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Magnitude 7.0 Earthquake Strikes Mexican Coast Near Acapulco; Taliban Government Members Tied To Terror, Unser Sanctions; Jair Bolsonaro Casts Doubt On Election System Without Evidence; Hong Kong Police Arrest Pro-Democracy Group Leaders; High Security For Suspects' Trial in 2015 Gun Rampage. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired September 08, 2021 - 00:00   ET



JOHN VAUSE, CNN ANCHOR: Hello everyone. I'm John Vause.

Coming up here on CNN NEWSROOM. A shallow powerful earthquake rocks the Mexican resort city of Acapulco with tremors felt hundreds of kilometers away in the capital.

The Taliban reveal they're all male Al-Qaeda friendly, hardline Old Guard caretaker government. So, now we know.

Brazil's President (INAUDIBLE) Donald Trump playbook on how to steal an election? It seems he's being advised by senior figures from within Trump world. And concerns are going this time it could work.

We begin this hour with the very latest on a powerful earthquake which has rocked southwest Mexico less than two hours ago. The epicenter of the magnitude 7.0 quake was not far from the coastal resorts city of Acapulco. Power-lines and trees were brought down, some buildings and cars sustained minor damage.

The tremor was felt almost 400 kilometers away in Mexico City with reports the ground was shaking for almost a minute.

The mayor of Mexico City says there are no reports of major damage and work is underway to repair some power outages. A tsunami warning is now in effect for the region.

Let's go to CNN's Rafael Romo on the line now from Mexico City. So Rafael, what can you tell us? What's the very latest?

RAFAEL ROMO, CNN SENIOR LATIN AMERICAN AFFAIRS EDITOR (via telephone): Hi, John, we were here in Mexico City when the earthquake happened. It was -- the first thing that we were able to hear where the earthquake alarms, and then, all of a sudden started shaking. It was a mild to medium strength kind of earthquake.

And I was at the moment inside a restaurant and everybody got out quickly but orderly and calmly.

And you have to remember that people here in Mexico City are somewhat used to this kind of situation. And today is or was at least September 7th, four years ago today, there was an earthquake in the region of Oaxaca that killed 60 people. There was a major earthquake on September 19, 1985 that killed more than 9,500 people.

And then, four years ago, on September 19 as well, there was another major earthquake in the same general area that killed 200 people.

So, somebody was making the comment that what's wrong with September that these kind of thing always happens to us. And so, it was -- it was -- people were a little afraid. Everybody came out to the streets. It was no longer than about a minute but it was enough to shake some of the people here.

In the Capitol, there were some power outages but no major damage. There are reports of damages in the state of Guerrero where the Acapulco beach resorts is located.

No reports of any deaths or injuries so far. I guess we'll have to wait till the morning to see what exactly happened.

But so far, you know, that the mayor of Mexico City says that other than the outages and people scared, there are no other reports that would cause the authorities to get alarmed at this point.

So, a lot of people are afraid but not more than that here at the capital at least. Let's see what happens (INAUDIBLE).

VAUSE: So far, it is early but the news is good. Rafael, thank you, Rafael Romo there in Mexico City.

Well, for weeks, the Taliban has been promising an inclusive government and more moderate forms of Islamic rule, insisting they've matured, learned from their last time in power.

But on Tuesday, they announced a caretaker government, a rogue's gallery of hardliners with terrorist connections under global sanctions.

The cabinet includes the leader of the U.S. designated terror group the Haqqani network who is now the Minister for Police and Security. He's also on the FBI's most wanted list and has a multi-million dollar bounty on his head.

There are former inmates from Guantanamo Bay and the son of the Taliban's late founder.

No women have been named to any leadership or advisory posts, but a growing number of women are protesting against the Taliban and the response has been gunfire, beatings and arrests.

More now from CNN's Nic Robertson.


[00:05:08] NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: In the biggest challenge to Taliban rule so far, women and men took to Kabul streets, demanding an end to the Taliban's military offensives.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are here for this protesting for our human rights, we want to stop killing.

ROBERTSON: Anger too at Pakistan who many Afghans blame for the Taliban's rapid rise to power.

