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Ukraine's Zelenskyy to Address UNGA on Tuesday; World Leaders Gather for U.N. General Assembly; U.S. Official Confirm Released Americans have Left Tehran; Rescue Teams Say Urgent Aid is Needed; China's FM to Meet Lavrov during Visit to Russia. Aired 9-10a ET

Aired September 18, 2023 - 09:00   ET






MAX FOSTER, CNN HOST: Hello, and welcome to CNN "Newsroom", I'm Max Foster in London. We'll have more on the Breaking News of Middle East this hour. U.S. officials telling CNN the five U.S. citizens held in Iran for years are now on their way to Doha and to freedom.

But first we begin in New York, where world leaders are gathering for the United Nations General Assembly, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, will address the assembly, the U.N. Security Council and meet with U.S. President Joe Biden as well. And advisor told CNN he'll explain why the war needs a fair end.

He also expected to say helping Ukraine is an investment in stability, and the more weapons will accelerate the war. CNN U.N. Senior U.N. Correspondent, Richard Roth joins me now from the United Nations. I mean, he always brings a bit of star power as well. But there's absolute substance to Zelenskyy's visit.

RICHARD ROTH, CNN SENIOR U.N. CORRESPONDENT: That's right, he appeared on a video. Last time he was not here at the U.N. It's his first visit and he will also then go to Washington to talk to members of Congress and President Biden. It's really the hot story. There has been some concern about U.N. people that it will overshadow anything.

I mean, there's a big conference on brace yourself Sustainable Development Goals that many of the world leaders will speak at, but their formal speech will be on Tuesday. Zelenskyy wants to keep the momentum if he has it regarding getting new weapons, and anything that can combat Russia.

Of course, it's a preposterous situation here Max, which is really Donald enthusiasm. You have a permanent member of the Security Council Russia, which has invaded its neighbor.

FOSTER: OK, Richard, thank you very much indeed for that. We'll be watching all of those developments as they come in, for more on what to expect this week at the United Nations General Assembly. Kurt Volker was a Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and a Former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine negotiations as well. Thank you so much for joining us.


FOSTER: We've had some concern already, haven't we? From some Republicans that the war is progressing too slowly considering the huge amount of resource that America is being put into this? But Zelenskyy is going to actually argue a counter argument, which is, if you give us more will be speeded up.

VOLKER: Well, that's exactly right. I have to agree with President Zelenskyy. We've been holding back on supplies to Ukraine. If you think about it, every major weapons system that we've provided, we originally said no, and delayed and then eventually changed our mind and said yes, and provided it.

That was true of the stinger missiles. It was true of the HIMARS, it was true of armored vehicles, tanks, F-16, which are still not delivered yet. And there are still systems that we continue to hold back on, such as the eight tackles. It's a very long range artillery system, which would be very useful for Ukraine, striking Russian forces that are occupying the country in areas where they cannot reach them right now.

So we could be doing more, and we should be doing it more quickly. What Ukraine needs is to separate the Russian forces, you have the occupation forces in Crimea and Southern Ukraine, and they are connected by a land line of communication across Southern Ukraine.

And if Ukraine can break through that will effectively isolate those Russian forces and make their presence there unsustainable. That would be a tremendous breakthrough for Ukraine, which is achievable.

FOSTER: He's getting the red carpet treatment, isn't it? He's meeting President Biden at the U.N. I understand it also has this meeting at the White House. So this is all part of the President's effort to keep the momentum up behind this war when America has got many of its own issues and needs to put resources into that.

VOLKER: That's exactly right. And of course, we do have a difficult budget fight to get through.


The administration has proposed additional supplemental appropriation for Ukraine that $24 billion in military assistance. And that is part of a larger debate on the budget that's going to go on and Capitol Hill this autumn. And he wants to bring Zelenskyy here. I think in order to make it harder for lawmakers to decline the aid to Ukraine.

So that is an important step to bring him to Washington and to show that there is broad bipartisan support for Ukraine.

