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2015 Paris Terror Attack Trial To Begin; Bolsonaro Rails Against Judiciary, Election Voting System; Hundreds Protest As Taliban Unveil Hardline Government. Aired 2-3a ET

Aired September 08, 2021 - 02:00   ET




JOHN VAUSE, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: You're watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm John Vause. Coming up this hour, Afghanistan's new caretaker government, stacked with Taliban loyalists former Guantanamo Bay detainees and two senior members of the U.S. designated terror group.

Six years after the Bataclan on terror attack, France's biggest trial gets underway. We are live outside that courthouse in Paris.

And Brazil's President not just using the 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 might just work.

For weeks, they talked about a moderate inclusive government with respect for women's rights, but it seems talk is cheap. And the reality of the new caretaker Taliban government is that it's very much the same as the old hardline government of 20 years ago. No women have been chosen for leadership or advisory roles. Just the latest example or the Taliban tried to wind the clock back 20 years.

Even before this announcement, hundreds protested in Kabul by the Taliban's treatment of women. And true to form the Taliban response was gunfire, beatings, and arrest.

Well, the gunfire was aimed over the heads of the protesters, it did disperse the crowd, but journalists were beaten and arrested. Some women to take the hours. Protests were held in other cities across Afghanistan. Two people were killed in the western City of Herat. The Taliban say illegal demonstrations are not allowed, especially now with the country facing what it calls an emergency.

The U.N. is warning of a looming humanitarian crisis and the new government facing that is filled with those hardline Taliban veterans and others with direct ties to al Qaeda. The acting Prime Minister is at the U.N. sanctions and was a close aide to the Taliban's founder, the late Mullah Omar. The acting defense minister is Mullah Omar's son. Two others are leaders of the Haqqani Network designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization based in Pakistan.

One of whom is on the FBI's most wanted list and both have multimillion dollar bounties on their heads. Former inmates at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba have been appointed to senior roles as well. They were part of a prisoner exchange with the United States in 2014 for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. CNN's Anna Coren has covered Afghanistan extensively for years.

She was recently in Kabul. She joins U.S. once again live in Hong Kong. There may be some understandable hesitancy internationally to recognize this government. And where countries work at what they plan to do. The downside of that means that any foreign aid which is frozen will just continue to be frozen for much longer. And that's leaving millions in need right now.

ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John. I don't know how the United States and the international community is really going to navigate this because you have somebody on a, you know, designated as a terrorist who is now the interior minister. This is somebody who is going to control the security of the country, the police. And as you say, there is basically a bounty on his head.

Least for information leading to his arrest of $5 million. Well, you know, the FBI knows exactly where he is. But this is what the Taliban have presented to the world. I spoke to one expert who said, this is really the leadership just thumbing their nose at the world. Not taking any of the concerns on board of the international community and basically saying if you want to do business with us, it is going to have to be our way.

So how does the United States release the reserves, the Afghan government reserves to the Taliban? How does the World Bank, the IMF? How do they, you know, play ball with this regime which as you say, is filled with terrorists, known terrorists, with Mullahs. I mean, it's 33 Mullahs now who are in charge of this government. 32 of whom are passion. So, you know, move aside the fact that many of these are deemed as international terrorists.

You've also got people who are just, you know, hardline in their views. Who, despite what the Taliban spokesman has been saying for the past three weeks that we will provide an inclusive government and represent all Afghans have done the absolute opposite. The Ministry of Women's Affairs has been completely scrapped. There are no women whatsoever on this as part of this government.

Ethnic minorities like the Hazaras, even though they make up a fifth of the population and nowhere to be seen. This is not an inclusive government.


COHEN: This is a government that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, before the U.S. invasion. And that is why you are seeing these women and men are Taking it to the streets in their hundreds. And John, I should mention that there's a protests happening right now, in the west of Kabul. This is a Hazara neighborhood, a Shia neighborhood, which is an ethnic minority persecuted by the Taliban.

And they are taking to the streets, they are protesting against the murder of that pregnant police woman in Ghor province several days ago. Her son says that it was the Taliban that murdered her. They deny it. But the fact that these women are taking to the streets is just incredible. I spoke to one female activist, John, who managed to get out of Afghanistan. And she said, you know, a few days ago, she was so depressed.

So depressed in the State of Affairs in Afghanistan. She is watching these images, and she says they are mind blowing. She is just inspired and so proud of these women. She even went so far, John, as to say that she wishes she was there taking part in these protests. I mean, that, to me is just extraordinary. There is this, you know, incredible sense of camaraderie, you know, because these women have come so far in the last 20 years. They are refusing to be silent.

And from what we know, John, they will continue to take to the streets, despite the Taliban, you know, brutally trying to repress them. They say we will not be silenced.

