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Eastern Ukraine Bracing for Assault as Russian Focus Shifts; Ukraine: Russia Using Crematoriums to Cover Up Civilian Deaths; Deputy Governor of Kyiv Region is Interviewed about Russian Assault; Ukraine Shoots Down 3 Russian Cruise Missiles Near Zaporizhzhia; Zelenskyy's Former Spokesperson is Interviewed about Russian Advance. Aired 6- 6:30a ET

Aired April 07, 2022 - 06:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to viewers in the United States and around the world. It is Thursday, April 7, and I'm Brianna Keilar in Lviv, Ukraine, with John Berman in New York.

We begin with breaking news. The Russian onslaught accelerating this morning in Eastern Ukraine, with heavy fighting reported in the Donbas region. According to a senior U.S. defense official, Russian forces have now fully withdrawn from areas near Kyiv and Chernihiv, but that doesn't mean they won't return. NATO's chief warning the war could stretch on for years, with Vladimir Putin determined to control the whole of Ukraine.

There is no end to the Russian leader's brutality. Ukrainian military officials say at least two civilians were killed and five others injured in an attack on a humanitarian distribution point in the town of Vuhledar in Donetsk.

And then last night, Ukrainian officials say that three Russian missiles, three cruise missiles were shot down near Zaporizhzhia. A CNN team did hear what sounded like an aircraft and one loud explosion.

Ukraine's President Zelenskyy pleading with the West to impose stricter sanctions on the Kremlin. He says a weak response will be seen by Putin as permission to start a new bloody wave in Donbas.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): It seems the Russian leadership really got scared of the worlds wrath. But what we we saw in Bucha may repeat because of what we may see in other cities where we will inevitably kick out the occupiers.

We have the information that the Russian military has changed its tactics and is trying to hide killed people from the streets and basements in occupied territory.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: In the devastated city of Mariupol, Ukraine claims that Russia is now using mobile crematoriums to dispose of corpses, perhaps to cover up the scale of the killing there.

In Bucha, where CNN teams witnessed the presence of mass graves, the U.S. says the killings appear to be deliberate and premeditated. And the Pentagon claims it can identify the Russian units that are responsible for this.

There is also new disturbing video this morning. This new drone footage showing the moment a couple was killed on a highway in western Kyiv. The man's name is Maksim Iovenko, a civilian gunned down with his hands in the air. His wife, Ksjena, also killed. The family has confirmed their identities to CNN -- Brianna.

KEILAR: I want to bring in CNN's Phil Black, who is here with me in Lviv. Let's talk about what we know from these missiles in Zaporizhzhia. Ukrainians saying that they actually shot down three Russian missiles.

PHIL BLACK, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So I think what we can be sure of every day, Brianna, is that yes, there are cruise missiles flying and impacting somewhere in Ukraine.

The Russians say they hit -- they always say they hit a number of targets across the country. It's very difficult to confirm. The Ukrainians don't always comment on each specific claim.

And the Ukrainians always seem to say that they knocked a couple out of the sky. And again, they say yes, they did that last night over Zaporizhzhia.

On this particular case, we know that our team in the region heard explosions around the time that this was due to happen. So it seems to stack up.

While the Ukrainians often talk about their defense capability, they never go into the specifics of that. So we don't quite know what capability they're deploying to successfully, it seems, on a regular basis, shoot down these cruise missiles.

KEILAR: And we've also heard in the Mariupol region reports or claims that Russian forces have mobile crematoriums with them to try to dispose of bodies. What do we know about that?

BLACK: It's a dark allegation, isn't it? This comes from the Mariupol city council. And so we can't confirm this. But what they're saying is that the Russians are essentially covering their tracks, covering up what has happened there.

And keep in mind, no one knows how many people have died in Mariupol, but we know what's been done to that city. Ninety percent of infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed. It's impossible to have a sense of how many people lie within the rubble of that building after more than a month of continuous bombardment, as Russian forces have moved in and increased the pressure on that place.