FOSTER: In terms of the other issues out there as well, we've obviously got the Israeli Prime Minister over there, he's not getting quite the same treatment is he's not getting the Big White House treatment. And that, presumably, is because there's a focus on Ukraine, but also there's sensitivity about how the Israeli government is handling all of its affairs.

VOLKER: Well, that's exactly right. Under the Biden Administration, there's been a lot of disagreement with the Government of Israel, and the perception that Israel is both benefiting from America's defense commitments to Israel, but then taking aggressive or provocative steps on its own, with respect to the Palestinians with respect to Syria, so there's a little bit of a distance imposed in the relationship right now.

FOSTER: And can I just ask you about these five Americans who have been released from Iranian custody and your reaction to that, but also the deal behind it the $6 million, which isn't American money, it is Iranian money. But you know, some Republicans are basically saying that it's a ransom payment.

VOLKER: Right. Well, of course it is $6 billion. That, yes, it belongs to Iran, but it has been frozen by U.S. sanctions policy, and we are deliberately unfreezing it. And so Iran gets $6 billion in return for freeing these five Americans that it shouldn't have arrested and been holding in the first place.

And of course, this is an Iran that is supplying the drones that are attacking and killing Ukrainians almost every night. It is an Iran that is dominating in Lebanon, a threat to Israel. It is a real rogue state, if you will. And to give them the $6 billion is a very, very high price.

Of course, I'm delighted for the Americans who are now being freed they should never have been arrested anyway. But it is a very high price to pay.

FOSTER: OK, Kurt Volker, really appreciate your views on all of that and thank you very much for joining us.

VOLKER: Thank you.

FOSTER: Coming on the latest developments as five U.S. prisoners have released by Iran, a live report right after this break.



FOSTER: Back to our top story around releasing five Americans from detention, U.S. officials confirmed they are now in the air on route to Doha, Qatar. In return the U.S. unfreezes $6 billion of Iranian funds that were held in South Korea. Under U.S. sanctions, Washington also releases five Iranian prisoners.

Iranian state media reported that two out of those five have now arrived in Doha. That's where we find out Becky Anderson are live for us this hour. This is extraordinary level of very high diplomacy. BECKY ANDERSON, CNN HOST: It is complex, it's complicated, but it does show that diplomacy is still working, Max, doesn't it? It is the beginning of the end of a total year's long nightmare for five U.S. detainees who are now in the air bound for Doha mediated this deal mediated by the categories, which is why they are coming in to Doha from where they will be processed and then leave for the States.

One assumes at some point in the coming hours they're in the air. As far as we understand it, they should just about be through Iranian airspace can't confirm that as of yet, but I think they will probably feel that they are free at last. Once they actually do get the nod that they are cleared of Iranian airspace.

We expect them here on the category jet that they are traveling on within the next hour or so. And of course, we'll be live from the tarmac behind me when that flight gets in. Siamak Namazi was originally detained in 2015 and charged with colluding with a hostile government in 2016 and given a 10 year sentence.

He was the longest held American prisoner until he was released along with the others just a couple of weeks ago to house arrest are waiting the finality of this deal as you rightly point out. This deal has a bunch of parts, exchange of prisoners out of five U.S. prisons, five Iranians, two of whom, as we understand it have now arrived in Doha.

Although we cannot officially confirm that as of yet two others, as we understand it will be staying in the U.S. that is their decision. And one is going on to a third country and then this really controversial part of this deal. Controversial to many critics of the Biden Administration, who say the transfer is $6 billion worth of funds from a South Korean account where it was frozen.

This is uranium funds frozen in a South Korean account for some time transferred to an account in Switzerland and then inbounds here to two Doha banks where the Iranians will be able to access that money. That money we've had it confirmed has arrived in Doha.

So all the pieces of the puzzle coming together today on the day that the Iranian President arrives in New York, of course, for the U.N. General Assembly, the Qatari Amir will be speaking there tomorrow. They have played a critical role in the release of these U.S. detainees wrongfully detained for so many years.

And if you are asking whether this sort of re-emerge is a relationship between the U.S. and Iran, whether this is a sign that the U.S. and Iran are sort of re-engage in the answer is a categoric no. We have heard from the Biden Administration today that this is not about a new relationship with Iran.

