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Malaysian Airliner Shot Down by Missile; Israel Invades Gaza

Aired July 17, 2014 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Thanks very much, Jake.

Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report.

Breaking news -- the crash of the Malaysia Airlines jumbo jet in Eastern Ukraine. U.S. sources say the plane was shot from the sky by a surface to air missile, sparking an international crisis.

A scene of carnage -- bodies and debris scattered over miles. We're live on the ground where the wreckage is now smoldering.

And more breaking news. Israeli forces have now invaded Gaza, launching a ground war, opening a new chapter in the deadly 10 day conflict. In fact, a statement just issued by the IDF spokesman says large ground forces with massive assistance from the air force and the navy are moving toward targets, taking control of targets, operating against tunnels. The spokesman adds, "I call the people of Gaza to evacuate the areas where the IDF is operating because the army is using a lot of force. This operation will expand as needed and according to developments."

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Jerusalem.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: And we're live here in Jerusalem. And there are two -- two major breaking news stories we're following.

That Israeli ground invasion of Gaza has been launched. Just a little while ago, large numbers of Israeli troops, tanks, armored personnel carriers, they are moving into Gaza as we speak. We'll have full reports on what's going on in Gaza. That is coming up.

There's other huge breaking news -- the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in Eastern Ukraine. Here are the latest developments.

Dramatic video has emerged of the plane going down, a Boeing 777 with 295 people on board, heading from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. There are no known survivors. Sources tell CNN the United States now believes the plane was shot down -- shot down. Intelligence has detected a surface to air missile system was tracking an aircraft at the time the plane went down. And a so-called heat signature was detected at the very same time. That's more evidence of a missile strike.

Malaysia's prime minister spoke about the disaster just a few minutes ago.

PRIME MINISTER NAJIB RAZAK, MALAYSIA: No stone will be left unturned.

BLITZER: Several pictures of the doomed flight have now surfaced on social media, including this one on Facebook, allegedly taken by a passenger boarding the flight. The caption reads -- and I'm quoting -- "In case it disappears, this is what it looks like."

We're bringing you all the latest developments as they come into THE SITUATION ROOM this hour.

We're covering all angles of both breaking stories.

Our correspondents and experts are all standing by.

Let's begin with our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

He's in Washington with the latest on the take-down, if you will, of this Malaysia airliner.

What are you hearing -- Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I've been speaking all day with senior Ukrainian officials. And all day, they've had a consistent message. That message is that this plane was shot down and that it was brought down by pro-Russian separatists backed, Ukrainian officials say, by Russia, and, in fact, in contact, they say with Russian officials throughout.

Just a short time ago, they released transcripts of what Ukrainian officials say were intercepted communications by telephone between pro-Russian separatists and a Russian intelligence agent as this plane was shot down.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): The Malaysian jet fell from the sky over Eastern Ukraine in a fireball and a black cloud, pieces of burning debris visible, trailing gray smoke. On the ground, wreckage littered the landscape spread over a large area, evidence, Ukrainian officials tell CNN, that the Boeing 777 came apart at high altitude.

Ukrainian officials quickly blamed a missile strike by pro-Russian separatists, the foreign minister telling CNN, quote, "It is as clear as day. They have been hunting our planes for weeks."

Ukraine's newly elected pro-Western president, Petro Poroshenko, called it an act of terrorism.

PRES. PETRO POROSHENKO, UKRAINE (through translator): I want to express condolences to all those whose close ones and family died in this crash. I asked Holland's government to send a team of experts who will be doing an investigation together with our team.

We do not call it an incident or a catastrophe, but a terrorist action.

SCIUTTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered the news of the crash to President Obama during a morning phone call to discuss new U.S. sanctions against Russia, sanctions sparked by Russian support for Ukrainian militants, including supplying weapons and fighters.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It looks like it may be a terrible tragedy. Right now, we're working to determine whether there were American citizens on board. The United States will offer any assistance we can to help determine what happened and why.

SCIUTTO: This is the missile system Ukrainian officials identified as behind the attack, a Russian made Buk surface to air missile. Pro- Russian separatists captured a launcher at the end of June in Eastern Ukraine, showing it off in a story broadcast on Russian television.

The system has the capability to strike an aircraft at 33,000 feet, the cruising altitude of the Malaysian jet.

A leader of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic allegedly Tweeted this just as the MH17 went missing, "An aircraft, an Antonov 26, was shot down in the Torez region. It is dropping toward the vicinity of the Progress Mine," adding ominously, "We did warn you, do not fly in our sky."

In recent weeks, Ukrainian officials say pro-Russian separatists have shot down several Ukrainian military aircraft.


SCIUTTO: I was in contact a short time ago with the deputy foreign minister of Ukraine, pointing the finger not just at separatists or Russia, but directly at Vladimir Putin. He told me, quote, "Russia inspires and arms terrorists. They are murderers. The world must stop Putin" -- and that gives you a sign, Wolf, of just how quickly this can escalate, the already brewing military conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian -- pro-Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine.

BLITZER: Yes. It certainly could be a major, major game-changer. This is a huge, huge development -- Jim, I want you to stand by for a moment.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara So there are, is picking up some new information.