The Taliban responding with gunfire, this time at least over protesters' heads. Also, detaining some of the women. B eating and arresting several journalists before releasing them several hours later, according to social media accounts.

The Taliban commander at the protest blaming America.

What is there to protest against, he said, we're in an emergency situation. The United States is giving the money. There is no other problem.

Hours later, the Taliban announcing their new caretaker government, top jobs to hardliners with a track record of imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

The powerful Interior Ministry going to Sirajuddin Haqqani. The FBI says he has close ties to aAl-Qaeda, has a $5 million bounty on his head and is under U.N. sanctions for connections to terrorism.

Hours earlier in Qatar, Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicating United States is in communication with the Taliban leadership.

ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We've been assured again, that all American citizens and Afghan citizens with valid travel documents will be allowed to leave.

And again, we intend to hold the Taliban to that.

ROBERTSON: On Monday, the Taliban overrunning the last pockets of anti-Taliban resistance in the Panjshir Valley, consolidating their power across the whole country, deepening U.S. dependence on Taliban commitments to stop Al-Qaeda attacking America.

LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: There's no question that it will be more difficult to identify and engage threats that emanate from the region.

ROBERTSON: At the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the Taliban banner painted on the wall subtext, we know you won't be back for a while.

Despite the ongoing turmoil, some aid flights landing in the capital. The U.N.'s top aid official met with Taliban leaders too. But what's arrived so far, woefully short of what the country needs.

JENS LAERKE, U.N. OFFICE FOR THE COORDINATION OF HUMANITARIAN AFFAIRS: Basic services in Afghanistan are collapsing. And food and other life saving aid is about to run out.

ROBERTSON: Pressures on the Taliban's new caretaker government already mounting.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Islamabad, Pakistan.


VAUSE: CNN's Anna Coren has covered Afghanistan extensively. She was in Kabul recently. She joins me now live from Hong Kong.

And Anna, it's really important to note that these protests by women, they may seem relatively small, but they show an incredible level of courage. And there is this short of shared feeling of anger that many have, but they're too afraid to join those groups, at least right now.

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. I mean, there were hundreds of people out on the streets in Kabul, and it wasn't just women, it was -- it was men as well. But those women, you know, their faces, you know, yelling out those slogans for freedom, we will not be oppressed in the face of those Taliban fighters is just extraordinary.

You know, these protests continued for some time. And obviously, the Taliban broke it up with gunfire. There were beatings, there were arrests. But then, there were more protests that were happening in Herat and in Mazar-i-Sharif.

I mean, perhaps that this is the start of of some sort of national uprising, which is what many of these protesters are hoping.

Those on the ground, the organizers that we've been in touch with, John, say they are going to continue to protest every single day if they can, that they are organizing this campaign through social media.

And, you know, perhaps those women who are staying at home too scared to leave their houses will be emboldened and encouraged to join these protests.

You know, John, speaking to Afghans who have learned of this new government, I mean, they said it's an absolute joke, there is no sense of inclusiveness, there is no sense of of representing the whole of Afghanistan. You have 33 Mullahs (PH), of which 32 are Pashtuns.

And these are people who study and live in madrasas and mosques. They said we need doctors, we need engineers, teachers, scientists, that's what we need to rebuild Afghanistan.


COREN: How are 33 Mullahs, you know, whose mindset is back in the dark ages, how are they going to rebuild what we know is an incredibly impoverished country and becoming poorer by the day?

We know that a humanitarian crisis is on its doorstep. We know that yes, trickling in of foreign aid, but people are going hungry, a third of the population struggling to survive, half are malnourished. This is going to worsen as Afghanistan, you know, gets closer to winter.

So, there is a catastrophe, you know, facing the Taliban. And not only do you have this civil unrest that will grow stronger when you see these women, you know, take to the streets. But they have 38 million people that they now need to look after.

VAUSE: Yes, Anna, thank you. Anna Coren live for us in Hong Kong. Thank you.

Colin P. Clarke is Director of Policy and Research at The Soufan Group which consults on global intelligence and security. He's also author of After the Caliphate: The Islamic State and the Future of the Terrorist Diaspora.

Welcome back. It's good to see you, Colin, thank you for the time.