This is very specifically about getting five men and women, as we understand it wrongly detained in Iran, back home to their family.


So that's the situation as we understand it at the moment and within the next hour. Hopefully, we will see the arrival of that Qatari jet welcomed by an American delegation of negotiators who've been in this now for what 18 months, mediated by the Qataris as I say, those gentlemen here.

As we understand it to welcome those arrivals, process them and get them out of this country when it seems as quickly as possible back to their friends and family, Max.

FOSTER: Yes, big moment, back with you then. Let's go to Negar Mortazavi joining us now she's an Iranian-American Journalist and Political Activist, thank you so much for joining us. I mean, it is extraordinary we got to this point with all the players involved in the mediation of Qatar. Are you surprised that they actually reached the deal?

NEGAR MORTAZAVI, IRANIAN-AMERICAN JOURNALIST: Thanks for having me. Actually, quick question, I'm an Analyst, not an Activist. But I'm not surprised, as Becky also said this had been in the making, but it's a rare deal. It's one of those moments that, doesn't happen often.

It took very long and complex negotiations. The entire deal is very complex. It's carefully choreographed for two longtime foes who weren't even sitting in the same room negotiating for this deal. The negotiation happened with essentially with shuttle diplomacy with the batteries going back and forth between hotels, where Americans and Iranians were staying.

So it was long, it was complex. That's my, actually both sides were hesitant as far as giving out details or acknowledging what's happening, but it seems like it's finally happening. Then nightmare as Becky said is over. The prisoners are in the sky. I'm also hearing from the Iranian side.

Iranian media are reporting that the Iranian prisoners on the U.S. side have also been released, and some have arrived in Doha. So that's where the handover is going to happen.

FOSTER: Can you just explain why I know it's probably a pretty obvious answer? But there are five Americans and only three of them are being identified, what do we know about the others and why they're not identifying themselves?

MORTAZAVI: Well, as I said, these deals are complex. One of the things that happen is that the negotiations happen behind closed doors and back channels, mostly secret because of the sensitivity of the issue. And essentially, the point does not want things to fall through.

Also, families are hesitant in publicizing the case of their loved ones, for conflicting reasons. Sometimes families feel like giving more press will actually put pressure and help your loved one get out. Sometimes they feel like keeping it quiet would help the diplomacy and negotiation.

So my understanding this is again, my reading and analysis is that in the case of these two other ones, that families mostly felt like not giving it too much press attention, would increase the chance of their loved ones being released. So that's why we only know of the three others who have been held essentially build on this with Siamak Namazi since 2016.

FOSTER: We're speaking to another analysts suggesting that the five detainees that have been released from U.S. custody might not necessarily go home, because they could start to say in America, do you think that's likely? I mean, what's the thinking there?

MORTAZAVI: Yes, so as far as I know, one of them actually was a resident of Canada, a few of them were residents of the U.S. So they may just go back to their lives here in the U.S. and in Canada. Again, it's personal matters. So sources tell us they don't want to get ahead of the person.

And maybe one or two is what I hear are willing to go back to and when we signed past prisoner swaps, also the case was that if they were U.S. residents or citizens, they decided to just stay and live here. So chances are a number of them would continue living where they were in Canada or in the U.S. before.

FOSTER: OK. Negar Mortazavi, thank you so much for joining us with your analysis there on a very important day and in that story. Now still ahead hijacked housing and exclusive report on what it's like to live in one of Johannesburg's dangerous and sometimes deadly hijacked buildings where thousands of people are living illegally.



FOSTER: It's not a rescue team say urgent help is needed to continue recovery efforts in Derna, Libya after last week's devastating flooding. The United Nations is revising his death toll lower in the wake of the tragedy to just under 4000. But thousands of people remain missing. Jomana Karadsheh is in Derna and spoke earlier today with my colleague Phil Mattingly.


JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is a traumatized city, as you can imagine, more than a week since this catastrophe struck. There is just so much shock and heartache in the city, you've got grown men and women who walked past us while they're solving.

