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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Huge Explosion Rocks U.N. Headquarters in Baghdad

Aired August 19, 2003 - 11:03   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We also did get just a little bit of information. He just basically confirmed something we have been reporting for a couple of hours now, or at least maybe an hour and a half now, about the injuries maybe sustained by a special representative of the U.N., Sergio de Mello, who is there -- was there in the compound when this truck bomb, which is what the U.S. military officials there on the ground have been characterizing it as, detonated. And they say that it may have detonated right below his window.
We still don't have any confirmation about the extent of the U.N. special representative's injuries. We were hoping to get some comment there from the deputy ambassador. However, we did not get them at this particular time. So, we are still searching out more information about that.

We are hearing more and more reports coming in from the wire services about the numbers of casualties there. Still no firm number about the numbers of injured. However, that number from various reports appears to be scores of those people who were there in the compound have been injured.

But the Reuters news service is now reporting that U.S. military officials there on the ground have told them that 10 have been killed there in this bombing.

Now, all of this happened in a matter of about maybe two and a half hours or so ago. That would have been about 4:30 local time in Baghdad.

What has been described by some of the eyewitnesses there is that a bomb detonated in a car or a truck there outside this building there in Baghdad, outside of this hotel that has been used by the U.N. for a long time now, for perhaps years, as a place to stage operations, like the weapons inspections that had played out in Iraq over the years, as well as U.N. effort right now to rebuild Iraq and to distribute aid to Iraqi residents and in terms of health and food.

This compound is now the target of a terrorist operation, perhaps a suicide bombing. That is what some officials in the U.S. military there are saying. We do not know anything about right now, as we've said, the size of this bomb or who may have been injured or the numbers of casualties. But as soon as we get that information, we'll have it right here.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: And, Leon, as you know, things are developing by the moment. Right now, I'm told we've got our first pictures from inside the U.N. This video, via NHK, brand new video, this is what it looked like when the explosion took place inside the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad -- let's listen in.

All right, obviously the translation is in a language I wish I could translate for you, but I can't. Here is the brand new video coming in via NHK when the explosion just took place outside and inside of the U.N. If you are just tuning in, you are seeing here the injured being taken out of the U.N. headquarters there in Baghdad. It happened at about 4:30 Baghdad time. A truck bomb set off a tremendous explosion within the U.N. headquarters at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad.

According to Reuters, now reporting 10 people dead. We know at least 32 have been injured as this bomb just ripped through the long- time U.N. complex, what we believe is the first attack on the U.N. complex here in Baghdad.

Leon also mentioning Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. special representative to Iraq, among those wounded in the blast. We are told that he is conscious. They are treating him, giving him water, possibly still inside the U.N. compound.

The rescue efforts are being made right now to extract many more trapped inside the wreckage of the U.N. compound.

Also, we can tell you that dozens U.S. Humvee vehicles are at the scene, bringing U.S. military forces to secure this area right now. It has been cordoned off by U.S. troops.

The wounded are being evacuated, not only by Iraqi and U.S. personnel, but medical helicopters are carrying casualties out of there. Iraqi civil defense fire trucks continuing to fight the flames, spraying water on the part of the compound, you can see the smoke billowing there. U.N. trucks are also being loaded up with casualties.

Once again, if you are just tuning in, a massive rescue effort under way to extract dozens of people possibly still trapped inside the U.N. headquarters.

Just moments ago, we were able to catch up with a hospital worker. Here is what they had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, the evacuation and attending the severely injured was well taken care of, I mean given the panic. There was no real panic, and the people knew what to do, which was somehow reassuring. Now, again, I mean, I've seen people who were very, very badly injured.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PHILLIPS: Once again, a hospital worker inside there working on the casualties from this bomb blast at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

We're continuing to bring you as much information and, of course, interviews as we get them -- Leon.

HARRIS: Well, some of the things that we're getting in right now is a video that's being provided by other networks there, NHK, a Japanese network, as we tried to show that moments ago. We're going to run a piece of tape that they have actually supplied us, folks. And we want to advise some of you that are watching right now that may be a bit squeamish, some of this -- actually, none of this video we have any control over. However, we want to get you these pictures from the scene as soon as we are able to get them, so there may be some scenes that pop up on this tape that may be a bit disturbing, but we want you to watch because we think it's important for you to see exactly what happened moments after this bomb went off.

