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Dozens Killed in Possible Syrian Chemical Attack; Intel Agencies Talking ahead of U.S.-North Korea Summit. Aired 2-2:30a ET

Aired April 8, 2018 - 02:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hi, everyone. Great to have you with us from the CNN NEWSROOM here in Atlanta, I'm Cyril Vanier.


We've got disturbing breaking news out of Syria, where multiple Syrian activist groups are reporting a possible chemical attack. At least dozens of people have been killed, many more have been wounded. And I have to warn you that some of the images about show you are very graphic and very disturbing.

This happened in the rebel held city of Douma, that's in Eastern Ghouta outside the capital, Damascus. Witnesses say helicopters dropped barrel bombs which unleashed toxic gas on the area. The Syrian government denies being behind this incident.

Again, I'll warn you again, some of the images that I'm about show you are graphic. This one appears to show the victims of this attack, women, children, men, now lifeless on the floor of this underground shelter where they had been seeking safety, their faces white, some with eyes frozen in shock and the foam you see on their lips and noses appears to be the telltale sign of a chemical attack.

CNN cannot independently verify these videos taken by anti-government activists and doctors. Other video shows doctors treating patients in private hospitals and, again, many of them are children. Many of them have trouble breathing. But it is not just children; scores of adults have also been affected, like this man here, foaming at the mouth. And doctors say that they've see other victims apparently paralyzed by what is likely some type of chemical agents.

These people are being washed down in an effort to wash away the toxic residue. Our senior international correspondent Ben Weidman joins us from Beirut.

And Ben, it is not the first time the Syrian government is accused of using chemical weapons in this conflict.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, not at all, Cyril. In fact, by one account, more than 200 chemical attacks have taken place in Syria since the outbreak of the uprising there in 2011.

It's interesting, the Obama administration, President Barack Obama, did say that chemical weapons was a red line after the August 2013 attack also on Eastern Ghouta that left 1,000 people killed. However, that red line seemed to disappear.

Now a year ago on the 4th April, there was an attack, an alleged attack on Khan Shaykhun, which is just south of Aleppo that left 70 people killed. On that instance, President Trump did order a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase outside of Homs but that was about the end of that.

So, there have been, as I said, a series of alleged chemical attacks but, by and large, the international community has put out a lot of hot air but not much else -- Cyril.

VANIER: Tell me about where this has happened, Ben, because the attack took place in Douma and that's in the middle of a region that the Syrian army has been trying to retake.

So where does that offensive stand?

WEDEMAN: Yes, that offensive on the Eastern Ghouta, which is essentially a suburb of Damascus, has been going on roughly since the middle of February. Well over 1,000 people have been killed as a result of that offensive.

Now it was from Eastern Ghouta that there has been consistent shelling by the rebels themselves on the Syrian capital; in fact, just yesterday they shelled suburbs of Damascus. The Syrian army, as I said, since mid-February has been carrying out this offensive.

Douma really is the last pocket of resistance by the armed opposition outside the Syrian capital. And we've seen the Syrian army steadily gaining ground in that area. In fact, for 10 days, there had been a relative lull in the fighting, as some sort of cease-fire had been worked out between the factions in Douma and the Syrian government.

Now, we did hear from the civilian command, one of the civilian committees that's involved in negotiations with the Syrian government, saying this morning that a cease-fire agreement had been reached.

But as of half an hour ago, they said the Syrian government had not stopped firing on Douma -- Cyril,

VANIER: All right, Ben, thank you. That's Ben Wedeman reporting on this live from neighboring Beirut in Lebanon.

And the U.S. State Department has addressed the situation, saying that it has seen what it calls disturbing reports of the attack and is continually assessing --


VANIER: -- the situation. Here is part of the statements. "These reports, if confirmed, are horrifying and demand an immediate

response the international community. The Assad regime and its backers must be held accountable and any further attacks prevented immediately.

"Russia, with its unwavering support for the regime, ultimately bears responsibility for these brutal attacks targeting of countless civilians and suffocation of Syria's most vulnerable communities with chemical weapons."

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Francona is a CNN military analyst. He joins me now. He's also a former U.S. military attache in Syria.

Colonel, let's just start with your reaction to all of this.

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I'm really surprised that the Syrian government actually did this. I don't doubt that they're pounding this area in into submission. We know that Douma, as Fred said, is the last remaining stronghold in the Eastern Ghouta.

When Douma falls and it will, that will completely eliminate resistance in that part of the country. But for the Syrians to use chemicals now when they're on the verge of victory here just doesn't make sense because they're antagonizing rest of the world unnecessarily.

So we'll have to see --


VANIER: -- does that cast any doubt as to whether they did it, then?

FRANCONA: I would like to know more about what the actual agent was. We've seen a lot of chlorine being used. But if there was a nerve agent being used, I would expect the death toll to be much higher. You know, nerve agents are much more deadly than the chlorine that we've seen the Syrians use over and over and over.

I don't doubt that they were dropping barrel bombs at all. I just don't know what was in them. I think I would be really surprised to see the Syrians do this.

VANIER: What would you surmise is going on at the Department of State and Department of Defense right now?