You look at people and they just have this blank, shell shocked look on their faces staring into the distance. I mean, people here I mean I was speaking to a woman volunteer who's been dealing with preparing the bodies of dead women for burial. And she survived this and she's not had time to process what she's been through.

And she was asking us if we think she will ever see her city rise up again. And she could barely finish this question before bursting into tears. And you just see this everywhere. You've got survivors who've not had the time to think about what happened to them what they're going to do next.

All they're focused on right now is trying to find their loved ones. But the gut wrenching reality is really starting to sink in, that there's really not much hope left to find them alive. So now they're trying to recover their dead bodies. And that also fell may prove to be impossible.

You do have search and recovery, search and rescue teams that have been working across the city and the devastated areas in areas where you have entire neighborhoods that have been wiped digging through the muddy rubble. You've got local teams you've got some international teams.

But what officials are telling us is they don't believe they're going to find many bodies here. They believe the majority of the bodies are in the Mediterranean, you have thousands of people they believe that have been swept away with their homes and inside their cars into the sea.

And there you have this ongoing effort by different international teams. Libyan teams that have been using choppers, divers boats out at sea trying to recover bodies, but one of those international teams we've been speaking to say it has become really, really difficult for them to recover bodies.

Because a lot of these remains have ended up in hard to reach areas and coves and rocks and they just don't have the ability to deal with that, especially when you take into consideration the health hazards. One of those teams telling us they saw 300 bodies spotted just a few days ago.


And now they say they've just disintegrated into remains that they just can't recover. And you can imagine how devastating this is for the many families that are still trying to get the bodies of their loved ones and to give them a proper burial. These rescue teams out at sea telling us they have dealt with a lot in the past.

They've done migrant, both capsizing accidents at sea, but never have they dealt with anything on this scale before hundreds, thousands of bodies from.


FOSTER: Well, here it is video evidence that five Americans imprisoned in Iran are free. As they climb up the steps to a flight out of Tehran airport. They'll be leaving Iranian airspace very soon, presumably heading to Qatar, where they will be handed over to the U.S. authorities and they will go back home many of them have been in for years.

This is a deeply emotional moment for the families I'm sure watching this video, but also a profound moment for them as well as they leave their reign in captivity after a very complex prisoner swap which has been negotiated for months, if not years, between the U.S., Qatar and Iran.

So a big moment in international diplomacy, a huge moment for these people individually many questions though, about that deal, and that'll all be thrashed out in the hours and days ahead amongst politicians and analysts. So we're going to move on to another story now so called hijacked buildings.

There are growing concerns in South Africa after a fire in one hijacked building in Johannesburg killed more than 70 people last month. South Africa's President says authorities must crack down on these illegally occupied dwellings, but for low income tenants, these unsafe overcrowded structures are one of the few places where they can find affordable shelter.

David McKenzie joins us now from Johannesburg and you've uncovered an extraordinary way of living for many people there.

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Max you remember that terrible fire that recovered several weeks ago here in Johannesburg, which was a wakeup call for many in this country and the news and revelations that it was a hijack building that burned more than 70 people killed shocked many here and around the world. We investigated just exactly what hijack building is?


MCKENZIE (voice-over): Siyabonga Mahlangu takes us inside a notorious target. In a city infamous for crime, hijackers often steal cars, they also steal entire buildings. When that happens, the victims call McClung who first.

SIYABONGA MAHLANGU, INNER CITY FEDERATION: You can see the situation of the property.

MCKENZIE (voice-over): But this is the only home they have.

MCKENZIE: What is a hijack build?

MAHLANGU: A high tech building, it's where someone will come in and claim to be the owner of the property and start collecting rentals from the resident of that particular building. MCKENZIE: Like a gangster?

MAHLANGU: Yes, that's a hijack property.

MCKENZIE (voice-over): And Mahlangu says hijackers with fake papers have targeted the building four times. In one case, even having these women arrested and evicted until his organization beat the hijackers in court.

MAHLANGU: Are people afraid of the hijackers?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are afraid of hijackers because they do. They put their security during the night not during the day.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They are threatening is not is they were threatening us, beating us.

