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Dozens Killed in Possible Syrian Chemical Attack; Van Slams into Crowd in Germany; Lula da Silva Turns Himself In; National Guard Planners Meet on the U.S.-Mexican Border. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired April 8, 2018 - 03:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Airstrikes in Syria and as the bombs fall, disturbing reports of a chemical attack, killing dozens of civilians, including children.

From president to prisoner: Brazil's Lula da Silva is now behind bars.

Plus secret talks: what we're learning about efforts to set up a meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

From the CNN NEWSROOM here in Atlanta. I'm Cyril Vanier. Great to have you with us.


VANIER: We are following disturbing breaking news out of Syria. Multiple Syrian activist groups are reporting a possible chemical attack that has killed dozens of people at least and wounded many more.

Now I have to warn you, some of the images were going to have to show you are very graphic and very disturbing.

It happened in the rebel held city of Douma in Eastern Ghouta. That's outside the capital, Damascus. Witnesses say helicopters dropped barrel bombs which unleashed toxic gas.

The Syrian government denies being behind this incident. So let's go through some of those pictures, some of that footage that is coming into us again. Again, some of this is hard to watch.

This one appears to show the victims, women, children, men, lifeless on the floor of the underground shelter where they had been seeking safety.

Their faces white, foam on their lips and noses, which usually is a sign of a chemical attack. CNN can't independently verify these videos that are taken by anti-government activists and doctors.

Here is another video. This one shows doctors treating patients in crowded hospitals, many of them are children and they are having trouble breathing. Adults are affected, too, like this man foaming at the mouth, again.

And doctors say that they've seen other victims apparently paralyzed by what is likely some type of chemical agent.

These people are being washed down in an effort to clear away the toxic residue. Our senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman, is tracking this from neighboring. Lebanon.

Ben, what is Syria's track record of using chemical weapons in this conflict?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Certainly there is more than 200 -- claims of more than 200 chemical attacks in Syria on the opposition since the outbreak of the uprising there in 2011.

The worst such case was on the 21st of August 2013, also in the Eastern Ghouta, not far from Douma, where it's believed more than 1,000 people were killed in the sarin gas attack most recently --


VANIER: All right. We just lost the connection with Ben. We will get him back up and running soon.

Now the U.S. State Department says it has seen what it calls disturbing reports of the attack. Here's part of their statement.

"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."

We can go back to Lebanon now. The connection's back up and running with Ben Wedeman.

Ben, you were telling us about Syria's track record when it comes to using chemical weapons.

WEDEMAN: Yes, as I said, there have been a variety more than 200 events, it's believed, where the Syrian government did use chemical weapons. Of course the Syrian government has always denied that was the case and, in this instance, they are yet again denying it.

Now they have in the past, as I said, they've denied it. There have been, for instance, instances where the government has claimed that it was the rebels, in fact, who were using chemical weapons and this may be the case with this latest incident in Syria as well.

Now as far as the consequences of the use of chemical weapons, after the August 2013 attack on the Ghouta, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was brought in and they were supposed to have removed or destroyed all of Syria's chemical weapons.

Of course this latest incident and others have raised doubts whether that was in fact the case. No last year I referred to the April 4th attack on Khan Shaykhun, where it's believed they used sarin gas. That was followed by a U.S. strike, a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase in Central Syria. We did hear that the State Department --


WEDEMAN: -- say that this incident demands an immediate response from the international community. That would suggest that perhaps the Americans won't be carrying out an airstrike. But it's still early days at this point -- Cyril.

VANIER: And, Ben, what about the area where this has been happening, it's part of Eastern Ghouta, which the Syrian government has been trying to retake.

WEDEMAN: Yes, Douma is really the last part of the Eastern Ghouta that is still in the hands of the armed opposition. There's been an offensive ongoing in the Eastern Ghouta since mid-February by the Syrian government to clear out the opposition. More than well over 1,000 people have been killed.

Now for the last 10 days there was relative calm in the area as negotiations were ongoing between the main faction in Douma, Jaysh al- Islam or the Army of Islam, supported by Saudi Arabia. Those negotiations clearly broke down.

We did here this morning from the civilian committee that's involved in the negotiations between the rebels and the Syrian government that a new cease-fire had been agreed upon.

But last we've heard, the Syrian government continues to fire upon Douma -- Cyril.

VANIER: Ben Wedeman, reporting live from Beirut in neighboring Lebanon. Thank you very much, appreciate the analysis.

And more analysis, this time with CNN military analyst and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Francona. I spoke to him earlier and I asked him what's going on right now at the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Pentagon.


LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: 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: That was CNN military analyst Lt. Col. Rick Francona, speaking to me earlier.

German authorities believe a deadly attack in Muenster was deliberate but what they do not know yet is why it was carried out. A man drove a van into a crowd on Saturday, killing two people and --


VANIER: -- wounding 20 others.

Police say the suspect then shot and killed himself. Here's the latest with CNN's Erin McLaughlin.


ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: On a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon, in fact, according to locals, one of the first nice days of spring here in Muenster, Germany, people outside, enjoying the sunshine in the old city when, according to authorities, at 3:30 pm, a man driving a delivery van plowed into a restaurant with an open air terrace, killing at least two people and injuring some 20 more before shooting and killing himself in an apparent suicide.

Now authorities have not publicly identified the suspect. They do say that he was a German national. They also say that he had no known links to terrorism. German media report that he suffered from mental illness in the although CNN has been unable to confirm that information.

A center of focus, of course, on this ongoing investigation is the vehicle used. Authorities have been seen searching it today. They've cordoned off the area in what has been characterized as a rapidly moving investigation. This attack has shocked this cathedral city of some 300,000 people.

In fact, German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she's deeply shocked by this. The priority right now for investigators is the investigation itself as well as providing comfort to the victims and their families -- Erin McLaughlin, CNN, Muenster, Germany.

(END VIDEOTAPE) VANIER: In New York, at least one person is dead after a Saturday fire at Trump Tower. The New York Fire Department says at least six firefighters were also injured. The fire was contained to the 50th floor.

U.S. president Donald Trump has a penthouse in that tower and it's also, of course, the headquarters of the Trump Organization. Neither the president nor his family were in the building at the time of the fire.

He was once considered the most popular politician on Earth. Now former Brazilian President Luis Lula da Silva is in police custody. But this might not be the end of his political career. We'll tell you more about that.

Plus we'll tell you about the latest on a horrific hockey team bus crash in Canada. Stay with us.




VANIER: Welcome back.

Canadians and hockey lovers worldwide are reacting with shock to the bus crash on Friday that killed members of a junior hockey team, 15 people are confirmed dead. At least 14 others are injured.

The Humboldt Broncos' team bus and a tractor-trailer collided at full force, leaving the rural Saskatchewan roadway littered in twisted metal and debris.

This recent photo shows the team but it's not clear who from that picture was on the bus. Most players were in their late teens and also a powerful --


VANIER: -- photo of three victims has gone viral. According to one of the player's father, they "bonding and healing."

The president of the Broncos was distraught after the accident and thankful for the support that the team has been receiving.


KEVIN GANINGER (PH), BRONCOS PRESIDENT: Everything about this -- about this tragedy is unprecedented and it's overwhelming, including the torrential outpouring of support our organization has received.

We are so thankful for the city of Humboldt and its residents and the province of Saskatchewan and its residents and the entire country of Canada for keeping us in their thoughts, prayers and hearts.


VANIER: One of Brazil's most influential political figures is now in police custody. Former Brazilian president Luis Lula da Silva turned himself in on Saturday serve a 12-year sentence for corruption.

His supporters in Sao Paulo carried him on their shoulders after he promised to prove his innocence, Lula was considered a front-runner in the coming election in October. Supporters also tried to block his car as he left the union headquarters where he had defied a Friday deadline for his surrender.

Opponents also took to the streets and celebrated his arrest outside the federal police building, where he is being held.

Here's the person to break this down. Brian Winter (ph) is a former correspondent in Brazil. He's also the vice president of Policy at America's Society Council of the Americas.

Brian, do you now believe that this is the end of the road for Lula and that he is indeed going to spend the next 12 years in jail?

BRIAN WINTER, FORMER BRAZILIAN CORRESPONDENT: It's not so clear and as a matter of fact, there is increasing speculation tonight that Lula may only be in jail for a couple weeks because there are motions in front of the supreme court.

But we'll see. A lot of this is going to be dictated, frankly, by what happens in politics, by what happens with the public's reaction to this dramatic scene of really the most relevant political figure in Brazil over the last 30 years going to jail.

VANIER: He now says and he told his supporters that he's not above the law.

What are your thoughts on that because he also used every trick in the book for the longest time to put himself beyond the reach of that corruption investigation.

WINTER: Well, I think Lula used the appeals that were available to him and he did appeal his case all the way to the supreme court, where five of the six supreme court justices who voted against him were actually appointed by him or his chosen successor.

So he had a lot of avenues available. He exhausted them, then waited another day, which led to your scene today, where he was basically -- they had to push a crowd aside in order to get him out and on his way to jail.

VANIER: Until this happened, he was going to run in the upcoming presidential election and he was by far the most popular candidate.

What makes him still so popular?

WINTER: Well, you have to look back at Lula's period as president from 2003-2010, where you saw 35 million Brazilians, about 10 percent of the country, come out of poverty and into something that could be deemed a middle class.

You saw people gaining access to automobiles, refrigerators and other things for the first time. This is a period that coincided with the commodities boom, which what part of what was behind this.

So a lot of people have good memories of his government. It's also true that in the last two to three years, we've seen how almost every other political party in Brazil has also been accused of corruption, including acts that are frankly far more serious than this case against Lula himself.

So that explains why you have a majority of the population in Brazil that believes Lula committed a crime and also a majority that says that they would vote for him hypothetically under some circumstances for president this October.