What else are you learning -- Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it broke here at the Pentagon, the news, a short time ago, that the U.S. now concludes the plane was, indeed, shot down. A senior U.S. official telling me this conclusion is based on a couple of key facts.

U.S. has been -- the U.S. has been watching this all day. What they now believe is that there was an intelligence gathering system tracking, able to see when a surface to air missile system in the area turned on its radar and began tracking an object, a plane in the sky. That tracking was observed.

At the same time, they now know that them have additional information. There was a heat signature, an infrared signature, of a catastrophic event in the same area at the time that one could calculate the plane went down.

So the they see the initial tracking by a surface to air missile system. They see a catastrophic event of something hitting this object. It is a large infrared heat signature. They believe that was the crash of the plane.

Now, U.S. intelligence and military officials will work their way back. They have this information. Now they will conduct an in-depth analysis -- what was the trajectory, work their way back and try and determine a launch point.

Was this is object, was the missile launched from the Ukraine side of the border or the Russian side of the border?

It does not go to motivation, but will -- it will go a long way toward telling them where this came from and what exactly happened -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the prime minister of Malaysia, Barbara, has just said that there was no distress call from the cockpit of this doomed Malaysia airliner. No distress call. I suspect that will say a lot to U.S. military intelligence, aviation experts.

STARR: Well, I think it will. Clearly, there was no distress call, indicating that there was any kind of mechanical trouble. This was literally a bolt that hit this aircraft, by all accounts.

And I have to tell you, Wolf, this is now resonating across military intelligence and security services across Europe and across Asia. Just consider how many thousands of people, how many cargo jets, passenger jets, travel between Europe and Asia, back and forth every day. People fly over this region.

This will have economic consequences. We're already seeing international air carriers shift their air patterns, their traffic patterns, to stay out of this area.

This is Europe. This is an area that is supposed to be safe. Everyone understands this particular area is an area of conflict.

The question, perhaps, is whoever perpetrated this, did they mean to shoot down a passenger jet?

This would have huge ramifications beyond the human tragedy, beyond the military jets that have been shot down. It will change the pattern of commerce and travel, perhaps, across Europe -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I suspect it certainly will.

Barbara, stand by.

I want to bring in our experts, including our own aviation correspondent, Richard Quest; our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto; retired Israeli Air Force General Asaf Agmon. He's head of the Fisher Brothers Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies. Our aviation analyst, Miles O'Brien; and our aviation analyst, Peter Goelz, the former managing director of the NTSB -- I know, Jim Sciutto, you've been speaking with experts.

What are they telling you?

How hard is it to shoot down a U.S. made Boeing 777 flying at altitude 30,000 or 35,000 feet?

How hard is it to shoot down a commercial passenger plane like that, with a surf -- with a ground to air missile?

SCIUTTO: Sadly, not hard if you have equipment capable of hitting a target at that altitude. And the sad fact is that that very equipment is floating around Eastern Ukraine right now, including the system that Ukrainian officials have identified to me as the likely source of this missile, and that is the Russian-made Buk, B-U-K, surface-to-air missile system. It's one the back of a truck. It has the range to go to 10,000 meters, 33,000 feet, where this plane was flying.

And Ukrainian officials also make this point to me, that they know -- and this has been out there, it's been publicized -- that two weeks ago, pro-Russian separatists captured just such a missile system in Eastern Ukraine. They overran a Ukrainian military base. They took a Buk missile launcher. They advertised it and the pictures of it aired on Russian television and on Twitter feeds and so on. So they also know that these groups had it.

It hasn't been established yet that it was a Buk that did this, but we do know that those kinds of missile systems are capable of this.

BLITZER: Miles O'Brien, what's the difference, as far as a commercial jetliner is concerned, a military aircraft?

How different do they look?

How different -- how hard would it be to differentiate a commercial passenger plane from a military aircraft?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, it's interesting, Wolf, you know, I think the CNN audience, by now, knows an awful lot about transponders. There is a military version of the transponder which involves -- was called IFF, identification, friend or foe. It's a bit of a misnomer. It allows you to identify your friends and then it -- everything else. And they may be foes, but they also might be a civilian airliner. And so what happens then is you have to rely on the training and the command structure of the people who collectively have their hands on the trigger to make a decision, well, is this particular blip -- well, we know it's not a friend, but is it just a civilian airliner?

Well, it's at 33,000 feet. It's on a known corridor. We don't expect this to be -- have any hostile intent.

There's nothing about a flight level at 33,000 feet on a known civilian corridor that would indicate hostile intent in this case.

So somewhere along the line here, a horrible mistake has been made.

BLITZER: Let me bring in General Agmon, the retired Israeli Air Force commander, who knows a lot about what's going on.

Ben-Gurion Airport, we all flew into Ben-Gurion Airport. This clearly sends a chilling message, because only the other day, Hamas was threatening a commercial aircraft coming into Israel.

How do you protect against something like this?

BRIG. GEN. ASAF AGMON, ISRAELI AIR FORCE (RET.): First of all, the Hamas has not such kind of weapons system. It's a completely different system, where they have it shoulder wear missiles with a man portable air defense system.

BLITZER: They can't reach 30,000 feet?