As you can see here, you get a sense of the chaos that ensued right after that explosion that pretty much destroyed almost the entire facade of the front of that building. You were able to see that from all of the extensive shots that had been taken on the outside. These are the first pictures that we're getting from inside the compound.

As you see here, it was a rather frantic scene, as people were rushing to get away from there, to get as far away from there as they possibly could.

We have our reporters who have been trying doing the exact opposite. They have been trying to get to the scene as quickly as possible. Our Baghdad bureau chief, Jane Arraf, is one of those reporters. I believe Jane is going to be available to us any minute now, so she can give us her reporting on exactly what she has been able to learn. She has spent some time talking with a number of people there on the scene.

But, as you see here, this was what it looked like when coalition forces there arrived, U.S. troops arrived to pull people who were injured from the rubble there.

One of the people that we understand who was trapped in that rubble was the U.N. special representative, Sergio de Mello. We are still trying to track down information on exactly his condition. We understand that at some point reports of his condition had varied dramatically. We were told at one point he had been injured quite seriously. Now, we are hearing, as Kyra had mentioned moments ago, that he is conscious now and is taking water, which is certainly a more positive sign than from that we had heard earlier.

Again, as you can see here, as we said, the front of this building totally devastated by this massive car or truck bomb. It could possibly have been that as well. We have seen reports from military officials there on the scene who have said it was a truck that was detonated there, but we've also seen reports that this explosion was felt up to a mile away by residents there in Baghdad.

Now, we can't give you idea right now of exactly what is happening inside the building. We would love to know that ourselves. As we said, we have our reporters there who are trying to get to the scene. We have had some of our producers who were with us on the phone earlier who gave us their accounts and told us what they had learned from talking to eyewitnesses who said that they had seen basically a vehicle drive up to the building, and then they saw the explosion, and then the chaos that ensued when people were trying to scramble to get out of there. They actually were the ones there on the ground watching as the injured were carried out and ferried over to Blackhawk helicopters, who did whisk them away to hospitals in the area.

Again, we are still trying to get firm numbers of the casualties that were involved in this, not even clear exactly how many people may have been in this building. The time locally, it was about 4:30 p.m. That would ostensibly be a time when people would still be in the offices working.

We do know that the special representative was still in the building working at that time, and he may have therefore been in his office when this bombing detonated right below his window.

PHILLIPS: You know, we're been getting this videotape from NHK, Leon, the Japanese television. They're taking a look at it right now. We're actually getting new video. They're racking it up, and we're going to be able to show it to you in just a few minutes.

But from what I understand, there was a press conference -- here you go -- a press conference taking place inside the U.N. -- there you go. They went to black just for a couple of seconds. The explosion took place. Look at how it went from just a typical news conference to black, boom. You can't see anything. Obviously, the rubble and the smoke and the dust, people obviously panicking, not sure what happened, and trying to get out of the U.N.

This was actual live pictures taking place. They were doing, NHK, a Japanese television station, filming that news conference. I'm told there was a congressional delegation in Baghdad. That could have something to do with the news conference that was taking place. But incredible pictures -- very rarely do you ever see something like that on tape.

But now you can see from the outside that explosion that took place from that truck explosion, basically the whole front of the U.N. headquarters there at the Canal Hotel crumbling.

Reuters reporting at least 10 people dead. We have not been able to confirm those numbers yet. But Reuters is saying at least 10 people dead. We know that more than 32 people have been injured. Rescue efforts are still taking place. We are told possibly people trapped in that rubble. Right now dozens of U.S. Humvee vehicles are responding to the scene, securing the area. You can see the Blackhawk helicopters in the air.

Once again, we want to bring you this videotape just in to CNN, the actual pictures of the news conference taking place, and then you'll see the explosion.

I think one amazing thing, Leon, is just the fact that the camera kept rolling, and it captured this before and after...

HARRIS: And that would indicate to me, at least, some good news that those people themselves were not the casualties if this camera was in that room when that happened. And I should say, folks, as bad as that may have looked inside of there and to have heard that detonation go off and to see the camera go black just as that gentleman there was speaking, if just by virtue of the fact that this camera, which was in that room, did make it out and was able to deliver this tape, it's quite possible, and it could be assumed, therefore that these people that were in that room were not, at least not very seriously, injured and were possible ferried out of there.

