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Unrest in Ukraine; New Terror Warning

Aired February 20, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news on the new shoe bomb alert. We have new details on a likely link to al Qaeda and fears that the terror network's master bomb maker is now at work.

And outrageous carnage, desperate new measures to end the bloodshed in Ukraine. We're live at the center of the crisis for this breaking story.

We have been getting in remarkable video of the fighting from a filmmaker on the scene. He's standing by live to bring us the brand- new and exclusive images.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're learning more about the newest terror warnings. A U.S. official tells CNN the alert for a possible airline shoe bomber is tied to al Qaeda and it's based on a credible threat. Now authorities are zeroing in on one likely suspect, the terror network's master bomb maker.

Brian Todd is here. He's got all the information for us.

Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, U.S. intelligence officials are very concerned about the capabilities of this man, Ibrahim al- Asiri. He's shown an ability to evade security and get bombs on airplanes and experts say this current threat could well bear his signature.


TODD (voice-over): U.S. officials say the latest intelligence indicates al Qaeda terrorists have been working on new shoe bomb designs. That's what prompted the Department of Homeland Security to warn airlines to be on the lookout.

While there's no specific target, the warning pertains to flights from at least 25 cities overseas into the U.S. Johannesburg, Paris, London, Cairo, cities in the Middle East are on the list. This is not believed to be connected to the recent warning about toothpaste bombs like this one.

But there's one man, a 31-year-old college dropout named Ibrahim al-Asiri, who terrorism experts say could be connected to this threat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is just the kind of device he's trying to build and has built in the past.

TODD: U.S. intelligence officials tell CNN that Ibrahim al-Asiri is -- quote -- "the best bomb maker we know of in any al Qaeda affiliate." They believe he's hiding in Yemen operating in the shadows working with the group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Al-Asiri, intelligence officials say, designed the underwear bomb which failed to detonate at the last minute on a Detroit-bound plane in 2009. And it was his printer cartridge bombs which the following year got onto cargo planes bound for the U.S.

Demonstrations of those types of bombs showed they could have brought down airliners. While those plots were foiled, in each case, al-Asiri displayed a frightening ability to get bombs past airport security. And experts say he's learned from his mistakes. How determined is Ibrahim al-Asiri to kill Americans and their allies?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: This is a very cold customer. This is a guy recruited a brother to go and do a suicide attack using an underwear bomb to kill a leading Saudi prince.

TODD: The Saudi counterterror chief survived that 2009 attack. Al-Asiri's brother Abdullah was killed. This video shows the brothers embracing just before the mission.

U.S. intelligence officials say they're hunting for Ibrahim al- Asiri, but...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Even if he is taken out, he is now training other recruits in the art of making these very sophisticated explosive devices which can bypass normal airport security.


TODD: And al-Asiri has likely had access to military-quality explosives and chemicals. Analysts say when al Qaeda captured a lot of territory in Yemen in 2011, it also overran some military bases. Some of them have since been taken back, but experts say that Ibrahim al-Asiri likely had access to labs and other facilities which would have enhanced his capabilities, Wolf, and that's what scares U.S. officials.

BLITZER: Yes, he's obviously a dangerous guy.

Thanks very much, Brian Todd, for that.

Now to the other breaking story we're following, the deadly crisis in Ukraine and fears the situation could explode again tonight after the worst carnage yet. Right now, urgent new moves are under way to end the fighting between security forces and anti-government protesters.

The opposition says at least 100 people were killed in intense clashes that broke out when a tentative truce fell apart.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is joining us from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.

What's the latest, Nick?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are hearing of diplomatic initiatives, the Polish president suggesting maybe Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president, open to early elections, to a new cabinet, to maybe lessening his presidential powers.

But behind me, protests very somber, grieving the loss of perhaps as many as 100 to live fire this morning and scenes that we saw, which I should say contain distressing images in the report you're about to see.


WALSH (voice-over): This is what a truce looks like, protesters carried away from police lines, dead, wounded, gathered inside the lobby of a hotel under the sheets, head wounds, most here hit by bullets, dead, the number rising, together with disbelief and rage.

Outside this makeshift morgue and hospital, live fire whizzed around. Eight hours earlier, the president agreed on a truce. Then something changed. Police suddenly withdrew when protesters moved forward. It's unclear why.

This man said he fired a shotgun at police once protesters had been fired upon by a sniper. He didn't want his face shown. This man said stun grenades had injured protesters, causing them to surge forward. Opposition leaders blamed the provocation. In the debris of what was once peaceful protests, shotgun pellets, the tips of live rounds, ring pulls from grenades.