AGMON: They cannot reach 30,000.

BLITZER: But other opponents of Israel presumably could, right?

AGMON: Yes, so we are not flying in an area that's under threat of these kinds of missiles. And we have other missile protections that we can use against this kind of threat.

It's easy to hit a civilian aircraft with such a weapons system. It's an illegitimate target, for sure. And the pilot has no way to know that they are locked by these kind of missiles and they have nothing to do when the missile hits them.

BLITZER: All right, General Agmon, stand by. I want you to -- because we're going to pick your brain.


BLITZER: You know a lot about this. When I was flying into Ben Gurion just the other day, the pilot was telling us about those special security procedures all commercial aircraft take coming into Israel.

So stand by for that.


BLITZER: But Richard Quest has got -- is getting some more information -- Richard, what are you picking up?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there was no distress call, the aircraft involved will, of course, have had the ACARS automatic reporting system. And I understand tonight that Inmarsat has now provided the data that it would have received from the aircraft at the time of whatever happened, whether it was a missile or whatever. They have now provided that data to the British investigating authority, the AAIB. That will be pored over, because that will give an indication of what happened immediately on that aircraft.

Also, Wolf, Euro Control, which looks after European air space, they have tonight closed all Eastern Ukraine air space in the area concerned. Major airlines Lufthansa, Wizz Air, British Airways, Turkish, KLM, Air France, Emirates, they have all announced that, in some shape or form, they will no longer be flying over Ukraine, certainly not in that part of the country.

So, arguably, too little too late, but now, many countries and regulators saying that air space in Ukraine is now closed, as they look over the data.

BLITZER: Yes, that's -- that should be expected. They have to err, when you're dealing with so many planes, so many aircraft, so many people, they have to err on the side of caution.

I want everyone to stand by.

But there's another huge breaking story we're following right now.

The major news -- Israel has now launched what is being described as a major ground invasion of Gaza.

Let's bring in our correspondent, Diana Magnay.

She's in Ashkelon. That's in Southern Israel, not far away from the Gaza border.

What are you seeing there, Diana, and what are you hearing?


Well, I'm in the hills above Sderot. And two hours ago, just a little over two hours ago now, Israel launched its ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.

And it really is a ramping up of Operation Protective Edge. They say they have gone in with a significant number of ground forces who are being supported by massive help from air and from sea.

And we've been standing here overlooking rocket fire coming out of Gaza, which is easy to spot. We've also seen ground to ground missiles going in, flares over the northernmost part of the tip.

And you can see another rocket going in from Israel, slowly making its way, presumably a precision-guided missile, coming into the northern part of the Gaza Strip. And it seems as though the bombardment has been very much in Beit Lahia.

Now, the sound that you are hearing here -- we're on the top of a hill. And I think you can probably see there are lots of Israelis gathered around who are cheering when they see these kinds of Israeli strikes. And it is an astonishing, is macabre and awful thing, really, to watch this display of fire in the -- in the air.

But really it is what is going on the ground, Wolf, that is significant. And the Israeli Defense Forces say that they're moving in because of these many tunnels, these terror tunnels, as the IDF call them, which militant -- Hamas militants are digging out of the Gaza Strip.

And there was one incursion this morning down in Kibbutz Sufa, which is...

BLITZER: All right...

MAGNAY: -- down at the south of the Strip. When militants from Gaza...

BLITZER: Diana...

MAGNAY: -- actually came out of the tunnel and were struck by the IDF forces. So that's why -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I want you to do me -- if those -- the pictures behind you are still coming in, I want you to move out of the shot a little bit. Let the photographer who's with you zoom in.


BLITZER: I'd like to see some of those images in Gaza right now, if you can.

MAGNAY: No, no, no, sir, can you (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: Because those are pretty dramatic pictures.

MAGNAY: So we're going to zoom in, Wolf. Yes, we're going to zoom in. And you will see, this is, where we're zooming in is to the northern most part of the Strip, of the Gaza Strip. You can see an illuminated area. We think that is up near the Erez Crossing. That is the Beit Lahia district.

And we've seen flares illuminating that area. Presumably, the Defense Forces trying to see where they're going as they move in, or possibly searching for something. And it's difficult, really, to make out what's going on. But every now and again, you do see these rockets coming in -- sorry, rockets -- outgoing rockets from Gaza and then -- and then these missiles again -- Wolf.

And it really has been a very intense bombardment. We've been out here for the last couple of hours. And we have heard this series of explosions, the crumple of artillery fire, presumably coming from Israeli Howitzers or naval ships, warships, really, all the way down from the north of the Gaza Strip down to the south -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It looks like there are people right behind you, I guess residents of Ashkelon, where you are, that are watching what's going on. You're only a few miles away from the Gaza border. They have a pretty good vantage point.

Is that what we're seeing -- Diana?

MAGNAY: That's right. Actually, it's Sderot where I am. And Sderot is one of those towns that is very, very close to the border and experiences a huge amount of rocket fire. And that is why, presumably, in these hills -- and this is a good very vantage point over the Strip -- why the residents of Sderot and other people have come to see what is happening, really, because it is, however macabre it is, an astonishing display of firepower, like a war that you are watching from this vantage point on the top of the hill.