VAUSE: OK, so many who now holds senior positions within this caretaker government in Afghanistan, have ties -- often close ties to Al-Qaeda.

So, how exactly does Taliban keep a commitment to stop Al-Qaeda from using the country as a base to attack the United States when the government of Afghanistan is basically Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda's best friend?

How does this government take any of the boxes of a softer, more mature and more inclusive Taliban respectful of women's rights?

CLARKE: Well, I think those are two different questions. On the first, I'd say it's going to be difficult for the Taliban to contain Al- Qaeda. Taliban will have its hands full with governing the country.

On the -- on the second part, this is not a kinder, gentler Taliban. This is the same Taliban that we knew from 1996 when it first began ruling the country. It will not respect women's rights. And I don't think we should have high hopes for what this government will bring, particularly with human rights.

VAUSE: So, essentially, at the end of the day, talk is cheap. The formation of a new government was really an ideal opportunity to prove intent. And they have, they have no intention of following through on those commitments.

CLARKE: Absolutely not. Look, I don't know where this, you know, this notion of a change or reformed Taliban came from. I think it was largely a media invention. And this has been pushed by Taliban themselves, they understand the public relations dynamics at play here.

And for anybody to have taken this bait, shame on them, but they'll use it to their advantage. They will stock the government with hardliners and fundamentalists. And in six months from now, we'll be sitting here wondering how did

this all come through -- you know, come to pass. And we'll have to look back at inflection points like this to see that the West was largely fooled, mostly because we want it to be.

VAUSE: Well, the cheap talk, if you like, continued even on this day, the Taliban saying, hey, let's all be friends, here's the spokesperson, listen to this.


ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID, TALIBAN SPOKESMAN (through translator): We want good relations with the world. The U.S. was engaged in war with us, including them, they were just destroying our country. We want to have good relations with them, especially with the Islamic world. We want to have like (INAUDIBLE) relations and trust and robust relations.


VAUSE: You know, maybe as a gesture of goodwill, the new Interior Minister, the man in charge of the police, who also is the leader of the Haqqani terrorist network, may want to release an American civilian contractor who disappeared in January last year.

And also, what are the chances that someone will try and cash in on that $5 million bounty for Afghanistan as the new police chief?

CLARKE: Look, as you mentioned, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the new Minister of Interior has a $5 million bounty on his head, that tells you everything you need to know about the current make of the -- of the Taliban government.

We have one of the world's most wanted terrorists, operating openly as the Minister of Interior, someone with very, very close, intimate links to Al-Qaeda.

So, you know, we're fooling ourselves if we think we're going to get anything other than exactly what the Taliban has been for the last several decades. Nothing has changed, the Taliban is likely to be more brutal because now they're back in power.

VAUSE: This is not a government which is going to win a lot of legitimacy on the world stage which the Taliban needs and needs very quickly to restart, you know, foreign aid.

So, does this suggests that there's a lot more going on here with regards to maybe internal power struggles, these appointments about rewards and payoffs, preventing the group of splintering?

CLRKE: I think that's the million dollar question right now or maybe the $5 million question if you're Sirajuddin Haqqani.

But there's a lot going on that we don't know, there's a lot going on behind the scenes that we aren't aware of. And I think that will come to the fore in the coming weeks and months as this any kind of power dynamics play themselves out and as we see what, you know, many people described as a monolith, which is -- which is really not, starts to splinter, start to fracture and start to fisher. And what happens there, do you have hardliners break off and join the ISIS affiliate in the country?


CLARKE: I think we're headed towards Civil War. And the U.S. has minimal leverage to prevent some really bad things from happening in Afghanistan.

VAUSE: And if history is prologue, things in Afghanistan to happen very, very quickly. So, I guess we'll see what happens.

Colin P. Clarke, thank you so much for being with us.

CLARKE: Thanks for having me.

VAUSE: A watershed moment in Mexico, on Tuesday, the country's Supreme Court unanimously ruled that it's unconstitutional to punish abortion as a crime. The decision is expected to clear the way for legalizing abortion nationwide. That would make the majority Catholic nation the most populous Latin American country to allow the procedure under any circumstance.

This ruling also comes just one week after the U.S. state of Texas enacted a sweeping ban on abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy.