VAUSE: And it's early days, and it can only get worse from this point in unfortunately, but we just have to keep watching and see what happens. Anna, thank you. Anna Coren live in Hong Kong.

Colin P. Clarke is director of policy and research at the Soufan Group which consults on global intelligence and security. He's author -- also author of Ark of 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 or more inclusive Taliban respectful of women's rights?

CLARKE: 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 kind or 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, I think the 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 reform Taliban came from. I think, was largely an immediate invention. And this has been pushed by the 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 to, 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 said. 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 definitely relations in trust and the robust relations.


BREAM: Maybe as a gesture of goodwill, the new interior minister, the man in charge of the police who also is the leader of the academy terrorist network 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 a new police chief?

CLARKE: Look, as you mentioned, Siraj 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.


CLARKE: 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: You know, 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 suggest 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 from splintering? CLARKE: I think that's the million-dollar question right now or maybe the $5 million question if you're Siraj 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 describe as a monolith, which is -- which is really not start to splinter, start to fracture and start to fissure.

And what happens there, do you have hardliners break off and join the ISIS affiliates in the country? 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: In a few hours, the biggest trial in modern French history will begin. 20-men accused of killing 130 people in Paris six years ago. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for what became known as the Bataclan terror attacks. France's worst post war atrocity. Melissa Bell has our report.


MELISSA BELL, CNN PARIS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): France shaken to its core. November 13 2015, a night of terror that began at the start of house. Then saw 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, aiding 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 (through translator): 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 (through translator): It won't just be about sentencing but about democracy. It is the idea of justice that is in question. In any case, it is tested in this trial.

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

LAPLAUD: Only the victims and people who experience that night can understand what I'm feeling and the violence and the images. What I saw, the blood, the corpse.

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


VAUSE: CNN's Melissa Bell joins us now live from Paris. And Melissa, this seems to be, you know, a period now of nine months where the people of Paris especially will be reminded of everything that took place that horrible night. How are they dealing with that? And I also wonder why is this a specific security threat here? Why the need for this purpose built court facility?

BELL: Well, this has been first of all rebuilt because of just the sheer scale of this trial. This was the old justice palace here in Paris has now been moved further outside Paris, but this one has been redone inside because of the sheer scale. 330 lawyers are going to be involved, John, over the course of the coming months. There's the scale of it. There's the scope of it after all these were attacks in the words of (INAUDIBLE) the president of the time that had been planned, orchestrated from Syria, prepared from Brussels, perpetrated in France.


BELL: And then of course, there's the depth of feeling that this is going to stir up, as you just mentioned. And yet, you're not going to see any images from inside that courtroom. Because it will do it's going to be filmed, the only people with any access to what will be a recording for posterity will be the victims themselves who've been given special access to the feed of what's going on inside.

So this is going to stir up an awful lot of emotion. And remember that this happens in a context where as one analysts recently told CNN, we may have forgotten the jihadists, the jihadists have not forgotten us. And looking around me this morning here on the (INAUDIBLE) in Paris. Security is extremely tight, at least for this the very first day of what is going to be, John, a historic trial.

VAUSE: And just very quickly, was there a conscious decision made not to televise the proceedings or is that just how court proceedings happen all the time in France?

BELL: These were decisions. This is a law that goes back to the 1980s, the Klaus Barbie trial at the time had led to changes in French law. That means that for posterity, these kinds of terror cases are recorded in order that there can be a recording for later on, not shown live, and they do not involve civilian juries, as other criminal trials do here in France. So a number of specific changes that were made to the law to deal with these large scale trials surrounding mass terror events, John.

VAUSE: Very different to how they do things in the United States. Melissa, thank you. Melissa Bell live for us there in Paris.

In Guantanamo Bay, Cuba the pretrial hearing for the suspected 911 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and for others accused of planning and executing the attacks is underway yet again. Tuesday was the first time the suspects appeared in court since February of last year. They were arraigned in 2012. But their case has faced a series of legal challenges and delays. This week's hearing is expected to deal with any objections to Judge Colonel Matthew McCall, who is presiding over the trial.

We're following developments out of Southwest Mexico where a powerful earthquake I said, shockwaves across the country. The epicenter of the magnitude-seven earthquake was not far from the coastal resorts in Acapulco. Powerlines and trees were brought down, some buildings and cars sustained might have damage. The tremors who also fell almost 400 kilometers away in Mexico City.

With reports the ground was shaking for about a minute. CNN Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri has more now on the quake. The epicenter of the depth of it all and what we can expect, Pedram.

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, John. You know, this was a quake that was felt so far away as you noted and felt by almost 50 million people across Mexico. And keep in mind, the country has about 120 million people as a whole. So, essentially one in every two people feeling at least some shaking associated with this quake that occurred just before 10:00 p.m. local time. About 20 kilometers north east of Acapulco.

And as you noted, they're very shallow quakes. So we know quite a bit of shaking felt especially near Acapulco which is home to over 650,000 people. And you'll notice very strong shaking felt not only in Acapulco, but also neighboring communities within a few kilometers of here, but kind of look at the population density. And once you get towards Mexico City, few 100 kilometers away, you're talking about millions feeling at least some shaking associated with this quake.

So what are we looking at? Well, the data according to the USGS says the estimated economic losses could be significant, especially given how close it is to a population center about 600,000 that being Acapulco. So, they put estimates based on historical data, at least $100 million in U.S. losses. 100 million U.S. dollars in losses associated with this particular quake. And then you notice when you bring in a seven-magnitude quake that is considered a major earthquake.

So again, with this sort of a quake, given the population density in this region, USGS based on historical data does put in a potential fatality exceeding 100 people. So very serious quake. Aftershocks going to be expected, several could be expected in the five to six range. So this is certainly going to be an active period in the coming days, John.

VAUSE: Pedram, thank you. We appreciate the update. Still to come, protests amid growing fears of Brazil's democracy after the president attacks the election system as well as the judiciary.



VAUSE: Welcome back, everyone. The president of Brazil call them to the streets and they did in tens of thousands. His loyal supporters enthusiastically cheering as a Jair Bolsonaro threatened to punch the country into a constitutional crisis. Bolsonaro used Independence Day celebrations to attack the country's highest court and undermine the election system calling it a fast. Meantime, opposition protests also took place in major cities Tuesday.

And CNN's Shasta Darlington has more now reporting in from Sao Paulo.


SHASTA DARLINGTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He asked his supporters to rally on Brazil's Independence Day. They heeded his call. In the streets of Brazil's Largest cities Tuesday thousands gathered in support of President Jair Bolsonaro. At one of the rallies the far-right leader assured them of his staying power.

Only God can get me out of here, Bolsonaro told crowds and cell Polo Tuesday. I will leave my post only ever arrested, killed or defeated he said. In the capital. Some of his most ardent backers met with tear gas and police barriers as they tried to march towards the Supreme Court. It's a show of force against the judiciary clashing with Bolsonaro over changes to the voting system and investigations into the President's allies.

Amid judicial inquiries declining poll numbers, a raging pandemic and a teetering economy Bolsonaro trying to embolden his followers on Independence Day, in what some critics fear may soon be a claim to power.

Patriots, he said Tuesday, this is priceless. It is the awakening of a nation the certainty that we will be great in the future. Along with protests supporting the president, sizable crowds turned out to voice their opposition.

Everywhere in the world that are vaccinations and here we've got over 500,000 deaths. We don't have to wait until 2022 for the elections. We need to kick Bolsonaro out now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The country is going backwards. They are destroying education, destroying health systems. Everything bad is happening to our Brazil.

DARLINGTON: in Rio de Janeiro in South Paulo, Bolsonaro's detractors pointed to his handling of the pandemic is one of their biggest concerns. They say he's sowing doubts in Brazil's institutions as a ploy to challenge the results of next year's election. Opinion polls show he would lose but defeat may be the last option for Bolsonaro as Latin America's largest democracy braces for what's to come. Shasta, Darlington CNN, Sao Paulo.


VAUSE: Brett Bruen was the director of Global Engagement for the Obama White House. He is currently president of the International consulting firm The Global Situation Room. Welcome back, Brettt. It's been a while. Nice to see you.


VAUSE: You know, Brazil right now, it seems to be a mirror image from 2020 in the U.S. and 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 in with a public vote count. I cannot participate in this farce sponsored by the superior electoral court president.


VAUSE: You know, these tactics did not work for Trump. He severely stressed political norms and traditions but they survived. Brazil's democracy 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 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 seatback convention. That's a gathering of, you know, fringe conservatives. It seems so the fingerprints of the inner Trump 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 it 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 does, and Bolsonaro is not reelected. Really leave behind the 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 end others try again to march on the Supreme Court's, the parliament and other institutions.

VAUSE: And much like Donald Trump, Bolsonaro, his, you know, 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 on 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, 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 there are very vocal and in some cases, very violent part of the population.

VAUSE: And this story is not 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: Still to come on CNN NEWSROOM. Former high-ranking Ukrainian intelligence officers speak exclusively to CNN but a failed sting operation targeting suspected Russian war criminals.



VAUSE: Welcome back, everyone. I'm John Vause with CNN Newsroom.