And that is why so many people have come out with the news that this ground war has happened, to watch what's going on -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, a major invasion, ground forces, Israeli ground forces, moving into Gaza.

We're going to keep that camera of yours live on that border with Gaza. We're going to show our viewers what's going on.

But I want to go inside Gaza right now.

Ben Wedeman and Karl Penhaul, they are there for us -- Ben, what are you seeing.

What are you hearing?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've seen probably the same flares that Diana was referring to in the northeastern corner of the Gaza Strip. Earlier, there was a lot of bombardment coming from Israeli ships off the coast -- toward the coast. In fact, we got a bang on our door in the hotel telling us that we had half an hour -- that a message had been received from the Israeli military saying we had half an hour to leave the hotel. So we rushed from there to here.

During the evening, what we've seen is a pretty steady bombardment. I was listening to at least one large loud thump every hour for at least the last three to four hours, the most intense bombardment we've seen yet.

And, obviously, the situation in Gaza very tense, because, among other things, the electricity has been cut in much of the city. And as we were preparing to go from our hotel to here, a man came up to our cameraman, Alessandro Gentilli (ph), and asked him what's going on, why are all the journalists in such a commotion?

And he explained that there's going to be bombardment on the coastal area, according to Israeli military.

And the man said, "What should I do, I've got children?" And my cameraman, Allessandro (ph), said, Go, get out of this area as quickly as possible."

But we've seen multiple examples, Wolf, that even when the Israelis tell people to leave an area, they go to another area. There are attacks there.

So very tense in Gaza this evening, as this bombardment continues, as the ground invasion clearly is picking up pace.

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And I think, picking up on what Ben was just saying...

BLITZER: And, Karl, give us your assessment...

PENHAUL: -- from this vantage point where we are now -- yes, it's quite clear that this intense assault is going on from ground, sea and air on all sides of Gaza.

So Diana speaking very clearly to what is going on in the north. We have seen illumination rounds going up there. That would be an indication that the Israelis are trying to mark a target or look for some kind of target on ground.

But perhaps the most intense fire we have heard from our vantage point is behind us, across on the eastern Gaza border. We know there are Israeli thanks -- a raid across that part of the border. We have seen almost a daisy chain of fire coming from positions across there at certain points. That may be tanks firing in a line into Gaza. It could be some other kind of field artillery that is being used.

We're also hearing now from CNN sources that there are Israeli boots on the ground in the Gaza Strip now, quite probably tanks and armored personnel carriers. They appear, like they did in the 2008-2009 confrontation, to have moved into Gaza, with the attempt of trying to split the Strip in half.

Right now, however, we don't know how far into Gaza they actually are -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by.

I'm going to get back to you soon.

But joining us now is Mark Regev.

He's the spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mark, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: So what's the objective, the military objective, of moving these Israeli forces into Gaza? REGEV: Well, let's be clear, Wolf, no one takes the decision of putting ground forces into combat inside Gaza lightly. That decision is taken only after a careful consideration of what the options are.

It's clear there are dangers, but it's also clear there are certain types of targets that you can only deal with with ground forces. And this operation that has started tonight is focused on the tunnels.

When you tell people in America and around the world tunnels, they think about, you know, getting your car opposite a hilly area. Yes, but we have, around the Gaza Strip, these terrorist tunnels, like we saw this morning, where the Hamas and the other terrorist groups have dug in these tunnels into Israel. And they can try to surprise us, bringing in terrorists with explosives, with automatic weapons, to conduct terrorist operations inside Israel, killing civilians and so forth.

This operation at the moment is focused on those tunnels in the border areas. We want to discover them. We want do close them. We want to destroy those terrorist tunnels.

BLITZER: That's going to be a long operation. These tunnels, a lot of them, are right in populated areas. They start perhaps in the basement of some -- some apartment building, if you will. A lot of civilians, presumably, are going to die as a result of this ground assault.

REGEV: You know, if we could have done this by the air, we would have done it. But it's important for this sort of operation, despite the risks involved, to deal with the threat on the ground. And we do need land forces to do this.

Once again, the tunnels, in many ways, are a strategic threat, because they allow Hamas and other terrorist groups to enter -- to let terrorists enter our territory behind our lines and to kill people.

BLITZER: So is it just...

REGEV: We can't...

BLITZER: -- so is it just the tunnels or are you going after warehouses where these rockets, these missiles, are?

Because that becomes an even more -- a broader operation.

REGEV: Correct. The operation against the Hamas military infrastructure, from air and from sea, continues. The focus of the ground force operation is on those tunnels.

BLITZER: So how long is this going to last?

What's the military assessment?

Is this going to be a few hours, a few days, a few weeks?

What is your assessment? REGEV: The overriding objective, the overriding goal of this operation, is to bring peace and quiet to Israel civilians, to end the terrorist threat from Gaza, whether it's the rocket threat or the tunnel threat.

And we will do what needs to be done to protect our people.

BLITZER: As of yesterday, when I spoke to the IDF spokesman, he said 40,000 or 50,000 Israeli reservists had been activated for this operation. Now we're hearing another 20,000 Israeli reservists have been activated, is that right?