The president of Brazil call for them to take to the streets and they did in their thousands and his supporters cheered as Jair Bolsonaro threatened to plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.

Bolsonaro used Independence Day celebrations to attack the Supreme Court and undermine the election system calling it a farce. He vowed he would leave office only if he was killed or defeated.

Opposition protests also took place in major cities Tuesday. Critics say Bolsonaro is undermining confidence in the voting system as a ploy to challenge the election results if he loses.

Brett Bruen, Director of Global Engagement for the Obama White House. He is currently president of the International consulting firm the Global Situation Room.

Welcome back, Bert. It's been a while. Nice to see you.


VAUSE: Brazil right now seems to be a mirror image from 2020 in the U.S. on what Trump did to try and hold on to power. I want you to listen Bolsonaro sowing doubt over the integrity of next year's election. Here he is.


JAIR BOLSONARO, BRAZILIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We cannot have elections, where there are doubts among the voters. We want clean, auditable elections, and with a public vote count.

I cannot participate in this farce sponsored by the superior electoral court president.


VAUSE: Yes, these tactics did not work for Trump, he severely stressed political norms and traditions, but they survived.

Brazil's democracy, though, does not have that same level of institutional strength and depth. So, could this actually work for Bolsonaro?

BRUEN: You know, it's interesting, John, because I warned about this after January 6th, that while our institutions were able to withstand enormous pressure from Trump and his supporters, there are many countries in the world where these kinds of tactics, this kind of Machiavellian approach to politics will be quite destructive and potentially could destroy democracies.

I fear that that is what we are starting to see the early stages of in Brazil, where Bolsonaro who is literally taking a page, if not a whole chapter or two out of Trump's playbook.

VAUSE: Well, on Monday came word that former Senior Trump Adviser Jason Miller, was briefly detained in Brazil at the airport, he was questioned for a time and then, allowed to go. He was in the country for Brazil's version of the annual CPAC convention. That's a gathering of fringe conservatives.

It seems the fingerprints of the inner Trump's circle are all over this move to cling to power by Bolsonaro. How much involvement is there coming from the likes of Miller and others?

BRUEN: Oh, it's very close. In fact, Steve Bannon has been down in Brazil, also advising Bolsonaro and others.

There is a certain not just camaraderie, but the common purpose and the common approach to politics. And what is worrying, John, if we could step back for a second here, is that isn't just going to stop in Brazil. We're going to see this other parts of Latin America, other parts of the world where you know, Trump and his team believe that they can export the Make America Great Again campaign to all of these other populist politicians, and it is going to be a very combustible situation in a lot of different places around the world.

VAUSE: You know, Progressive International, which represents 26 nations has issued a statement saying we are gravely concerned about the threat to Brazil's democratic institutions. President Jair Bolsonaro and his allies, including white supremacist groups, military police, and public officials at every level of government are stoking fears of a coup in the world's third largest democracy.

Let's assume that democracy in Brazil works as it did in the U.S. And that is not a safe assumption at this point. But let's say it does, and Bolsonaro is not reelected, will he leave behind a legacy of long term harm to democracy or does Brazilian democracy emerge stronger after surviving a stress test?


BRUEN: Well, I think it's a really looming question on the horizon right now, because there is a lot even here in the United States, we've seen that remains badly damaged ideals, institutions that have been severely diluted. I don't see a scenario in which Brazil is better after Bolsonaro.

That being said, I think it will send a powerful message if the strong man tactics that Bolsonaro and his supporters have tried to use can be repelled if the institutions can hold up.

But let's not forget, you know, this is also about creating a beachhead for not only his party, but other parties to use these tactics.

So, even if this round, they fail to achieve their goals, we may see rounds two and three where they and others try again to march on the Supreme Courts, the parliament and other institutions.

BAUSE: And much like Donald Trump, Bolsonaro, his poll numbers are down, he's losing support, his popularity is waning, but he is still able to mobilize his base. And it's a significant number of people from what we saw in Independence Day, taking to the streets and protesting on behalf of the President.