Of course, we don't know that to be sure. However that would be some indication that there may be some good news for those people who were in that room in particular -- those rooms. And perhaps that can also mean that that room was not anywhere near the facade of the building or near the street, which seemed to be the part of the building that sustained the heaviest damage.

PHILLIPS: You know, also, Leon, if that news conference was carried live, it's possible that that was recorded in-house. You know, that is a possibility, too. We don't know if that was a live link up or not...

HARRIS: Yes.

PHILLIPS: ... or if indeed that was just on tape and brought out for us to be able to bring to our viewers.

HARRIS: Good point.

PHILLIPS: Something else to think about there maybe.

HARRIS: Well, let's go to the White House right now. I'm hearing there may be some news coming from the White House about President Bush and where he may be later on today.

Our Dana Bash is still at her post there.

Dana -- what have you heard there?

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Leon.

Well, President Bush, as we said, is at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. And the pool who is -- the travel pool as we call it in the business -- the press corps who is with the president has been gathered and called to the ranch. And we expect to hear from the president perhaps within the hour to talk about what has happened, the attack on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

The president, as we were mentioning earlier, was playing golf earlier today, just outside of Crawford near the president's ranch in Texas. He was informed twice -- first by Condeleeza Rice, his national security adviser. He was called once by her to give the initial information, and then was called again while the president was actually on the golf course and was given an update by his national security adviser. And then shortly thereafter, according to White House spokesman Scott McCellan, the president decided that he needed to cut his golf game short and went back to his ranch. And that is where he is now.

And we are told he is getting updates on the situation there. He is being informed by his senior staff as to what exactly they believe might have happened. And we do expect that the president will speak to reporters perhaps within the hour at his ranch -- Leon.

HARRIS: Dana, let me ask you something else, and I'm not sure how much you have heard about this. But we do know there was a congressional delegation that was there in Baghdad. We spoke earlier ourselves here with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and I also know that Senator John McCain was also there and he was speaking to the press earlier this morning.

Do you know whether or not any of those in that delegation have actually spoken with any White House officials to give them their account of exactly what happened, or a status report of the situation there in Baghdad?

BASH: You know, we don't know the answer to that yet. Obviously, we were given reports by senators who were there on the ground, but whether or not they actually called the White House and gave their firsthand accounts we simply do not know yet.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson is somebody who is very close to the White House. She is from the president's home state, so it is possible that she did put a call in to some of her staff, put a call in to some of the senior staff here. We just simply don't know yet.

HARRIS: OK, understood. Thank you Dana -- Dana Bash at the White House. Once again, Dana, if you learn something else, please get back in touch with us immediately.

Once again, folks, we are still here trying to gather more and more information here in the wake of this bombing, the evidence of it you see here on the screen, these pictures coming to us from Baghdad. The U.N. compound there sustaining heavy, heavy damage there, perhaps virtually destroyed the entire front side of that building.

This happening just a couple of hours ago there, 4:30 local time there in Baghdad. This bomb exploded inside a truck or a vehicle of some kind. We are hearing this report from a number of different sources there on the scene, still trying to gather some information about the numbers of casualties that may have been involved there -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: What a reality check about security. You know, we have been talking every day about the loss of life in Iraq, Leon -- U.S. soldiers losing their lives. Now, we're seeing firsthand even more evidence of a security problem in Iraq.

You know, we have heard from Bernard Kerik. He is there. He's the former New York police commissioner. He's in the process of training Iraqi police. You've got an Iraq army that's being trained. You have a tremendous amount of U.S. military there in the area all trying to rebuild, reconstruct Iraq, get the security force up and running. And this is evidence that there is a long road ahead to rebuild this area after the fall of Saddam Hussein and his regime.

HARRIS: And something -- and speaking of which regarding that security, this also is something that is quite remarkable -- and you and I talked about this a little bit off the camera here -- about the fact that this may be the first time we have seen U.N. installations here targeted, whether it's here or anyplace else in the world, or at least in that Middle Eastern theater, if you will. We have not seen this sort of thing happen before.

And you have to wonder about this strategic move by the insurgent forces that have been waging this guerrilla battle and have been targeting up to this point U.S. forces. They've also been targeting in recent days the infrastructure, the things in Iraq that had been going right -- the water pipeline that had been restored and the water services that had been refurbished by the U.S. troops there, the oil pipeline that had been delivering oil for the first time in months to Turkey. Those two items have been destroyed -- or at least sabotaged, I should say -- in the last couple of days.