In July last year, security forces in Belarus arrested 33 suspected Russian mercenaries. Accusing the Kremlin of sending them to inflame antigovernment tensions in the country ahead of president elections. The men were paraded on Belarusian state TV before being deported back to Russia. But CNN can now reveal details on what former Ukrainian intelligence officials say was actually not a failed attempt by Moscow to meddle in the elections of Belarus at all. But a failed Ukrainian led operations to capture and jail Russian mercenaries linked to war crimes. Senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance, has our exclusive report.


MATTHEW CHANCE, SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voiceover): The dramatic raid in a Minsk hotel. Was all over state TV. Belarusian special forces showed arresting this group of alleged Russian mercenaries, experienced fighters is how they were described suspected of being sent by Moscow to disrupt elections in the country last year.

We got confirmed intel, these Russians had real combat experience and actually took part in armed conflicts. This heavily disguised Belarusian police commander warned at the time. But what he did not know, is why this mysterious group of Russians was really there. A few did until now.

CHANCE (on camera): All right. Well, we're now driving to an undisclosed location. On the outskirts of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. Where we're 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.

CHANCE (voiceover): The former high-ranking officers spoke to CNN on condition we shield their identities. They are 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.

CHANCE (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?

SOURCE A, FORMER UKRAINIAN INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: The feeling I got was very bad. Because it meant that all our hard work and gone down the drain. We'd carefully prepared for more than a year in the hope that justice would prevail and that these bandits would be in prison and punished. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

CHANCE (voiceover): When he says bandits, he means Russian-backed fighters battling Ukrainian government forces in the country's breakaway. Among them a Russian national accused of involvement in some of the worst atrocities of the war.


Like at downing in 2014 of a Malaysian airliner, MH17, with nearly 300 people on board. Our intelligence services say the men detained in Belarus had been identified over many months as having suspected links to war crimes.

SOURCE B, FORMER UKRAINIAN INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: There were two who were present when the missile that downed MH17 was launched. Four others were members of a group responsible for shooting down military aircraft and killing at least 70 of our best men. So, identifying and punishing these people was of high interest to us.

CHANCE (voiceover): It was apparently of interest to U.S. intelligence too. 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. Senior U.S. official told CNN, those allegations are false.

CHANCE (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 are told hundreds of Russian mercenaries actually took it.

CHANCE (voiceover): All they had to do, according to our sources, was prove who they were and where they fought.

SOURCE A: We started to call them and say, hey, man, 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 had fought. And we were like, bingo, we can use that.

CHANCE (on camera): There's sending your evidence of who they are?

SOURCE A: Yes, they sent it to us. Absolutely.

CHANCE (voiceover): 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 the eastern world zone offered up by the fighters themselves. All of Ukrainian intelligence had to do was pick the ones it wanted, offer the lucrative Venezuelan contracts, and because of COVID-19 travel restrictions in Russia assembled them in neighboring Belarus to fly out. Our intelligence sources say the real plan was to land them in the Ukraine and make the arrests.

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

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

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

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

Matthew Chance, CNN. London.


VAUSE: Still to come, a real-world rocky roll out for Bitcoin's legal tender in El Salvador. Details in a moment.



VAUSE: Protest in El Salvador after the Central American country became the first in the world to adopt bitcoin as legal tender. Critics point to bitcoin's market volatility, case in point, bitcoins briefly plunged more than 10 percent on Tuesday. We have more now from CNN's Rafael Romo in Mexico City.


RAFAEL ROMO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It wasn't the seller rollout that the El Salvadoran president, Nayib Bukele, was hoping for. There were glitches with the government's ad designed for exchanging bitcoin for dollars and vice versa. Also, within hours, with cryptocurrency lost about 10 percent of its value. On the plus, major fast-food chains that operate in El Salvador, like McDonald's and Pizza Hut are already accepting bitcoin.

The Salvadoran National Assembly has created a fund of $150 million so that there is money readily available if people want to exchange their bitcoin. By midday, the government of El Salvador had already purchased 550 bitcoins equivalent to nearly $26 million. And even though El Salvador became, Tuesday, the first country to declare bitcoin as legal tender, the reality is that a small coastal village in Central American country has been using it for years, it's called El Zonte and it is home to Bitcoin Beach. A locally led initiative supported by a U.S. based nonprofit organization that has been promoting the cryptocurrency as a way to empower those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

People there, including many small businesses, have been using bitcoin for daily transactions. Not everybody in the country is convinced though. There have been at least two major protests against bitcoin where one union leader compared adopting bitcoin as gambling in a casino. According to a recent survey conducted by the Central American University in El Salvador, seven out of every 10 Salvadorans would rather continue to deal in dollars even if bitcoin is widely available.

Rafael Romo, CNN, Mexico City.


VAUSE: Thank you for watching CNN newsroom. I'm John Vause. Please stay with us. World Sport is up next.