But what they're talking about is the possibility that we may never know. Because according to this allegation, which again we can't confirm, the Russians are burning bodies on a large scale. And that means, potentially, the world may never know what has taken place during the course of this siege.

KEILAR: A horrific allegation. We'll keep looking into it.

Phil Black, thank you so much for that.

So moments ago, I spoke to Oleksii Kuleba, who is the deputy governor of the Kyiv region. We spoke right before he traveled to Borodyanka and Makariv, two towns in absolute ruins after weeks of fighting and bombardment by Russian forces. This was our conversation.


KEILAR: Deputy Governor, thank you so much for speaking with us this morning. I know that you're going to Borodyanka and Makariv today with the prime minister. Can you tell me what you've seen there so far and what you're expecting to see today?

OLEKSII KULEBA, DEPUTY GOVERNOR, KYIV REGION (through translator): Yes, indeed. This is my third day of traveling to Borodyanka. I go every day.

And the first impressions are horrific. Almost all the high-rise buildings have been destroyed. They were bombed. And there are people under the rubble, most of whom we will not be able to save.

Yesterday they -- I was there. There were 100 rescue workers working there yesterday. And today I'm going there to organize the humanitarian headquarters and to organize the rescue efforts.


KEILAR: Can you tell us more about the rescue efforts? Is the expectation that people were hiding in basements, and some may still be alive?

KULEBA (through translator): The rescue procedure is as follows. At first, we have a group of de-miners, mine-clearing teams going to clear the mines. And then they are followed by the rescue team. And this team are clearing the rubble.

Yesterday we cleared the rubble in three buildings. And in the rubble, we found the bodies of four people. Those people were hiding in the basement.

So the evidence is such that they were hiding in the basement during the air strikes. And when the bombs struck their building, they were killed. The building collapsed, and they were under it.

KEILAR: You said crews are clearing mines. Have the buildings been booby-trapped? KULEBA (through translator): No, we don't think they were mined. They

are checking for unexploded ordinances that might have been left there after the air strikes.

KEILAR: Can you tell us, Deputy Governor, about the kinds of buildings that we're talking about? You mentioned apartment high-rises. We've seen pictures of that. What other kinds of civilian targets were hit and flattened?

KULEBA (through translator): Yes. There were five nine-story buildings. These are typical Soviet-era apartment buildings, nine stories high.

In addition, we also have five five-story buildings destroyed. These were also apartment buildings for civilians. In addition to that, we also have evidence of the social infrastructure destroyed. So like the -- there was a welfare benefit center that was also flattened.

And the central -- in the central streets -- Borodyanka is not a large town. It was only about 30,000 people living there. In the central street, we have about 30 houses destroyed in the central street.

KEILAR: I do understand that there was a psychiatric hospital nearby with several hundred patients that the Russians had controlled at one point. Do you know what happened to that? That was in early last month.

KULEBA (through translator): Yes, indeed. There were 600 patients in that psychiatric clinic. And fortunately, we were able to evacuate them during -- when the humanitarian corridors were opened. And they are now in different parts of the country. Most of them are in Zhytomyr region in a similar specialist facility.

So we're going to go to this building today and to understand the scale of the damage there. And most likely, we're going to rebuild it as a housing facility for those people returning to Borodyanka who have been rendered homeless by the air strikes.

KEILAR: And I wonder what people, Deputy Governor, who you've spoken to in the area who survived the bombardment, what have they told you?

KULEBA (through translator): That is a very good question. Indeed, yesterday, I had a long conversation with a local resident. She is a welfare worker. And she has been working in her job for 30 years, helping people.

And she was looking at me, and she said, I don't understand why. What have we done? What have we done to deserve this destruction, this -- the murders of our families?

She was sitting in front of a building that was flattened. And in that building, her sister and her sister's family died. And she was looking me straight in the eyes, and she said, What have we done? What has our country done? What have our people done to deserve this damage?