REGEV: I'm not going to confirm that specific number. I can tell you, we are continuing to call up reservists to meet any eventuality that we might have to make.

BLITZER: So how many troops, approximately, are part of this invasion, if you will, of Gaza?

REGEV: I think invasion is the wrong word. I think we're talking about a ground incursion at the moment, for very direct reasons, to deal with that threat from the tunnels. Of course, I'm not going to go into numbers of tunnels.

BLITZER: Is the goal to get rid of Hamas -- is the goal to get rid of Hamas or is the goal to just destroy their military hardware, to destroy those tunnels and then get out?

REGEV: The goal is to protect our people. That's our only goal.


BLITZER: Does that mean reoccupying Gaza, which Israel left in 2005?

REGEV: We will do what needs to be done to stop that hostile fire from Gaza into Israel, to stop the rockets, to strop terrorists trying to entering our country. We want to come out of this with an extended period of peace and quiet for our people.

BLITZER: But Israeli troops won't stay -- will they stay?

I mean I've been told over the past few days, they'll go in there, they'll try to destroy Hamas' infrastructure, the military capabilities, the tunnels, the rockets, if you will, and then they will leave and go back to Israel.

Is that accurate?

REGEV: I'd put it this way. We want to come out of this with two things.

One, that Hamas' military potential, its military machine, diminished in power. We want to see that military machine largely dismantled.

And, two, we want the leaders of Hamas to understand that they simply can not target Israel, they cannot attack Israel with impunity. BLITZER: So a cease-fire right now -- there -- I know there are negotiations. An Israeli delegation is in Cairo. A Hamas delegation is in Cairo. The Egyptian government has been trying, once again, to revive that earlier, ill-fated unilateral cease-fire. Israel accepted it, Hamas did not.

Is that now off the table?

REGEV: Well, the only thing that is -- what is important to remember now is that the reason we are in this combat situation at this moment tonight is because Hamas said no to an Egyptian proposal for a cease- fire that was backed...

BLITZER: What if they -- what if they say yes tomorrow?

REGEV: Let's wait for them to say yes, because so far, Hamas has opposed all cease-fires. Even today, early today, when we had that five hour period for a humanitarian cease-fire, so the civilians of Gaza -- Gaza civilians could get health care and stock up on food and so forth, Israel abided by that cease-fire totally. It was Hamas that broke the cease-fire. They started shelling mortars at our people.

BLITZER: Quickly, you saw Diana Magnay's live shot. She's in Ashdod, which is right near the border. A lot of Hamas rockets. In Sderot, excuse me. She's in Sderot.

A lot of -- all of this rockets, those missiles, have come into Sderot. The people are pretty terrified there. I was there this week, as well.

But they're sitting there in chairs. They're watching what's going on. The flares are going up. Sometimes they're applauding as they see what's going on.

What do you think of that?

REGEV: First of all, I'm not there, I can't comment. But I'd say the following. You've got to understand -- and people -- I think people don't get this an abroad. The people of those border communities, they have suffered from rockets from Gaza day in day out, not for days, not for weeks, but for years. These are communities where they've been living in fear of those terrorist rockets from Gaza. And people with families with children or old people, I think they're finally seeing the Israeli Army moving in. I think I can understand, from their point of view, that they would feel a certain level of satisfaction that finally ground forces are going in there to try to get rid of that terrorist threat.

BLITZER: All right, Mark Regev, with the Israeli government's perspective.

A spokesman for the prime minister.

Thanks very much for joining us.

Mark Regev is the spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We're live here in Jerusalem.

We're going to have much more on this Israeli operation in Gaza. Israeli ground forces are moving in. Major numbers of troops moving in right now. We'll tell you what we know.

Also, what U.S. officials are now calling the deliberate downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet over Ukraine with 295 people on board. We've just learned President Obama has talked to the Malaysian prime minister.

Stand by.

We're going to update you on both of these major breaking stories.


BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Jerusalem. We're following two breaking stories. The Israeli ground invasion, Israeli troops are now on the ground inside Gaza. Much more on that coming up.

Also the breaking news out of Ukraine. A Malaysian airliner was shot down, a ground-to-air missile according to U.S. officials shot down a plane carrying 295 people. We've just received a statement from Malaysia Airlines saying that all 15 of the crew members were Malaysian -- Malaysian nationals. But among the others they list some of the other nationalities, 154 Dutch, 23 Australian, 23 Malaysian, 11 Indonesian, six from the United Kingdom, four from Germany, four from Belgium, three from the Philippines, one Canadian, 47 other passengers they are not identified their nationalities.

We're checking to see if Americans are included. We'll update you on that.

Only moments ago, the vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, spoke out about this airliner take-down.


JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT: An aircraft -- a Malaysian aircraft heading from western Europe to Kuala Lumpur as it crossed or as it neared the border of Ukraine and Russia, apparently -- I say apparently because I don't have the actual -- we don't have all the details. I just want to be sure of what I say. Apparently have been shot down. Shot down, not at accident. Blown out of the sky.


BLITZER: Shocking indeed. Brian Todd is taking a closer look at the threat in eastern Ukraine specifically. It's now thrust into the global spotlight in a very, very deadly way.