Now, we're seeing an attack on this kind of soft target, if you will, as some of the security experts we speak to refer to it. And you have to wonder about this change in tactic and what this is actually going to mean, because of the pressure that's been put on the Pentagon to bring in more forces there on the ground. Perhaps this may have to alter their thinking about that.

PHILLIPS: You think of how many times U.N. weapons inspectors have been on the ground there, obviously always concerned about possibly being the target of an attack. It hasn't happened. Then U.N. headquarters now the target of attack. You know, U.N. representatives are supposed to be the leaders, the peacekeepers if you will. And this is definitely a message out by the terrorists that are coming forward and committing this attack.

We did receive some pretty incredible video via NHK, the Japanese television station that was actually shooting on videotape the news conference that was taking place inside the U.N. just prior to the bombing. We want to run that for you again, so you can just see from the inside how this all went down about 4:30 Baghdad time.

The Japanese television, NHK, those were the pictures at just about 4:30 Baghdad time of a news conference taking place inside the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. You could see the camera rolling on the news conference, business as usual, as a congressional delegation also in Baghdad right now. You saw it go to black. That was the point where the explosion took place. And then, of course, you just saw the fury inside the building there -- people covered in dust, the explosion taking place, trying to get out of that building.

Now, this is what it looks like out in front of the U.N., as you see the U.N. flag still atop there, waving amidst the rubble, the whole front part of the U.N. collapsing. Reuters reporting at least 10 people dead. We have not been able to confirm and bring able to bring you a solid number. But we do know more than 32 people injured, possibly people still trapped beneath that rubble. Rescue efforts taking place, a massive evacuation. U.S. military, Iraqi personnel responding, Leon, to this terrorist attack, a truck explosion, possibly a suicide bomber there at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

HARRIS: All of this happening about three hours ago, 4:30 local time in Baghdad, which is about -- is 8:30 Eastern Time, I do believe. Someone correct me if I'm wrong.

Our Jane Arraf in that timeframe has been able to get there to the scene, and she is joining us now. She has with her -- as you can see, though, she's on the telephone with us to hear us.

Jane -- lay the scene out for us. Tell us what you have seen and heard and learned so far.

JANE ARRAF, CNN BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF: Leon, I'm sorry. This is a satellite phone, and it may be cutting in and out. But what you are hearing are the sounds of helicopters still going overhead.

You can probably see behind us that it is a chaotic situation. That building is heavily damaged and then a whole (UNINTELLIGIBLE) stretching across from it. There is a combination of U.S. solders keeping people away, and people who desperately want to get close to the building. They are relatives of U.N. workers, many of them local Iraqi employees who may still may be trapped inside the building.

There are ambulances outside. There have been ambulances screaming back and forth for the past several hours. And, as you said, it's unclear how many confirmed dead, at least two appear to be dead. We are hearing that they may be two local Iraqis.

But the U.N. secretary's special envoy, Vieira Sergio de Mello, is still said -- Sergio Vieira deMello -- excuse me -- is still said to be inside that building.

Now, the police commissioner, former New York City police Commissioner Bernard Kerik has been going back and forth inside the building, looking very grim. He has not commented. He has refused to comment on what's going on inside or exactly how bad it is -- Leon.

HARRIS: All right. So that does confirm something that we have been trying to nail down earlier there, Jane, about whether or not the U.N. representative, Mr. Vieira de Mellow, had actually made it out of the building yet. Can you give us a sense right now of where that process of evacuations stand for anyone else that may be -- is there any concern about other people still inside that building? Do they believe that they have gotten out at least most of, if not all, of the injured?

ARRAF: There have been a lot of injured that have been taken out, Leon, but there may still be people trapped inside, because we can see workers going through the rubble, picking up pieces of concrete, presumably looking for -- they may be looking for evidence, but they may also be trying to free anyone still trapped inside.

It is extremely chaotic here and for the relatives of employees here. They have been unable to get any information whatsoever.

Some of the wounded have been taken to hospitals. We know that there were about 100 people inside at the time of this huge explosion, but it's unclear how many of them, if any, may actually still be inside that building. There are believed still to be several people trapped inside, though -- Leon.