And nothing. We have done nothing. We are peaceful civilians. We were harvesting, planning families, bearing children. What have we done to deserve this huge destruction than we have not seen since the days of the Second World War? We have done nothing to deserve it.

KEILAR: What is your message --


KEILAR: All right. Back here in Lviv now. Actually, the air raid sirens are going off here in Lviv in the western part of Ukraine. The air raid sirens, of course, respond to a large area. So we're keeping an eye on things.

But this could certainly be something farther afield than here in the city. It generally means that there is some threat somewhere. It just might be far away from the city, as well.

Berman, I do want to go back to you now. This is something we're hearing. We've actually had a respite from air raid sirens for quite some time. But they've gone off twice today here just in the last couple of hours in Lviv.


BERMAN: And look, there have been strikes in that broader region over the last few days. And I think there is clearly heightened sensitivity at this moment in that region, in fact, across the whole country.

Brianna, stand by. We just made contact with CNN's Ivan Watson, who is in Eastern Ukraine. He's on a train, I understand, traveling East. And we're not going to give your exact location, Ivan, for security reasons.

But you heard yourself some sounds that officials say may have been these cruise missiles shot down overnight. Tell us what you heard, what you witnessed yourself.

IVAN WATSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Sure. That's the Zaporizhzhia government that claims that they shot down three cruise missiles Wednesday night into Thursday. And our team did hear at least one explosion and what sounded like aircraft.

Right now, to explain where I am, I'm on an evacuation train. So this is loaded with about 1,100 passengers, all evacuees who are traveling for free from Eastern Ukraine, and they'll be traveling for about 24 hours total to where you are, to Lviv to safety.

So the people here have come -- I've spoken to some of them from -- from Kharkiv in the north, from Mariupol in the southeast, and from the areas around Zaporizhzhia. One woman crying, telling me that her village was being hit daily by Russian artillery.

I'm just going to take you out a little bit here. So this train is not as packed as the trains were about a month ago, with crowds at the train stations. But it is still a vital transit link and transit -- form of transit for Ukrainians who are still on the move, trying to get away to parts of the country that are becoming unsafe. And as we saw, neatly organized today, John. But it's still a vital

transport link. The Ukrainian government says about 50 percent of the country's passengers were moving on the railroad system before the war started. So it's still very, very important.

The government in the East of the country, the Russian military is destroying railroad links, which again, serve this vital purpose.

But this train is full of passengers. It will pick up more people, and it will continue on its 24-hour journey to take this kind of precious human cargo to safer parts of the country.

But we saw people emotionally saying good-bye to their loved ones on the platform. I've spoken to a woman who left her husband and mother- in-law behind in her village that was being bombed every day.

And this is just part of now daily life since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Back to you, John.

BERMAN: Ivan, this is remarkable. I can't quite believe what I'm seeing, you on a moving evacuation train from Eastern Ukraine. It is an unbelievable vision right now as we're beginning to look out the window of this.

Ivan, I've been struck by where you've been the last few days in general. You are in the Eastern part of the country. In relative safety, you've been, but so close to where this new phase of the war is taking place. The Russians pushing in, or trying to push into the East.

How have you witnessed yourself this new phase? And this outflow of people you're seeing, is this in reaction to the renewed Russian advances?

WATSON: Certainly. I mean, the woman I spoke with, her -- she was commuting ever day to the city of Zaporizhzhia from her village about, you know, 20 kilometers away, a 20-minutes drive, until the last two weeks, where she said her village was being hit daily. Where they went to bury a neighbor who died of natural causes and she came under fire coming back from the cemetery. Her car was damaged by Russian fire.

And she's describing it as cluster bombs that are hitting her village. Not the kind of stuff that can destroy a tank, but the stuff that -- that throws deadly pellets that is targeting human beings.

So she finally decided, after two weeks of her community coming under fire, it's -- it's bad. She took her 19-year-old son. He's on this train with her. And they're heading West.

