security. There's so much more -- you know, they could have, if they wanted to. So we'll see what that is about here ahead.

Chloe, thank you so much, live for us from Boston.

Up next, thousands of Ukrainians trapped in the bombed-out city of Mariupol. We will speak to the city's deputy mayor about a Russian ceasefire there and efforts to get everyone out.



BERMAN: All right. Breaking overnight, a reported agreement to open a humanitarian corridor out of the city of Mariupol to allow citizens to get out of that city, which has just been decimated by Russian attacks.

Joining me now is the deputy mayor of Mariupol, Sergei Orlov.

If you can hear me, Deputy Mayor --


BERMAN: -- is this humanitarian corridor, this time, is it working? Are people getting out?

ORLOV: Yes. We start this morning to -- to move with our buses. But we should understand that it's not -- it is not absolute cease-fire, and each 10 or 20 kilometers, we check and correspond to our drivers, is it possible to transfer onwards? So anyway, buses are moving through the humanitarian corridor.

BERMAN: The buses are moving. Yes?


BERMAN: Do you know how many people will be able to get out today?

ORLOV: We think it's up to 1,500 to 2,500. It's an approximate number. But we should understand that today, at the moment in Ukraine, it's 1:22 p.m. So I think it would not be possible to return this day. I think it will be next day.

BERMAN: Deputy Mayor, are you still in control of the city of Mariupol? Do Ukrainians still control that city?

ORLOV: There is fights, street fights, battles all over the city. We know that some outskirts of Mariupol are temporarily occupied by Russia. It's most eastern outskirt of our city. It's Northern outskirt and partly West Northern outskirts.

But Ukrainian army, national guard continues to defeat [SIC] our city. There is constant street battles and tank battles in the center of the city. They're going for more than -- for more than 12 days. And the Ukrainian army still controls center of the city, some districts and industrial -- industrial districts of our city.

BERMAN: So even as you're evacuating civilians, the Ukrainian military still controls parts of the city, including the central part of the city. The military, will they leave -- the Ukrainian military, once the people get out, are they going to stay?

ORLOV: No, no. Everybody wants to give opportunity to our civil citizens to evacuate. We estimate that at least 150,000 citizens is still in Mariupol, but they are living like mouses. So all of them are underground in shelters, in bomb shelters, in some spaces below earth. So people just do their best to be alive in this situation.

BERMAN: I spoke to someone who just escaped from Mariupol who told me the city itself is like one mass grave. Bodies everywhere. What does it look like to you?


ORLOV: For me, the same. So Mariupol is all in ruins. There is no such Mariupol as it was before Russia started this war. And Russia destroyed everything. No infrastructure. And they even destroyed the life. I will tell that Mariupol now has lack of life in general.

And we are absolutely sure that Mariupol could be alive only in Ukrainian-controlled government, Ukrainian-controlled territory, and we will rebuke them with the help of the Ukrainian government, international society. We believe and do our best to make it so.

BERMAN: Mr. Deputy Mayor, we've spoken to you over the last five weeks. And you hadn't been able to speak to your parents, make any contact with your contact with your parents in the city. Have you been able to reach them?

ORLOV: I had opportunity to get connection to my parents, but I lost connection to my brother. I cannot, from safety reasons, to tell more information. They are in a not-safe place at the moment. But I had some contact to them. I know that they're alive.

BERMAN: So you know that they're alive. I'm sure that came as a relief to you, even in the midst of the horror that you're living every day.

Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov, I appreciate you being with us. You've given us some important information about the situation there. Thank you. And as much as you can, be safe.

ORLOV: Yes. Thank you. Bye.

BERMAN: All right. Back in the United States, new this morning, the Justice Department widening its investigation of the January 6th insurrection. Is former President Trump a potential target? George Conway will join us.