HARRIS: Jane, can you tell me whether or not you have even talked to or if you've seen or heard any local Iraqis speaking or reacting to this? There are so many questions about what the Iraqi people themselves are going to take away from an event like this, whereas you see the U.N. who has been sent there and whose mission is to help and aid the Iraqi people to regain control of their lives and of their future, and to see the U.N. targeted by perhaps Iraqi insurgent forces there or some sort of suicide bomber, whether it happens to be an Iraqi or someone from outside of the country coming in. There are so many questions about the psychology of the Iraqis and how that's going to be affected by this sort of thing. I'm wondering if you've had a chance to gauge any of that.

ARRAF: (AUDIO GAP) hugely affected (UNINTELLIGIBLE), Leon. As we walked up here, there were people screaming and crying.

One woman, who was drenched in water from -- it's extremely chaotic around here. There is water gushing, there is smoke billowing. She told us that she actually begged the soldiers to shoot her. She said she did not want to live like this. She did not want to live in a country like this. This particular woman had lost part of her family before. She is Kurdish Iraqi, and she said now -- and she is waiting for her niece who may be trapped inside -- she said, in a country like this, explosions going off, of the uncertainty of whether you will survive the day, she said she did not want to live like this.

And that's really something that you see a lot of around here. This was a massive explosion. It was a target that is not a U.S. military target. The U.N. is not an occupying force. It has been part of the fabric of this country for many years. And to see an explosion like this that targeted not just international staff, but the very many Iraqi employees of the U.N. is deeply disturbing to people here -- Leon.

HARRIS: Jane, thank you for continuing to troop on with your report there, even though you are sort of being drowned out by all of the activity there. If we were just to listen to what I'm hearing over your microphone, it would be a rather troubling and unsettling sound. How many helicopters can you see in the air right now? Because it sounds as if a number of them are there.

ARRAF: There are three or four at the moment, but they're circling. We are now on a pedestrian bridge just near the U.N. headquarters, and over this bridge is a stream of people who have been looking for their relatives, who have been trying to get past the barricades. It is, as you say, extremely noisy, not just the helicopters circling, but traffic backed up for what looks like miles, as well as a constant stream of people.

Dusk has just arrived. The sun is begging to set. And these helicopters are silhouetted against the setting sun. It's a surreal picture here -- the devastation of the U.N. headquarters that no one really had believed would be a target at the moment, and the scene of relatives trying desperately to find out what has happened, as well as the ambulances coming and going. It really is a very dramatic and disturbing and noisy, as you say, scene.

HARRIS: And I'm sure there is so much work to be done in determining exactly what happened and who may be responsible for it. But, Jane, I know you may have a hard time hearing me now, because I'm seeing this helicopter headed towards your location, and I can actually hear the noise of the rotors actually picking up over your microphone.

But I wonder if you've heard anyone, whether it's been a military official or someone who has been actually out there on the scene watching all of this unfold, have you heard anyone talk about what they think might have been happening here, or who they think may be responsible? We have seen and heard reports that al Qaeda may be sneaking into Iraq and actually trying to help these insurgents wage these kinds of guerrilla attacks. I'm wondering whether or not you get a sense that people are fearful of that sort of thing happening there.

ARRAF: After this, they certainly will be. After this and the bombing of the Jordanian embassy, it's become almost a lawless city, and that's the thing that most Iraqis fear. Even if -- American officials keep saying it's getting better. In their gauge, it's getting better maybe in the sense of in terms of how many American soldiers are wounded, understandably. For a lot of Iraqis, it is not getting better, simple because their fear of the regime. Saddam Hussein has been replaced by a different kind of fear, the kind of fear where if you go to work at the U.N. you might not come home again.

Really, it's impossible to overemphasize exactly what impact this level of crime and these bombings have had on the society here -- Leon.

HARRIS: Jane Arraf there reporting for us from the scene here, folks, and...

PHILLIPS: Can you -- actually, as Jane was standing by there, you can see pieces of the U.N. actually falling. Not only is there a security risk with regards to having to protect the area around the U.N. building, but the building itself, Leon, chunks of concrete are still coming apart there and coming down via the explosion that took place. Obviously is still a threat to the outside, even the rescue workers, not only, you know, this is not a safe building obviously to make entry into. The building is still kind of coming apart, as you can see here, as our live pictures are capturing it, you can see a lot of the rescue crew outside the U.N. building. If you're just tuning in, once again, a quick recap. A truck explosion, possibly a suicide bomber at the U.N. headquarters here at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad. Reuters is reporting at least 10 people dead, possibly more. We know that more than 32 people have been injured.

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