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Dozens Killed in Possible Syrian Chemical Attack; Van Slams into Crowd in Germany; Intel Agencies Talking ahead of U.S.-North Korea Summit; National Guard Planners Meet on the U.S.-Mexican Border. Aired 12-12:30a ET

Aired April 8, 2018 - 00:00   ET

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


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CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): As fighting and shelling intensify in Syria a suspected chemical attack there kills dozens of civilians, including children.

Saturday's car ramming of a crowd in Germany doesn't seem to be connected to radical Islam. The driver reportedly was known to have psychological problems.

Plus, we learned that the U.S. and North Korea are now talking directly to organize the potential meeting between President Donald Trump and supreme leader Kim Jong-un. We'll tell you more about that.

From the CNN NEWSROOM here in Atlanta, I'm Cyril Vanier. Thank you for joining us.

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VANIER: This hour we're following disturbing breaking news out of Syria. Multiple Syrian active groups are reporting a possible chemical attack that has killed dozens of people at least and wounded many more. And I have to warn you, some of the images that I will be showing you are very graphic and very disturbing.

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

Again have to warn you, some of the images are very graphic here. This one appears to show the victims of this attack, women, children, men, now lifeless on the floor of the underground shelter where they had been seeking safety. Their faces, ghostly 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 can't independently verify these videos that were taken by antigovernment activists and doctors. Other video shows doctors treating patients in crowded hospitals;

again, many of the patients are children. Many of them have trouble breathing. It is not just children; scores of adults were also affected, like this man, foaming at the mouth. Doctors have seen other victims apparently paralyzed by what is likely some type of chemical agent.

These people are being washed down in an effort to wash away toxic residue. This is not the first time there been reports of a chemical attack in Syria. The regime has been accused of it on at least three other occasions in the last six years.

For the moment, the death toll in this latest attack is at least dozens of people dead, as I said, but that could rise possibly into the hundreds.

Our Fred Pleitgen is only a few kilometers away in Damascus. He filed this report and, for the last time, just be warned that this will contain disturbing scenes.

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FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: According to several opposition groups and groups that are on the ground in Douma, they say that all this apparently unfolded in the late evening hours of Saturday, when they said a Syrian government helicopter dropped what appeared to be a barrel bomb on the Douma area, which is just outside of Damascus.

And they say that that apparently contained some sort of toxic gas, as they called it. Now from what we're seeing from those very disturbing images, there appear to be people who are having convulsions. So far the numbers that we're getting is that they say hundreds of people have been affected by this and dozens of people have been killed.

Again the situation there right now still very much in flux so hard to say what the final numbers are going to be. Now as far as the Syrian government is concerned, they deny using chemical weapons. They say that all of this is merely a distraction from the fact that the Syrian government has launched a bit operation to take back that part of the outskirts of Damascus, which they say is going very well. When they say that they've made a lot of headway, they say all of this is a blatant event to try and hinder them from continuing that offensive.

And certainly from what we've been seeing over the past couple of hours, over the past couple of days, there has been an acceleration in the fighting around the Eastern Ghouta area, specifically there in Douma with airstrikes going on for the better part of Friday and Saturday as well.

But also with the rebels firing back and hitting some neighborhoods in Damascus, killing some people there as well. Douma is the last rebel enclave in Eastern Ghouta. They've been negotiating for a while, especially with the Russians, to see whether or not the rebels will give it up.

So far no deal has been reached. That's one of the reasons why the fighting has broken out again -- Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Damascus.

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VANIER: The U.S. State Department has addressed all of this, saying it has seen what it called disturbing reports of an attack and is continually assessing the situation.

In a statement, it also said, "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 --

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VANIER: -- "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 are 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 --

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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.

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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.

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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 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 --

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FRANCONA: -- 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.

FRANCONA: Sure.

VANIER: German authorities believe a deadly attack in Muenster was deliberate but what they don't know yet is why it was carried out. A man drove a van into the crowd on Saturday, killing two people and wounding 20 others. Police say the suspect then shot and killed himself. Here is the latest from CNN's Erin McLaughlin.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) 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.

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VANIER: Canadians and hockey lovers worldwide are in mourning after a bus crash Friday killed members of a junior hockey team. The death toll has now risen to 15. The bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos collided with a tractor-trailer, leaving a scene of utter devastation. You see it there.

This recent photo shows the team but it's not clear who was on the bus. Reports say the head coach and team captain died; at least 14 other people were also injured.

Meanwhile, the town of Humboldt, Saskatchewan, is in shock. Tributes are pouring in and people are laying flowers at memorials. And a powerful photo from the tragedy has gone viral. Three victims in their hospital beds, holding hands, in the words of the father of one victim, "bonding and healing."

Former Brazilian president Luis Lula da Silva is now in police custody after defying an order for his surrender. He turned himself in on Saturday to serve a 12-year sentence for corruption. Protesters celebrated his arrest outside the federal police building where he is being held.

But earlier supporters had tried to block his car as he left the union headquarters, where he been avoiding arrest. Lula was considered a front-runner in the coming election in October. He promised his followers this will not be the end of his political career.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA, FORMER BRAZILIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): I told the comrades that if it depends on my will, I would not go. But I will go. I'm going because they're going to say tomorrow that Lula is out of the way, that Lula is hidden.

No, I'm not hiding. I'm going to go there and see their faces so they know I'm not afraid, so they know that I'm not going to run and so they know I'm going to prove my innocence. They need to know that.

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VANIER: Lula is already in his early 70s. If he were to serve that 12-year sentence, he would come out of jail in his early 80s.