Brian, what do you know?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this region where the Malaysia Airlines plane went down has been one of the most dangerous places on the planet for months. In city after city near Ukraine's border with Russia, Ukrainian forces have been battling pro-Russian separatists. There are -- there's a lot of firepower on both sides. And with that, several possibilities regarding who might have brought down that jet.


TODD (voice-over): Almost immediately, witnesses to the crash in eastern Ukraine began shooting and posting video describing the horrific scene.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (Through Translator): I see black smoke rising. We just saw a plane go down. Oh, it hit really hard.

TODD: On Twitter, someone claiming to be Russian separatist commander Igor Strelkov posted this, quote, "By the town of Torez, we shot down an AN-26," that's a type of cargo plane followed by this ominous warning, quote, "Do not fly in our skies."

That, along with other reports, appears to have led Ukrainian officials to suggest Flight 17 was shot down by, quote, "terrorists." A claim that has yet to be corroborated. It's not clear if Strelkov's tweet was authentic.

Ukrainian officials say their forces are not responsible.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (Through Translator): We can assure you that we will take all necessary measures to resolve and to establish circumstances of this horrible awful tragedy.

TODD: What is clear is that this may be the tipping point in a regional battle that has raged for months between Ukrainian forces who support that country becoming more westernized and pro-Russian separatists operating near the border. The U.S. has accused the Putin government of backing those forces.

Just this week Ukrainian officials have claimed a Russian fighter shot down a Ukrainian military plane and separatists have claimed they've shot down cargo planes, though none of those claims have been confirmed. Analysts say the Russians have been supplying heavy weaponry including tanks to the separatists over the past couple of weeks. And they say Russian and Ukrainian forces possess the FA-11 known as the Buk, a radar guided surface-to-air missile system transported on a tank like chassis, a system easily capable of bringing down a jet flying at 32,000 feet.

Tonight experts say it's not clear if the pro-Russian rebels even have the Buk in their arsenal but they are now worried they might.


TODD: And in addition to CNN's reporting about a missile bringing down this plane, I just got this from a U.S. intelligence official. They are not ruling anything out including an act of terrorism. But this official stresses it is still very early in the investigation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much.

We're just getting this in from our State Department reporter Elise Labott. She's quoting a senior State Department official as saying, "So far," this is so far. "So far, there are no American names to confirm aboard that doomed Malaysian airliner."

A senior State Department official saying that the manifest of passengers, the State Department has the manifest of the passengers. They're going through it. They have it, in fact.

Elise Labott is joining us right now.

Elise, tell our viewers precisely what you're learning because a lot of the Americans -- people all over the world want to know, were there American passengers on that plane?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: Well, Wolf, with such a long list of passengers, the State Department is combing through that manifest very carefully. So far there are no American names to confirm.

That doesn't mean that there aren't Americans, Wolf. Some of those times there are common names. A lot of these names on the manifest don't have passports attached to them that are easily identifiable as American citizens. Also a lot of these citizens could be primary nationalities of another country but then have a dual nationality of U.S. citizenship.

And so the State Department doesn't want to say no, there are no Americans aboard but they are breathing a cautious sigh of relief right now saying that there are no Americans so far to confirm and they have not as of now, Wolf, heard from any American families who are saying they have a family member aboard.

BLITZER: All right, Elise. Thanks for that information.

Elise Labott reporting for us from the State Department.

Let's get some more now with our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto, he's with us, our national security analyst Bob Baer and Julia Ioffe, the senior editor of "The New Republic," an expert on Russia.

Julia, do the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine have the capability to carry out an attack like this without, without Moscow's help?

JULIA IOFFE, SENIOR EDITOR, NEW REPUBLIC: Well, you know, the separatists are of course denying that they have this capability. They've put out a statement saying that they lack it. However, back on June 29th, just a couple of weeks ago, they captured a Buk missile system from the Ukrainian forces. They announced this was carried in the official Russian press. So even by the rebels' own accounting they do have what it takes.

BLITZER: And that missile system clearly could knock a plane like this one out of the sky even if it's flying at 30,000 or 35,000 feet. Jim Sciutto, with separatists in Ukraine, the pro-Russian separatists

based on everything you know, and you were just there a few weeks ago, would they will do this without instructions from Moscow?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's the Ukrainian government, the Ukrainian officials' contention that they were in touch today as this plane was shot down. The pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine were in touch with Russian agents as the plane was shot down. In fact the head of the Ukrainian Secret Service a short time ago released a transcript of what he said were intercepted telephone conversations between pro-Russian militants and a Russian agent where they discussed a plane was shot down, that it was a passenger plane, that there were lots of passengers' bodies on the ground.

So at least that contact was there. Now it's also U.S. officials' contention and it has been for several weeks, that these militants are in touch with Russian agents but also armed by Russians including with shoulder-fired missiles but there's also the possibility, Wolf, that these militants acted on their own without the OK from Russia, but that is in many ways an equally alarming prospect that they have these arms and they can act as they see fit.

And having seen the work of these groups in eastern Ukraine myself, these are not people you want with heavy weapons making decisions about shooting down passenger planes.