BRUEN: Well, and this is the very definition of a populist politician, they're popular,l. They have a base that's passionate, and that will show up for rallies, they'll show up for marches, they will go to almost any extreme for their candidate, for their political party. And that's what's so dangerous here is they may only represent 25 percent of the population, but they're very vocal, and in some cases, very violent part of the population.

VAUSE: And this story is all over for a long shot. We'll continue to watch that.

And Brett, thank you for being with us. We appreciate the insight.

BRUEN: You bet.

VAUSE: So, what could be the biggest trial in modern French legal history will begin in just a few hours.

The man accused of carrying out the Bataclan terrorist attack, which led to 130 people dead will stand trial in a purpose built facility in central Paris, details in a moment.

Also, Hong Kong Police have arrested a key member of a pro democracy group for not handing over sensitive information. More on that developing story, also, when we come back.


VAUSE: At least four liters of a pro-democracy group have been arrested in Hong Kong after refusing to turn over information requested by Hong Kong's national security under a new national security law.

This is the same group which organizes the annual vigil commemorating the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Kristie Lu Stout is in Hong Kong live with very latest. So, what was the information which was requested under this law?

KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that data would include financial information, information about the membership as well. But these arrests, John, are a serious setback and another setback for civil society here in Hong Kong.

We've learned that these arrest taking place early in the hours of today, Hong Kong Police arresting four leaders of the Hong Kong Alliance. This is the organization that had organized the ones annual June 4th Tiananmen vigil In Hong Kong's Victoria Park.

Among the four leaders who were arrested Chow Han Tung, who was the chairwoman of the alliance, and this comes a day after Chris Tang. He's the Secretary of Security here in Hong Kong, pledged swift action against anyone who refuses to comply with data requests made by the National Security Police.


STOUT: The Hong Kong alliance said it would not hand over its information. In fact, it applied for judicial review to challenge that data request. But the arrest took place anyway, earlier today.

According to Chris Tang, he says the Hong Kong Alliance is "A foreign agent" which is a very serious allegation of serious crime under the National Security Law. This is how he explained that accusation on Tuesday, take a listen.


CHRIS TANG, HONG KONG SECRETARY OF SECURITY (through translator): They turn these extra resources into privileges to recruit followers and influence people in prison and for them to grow hatred against the government. The Hong Kong government and the central government, which will endanger national security.


STOUT: Colluding with foreign forces is one of four serious crimes under the National Security Law which was imposed on the territory by Beijing in June of last year punishable with up to life in prison. The Hong Kong Alliance calls the accusation "ridiculous".

And these arrests are just the latest moves have taken place here the territory targeting civil society and human rights groups.

Just earlier this summer, you had the civil human rights front this man. This was the organization that had organized the ones annual July 1st marches in the city and galvanized, mobilized millions of people to march during the summer of 2019 in Hong Kong, they disbanded after a police investigation.

You have the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union, which is the largest professional union in Hong Kong disband after critical report servicing in pro-Beijing media.

When you talk to human rights activists in Hong Kong, they are deeply concerned about what's next.

In fact, one called it a very deep winter for civil society. Here's Johnson Yeung.


JOHNSON YEUNG, FORMER CHRF CONVENER AND HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST: We are in a very deep winter for civil society groups and for Human Rights Campaign. It will pose more deterring effects and right terror to effort organizers and individuals that are trying to fight for human rights.


STOUT: Now, Chinese authorities including Hong Kong's top leader Carrie Lam insists that there have been no erosion of freedom since the National Security Law was imposed.

But today's arrests are very significant, the Hong Kong Alliance and its ability to be able to organize these again once annual June 14 Tiananmen vigils has long been seen as a marker, as a bellwether for the city's freedoms, John.

VAUSE: Kristie, thank you. Kristie Lu Stout live in Hong Kong.

Well, in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the pre-trial hearing for the suspected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others accused of planning and executing the attack is underway.

Again, Tuesday was the first time the suspects have appeared in court since February last year. They were arraigned back in 2012 but their case faced a number of legal challenges for and has been delayed for years.

This week's hearing is expected to deal with any objections to judge Colonel Matthew McCall presiding over the trial.

In a few hours from now, France will revisit its deadliest postwar atrocity. 20 men suspected in the 2015 terror rampage across Paris will stand trial, security is high.