Coming up after the break, North Korea talking directly to the CIA in secret. We will explain what that's about. Stay with us.

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VANIER: Welcome back.

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 is also the headquarters of the Trump Organization.

Neither the president nor his family were in the building at the time of the blaze.

Also, this: CNN has learned the top intelligence officials from the U.S. and North Korea have been talking secretly about picking a location for a possible summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. This is according to several Trump administration officials. The U.S. used these back channel communications as evidence that North Korea is serious about meeting with the U.S. president. CNN's Elise Labott has the details on this.

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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.

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VANIER: The U.S. president is again complaining about the U.S. Justice Department -- his Justice Department -- and the FBI. This time he's 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 he 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.

Daniel Lippman is with us for more on all of this. He's a reporter at "Politico."

Daniel, what does Mr. Trump hope to get out of all those documents that were subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee?

DANIEL LIPPMAN, POLITICO: He wants to show evidence that the Department of Justice is biased against him and also biased towards Hillary Clinton, a name that we don't hear very often, and this is used by him to impugn the Mueller investigation, which is run out of the Department of Justice.

And so this is kind of a hit job that Trump is taking out -- [00:20:00]

LIPPMAN: -- on his own Department of Justice. He has appointed its top leaders. He has appointed the head of the FBI. And so it is very rare to see a sitting president try to attacked his own department.

VANIER: Yes, because we do have to point out for -- he's criticizing in his tweets the Department of Justice, saying they're slow walking this, that they're late in handing over the documents. But this is his Department of Justice.

LIPPMAN: Yes and delays happen in government. It is government, after all. We're dealing with bureaucrats, who sometimes can't meet every deadline. And, as CNN's reporting has shown, that they are going to release -- or they're going to turn over a lot of these documents on Monday.

So it is just a delay of a weekend and during that weekend most people on Capitol Hill aren't working. They're not going to review the documents. And so Trump saw some reporting on this and he viewed it as a good opportunity to try to tell his base, don't trust what the DOJ is doing. They are biased. They're Democrats.

VANIER: Yes, not to mention don't trust what the media is telling you. It feels like the president is hoping that this will help him rewrite the narrative of his campaign and the early moments of his presidency.

LIPPMAN: I think that is exactly right. He feels like the Department of Justice and Robert Mueller have really dragged down his presidency. He got the tax reform plan passed in Congress last year. But the constant drumbeat of all of these different investigations going on against him, that has really worried him.

And so I talked to former senior Trump advisors and they feel like chances of impeachment are going up. And these are people who work for the president and so They were big supporters of him; they still are. But they just see the handwriting on the wall that Mueller's investigation, it has dragged on for so long because they're just -- they keep finding things.

VANIER: All right, bear with me. I want you to pivot a totally different topic. We're learning that the U.S. and North Korea are talking directly about the organization of this potential meeting between Mr. Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

So the CIA and their North Korean counterparts are talking.

What do you think are the red lines that the CIA has to or will want to draw in these pre-negotiations?

LIPPMAN: I think they are trying to support Trump in trying to get as favorable a meeting as they can. And I would point out that a lot of foreign policy experts, while they support Trump and has negotiated with the North Koreans, you would add little too premature. This is usually something that happens at the end of a negotiation. So right now they're talking about whether it should be in Pyongyang,

which the North Koreans are pushing for, or in a third-party country like Mongolia, I think has been talked about.

And so you almost want it on a -- no one's turf. We can't expect Kim Jong-un to come all the way to Washington, D.C.. That's not going to happen and I'm sure Trump is even preparing for this meeting, what kind of handshake is he going to have with the North Korean leader, how do we ensure that the North Koreans don't play us because they've been playing the world and the U.S. for many years.

VANIER: All right, Daniel Lippman, joining us today on his birthday. We appreciate you taking the time. Thank you very much and Happy Birthday.

LIPPMAN: Thank you, thank you.

VANIER: Coming up on the show after the break, planning is underway for the National Guard's deployment. What will these troops be doing once they're posted along the U.S.-Mexico border?

Stay with us.

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VANIER: 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. CNN's Kaylee Hartung is at the border.

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KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Officials here in Texas say the goal is to have at least 250 National Guard troops in place by the end of the weekend. These planning troops being brought to the border to meet with Department of Homeland Security officials as well as Custom and Border Patrol agents to determine the specific resources, respective areas of the border may need.

Meanwhile, generals are meeting in Austin, the Texas state capital, to coordinate logistics and troop movements. These 250 troops on the move over the course of the weekend, those are in addition to 100 troops that the governor of Texas had already ordered to be in place along the Texas-Mexico border.

Beyond the state of Texas, 150 National Guard troops also are being deployed to Arizona over the course of the next week. That brings us to 500 troops we know who will be on the U.S.-Mexico border before we're aware of plans for California or New Mexico.

Beyond the numbers the next question is, what will they be doing when they're down here?

I mentioned the focus now on planning. But with further deployments, we anticipate these troops being in supporting roles, like training, construction, intelligence gathering and surveillance by air with the help of helicopters or with cameras and other technology along the border.

These troops we should also mention will only be armed in specific situations where they feel self-defense could be necessary. With this supporting role being played by National Guard troops, the idea is that Customs and Border Patrol will be more visible, more flexible and they will be able to make any immigration arrests that may need to be made -- Kaylee Hartung, CNN, Hidalgo, Texas.

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VANIER: And that does it for us this hour. Thanks for watching CNN NEWSROOM, I'm Cyril Vanier. "WORLD SPORT" is up next. First I'll be back with a look at the top stories.