BLITZER: It's certainly not. Stand by. Simon Ostrovsky is joining us now from eastern Ukraine. He's a reporter for Vice News.

Simon, you've been in Ukraine now for quite awhile. What are you hearing? What are you seeing? Give us your sense of what is going on.

SIMON OSTROVSKY, VICE NEWS REPORTER: Well, I think what's happened today is really sort of watershed moment in the conflict because it's bringing the world's attention to what's happening here. Many foreign citizens are dead for the first time in this conflict. It's a really major tragedy. It's I think the single biggest amount of casualties at one -- in one instance that we're having in the conflict in Ukraine over the last three, four months.

And I think everybody's going to having to take a look. I hope that this isn't a sort of Franz Ferdinand moment for the world and instead it's going to be a moment where everybody tries to come together and bring an end to the war in Ukraine.

BLITZER: Well, How are the Ukrainians where are you, how are they reacting to this?

OSTROVSKY: Well, the Ukrainians are blaming the separatists and blaming Russia. They say that Russia arms the rebels. And they say that Russia instructs the rebels. In fact, they say that many of the rebels themselves are sent here from Russia and they have no doubt in their mind that this plane was shot down by the pro Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine. But you know, there's an argument going on between the supporters of

Russia and the Ukrainian authorities here. You have the Russian media reporting that it was a Ukrainian fighter jet that shot the Boeing down. That's totally unconfirmed, obviously. You've got these completely dueling narratives going on at the same time in Russia and in Ukraine.

BLITZER: Stand by, Simon. I'm going to get back to you.

Bob Baer is joining us, as well.

Bob, if these pro-Russian separatists did carry this out, how do you think the government in Kiev, the Ukrainian government, the Ukrainian military will respond?

ROBERT BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I don't think they're necessarily going to respond but this is going to be a great windfall for them. They're going to point out these are Russian weapons coming across the border that Putin has been fuelling this conflict for the last year. He has to be stopped. It's going to be an excuse for more sanctions. And I think that whatever happens, you know, on this, it's looking more and more like there was some sort of Russian complicity.

I don't mean they ordered it but simply supplying these sophisticated weapons they are responsible at one level. So I think this is a great political victory for them and they're going to call in international investigators to look at this and look at the airplane. If they're employee vented from coming in, it's a further victory for the Ukrainians.

BLITZER: Simon, how do you think the Ukrainian military, the Ukrainian government will respond if in fact they -- I think they already have, but if in fact it is proven that pro-Russian separatists were responsible for the take-down, the killing can of 295 people aboard that Malaysia Airliner?

OSTROVSKY: Well, I agree with what was just said. For the Ukrainians, this vindicates what they've been saying all along in terms of the Russians supplying the separatists with the sophisticated weapons and they're putting the ball in Russia's court but they're also calling on the international community to do more to put pressure on Russia to stop arming the rebels and for them, this is going to change the way the world looks at the conflict and that's very important for Ukraine because so far they've pretty been fighting it this conflict alone. They've been going it alone with very little concrete sort of material support.

BLITZER: Julia, how do you think this plays out for Vladimir Putin in Moscow, the Russian government?

IOFFE: You know, listening especially to what Simon was saying, if you -- you're seeing a totally different thing play out inside Russia. So you're having people hearing on Russian national TV that the Kremlin's official position which is that the Ukrainian military was aiming for Vladimir Putin's plane and instead missed and got the Malaysia airliner which is crazy. But this is what people hear. This is what they're going to hear repeatedly and they're not going to

hear a denial just like a couple days ago, there was a report on Russian Channel 1, which is the main, the biggest Kremlin-owned channel and covers the most territory and viewers in Russia, and they featured an interview with a woman who said that she saw a young boy from the area of Donetsk crucified on to a billboard and that his mother was then attached to a tank and dragged around town until she died.

This was then roundly disproven everywhere, but Russian Channel 1 didn't issue a denial saying that no, you know, we made a mistake and this actually didn't happen. So what 140 million Russians or, you know, however many watched this are going to think that the Ukrainians shot at Vladimir Putin, that they're crucifying children. And so, you know, Vladimir Putin's support isn't going to go down and his political, I guess, you know, support isn't going to go down.

So I don't know that he's going to -- and I don't know that there is much that the U.S. or Europe can do. The Europe -- Europe might now be more willing to go ahead with more aggressive sanctions but I don't know that there's all that much more that the U.S. can do.

BLITZER: Only yesterday, the Obama administration tightened up the sanctions directly against Russia.

Our own Nic Robertson is now in Ukraine, in Kiev.

Nic, the Russians are blaming the government where you are in Kiev, the Ukrainian government, for the take-down of this plane. Give us -- what are you hearing over there? What's the latest?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Ukrainian government says it's not responsible for this, that the plane -- the area that the plane came down in is not under their control, not under their authority, they're saying and reporting intercepted phone conversations from separatists there indicating that the separatists shot it down.

What Vladimir Putin in Russia is saying about this is that the Ukrainian government is responsible because President Putin is saying the Ukrainian government is responsible for the whole of its territory. He's also saying that this is a tragedy. He held, if you will, a moment of silence during a speech about this issue today. He said that there should be a thorough international investigation.