On the road up to parliament, police and protesters face-to-face. Barricades being reinforced, as many fear an escalation is ahead. "Are you ready?" one protester asks a young man behind his riot shield. He may not be. Ukraine may not be for what comes next.


WALSH: Now, we know we have this diplomatic initiative to calm things ahead, but we have not heard from Viktor Yanukovych at all today, only from other politicians suggesting how he might be reacting to things.

That's concerning. The mayor of Kiev distanced himself from him today, leaving the ruling party, saying he'd run the city here by himself, clear signs of problems at the top here of Yanukovych's administration. We just have to wait and see whether his security forces will escalate in turn -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh in Kiev, thank you.

The Russian ambassador to Ukraine is accusing protesters are attempting a -- quote -- "violent coup" against the government in Kiev. The U.S. says it's the Ukrainian government that's mostly to blame for all the unrest. This crisis is driving an even bigger wedge between Moscow and Washington and between Presidents Obama and Putin.

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

He has more -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: One thing that's very clear here is that Russia and the U.S. and the West have vastly different views of this crisis.

The West sees Ukraine increasingly as part of Europe. Russia sees it very much in their sphere of influence, even different views of the protesters. Many here see them as fighting for their democratic rights. And Ukraine, the Russian government will call them terrorists, extremists, thugs, that sort of thing.

But one thing that's very clear is that Russia has a key role, key involvement in Ukraine and has for some time, political support, financial support and on the ground even stories of Russian security forces fighting the protesters.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Today, it is Kiev in flames and Ukrainian protesters under fire. But U.S. officials are increasingly watching Russia.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our approach as the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we're in competition with Russia. Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future.

SCIUTTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Ukrainian government's primary backer, may truly hold Ukraine's future in his hands. And for some, the outlook is grave.

STROBE TALBOTT, FORMER DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE: Putin and the Kremlin, Yanukovych in the presidency of Ukraine are kind of rewriting history and they're rewriting it in blood.

SCIUTTO: Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state under Bill Clinton, says the same is true in Syria, where Russia's providing both weapons and diplomatic cover for the Assad regime and beyond.

TALBOTT: Putin is in a very profound sense a throwback to what was worst about the Soviet Union, and that is a reliance on force above anything else.

SCIUTTO: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has rejected the argument, saying -- quote -- "Western politicians accuse Russia of trying to re-Sovietize the post-Soviet world, but this would be futile. Any sane or impartial observer knows this."

For many Russians, though, the driving mantra is never again. That is, Russia will never again allow its spheres of influence to disappear, as it did after the fall of the Soviet Union, first in the former Soviet republics, then in Eastern Europe.

Earlier today, I spoke with former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson.

BILL RICHARDSON (D), FORMER NEW MEXICO GOVERNOR: I believe President Putin is very pragmatic. They will see that it's not in their interests for this violence to erupt so openly and for Russia to be basically backing and keeping alive the current Ukrainian government.


SCIUTTO: More recently, Russian officials feel they were bamboozled into supporting regime change in Libya, another Russian ally. They don't want to see that happen again, but there's a potential for a positive role as well.

We heard today that the Russians are sending an envoy to the Ukraine to play the role of mediator, hopefully having a peaceful influence, a calming influence on the violence there. But of course the question is, would the opposition accept or trust a Russian mediator?

BLITZER: And 24 hours ago, we thought there was a truce. That didn't work out. Let's hope, though.

Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

Still ahead, we're standing by for more exclusive images like these from Ukraine. A filmmaker is getting ready to share his view of the capital under siege. He's standing by to join us live.

And the violence takes a toll on Ukraine's Olympic team. We will hear exclusively from the head of the country's Olympic Committee.


BLITZER: More powerful images from the fighting in Ukraine after the deadliest clashes yet between security forces and protesters.

We want to warn you we have very graphic photos coming into CNN. We're going to show you some right now, so you can get a better and fuller picture of this crisis. Dead bodies are strewn on the ground and in makeshift morgues. Protesters walk through a pool of blood left by a wounded demonstrator. Hundreds have been injured in the heart of the Ukrainian capital.

The unrest is certainly taking its toll. Take a look at the dramatic before-and-after photos from independence square in Kiev. That's right in the center of the fighting right now.

Let's discuss all of this with "The New York Times" columnist Nicholas Kristof.

Nick, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: I remember a column you wrote back in 2004 while you were in Kiev during the Orange Revolution, and the column was entitled "Let My People Go."

Just remind our viewers, for you, this is personal.

KRISTOF: That's right.