The Islamic State went on to claim responsibility for the deadly shootings, which left scores dead.

CNN's Melissa Bell reports.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: France shaken to its core. November 13th, 2015, a night of terror that began at the start of (INAUDIBLE). Then some coordinated attacks across Parisian bars, restaurants, and the Bataclan concert hall.

In all, 130 people were killed that night. Now, their families and those who survived are preparing to relive an ordeal that is beyond words.

OLIVIER LAPLAUD, SURVIVOR OF BATACLAN ATTACK: I'm sleeping a little less. I have some flashbacks.

BELL: France's biggest ever trial which we'll see 300 victims testify will be held in this specially designed courtroom over at least nine months.

The French president of the time , Francois Hollande will also give evidence but of the 20 men accused of planning eating and carrying out the attacks, only 14 will be in the dock. The most closely watched will be Salah Abdeslam.

He was arrested in Brussels a few months later, one of the only known survivors amongst those accused of being directly involved on the night.

ISIS may have claimed responsibility, but so far he has refused to speak.

JEAN-MARC DELAS, VICTIM's ATTORNEY: It isn't so much that the trial is going to disappoint because we're not expecting a lot, but it might not even shed much light.

BELL: One of the challenges will be ensuring that justice is done on all sides. The outpouring of grief that followed the attacks, a reminder of how wounded France was as a country with a question now of how neutral its judiciary can be.

NEGAR HAERI, SUSPECT'S ATTORNEY: It won't just be about sentencing but about democracy. It is the idea of justice that is in question.


MELISSA BELL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In any case, it is tested in this trial.

For those who were there that night and still live with its images, the trial will also be about being heard.

OLIVIER LAPLAUD, SURVIVOR OF BATACLAN ATTACK: Only the victims and people who experienced that that night can understand what I'm feeling and the violence and the images of what I saw. The blood, the corpse.

BELL: Something he says that will be hard to explain, but necessary to say.

Melissa Bell, CNN, Paris. (END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN VAUSE, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Still to come, a CNN exclusive report on a failed Ukrainian-led sting operation to capture suspected Russian war criminals.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We were set to meet a group of former Ukrainian and military intelligence officials who have an amazing story about what actually went down in Belarus.



VAUSE: Welcome back, everyone. I'm John Vause. You are watching CNN NEWSROOM.

In July last year, security forces in Belarus arrested 33 suspected Russian mercenaries, accusing the Kremlin of sending them to inflame anti-government tensions in the country and in the presidential elections. The men were paraded on Belarussian state TV before being deported back to Russia.

But CNN can now reveal stunning details of what foreign Ukrainian intelligence say was actually not a failed attempt by Moscow to meddle in the elections of Belarus at all, but a firm Ukrainian-led operation to capture and jail Russian mercenaries linked to war crimes.

Senior international correspondent Matthew Chance has our exclusive report.


CHANCE (voice-over) The dramatic raid in a Minsk hotel was all over state TV. Belarusian special forces shown arresting this group of alleged Russian mercenaries. Some experienced fighters is how they've been described, suspected of being sent by Moscow to disrupt elections in the country last year.

"We got confirmed intel, these Russians have real combat experience and actually took part in armed conflict," this heavily disguised Belarussian police commander warned at the time.

But what he didn't know is why this mysterious group of Russians was really there. He did until now.

(on camera): All right, well, we're now driving to an undisclosed location on the outskirts of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. We are set to meet a group of former Ukrainian military intelligence officials who have an extraordinary story about what actually went down in Belarus. And about how those Russian mercenaries were, in fact, part of an elaborate Ukrainian-led sting operation to capture suspected Russian war criminals to bring them to justice here. (voice-over): The former high-ranking officers spoke to CNN on

condition we shield their identities. They're not authorized to disclose details of what they say was an ambitious top-secret plan, backed by the United States, that failed at the last moment when Belarus intervened.

(on camera): When you saw all those people, those Russian mercenaries being arrested in Belarus, that was a nightmare for you. What did you think?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The feeling I got was very bad, because it meant all our hard work had gone down the drain. We carefully prepared for more than a year in the hope that justice would prevail and that these bandits would be imprisoned and punished. Unfortunately, this didn't happen.