So that is an exact example of how the increase in hostilities in her community, after more than a month of this war, has prompted her to now flee, leaving -- leaving her husband behind.

And there's an additional factor to this train itself. There are about 24 conductors on board this train. They were on the last train, John, to leave Mariupol, that besieged Ukrainian city, on February 25.


So they were on the last train to leave that city. And then the crew stayed on board the train for a month straight, working, evacuating people to the West. No breaks. Working for a month straight. And all of them had apartments, had cars, had belongings in Mariupol that they have never seen again. They've just had a week's break. And this is their first trip again back on the railroad, so to speak.

So this is kind of a reality that this country is living in right now. And -- excuse me, and I spoke with this woman, who's fled from Kharkiv with her son in the last couple of weeks.

So everybody here, every person here has a story of choosing to leave their home behind to get on a train, to some kind of safety, leaving pets behind, leaving spouses, grandparents and -- and taking just a bag or two with them for this long journey. And who knows how long people will be displaced?

Back to you, John.

BERMAN: Yes. Ivan, people are leaving their homes, simply not knowing if or when they'll ever be able to get back.

And again, I'm staring off-camera here at these images, which to me are remarkable. This evacuation train, a live broadcast as people are fleeing this region.

Ivan, how clear has the liven been between areas where it's -- it's safe to move around and areas where it's clear there's conflict? How -- how stark is the line between the war zone itself and areas of relative safety?

WATSON: You know, Zaporizhzhia is an interesting example. Because my team and I have been there for much of the last two weeks. And in the last two, three days, they have broadened, extended the working hours, pushed the curfew back to 9 p.m. And I saw more people out on the streets.

The same I could say for the city of Dnipro. Much more people out on the streets, businesses open. But now we've just gotten word that the governor of Dnipro is calling for an evacuation of women and children.

So this can all change very, very quickly.

The explosion that we heard over the city last night in Zaporizhzhia, that's new. The city had been relatively calm.

And the shooting, the fighting taking place just 20 minutes' drive outside of Zaporizhzhia is also an indicator of how quickly things can change.

And don't get me wrong. These cities are prepared. There are checkpoints everywhere, sandbags, bunkers, an immense amount of security, police, territorial defense, and the military, as well. And we as journalists are prohibited from filming that for -- by the

security forces for their safety, for fear that they could be targeted by cruise missiles, by Russian airstrikes.

So I think that's part of what's so scary, is that a city you get to know -- you get to meet people there; you make relationships -- that they could potentially, in this devastating war, come under fire any day if the Russian military chooses -- chooses to extend hostilities to -- to these cities that have populations of hundreds of thousands of people, John.

BERMAN: Ivan Watson and your team doing amazing work on this evacuation train from the East. Ivan, we're going to let you do some reporting here, to speak to more people there. Hopefully, we can keep this connection or check back in with you in a bit. Thank you. Thank you so much for showing us what's happening.

All right. That was Ivan Watson on an evacuation train.

Just moments from now, we have two more major interviews. We're going to hear from President Zelenskyy's former spokesperson, whose fiance is fighting on the front lines.

Plus, we'll speak live with a woman who spent two weeks trapped inside a cellar in Bucha.

This is CNN's special live coverage. Stay with us.



BERMAN: All right. Welcome back. This is CNN's special live coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine's foreign minister in Brussels this morning. He just moments ago gave a crystal-clear message to NATO leaders on what he wants from them.


DMYTRO KULEBA, UKRAINIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: I came to Brussels to participate in the NATO meeting studio (ph) and to hold bilateral meetings with allies. My agenda is very simple. It has only three items on it. It's weapons, weapons, and weapons.


BERMAN: Weapons, weapons and weapons.

Joining me now is Iuliia Mendel, a journalist and former spokeswoman for President Zelenskyy. Her new book, "The Fight of Our Lives," is out this fall. It's an insider's look at Zelenskyy's presidency and the events that led to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Julia, thank you so much for being with us. There's been so much focus the last few days on the horrors that are being discovered around Kyiv, in Bucha, Borodyanka and whatnot. I think there's been some focus missing on this ground war that is getting more intense by the day in the Eastern part of the country.

Can you give us an update on the situation in Donbas?


Well, as we see here, there is a red ribbon of Russian troops, and we have the intelligence sources from both Ukrainian intelligence and Western intelligence that Russia is going to attack Donbas region, which is in the East, Kharkiv and Polkiz (ph) also, which is in the south of Ukraine.


Right now, Russians occupied the whole Kherson region bordering annexed Crimea. And is trying to attack Mykolaiv, which is bordering Kherson, which is also in the south.

And we know that, of course, we cannot trust that Russians just left all their efforts to try to attack Kyiv. We know that the mayor of Kyiv asks people not to rush with coming back, for the reason that first of all, if they go through the villages that were occupied, then they can really have a danger of, you know, going through the mines and the territory where all these atrocities took place.

But the second is that the city is only renewing and coming back to life. So he's afraid if everyone comes, there will be a lack of fuel and food, you know, and all the capacities to hold the people.

But right now, we understand that they will focus on Donbas and the Southern parts of Ukraine. And we do not exclude that they can attack Kyiv.

BERMAN: We heard the foreign minister asking for weapons, weapons, and weapons. As things stand now, do Ukrainian forces have what they need to keep this fight going?

MENDEL: Well, first of all, while -- (AUDIO GAP) -- all the capacities to stand alone against one of the largest armies in the world.

And -- but you understand when we fight back, when we defend our land, weapons tend just to run out. and this is very simple formula. If we use the weapons to fight pack, then they run out.

So right now, I'm thinking when Russia tries to recharge its army, to have another wave of offensive, we understand that we need to collect as much weapons as is possible to fight back and to defend.

We need to stand in this war. Ukrainian army, Ukrainian volunteers, Ukrainian people have shown, have proved that they will stand for their land. They will defend Ukraine. They will defend democracy to the very end. We can do this.

BERMAN: Iuliia, I know everyone is Ukraine's life has been touched. I'm sorry. If you can hear me, Iuliia.

Everyone's life has been touched so much by the Russian invasion here. I know this is very personal to you. So many of your loved ones are either in the fight directly or their houses have been destroyed. Just give me a sense of the impact this has had on you personally.

MENDEL: Well, thank you. I mentioned I'm -- (INAUDIBLE) two houses of my grannies were fully bombed out. The village is just simply bombed out. And the house -- our summer house of my parents, the Russians went there yesterday. They destroyed it for some reason. They robbed it for some reason.

It was not only about that they wanted to get food. They just wanted to destroy. They took their things. They were breaking; they were crushing. They were smashing everything. They took chickens. This is clear.

My mother is grateful they did not touch the dogs. The dogs stayed alive.

Also, it's very scary, because Russians go from home to home. And you never know what to expect. They really make people fear.

And my fiance is fighting -- (AUDIO GAP). (INAUDIBLE) in the East. He sent me today a picture of him wearing the same ring that he gifted me last month. And that was the most romantic but at the same time, the most emotional thing that -- (AUDIO GAP).

But I'm relatively safe. I know that my personal apartment is safe. and we all hope that this will finish as fast as possible.

BERMAN: I'm glad you did get the message from your fiance. I know it's sweet, bittersweet. But to see him wearing that ring must have been nice for you. And it's nice to see a smile on your face, given the horror that's happening right now in your country.

Iuliia Mendel, thank you so much for being with us.

Fourteen terrifying days in a cellar in Bucha. What it was like to live through the horrifying Russian occupation.

Plus, two U.S. cabinet members test positive for COVID. More and more White House insiders positive, as well. We have new details on how the White House is trying to keep President Biden from catching it.