My father grew up in what is now southwestern Ukraine. My grandmother came from (INAUDIBLE) in the west. And now to watch these scenes in Ukraine of this country that had seemed to be evolving, moving a little more toward the West, to see 100 people killed there, the thing that maybe got me more than anything else was this young woman and volunteer medic who was shot in the neck and tweeted that she was dying.

I mean, it's just so painful to watch this happening in Ukraine today.

BLITZER: Ten years ago, you wrote that the protesters at that time, they would deliberately ask young beautiful women to go to the front of the lines, so that the military would be reluctant to go ahead and fight them and shoot them. I suspect similar things are happening right now.

KRISTOF: Yes, and yet it seems that the snipers, today in particular, were shooting to kill and were shooting anybody, women as well.

The on-and-off restraint completely evaporated today. And what I fear is that Ukraine is today at a knife edge. There are some signs that Yanukovych could move toward elections, towards stepping back. There are other signs that he could decide the only way to resolve this is to call in the military and crush it militarily, and in that case, it will get a lot worse.

We have these two roads lying ahead. We don't know which one Yanukovych will take.

BLITZER: Is this -- are we on the eve of another Cold War between the U.S. and Russia?

KRISTOF: Well, I mean, it's sort of astonishing to have talk today about whether Putin will send in troops to help Ukraine crush an opposition.

You know, this is a reminder of Czechoslovakia in 1968, of Hungary in '56. And the idea that this would be happening in 2014 would have been astonishing. You have Putin. Of course, it's not only Ukraine. You have something similar happening without the violence in Moldova. You have it with the violence in Syria.

You have so many areas where the U.S. and Putin seem to be completely at odds. And I think Putin is playing a very dangerous game, but I think he cares deeply about Ukraine. And I think he's going to be unwilling to see it go off lightly toward the West, which is I think his fear.

BLITZER: You planning on heading over there?

KRISTOF: Oh, I wish I was there right now. I have got another obligation here in the next few days in the U.S., but I see these images, and I just want to be there, both as a reporter and as somebody of Ukrainian origin.

BLITZER: It's heartbreaking to take a look. And we have some more very dramatic images coming up.

Nick Kristof, as usual, thanks for joining us.

KRISTOF: My pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we have an exclusive look at the fighting and the bloodshed in Ukraine. The filmmaker who brought us these images is standing by with the new video. He's right in the middle of the conflict. He will join us live from Kiev.


BLITZER: Members of the Ukrainian Olympic team are struggling to deal with the violence happening in their homeland right now. They held a moment of silence today for the victims.

The head of the Ukrainian Olympic Committee spoke exclusively to CNN about the team's reaction. He revealed that the skier Bogdana Matsotska and her coach, who is also the father, are pulling out of the competition because of what's going on back home.


SERGEY BUDKA, UKRAINIAN OLYMPIC COMMITTEE: They said it will be very difficult for her psychologically to continue competition. And this is personal decision to stop competition. And rest of the team, their also coach and Bogdana support the team who will continue to compete and wish them to bring the medal.


BLITZER: An exclusive look inside the crisis in Ukraine.

We're joined by Gudmundur Tjorvi Mundsson -- Gudmundsson -- I should say. He's a documentary filmmaker. He has been in Kiev and he's been getting remarkable video of the unrest.

Tjorvi, thanks very much for joining us.

You have some new video. I want to show it to our viewers right now. It's graphic. It shows injured protesters, a man shot in the neck. Tell us about these images we're showing our viewers.


Well, I was walking up the hill in Maidan Square. And they were carrying this wounded man that had been hit with a bullet, sniper bullet in the neck. They went -- they have like a surgery that have built up here in the hotel. And they were trying to keep him alive.

BLITZER: You also showed us some video from last night, one of the protesters. His feet were on fire. It was pretty dramatic. I will play that video. There it is right there. Tell us about this. What was going on?

GUDMUNDSSON: They're singing behind me. It's hard to hear.

I think it's the video of the second barricade, when the riot police put the protesters (INAUDIBLE) to the second barricade. And they had an armored vehicle that was hitting the barricades. And people were flying all around the place and Molotov cocktails and stun grenades. And, yes, it was just total mayhem.

BLITZER: What are the protesters telling you?

GUDMUNDSSON: Well, of course, you have Pravy Sektor, the main activist group here. I talked to two of them. And they told me that, you know, they're tired of a couple of oligarchs owning most of the wealth in the country, and they want to return back to the people. That's what they told me.

BLITZER: Well, thank you very much for sharing the video with us.

Be careful over there. We really appreciate what you have been doing to show our viewers in the United States and around the world what's going on. Thank you very much, Mr. Gudmundsson.


BLITZER: Remember, you can follow us on Twitter. Tweet me @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNSITROOM.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching.