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Fresh Round of Attacks in Yemen Launched by U.S. Led Coalition; U.N. Security Council Will Discuss U.S. Airstrikes on Monday; "Meet Escalation with Escalation", Declared By Houthis in Response to Most Recent Wave of US-Led Attacks in Yemen; Israel-Hamas War; New Israeli Government Demanded by Protestors; 2024 U.S. Elections; Biden Prevails First-Ever Formal Democratic Primary in South Carolina; California Braces for Heavy Rains and Flooding; Chile Wildfires Destroyed Over 1,000 Houses and Claimed Over 50 Lives; Police Detain Reporters at Moscow Protest; Russia's War on Ukraine; 28 People Dead Following Attack in a Town Under Russian Occupation in Moscow; Wives of Russian Soldiers organize protest in Moscow; "World's Coolest Dictator" Will Run for Office Again in El Salvador; In Northern Ireland, First Minister is a Nationalist Politician; Antarctica's Plastic Problem; Messi Mania in Hong Kong; Grammys, the Music Industry's Biggest Award Ceremony; Surprising Evening Promised by Grammy Awards Program Producer. Aired 4-5a ET

Aired February 04, 2024 - 04:00   ET




KIM BRUNHUBER, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: Welcome to all of you watching us here in the United States, Canada, and around the world. I'm Kim Brunhuber. Ahead on "CNN Newsroom".

The United States strikes again in the Middle East, responding to continued attacks from Iranian-backed militias in Yemen.

Thousands have protesters in Israel, again, calling for the government to work towards a ceasefire and bring the hostages still held in Gaza home.

Plus, President Biden wins South Carolina's primary in a landslide, but there's still some problematic concerns for the incumbent's campaign.

ANNOUNCER: Live from Atlanta, this is "CNN Newsroom with Kim Brunhuber."

BRUNHUBER: The United States has carried out more strikes in the Middle East against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. The U.S. said a short time ago that it destroyed an anti-ship missile that was prepared to launch. Earlier Saturday, American and British forces struck 36 targets in Yemen at 13 locations. F/A-18 jets and a pair of U.S. destroyers hit what the U.S. says were facilities involved in attacks on international shipping.

Now, strikes in Yemen come one day after U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. said those were retaliation for a drone strike that killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan earlier in the week.

CNN's Paula Hancocks joins us now from Abu Dhabi. So, Paula, what's been the reaction in the region?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kim, we've heard from Iran, for example, of course, these are Iranian-backed groups and Iranian militias that have been targeted over the weekend on both those occasions. Iran's foreign minister saying that what the U.S. is doing at this point is making it very difficult to be able to get some kind of peace deal to -- together. Also pointing out that the U.S. is showing an aggressive policy in the Middle East.

But we've heard from the U.S. side, though, as officials say that this is not an escalation. The overnight strikes, local time, that we saw against Houthi rebels with the United Kingdom and also with a number of other countries showing their support.

Now, they have said that it is necessary to keep the freedom of navigation in this particular area. And we heard from the U.K. defense minister saying that, it is not an escalation as we have already targeted many of these assets over recent weeks. It's the third time that the U.S. and the U.K. have carried out these joint attacks against Houthi rebels. And we have seen on previous occasions as well that it has not stopped the efforts by the Houthis to disrupt commercial shipping in the Red Sea.

In fact, what they did say, a Houthi senior official, was that we will meet escalation with escalation following those targeted attacks from the U.S. and the U.K. We also saw an anti-ship missile being taken out, we understand, by the United States, saying that it was an imminent danger and was ready to be launched.

So, at this point, we are hearing pushback, obviously, from the Houthis, from Iran as well. And we've also heard from Russia, the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson saying that an urgent United Nations Security Council meeting was necessary. A diplomatic source telling CNN that that is expected to come on Monday. Russia is saying that this is not helping matters in the region. But of course, the U.N. Security Council is very much split with Russia and China on one side and U.S. and its allies on the other side. So, we're not expecting any kind of resolution to come out from that.

But we are seeing from the U.S. side an insistence that this is not an escalation, at the same time, as making it clear that this is not the last strikes we are going to see. For example, what we saw Friday into Saturday overnight, local time, were striking targets in Iraq and Syria, the Iranian-backed militias, that they believe were responsible for that deadly drone attack which killed three U.S. servicemen at the end of January.

We have heard from Washington, from the Pentagon that is -- this is just the start of those attacks. They specified they would be multi- tiered of response to the deadly drone attack. So, clearly, we have not seen the end of the U.S. response yet. Kim.

BRUNHUBER: All right. Appreciate those updates. Paula Hancocks in Abu Dhabi, thank you so much.


Now, as Paula just mentioned, the U.N. Security Council is planning to meet Monday to discuss the U.S. airstrikes in the Middle East, and Russia says it requested the urgent meeting. The Russian foreign ministry criticized the strikes, calling them a, "Blatant act of U.S.- British aggression against sovereign states."

While the White House says U.S. President Joe Biden approved the strikes earlier this week, CNN's Priscilla Alvarez has more on the strikes and that decision.


PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: The U.S. and its allies announcing another round of strikes against Houthis in Yemen in an attempt to try to degrade and diminish their capabilities as the Houthis continue to target U.S. vessels and commercial vessels in the Red Sea in a move that the U.S. and its allies say could rock the global economy.

Now, this is the third round of strikes that this coalition has engaged in and two senior administration officials tell me that President Biden gave the green light for these strikes to take place on Monday, but of course it takes time and preparations to roll those strikes out.

Now, when they did happen, it happened when President Biden was at his campaign headquarters Saturday morning in a show of how the campaign trail and the ongoing situation in the Middle East are colliding this election year. Now, the president did not weigh in on the strikes, but U.S. Officials have consistently said that they will take these measures and attempt to deter the Houthis.