MCKENZIE (voice-over): Stolen buildings in Johannesburg aren't new. As the city crumbled, building owners abandoned their properties. Gangs have taken other apartments or hijacked entire buildings like this one. In the world's most unequal country, the desperate will live wherever and however they can.

MCKENZIE: If you look how tightly packed this is, and each one of these little partitions, houses a family it's like an informal settlement squashed inside a building. How many people would live in a building like this?

MAHLANGU: Close to 500 people in this building.

MCKENZIE (voice-over): 500 people like -- just one tap. She lives in this tiny space. But she says she can't afford anywhere else.


MCKENZIE: Why? Why are you scared?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because I am staying with my children and if here is making fire, I don't know where we are going to because I don't have money to pay rent.

MCKENZIE (voice-over): It is a building just like this one that was consumed by an inferno late last month. 77 people died. Many of them burned beyond recognition. It's provoked a reckoning in this country, a reminder of democracies broken promises.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When they find that the building is weak, then that one is gone. Ours, they find that every time they come here was so strong.

MCKENZIE (voice-over): The woman of this building fought back. They say their secret weapon is -- . I tell the hijackers that this building belongs to us, she says, but they still face a constant threat, still feel abandoned.

MAHLANGU: We'll all die without seeing the change. We'll all die I can assure you that and promise that?


MCKENZIE (on camera): Well, Max, what is really striking for me for the story is that it's not some remote issue. You just look over my shoulder at the skyline of Johannesburg behind me several of the buildings you see is in fact hijacked if they're not hijacked.

And there are buildings that were abandoned by the owners some years ago and people are living there not paying rent. So the city is saying some of these issues are caused because of groups like Siyabonga is that they say are stopping people from being evicted.

But their organization says that the Constitution of South Africa guarantees free housing and if people are kicked out, they need somewhere else to live and it needs to be provided by the state. I think the bigger issue here is this housing crisis and there's deep inequality that I couldn't be sitting in a comfortable studio here at CNN and just less than a few miles away people are living like that in this very city, Max.

FOSTER: Yes, it's such a stark reminder of actually what's going on there. Thank you, David for joining us from there. Still to come, another high profile visitor heads to Russia this time from China, we'll discuss after the break.


FOSTER: Welcome back. Kim Jong-Un is heading home after a rare trip outside North Korea on a six day visit to Russia. A video from Russian state media shows the North Korean leader boarding his personal armored train on Sunday and waving to local officials as a banned plate.

Meanwhile is one leader leaves another high profile visit has begun. China's top diplomat is in Russia fresh from meeting with U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan over the weekend in Malta. Our Kristie Lu Stout has more from Hong Kong.

KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: China's top diplomat Wang Yi is in Russia for a four day visit that could pave the way to stronger ties and a possible visit by President Vladimir Putin to Beijing next month. On Monday, Wang meets with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss a wide range of bilateral cooperation issues.

According to a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry, including, "a settlement in Ukraine, as well as security in the Asia-Pacific region", Wang last visited Russia in February, days before the one year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.


Many Western leaders have been closely watching for any signs of support from China including the possible provision of lethal military aid. Wang is expected to lay the groundwork for Putin's visit to Beijing for the Third Belt and Road Forum in October.

Putin is not known to have traveled abroad since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against him for an alleged scheme to deport Ukrainian children to Russia. China, like Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine is not a member of the ICC amongst visit to Russia follows his weekend meeting in Malta with the U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

The talks are described as "constructive", and could pave the way for meeting between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden later this year. Kristie Lu Stout CNN, Hong Kong.

FOSTER: Quick update on today's top story five Americans now expected to write in Qatar in a few hours after being released by Iran. This short video from Iranian state media reporting shows them leaving the airport in Tehran. In return the U.S. unfreezes $6 billion of Iranian funds that were held in South Korea and the U.S. sanctions. And Washington also released five Iranian prisoners, and two of them have already reportedly arrived in Qatar. We'll have more on that with "Connect the World" that's next.