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Biden, Xi Spoke Thursday as Relationship Remains Tense; CNN Investigation Uncovers Atrocities in Tigray; Increasing Wildfire Threat in Western U.S.; Teenagers Shine in U.S. Open Women's Semifinals. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired September 10, 2021 - 04:30   ET



KIM BRUNHUBER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to all of you watching us here in the United States, Canada and around the world. I'm Kim Brunhuber, this is CNN NEWSROOM.

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday evening. It was only their second phone call in seven months. According to the White House the two leader discussed a broad range of issues on which the U.S. and China disagree as well areas where is they might cooperate.

CNN's Steven Jiang is following this for us in Beijing. So, Steven, there is plenty of reasons why the two leaders might cross swords. What did they have to say to each other?

STEVEN JIANG, CNN SENIOR PRODUCER: Well, Kim, according to a senior U.S. official, their tone was actually respectful, familiar and candid during their 90-minute phone conversation. Neither was trying to lecture the other. Actually, both of them kept referring back to their previous personal encounters and recalling old conversations and old stories.

So, this obviously stand in sharp contrast to what we have seen in some of the more recent high level official meetings between the two sides where things became so contentious it actually spilled out into the open. And indeed, some of the U.S. officials sensed that there was this sense of Chinese officials have been playing for the press or even propagandizing some of the previous talks. That's why they say this latest phone call was notable because to allowed both leaders to have this private moment to talk about things when this overall relationship has become so tense.

Now of course, one phone call is not going to magically resolve all or any of these issues. And when you have this kind of high leadership talks, they don't really dive too deep into the specifics. But this phone call is going to set the tone for the overall relationship going forward. But also, probably more importantly going to set the tone for working level communications. That's another point of concern.

Because U.S. officials have become increasingly frustrate with the lack of substance or progress out of these working level communications. And they even complain about the behavior of their Chinese counterpart and they say Mr. Biden understand this is very well and given how much concentrated power Mr. Xi wields. One order or one word from him could instantly change how Chinese diplomats conduct themselves or engage with their U.S. counterparts. And of course, it is during these working level meetings where a lot of things are being discussed in detail and could potentially be resolved. That's why, at least from Washington's perspective, it's very important to keep these open lines of communication and maintaining these candid and substantive dialogues -- Kim.

BRUNHUBER: Absolutely, all right, thanks so much, Steven Jiang in Beijing.

Still to come, a CNN investigation uncovers evidence of a renewed campaign of torture, detention and execution in Ethiopia's Tigray region. We have that exclusive report straight ahead.


NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: In the last few weeks, Tigrayans say the bodies of over 60 victims have floated in to Sudan from Ethiopia. Evidence of a methodical campaign, one which bears all the hallmarks of genocide as defined by international law.




BRUNHUBER: A CNN investigation has uncovered evidence of the torture, mass detention and execution of residents in a town in the town of Humera, in Ethiopia's Tigray region. For almost a year now conflict has raged here in Ethiopia's Tigray region. Now bodies are turning up once more carried down river into neighboring Sudan from Tigray. For much of the conflict, the United States, the United Nations and the international community have failed to hold high level Ethiopian officials to account for their role in atrocities committed in the region. Now CNN's findings point to renewed campaign of ethnic cleansing, one which bears all the hallmarks of genocide as defined by international law.

Now we have to warn you the report contains graphic and disturbing imagery. Nima Elbagir joins me now live from London. Nima, absolutely a for horrific development here. Take us through this tragic story.

ELBAGIR: It is an incredible difficult watch, Kim. But it's an important one. Because these horrifying images that we're about to show you corroborate much of what we've been hearing from victims and their families for most of the last year. These are very graphic images. But so important. Take a look at this.


ELBAGIR (voice-over): This is the Setit River, a source of life for the people living along its banks. For weeks the river has been bringing with it dark secrets from the Ethiopian region of Tigray. Mangled corpses are mysteriously appearing here downstream in Sudan.

ELBAGIR: We just got a call that three bodies were found down at the riverfront. So, we're running down to see what we can see.

ELBAGIR (voice-over): Gerri rushes down ahead of us. He's Tigrayan but has been living here for years. He's a key point of contact for Tigrayans driven to Sudan by the conflict.

Fishermen usually spot them first and call Gerri. On both sides of the border, Tigrayans keep a grim tally of those believed to have been executed by Ethiopian forces, that somehow end up in the river. This is an awful job, but one Tigrayans say is their duty.

We reach the first body on this small island. We must warn you, the images you're about to see are very disturbing. From the binds still biting into his skin, it's clear this man suffered a tortured death.

This Tigrayan has been helping to recover the dead. He holds out the body, but the image is too gruesome to show you. His eyes, though, portray the horror in front of him.

ELBAGIR: They pulled the body out, and the stench was immediate. It clearly had been decomposing along the river for a number of days. And he was tied back with a plastic wire, clearly restrained, and part of the skull was collapsed in. Just a horrible, horrible sight.