CHANCE (voice-over): When he says bandits, he means Russian-backed fighters battling Ukrainian government forces in the country's breakaway region (ph). Among them are Russian nationals accused of involvement in some of the worst atrocities of the war.

The downing in 2014 of a Malaysian airliner, MH-17, with nearly 300 people on board.

Our intelligence sources say the men detained in Belarus had been identified over many months as having suspected links to war crimes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): There were two who were present when the missile that downed MH-17 was launched. Four others were members of a group responsible for shutting down our military aircraft and killing at least 70 of our best men. So identifying and punishing these people was of high interest to us.

CHANCE: It was apparently of interest to U.S. intelligence, top, although U.S. officials deny having any direct role.

According to our sources, the Ukrainian-led operation got some U.S. cash, technical assistance, and advice from the CIA on drawing Russian mercenaries in. A senior U.S. official told CNN those allegations are false.

(on camera): But identifying the right people and then luring them out of Russia required an elaborate deception. So our former Ukrainian military intelligence sources told us they set about creating a fake private military company with its own Russian-language website. On it, they advertised jobs like one lucrative contract, $5,000 a month, to protect oil facilities in Venezuela. That was the bait, and we're told hundreds of Russian mercenaries actually took it.

(voice-over): All they had to do, according to our sources, was prove who they were and where they'd fought.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We started to call them and say, hey man, OK, tell me something about yourself. Maybe you are not really a fighter. Maybe you are a plumber, or something like that. And then they started to reveal things about themselves, sending us

documents, military I.D.s, and proof of where they'd fought. And we were like, bingo, we can use that.

CHANCE (on camera): They're sending you evidence of who they are?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, they sent it to us. Absolutely.

CHANCE (voice-over): In fact, what followed was, according to our sources, a fountain of freely-volunteered intel. Not just documents and photos but potentially incriminating videos like this one, after the downing of a Ukrainian military aircraft in an eastern war zone, offered up by the fighters themselves.

All Ukrainian intelligence had to do was pick the ones it wanted, offered a lucrative Venezuela contract, but because of COVID-19 traveling restrictions in Russia, assembled them in neighboring Belarus to fly out.

Intelligence sources say the real plan was to land them in Ukraine and make the arrests.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): If these people would have ended up here in Ukraine, the details of their criminal acts would have become known around the world. Ukraine could have brought them to justice and shown that our fight with Russia is serious and that we won't raise our hands and surrender.

CHANCE: But the plan failed when the Belarussians arrested the group just have hours before they were meant to leave. It could have been a stunning blow to Moscow. Instead, according to our sources, a bold Ukrainian intelligence operation was foiled.

(on camera): Well, the current Ukrainian government is trying to put some distance between itself and what we now know unfolded last year. The country's intelligence officials have not yet responded to our requests for a comment about this failed sting.

But even if this operation had been successful, and so many Russians had been captured, it's unlikely anybody from the Ukrainian or, indeed, the U.S. governments would have wanted to take responsibility.

Matthew Chance, CNN, London.


VAUSE: When we come back, how we blew our only chance to eliminate COVID-19 and the grim reality from the WHO that the virus is here to stay.



VAUSE: A sign of the times is confirmation that climate change has made this summer in Europe the hottest on record. On average, temperatures are one degree Celsius higher than the average from the past 29 years.

Europe is seeing a summer of extreme weather, from heat waves and wild fires in the south to deadly fighting in Germany and Belgium.

Eighteen months into this coronavirus pandemic, more than four and a half million dead, comes word from the World Health Organization it did not have to be this bad, but the world missed an opportunity to eliminate the virus in the very early stages.


MARIA VAN KERKHOVE, WHO COVID-19 TECHNICAL LEAD: We had a chance in the beginning of this pandemic. I like not to think of the what ifs too much, because it's a very difficult thing for me to think through. This pandemic did not need to be this bad.


VAUSE: Still, this battle goes on, with the WHO saying global cases have now stabilized over the past month. It says all regions reporting consistent or declining infections in the past week, compared to the previous week. Except the Americas, which reported an almost 20 percent increase.

Well, thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm John Vause. WORLD SPORT starts after the break, and I will see you again at the top of the hour.