The president of Ukraine here said that there should also be an investigation and that he invited Dutch and Malaysian officials to be part of that investigation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson, we're going to get back to you shortly.

Everyone, stand by. We're staying on top of the breaking news. More on the suspected shoot-down of the Malaysia Airlines jumbo jet over Ukraine, 295 people on board.

Also, the breaking news here in the Middle East. The unfolding ground operation by Israel in Gaza. More breaking news. We're life live in Jerusalem, that's coming up.


BLITZER: We're following two breaking stories. I'm Wolf Blitzer here in Jerusalem. Israel has moved ground forces into Gaza. Much more on that coming up. And an apparent takedown by a surface-to-air missile of a Malaysian airliner with 295 people on board.

Jim Sciutto is getting some -- Jim Acosta is getting some White House reaction.

What are you learning, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. We can report that within the last hour the president made phone calls to the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib and also with the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Very interesting to tell you what is in the White House readout of that call. There's a picture of the president on screen right now talking with Poroshenko.

In the White House readout, Wolf, it says that the president emphasized that all evidence from the crash site -- I'm just reading verbatim here -- must remain in place on the territory of Ukraine until international investigators are able to examine all aspects of the tragedy.

Wolf, that is a clear indication that this White House, this president is very concerned about the credibility of this evidence, that it be maintained and preserved on Ukrainian soil. They're obviously concerned that this evidence could be tampered with.

Now I should mention that on the phone earlier this day President Obama was talking with Russian President Vladimir Putin as reports of this crash were coming in. During that phone call the president defended his decision to impose new sanctions on Russia. And this is important. The president said, Wolf, that, quote, "Extensive evidence exists that Russian is significantly increasing the provision of heavy weapons to separatists in Ukraine.

Add to that what senior administration officials have been telling reporters that some of the sanctioned companies in Russia as a result of these sanctions yesterday that those companies are responsible for the production of surface-to-air missiles. So the U.S. is obviously very worried about that kind of threat and the administration officials noting just three days ago a Ukrainian transport jet was shot down in an altitude of 21,000 feet.

So, Wolf, little bits and pieces coming in as the White House is becoming very concerned about that evidence and that debris field in Ukraine in that phone call with Poroshenko, the president making it very clear he wants that evidence preserved -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, they certainly do. All evidence at least so far pointing to a deliberate shoot-down of that Malaysian airliner.

Matthew Wald is the aviation correspondent of the "New York Times." He's joining us right now.

Matthew, what are you hearing about this apparent shoot-down of this Malaysia airliner?

MATTHEW WALD, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, Wolf, several different things. One of them is, this airplane was flying too high to be hit by a man-pad, by one of these shoulder-mounted missiles that we're all worried about, that fall into the hands of terrorists.

This airliner was taken down either by an air-to-air missile or ground-to-air missile. Probably ground-to-air, which means this was taken out by one of the big guys. These aren't stray separatist elements. This was an air force. This was a truck mounted missile, or something like that.

Second of all, this airplane is heavily composite and the composites may burn when it crashes. But it's got a lot of metal in it and the metal may tell you a story. When the international investigators get there, there will be shrapnel holds or there will metal bent in a way that's characteristic of a missile attack. So if you can get to the scene and look, you should be able to figure out yes, it was shot down.

Third, that there were some flight restrictions put in place by the Russians in the general vicinity but it's not clear whether this airplane was in that vicinity of where the flight restrictions were.

BLITZER: And the fact that the Malaysian prime minister is now saying there was no distress call from the cockpit of that Malaysian airliner, what does that say about the destruction of this aircraft?

WALD: Well, in some previous shoot-downs there have been -- the cockpit crew knew what was going on, somebody says we've been hit, where we've been hit, what's going on. You might get that off the cockpit voice recorder. In this case the crew may not have had time to radio a distress call. And in an airplane in an emergency, the priorities are aviate, navigate, communicate.

First you got to fly the airplane, then you've got to figure out where you're going and then you've got to talk to others. It doesn't make any sense to waste your time talking to others when nobody on the outside is going to be able to give you any help. So the fact that there was no distress call may mean they didn't know what was happening. But it may mean they just didn't have time to communicate it. And the cockpit voice recorder is probably on the ground there somewhere and they'll find it.

BLITZER: And when they do find that cockpit voice recorder, the so- called black boxes, what -- how much information specifically will we be able to glean from that as far as whether it was an air-to-air missile or a surface-to-air missile, for example?

WALD: That I'm not sure about. You may be able to interpret something from the sound of the airplane being struck. The -- those microphones pick up sound like the microphone over which I'm talking to you. But they also pick up vibrations, sound vibrations that travel through the airframe. There may be something that the crew says. They may see contrails, they may know something else.

BLITZER: It's going to be a long, long investigation.

Matthew Wald, the aviation correspondent of the "New York Times." Thanks for that useful information.

We're watching this story for all of our viewers. We're watching another breaking news story. Stand by. We've got lots of news right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Two huge breaking stories.

U.S. officials now say a Malaysian passenger jet was indeed shot down. We're looking at all the latest evidence about who may be to blame, as Ukrainian officials point their fingers at Russia.