ELBAGIR (voice-over): They move to pick up someone else. Gerri makes notes of the bodies and their markings. He's trying to piece together this mystery for his people. He doesn't trust anyone to do it for them.

Among the flotsam, another body.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (translated text): His legs were amputated.

ELBAGIR: Tigray's authorities take photographs as evidence. This is a crime scene. But the potential perpetrators are far from here, in Ethiopia.


The second body is put into the same body bag. They have such few resources but are determined to maintain a certain dignity.

They're buried near the river in a shallow grave, in hope that one day they will be exhumed and reburied in their homeland. For now, though, there are only two shovels and a pick. Others join in, pushing the earth with their bare hands.

Laid to rest on unconsecrated ground, the Christian Tigrayans desperately try to give respect to their dead. Marking the grave with a makeshift cross, held together with a single face mask. A new dawn rises. Witnesses and local authorities tell us it brings with it 11 new bodies.

For months now, we have been investigating atrocities committed by Ethiopian and allied forces in Tigray. It's clear to us this marks a new chapter in the ethnic cleansing of the region. But here in Sudan, there are survivors. The living speaking on behalf of the dead. Escapees, eyewitnesses from the Ethiopian border town of Humera described to us a renewed campaign of mass incarcerations and executions.

ELBAGIR: The numbers that they're telling us are extraordinary. We're talking about possibly over 10,000 people detained just for being Tigrayan, they say.

ELBAGIR (voice-over): We begin to piece together the puzzle. We are here in Sudan in Wad El Hilou. Upstream in Ethiopia is Humera. Based on descriptions from multiple escaped detainees, Humera and its surroundings have become a mass detention facility.

We were able to pinpoint the locations. Enda Yitbarek, a storage facility, the electric goods warehouse, Nay Kedem Mebrat Hayl, where electric wire is stored. Dedessa, the old prison, and Deguna (ph), the sesame warehouse. The list goes on.

Via eyewitness testimony and satellite imagery, we verified the existence of at least seven mass detention facilities in Humera where torture is rampant. And two outside town, including a military camp Enda'kuwaja.

These are pictures of Tigrayan victims, husbands, fathers, sons. Many show victims restrained using the same small-gauge yellow electrical wire identified by eyewitnesses as having been stored in the electric goods warehouse in Humera.

CNN spoke to multiple eyewitnesses and international and local forensic experts. Most of the victims were tortured, executed, piled on top of each other, most likely in a facility or a mass grave, before ending up in the river. After examining the bodies, experts were able to pinpoint one of the techniques used. Victims had their arms tied back at the elbows in an excruciatingly painful torture position.

In the last few weeks, Tigrayans say the bodies of over 60 victims have floated into Sudan from Ethiopia. Evidence of a methodical campaign, one which bears all the hallmarks of genocide as defined by international law.

Up in this remote corner of Sudan, this is evidence the world wasn't meant to see.

Gerri takes us to see the first person he laid to rest. The water will eventually reclaim the body, but this was the best Gerri could do. Already beginning to fall apart, the body couldn't be moved, an image which still haunts him.

GEBRETNSAE "GERRI" GEBREKRISTOS, TIGRAY COMMUNITY LEADER (translated text): Leaving the body here hurts my heart, but what can I do? To leave your people by the river? Your sister, your brother, not laid properly to rest. When you see that it hurts you, hurts your heart, but what can you do? This is what we have been condemned to. ELBAGIR (voice-over): Gerri stays vigilant, looking out towards his homeland. As long as this conflict continues, the threat of more executions, more bodies floating downstream is ever-present.



ELBAGIR (on camera): Both U.S. and U.K. lawmakers have expressed their deep alarm at our findings with one U.K. lawmaker saying that these accounts corroborate the finding that there is ethnic cleansing and genocide happening in Tigray. But what does that actually mean on the ground? Well, the U.S. over the summer had announced that they would be using sanctions and visa restrictions on both high-level Ethiopian and Eritrean officials and all others found to be complicit in these atrocities.

But so far only the chief of the Eritrean army has been sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Sanctions. And the concern for so many is without meaningful pressure exerted against high level Ethiopian officials, how can this be brought to a stop. Especially as members of the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China, have been obstructing any censure, any resolutions coming out of that high level international body. There's a real fear that the world is failing to act on this -- Kim.

BRUNHUBER: Disturbing and powerful reporting there. Nima Elbagir in London, thank you so much.

ELBAGIR: Thank you.

BRUNHUBER: And in a statement issued by a U.S. public relations firm Mercury, the Ethiopian government said that it was investigating the allegations but that, quote, in light of several inconsistencies in the allegations, they are working with the relevance authorities to, quote, gather evidence and will prosecute any individuals found to have committed crimes to the fullest extent of the law.