FRANCONA: Well, they're trying to figure out exactly what happened. But I'm not sure in the long run it's going to make a difference. Douma is going to fall.

Are we going to hold the Syrians and the Russians accountable for their actions? Some of the reporting today said that those barrel bombs were dropped on hospitals. And we know that the Russians and the Syrians deliberately target hospitals. That's a war crime.

Yet no one seems to want to hold the Russians and the Syrians responsible for that. So I think they're looking for some evidence that they can eventually hold these people and bring them to justice. But I just think that's a stretch right now.

We're just trying to find out what's going on.

VANIER: Now a year ago Mr. Trump warned Syria not to use chemical weapons against its people and he actually bombed a Syrian airfield to make his point.

Do you foresee something like that happening again?

FRANCONA: Yes, here's a question, Cyril, what was the agent being used?

It seems that the world turns a blind eye when the Syrians use anything up to but excluding nerve gas, they're willing to accept chlorine but once we see a nerve agent being used, that seems to be the red line that the administration has drawn.

So if it's proven that they've used nerve gas, not only the United States but I believe the French as well have said that they would retaliate militarily. So we'll have to see if they can determine what that agent was and what the response will be.

But you know, unfortunately we have a spotty track record of holding the Syrians accountable.

VANIER: Yes, so that said and in this context, listen to the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, and her statement just a few days ago at the U.N.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: It's a sad fact, just a few years ago a single chemical weapons attack would have united us in shock and anger. It would have been enough for us to take immediate action.

Now we have a regime that uses chemical weapons practically every other week. Our lack of action has consequences. When we let one regime off the hook, others take notice.


VANIER: Let me turn that statement into a question.

Is this happening, are chemical weapons being used in Syria because the West has failed to act?

FRANCONA: Yes, and once the Syrians have used this chlorine gas and they know they can get away with. they just continue to use it. It even emboldens them to say, well, if they're not going to react when we use chlorine, perhaps we can use some other agent that has more lethality.

And judging from some of the reporting that we're seeing today, not only was there chlorine but they said there was something else, something more lethal than chlorine in those in -- those weapons, so we'll have to see what that was.

But yes, it emboldens the Syrians because they think they get away with it and they feel much more bold now since the -- since the advent of the Russian intervention. They feel even more emboldened because they know that the Russians are going to protect them diplomatically, militarily and, of course, we see this at the United Nations.

VANIER: And it is also pretty clear that the United States and other Western countries have very little appetite for further military intervention in Syria.

FRANCONA: Well, you can see what the president has said. He said he wants to get out of Syria. He said we're there to defeat ISIS and once that's over, we're going to leave. But we have to make sure --


FRANCONA: -- that we don't leave prematurely. We're on the verge of defeating ISIS. We have to make sure that's complete and we have to make sure it's lasting.

Then we have to determine what our policy in Syria is going to be. But I think talk of withdrawal from Syria is very premature and that emboldens ISIS, it emboldens the Syrians.

Of course, you know who benefits from all this is the Syrians -- I'm sorry -- is the Russians the Iranians and, of course, the Turks because they all have interests in that area.

VANIER: Lt. Col. Rick Francona, thank you very much for your analysis on this. We will continue to follow this breaking news in the coming hours. Thank you, Rick.


VANIER: Also important this hour, CNN has learned that American intelligence officials have been holding secret talks with their North Korean counterparts to try and organize a potential summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

This comes to us according to several Trump administration officials. The U.S. sees these back channel communications as evidence that North Korea is serious about meeting with the U.S. president. CNN's Elise Labott has these details.


ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Several administration officials tell CNN the U.S. and North Korea have been holding secret direct talks to prepare for a summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a sign that planning for the highly anticipated meeting is progressing.

Now Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo and a team at the CIA have been working an intelligence channel which has been in place for several years to make preparations for the summit. American and North Korean intelligence officials have spoken several times. They've even met in a third country with a focus on nailing down a location for the talks.

North Koreans want to have the meeting in their capital, Pyongyang. It's unclear whether the White House would be willing to hold the talks there. We also understand Mongolia has been raised as a possible location.

Now we haven't heard publicly from North Korea about Kim Jong-un's invitation to meet with Trump which was conveyed last month by a South Korean enjoy to the White House. Several officials say North Korea has since acknowledged Trump's acceptance and that Pyongyang has even reaffirmed it's willing to discuss the denuclearization issue, something very important to the United States and a condition for talks.

These preparatory talks officials say are giving the U.S. more confidence that the North Koreans are serious and these talks are laying ground work for a meeting between the prime minister and his North Korea counterpart in advance of the summit.

Once a location is agreed upon, officials said that the date will be set and the agenda will be discussed in greater detail. Mike Pompeo's confirmation hearing to become the next secretary of state is this week. If confirmed, he would also assume oversight of diplomatic preparations along with the new national security adviser, John Bolton, who started work this weekend -- Elise Labott, CNN, Washington.


VANIER: All right, that's it from us for now. Thanks for watching CNN NEWSROOM, I'm Cyril Vanier. I'll be back in 15 minutes with headline but for now, "MARKETPLACE AFRICA."