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Blast Rips Through U.N. Headquarters in Baghdad

Aired August 19, 2003 - 10:00   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We have a number of our people who are rushing there to the scene to get us some more information. We have a CNN crewman right now joining us.
Ayman Mohyeldin is joining us right now on the telephone.

Ayman, you are there are the scene right now?

AYMAN MOHYELDIN, CNN PRODUCER: Yes, that is correct, Leon. We arrived here about 35, 40 minutes ago. We're standing approximately 20 feet from the front entrance of the compound on Canal Street. We believe, according to an Iraqi police official here on the scene, the explosion occurred at approximately 4:30 p.m. local time. It was in a vehicle. We're still seeing several casualties being removed. There are approximately 200 or so U.S. soldiers here on the scene, approximately 50 American vehicles, everything from Hummers to tanks, and they're still evacuating several of the casualties.

HARRIS: Ayman, have you had a chance to talk with any eyewitnesses yet to see exactly, and get a picture in your mind at least of what exactly happened, how this vehicle pulled up to the building, how close it got, anything like that? And as anyone seen or observed inside the vehicle?

MOHYELDIN: Leon, I did have a chance to speak to a U.N. technical adviser who was visibly shaken and was bleeding. He was being treated while he was speaking to us. He was not able to describe for us the vehicle, but did identify that there is a parking lot on that side of the building, the northwest side of the building, where the explosion took place. He described for us a scene where after the explosion, he ran over and helped dig some people out of rubble, including two sisters. He described it as very gruesome and a lot of injuries is the way he described it for us.

HARRIS: Ayman, if you can stand by I'm being told we actually have tape right now of an eyewitness, a soldier who was there at the time when the blast went off, as you say, about 4:30 p.m. local time, and we now want to play for our audience and for you as well, Ayman, if you can hear us, this replay right now of an eyewitness account of the bombing.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All I heard was a large explosion. There was a mushroom cloud rising up in the sky. Time of the explosion was approximately 1605.

QUESTION: How many people inside the area of the damaged building, approximately.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have no idea at this time.

QUESTION: A conference going on here at the time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have no information on that.

QUESTION: Any American casualties known so far.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have no information at this time.

QUESTION: Was it a car bomb?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have no information on that at this time.

QUESTION: Any secondary explosion?


QUESTION: Just one explosion.



QUESTION: So, Ayman, we got the word from that soldier who was there on the scene as the bomb went off that the time is backed up a bit. We had been reporting and hearing in the reports from the Associated Press wires that this explosion happened around 4:30 p.m. local time. Now we're hearing from that soldier, his account there, saying it happened about a half an hour earlier, closer to the top of the hour, in the 4:00 hour there.

Ayman, do you have any idea how many people may have been in the building at that time of the evening, or the afternoon?

MOHYELDIN: Unfortunately, Leon, I don't. We do know that the wing of the compound that was housed various offices, including the office of the World Food Program, as well as other U.N. offices, including a database section, and it is believed to be an active wing of the compound that has several...

QUESTION: And with your eyes, have you been able to determine how many people you've seen carried out of there either injured or worse?

MOHYELDIN: We've seen approximately two dozen people removed here. There are U.S. military trucks that have evacuated various casualties, both women and men. We've seen about eight to 10 truckloads leave the area. We've also seen about eight to 10 helicopter, medical evacuation helicopters that have arrived and taken off that we believe have casualties as well.

So -- and we've also seen Iraqi civil defense ambulances carry away a various number of casualties. So and there's still time removing people outside where we're standing and taking them away. HARRIS: And I know it's very early in all of this and it's probably very hard to sort all of this information out. But to your knowledge, were there civilians on the outside of this building as well? At that time of the evening, or that time of the afternoon I should say, is still a time when people would be out and about, and perhaps maybe moving around with their own personal details and all. Are we looking at maybe a lot of people who may have been on the sidewalks, as civilians who may have been caught up in this?

MOHYELDIN: Leon, the compound is actually (UNINTELLIGIBLE). It is on a main road that does not have a lot of -- there's not of a lot of foot traffic. It is somewhat of a highway. Canal Street is very busy traffic. There are cars that are parked outside of the compound, some of which the windshields have been destroyed, and I can't tell you right now that there were any civilian casualties walking by. That I haven't been able to confirm.

There are people that were inside the building that have been evacuated, and are now around the area where we are. The U.S. military has cordoned off the area and just has allowed media crews to get in, and they've removed all of the, I guess, workers that were inside the U.N. building at the time.

There are -- I can't see any civilians, but across the street from where we are, there is an apartment building complex on the other side of the Canal, and there are a lot of onlookers who have gathered around there from certain rooftops. There are people on rooftops that are looking in this direction now, and the U.S. military has positioned themselves on the other side of that street, as well. There's approximately 20 Humvee vehicles that are there, as well as various onlookers.

HARRIS: What can you tell us then, Ayman, about the reaction of those on the sidelines watching, or on the rooftops? We have seen in the past where there have been destructive acts likes this, and there have been a number of citizens who have assembled there to either cheer or to mourn. Can you tell us what you're noticing right now? Any sorts of emotional reactions one way or the other?

MOHYELDIN: I can't see them. I can't see them. But unfortunately, it does not look like they are not, you know, too -- I can't hear if they're saying anything. I can't hear if there's any reaction on the other side.

HARRIS: I understand. Just very interesting.

One last question about that, though. Can you tell us what you're able to observe from your vantage point? Can you tell whether or not the search inside the building is continuing, or whether or not they believe they have everyone out?

MOHYELDIN: I believe that they are still removing people from inside. There are still ambulances positioned outside the front entrance. Again, we're approximately 20 feet from the main entrance. There are still U.S. trucks that are being loaded with casualties. We've seen several people come out with all types of bandages, carrying IV strips on stretchers. A short while ago, about 15 minutes ago, we saw a U.S. vehicle very much and an explosive ordinance unit driving through the front of the compound where we're standing, and the Iraqi Civil Defense fire trucks have been continuously spraying water on the northwest compound, northwest part of the compound, where the fire continues to rage on for a little bit, and the scene right now is somewhat chaotic. We have Iraqi police here on the scene, as well as the U.S. military police and U.S. Army, and it seems to not have quieted down at all.

HARRIS: Ayman, I apologize if I'm pushing you past the threshold of what you may have been able to garner before grabbing the phone to talk to us. So excuse me if I'm asking questions to which you don't have any answers just yet.

But is it known whether or not everyone who was inside that building were all totally, completely a U.N. staff? Were there any coalition authorities or forces inside the compound at all when that bomb went off?

MOHYELDIN: Leon, the composition of the people inside the building at this time still remains somewhat unclear. Unfortunately, we have not had anyone come out and officially speak to the media. So we are only able to observe what we will have seen since we arrived on the scene. We have seen various nationalities come out of there. It seems that there were several Iraqis that also were treated and were evacuated, and it seems also there were a lot of U.N. staff that will have also been evacuated.

HARRIS: Ayman, thank you very much. Ayman Mohyeldin, CNN staffer there in Baghdad. Was there on the scene and able to give us a firsthand account there of what he is seeing, as the aftermath of this huge explosion which seems to have substantially destroyed the Canal Hotel, which has been the U.N. headquarters for sometime there in Baghdad.


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