Well, there are new concerns about wildfires in the Western U.S. and worries about how long the fire season might last. We'll explain next.

Plus, it is not midnight yet for two teenager making a Cinderella run at the U.S. Open. We'll have the dramatic semifinals when we come back. Stay with us.



BRUNHUBER: The wildfire threat in the Western U.S. is increasing. More than 8 million people in large areas of the West are under red flag warnings. That means there is a danger of extreme fire. High winds and lightning from thunderstorms are big concerns. California fire officials say the state could have massive wildfires until the end of the year. So far fires have burned more than 2 million acres. Well, for more on this we're joined by CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam. Derek, I was in California for years covering these wildfire. Every season it seemed that it was worse and it lasted longer.

DEREK VAN DAM, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, and talking to residents there in California as well and I'm sure that you could understand this, that the season starts earlier and ends later as well. So having wildfires last right through the end of the year is just terrible. In fact, for so many aspects.

Right now, we have 79 large active wildfires burning over the Western U.S. that encompasses 10 different states, the majority across California into Idaho and as well as Montana. Of course, this is impacting the quality of air as well. Now a graphic like this would have made headlines for us a few months ago, when the wildfire season really started to ramp up. Unfortunately, we've become so accustomed to this reporting on this every single day.

The air quality continues to be degraded over the Western U.S. we'll have hazy conditions impacting much of the country through the weekend. And guess what, our fire risk continues today across much of Northern California. Air quality alerts in-store where you see the shading of gray, that's what we're covering over the Western U.S.

Over the Eastern parts of the country, it's a whole different weather scenario taking shape. Tropical activities -- tropical mischief, a cold front pushing what is hurricane Larry out to sea. It's also bringing in some milder and cooler air to the Eastern sea board which is good news.

But look at hurricane Larry, 85 miles per hour, this thing is going to transition to what is called extratropical. So, check this out. It's going to go from bringing rain, wind and strong hurricane gusts to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, as well as Bermuda within the past 24 hours to bringing a full-on snowstorm to Greenland by the end of the weekend. So quite a juxtaposition there.

Quite update on hurricane Olaf, just made landfall in the Baja Peninsula. Cabo San Lucas reporting when gusts nearing 100 miles per hour. It strengthened just before landfall to a category 2 hurricane. It will weaken in the hours to come, but the good news is here the storm is expected to move away from the Baja Peninsula here within the next coming days -- Kim.

BRUNHUBER: All right, we'll keep an eye on that. Thanks so much, Derek Van Dam. Appreciate it.

British scientists say most of the world's remaining fossil fuels should be left where they are. In a new study, they say 60 percent of oil and gas should stay locked underground by 2050. The same applies to 90 percent of the world's coal. Scientists say such measures are needed to keep the increase in global temperatures within 1 1/2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Experts consider that necessary to prevent the worst consequences of global warming.

Well, a Cinderella run for two teenagers as they advance in the U.S. Open women's final and a dramatic kickoff to the NFL season. Here's Patrick Snell with a minute in sports.


PATRICK SNELL, CNN WORLD SPORT: Well, we start in New York City where we now know that it will be an all-teenage women's final at the U.S. Open. Canada's 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez booking her spot in the champion match on Thursday night after beating Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus in three sets. The unseeded North American player embraced throughout by the passionate crowd there in the Big Apple. Hasn't even advanced beyond round three in any of her previous six Grand Slam appearances. And in that final she'll meet 18-year-old Emma Raducanu who swept past Maria Sakkari of Greece in straight sets. The young Brit yet to even drop a set at this year's open. She is the first qualifier to reach a major final in Open era.

Lionel Messi writing his own very special piece of history Thursday night. His hat trick in Argentina's World Cup qualifying victory over Bolivia, now meaning he is up to 79 goals for his country surpassing the South American men's scoring record held by Brazilian great Pele.


And the new NFL season under way with 44-year-old Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers off to a winning start, victory over the Dallas Cowboys in a starring role for Brady. As the Super Bowl Champs went out winners 31-29 in a thrilling contest that came right down to the final seconds there. And with that, it is right back to you.


BRUNHUBER: And the song known as the "Black National Anthem" was performed at the NFL season opener Thursday.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): The dark passes on ...


BRUNHUBER: "Lift Every Voice and Sing" will reportedly be played before more games this season as part of NFL's campaign to raise awareness of social justice issues. The American writer and activist James Wheldon Johnson wrote it as a poem in the late 1800s and his brother later put the words to music. The NAACP adopted it as its official song in 1919.

And before we go, we just want to remind you that you can join CNN as we honor the victims of the 9/11 attack. "9/11: 20 YEARS LATER" airs this Saturday. Our coverage starts at 8:00 a.m. Eastern, 1:00 in the afternoon in London right here on CNN.

And then wraps this hour of CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Kim Brunhuber. "EARLY START" is next.