VANIER: As you were speaking, we just saw pictures of Lula with his many, many supporters and I'd like to speak to that a little bit and about the emotion that must've gone through the country today, because Lula is not just any corrupt Brazilian official. He is a two-term president and perhaps, more importantly, he was the face of successful Brazil, if you go back to the '90s. And he was an icon of the Left, not just in Brazil but across the Latin American continent.

WINTER: Well, he was the face of a very successful Brazil. I -- Barack Obama once referred to him as The Man. That was in part because at the time he left office in 2010 with an approval rating of nearly 90 percent.

But it is also true that in some respects, for a large percentage of the Brazilian population, he's the face of the collapse that has come since 2013-2014, which was after Lula had already left office but was due in part to mistakes that were made by the successor who he --


WINTER: -- chose and also some fiscal and financial mistakes that were made in years previous, not to mention the corruption scheme.

So he is a far more ambiguous figure for a lot of people than he was at the peak of his popularity and when Obama bestowed that title upon him back in the late 2000s.

VANIER: Yes, I said '90s; I should have early 2000s. Brian, thank you so much for shedding some light on this for us, Brian Winter there. Thanks a lot.

WINTER: Thank you.

VANIER: Now Hungary's right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban is set to secure his fourth term in office and critics say the country's democracy is on the line.

Mr. Orban voted earlier in his country's parliamentary election. The prime minister has tried to build what he calls an illiberal democracy. It's a political system that's actually more similar to the Russian model than to the democracies of fellow members of the European Union.

His ruling coalition has passed laws targeting independent media and his party has campaigned heavily against immigrants.

Back to U.S. politics. The U.S. president again complaining about the U.S. Justice Department, his Justice Department, and the FBI. This time he is accusing them of dragging their feet on a congressional investigation.

He was upset that they missed a Friday deadline to submit documents on a variety of issues, including the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email server when she was U.S. secretary of state.

In a tweet, Mr. Trump accused the agencies of stalling and suggested that they had something to hide.

As CNN reported earlier, the Justice Department plans to submit about 1,000 pages of information to the committee on Monday, in other words, just a few days after the deadline.

And Donald Trump says the U.S. is sealing up its southern border. National Guard planners are already in various sectors on the U.S.- Mexico border in Texas with more troops on the way.

Up to 4,000 have been authorized to go. This move to beef up security on the U.S. border comes as a caravan of Central Americans travels north through Mexico. They left everything behind, even children, find a more prosperous life.

The group is now in Puebla, Mexico, about a two-hour drive from the capital, Mexico City. CNN's Layla Santiago was there and talked to these families as they plan their next move.


LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Valentina has become quite popular. She is the reason her mother says they are even here.

For them, this is about the search for a better life.


SANTIAGO: We are human beings, she tells me. Adding, if Jesus had to migrate, why shouldn't we?

Most of the people here didn't know each other two weeks ago, but it is part of an organized caravan, an annual pilgrimage that united to head north, leaving behind violence and poverty in Central America, they tell us. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

SANTIAGO: (INAUDIBLE) says her sister and uncle were both killed in Honduras. She doesn't want to be next. And yet (INAUDIBLE) can relate.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE) SANTIAGO: When her son's life was threatened, she says they fled immediately. Both women hope to reach the U.S./Mexico border so they can seek asylum. They say gangs in Honduras controlled where they lived and poverty makes it tough to find a way out.

The caravan has become the target of President Trump's tweets, calling them a dangerous caravan. While Trump may not understand, they tell me, they find support in each other. They become a community, a village on wheels.

Children playing. Medical teams caring for the ill. Volunteers serving food at dinner. Even the occasional soccer game.


SANTIAGO: According to organizers, the group started with more than 1,000 people.

People of the caravan are lining up to be counted by organizers. And then, they all have a full day worth of workshops where they will meet with immigrant advocates, as well as legal aid, while they make up their mind on what to do next.

Headcount this weekend, about 500. Some will stay in Mexico. Others, will break off on their own. As it has in previous years, the group becomes smaller as it heads north. Organizers believe only about half of them will make it to the U.S.-Mexico border. These women are determined to be among those making it to the United States of America -- Leyla Santiago, CNN, Puebla, Mexico.


VANIER: CNN has learned top intelligence officials from the U.S. and North Korea have been holding secret talks about picking a location for a possible summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

This is according to several Trump administration officials and CNN's Elise Labott has the details on this.


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: Orthodox Christians around the world are now celebrating Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. The faithful gathered in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Saturday to celebrate the annual ritual known as the Holy Fire. Many believe that the flame that comes out of Jesus' tomb is a miraculous sign of the resurrection.

The Holy Fire is then passed among the crowd until hundreds of candles are lit within the church. And in Greece, Saturday's Easter celebrations were a smash. On the island of Corfu, they marked the holy day by throwing large clay jugs filled with water from the balconies of homes.

Some of the more fearless spectators even stand close to the crash site -- you see them there. But officials say no one's ever been seriously injured. Islanders believe this custom helps get rid of bad spirits. People often take pieces of the smashed pots home as good luck charms.

That's it from us. I'm Cyril Vanier. I will be back in the headlines in just a moment. Stay with CNN.