Now, of course, this is separate from the retaliatory measures that were taken by the U.S. on Friday. Those were in response to the deaths of three service members in Jordan and targeted about 85 targets in Iraq and Syria. But again, all of this happening as President Biden arrived here in Los Angeles for fundraising events and heads to Nevada tomorrow for another campaign rally and a show of how the president is hitting the campaign trail while he's also grappling with the ongoing situation in the Middle East and trying to avoid engaging in a wider regional war or escalating any conflict that is occurring there.

Priscilla Alvarez, traveling with the President, CNN.


BRUNHUBER: Calls for a new government are growing louder in Israel as more protesters take to the streets.


(END VIDEO CLIP) BRUNHUBER: They blocked the highway near Tel Aviv on Saturday using fire to write the word help on the pavement, as you can see there. Their message is they want the current government out and the hostages still held in Gaza back home.

Now, further north, protesters marched near one of the residents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling for his removal. Meanwhile, Hamas is digging in on its demands for any possible deal on hostages, which include ending Israel's military operations. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is headed to the region later today. It's his fifth trip to the Middle East since the October 7th Hamas attacks.

Elliott Gotkine is live in London. So, Elliott, take us through what's behind these various protests and their reaction to a proposed deal.

ELLIOTT GOTKINE, CNN JOURNALIST: Kim, essentially, there are two protests that were taking place last night. There's the ongoing protests have been happening for weeks now, which are demanding that the Israeli government do whatever it takes to bring the hostages home. And then in an adjacent street, there are these protests now against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, calling on it to step down so that there can be fresh elections.

And because of the geographical proximity of these protests and also because of their ultimate objectives in getting the hostages home, they tend to bleed into one another because many of those people protesting whose primary concern is getting the hostages home feel that Prime Minister Netanyahu is becoming an obstacle to doing a hostage deal.

They will point to leaked recordings of a conversation between Netanyahu and families representing hostages still held in the Gaza Strip for some 120 days now. They say that it must have come from the government because their phones were taken. And in that recording, Netanyahu was heard to be criticizing the Qataris who are the main mediators.

They will also point to Netanyahu's comments saying that Israel would not be releasing, in his words, thousands of terrorists in exchange for getting those hostages home. More than a hundred of them still held in captivity in the Gaza Strip. And also, to his national security minister, the right wing Itamar Ben-Gvir, who says that this week that a reckless deal with Hamas would lead to a dissolution of the government. Something, they say, Netanyahu doesn't want because ultimately that will lead to an investigation into how October the 7th happened on Netanyahu's watch. And as all the opinion polls suggest, Netanyahu, in an election, would quickly be ejected from office.

Now, at the moment, there is no actual hostage deal on the table. What there is, is a so-called framework, which Hamas and Israel have agreed to, which seems to suggest there would be phases to some kind of pause, about a six week pause in fighting. A number of hostages would be released in exchange for three times the number of Palestinian prisoners. The next phase would see soldiers released in exchange for more, a higher ratio of Palestinian prisoners. And then ultimately the bodies that Hamas is holding would also be released. [04:10:00]

But there is no deal on the table right now. Hamas insisting that not only does Israel need to pause fighting, it also needs to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. And as I say, Netanyahu saying that no deal will be done. That conflicts with Israel's objectives of destroying Hamas, preventing the Gaza Strip from threatening Israel's security. And of course, getting those hostages home.

So, at the moment, the two sides seem quite far apart, but there is obviously hope that we are inching towards a situation where they can meet somewhere in the middle. Kim.

BRUNHUBER: All right. We shall see Elliott Gotkine in London. Thank you so much.

I want to bring in Maha Yahya, Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, joining us live from Beirut. Thank you so much for being here with us. So, when we look at the U.S. strikes against the Houthis, the strikes against the Iranian proxies, are any of these actions enough, do you think, to actually deter these groups?

MAHA YAHYA, DIRECTOR, CARNEGIE MIDDLE EAST CENTER: Good morning and thank you for having me. Not really -- I mean, the strikes are undermining their capacities, and they're undermining them in a good way. but it's not sufficient. The danger in this situation is that as more and more strikes are conducted on both sides, whether it's Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, or as we have seen the various non-state groups across the region, and now the U.S. response to these strikes, the danger of an accidental escalation becomes much greater.

We're understanding -- as we are now understand that this strike against the U.S. troops last week was an accident. It was not meant to take out U.S. lives. But these accidents are going to occur more and more, unfortunately.

BRUNHUBER: But all of these attacks, they're tied to Israel's war against Hamas. Iran, as we heard, has said that these U.S. strikes make diplomacy harder. Of course, they would say that, but are they right here?

YAHYA: I don't think so. I mean, yes, absolutely -- I mean, the U.S. I think needs to double -- and the International Community or Western countries have to double down on their diplomatic efforts, conducting military strikes without a parallel diplomatic track just does not make sense. That diplomatic track has to begin with a ceasefire, a total ceasefire in Gaza.

You're -- the previous report was talking about a framework. From the Palestinian perspective, they're very concerned because there's nothing to stop Israel from continuing to wreak havoc on Gaza once it gets what it wants out of the deal.

So, we need to have a framework, not just for a total ceasefire in Gaza, but also for what will happen across the region. The Lebanon border is one area where serious diplomatic effort is underway to calm things down. We need similar efforts and different parts of the region as well.

BRUNHUBER: Yes, I'm wondering that -- I mean, if there is a peace deal or at least a ceasefire agreement -- I mean, does a lot of this regional tension fade relatively quickly or do these long-standing issues that you just talked about mean that that's unlikely?

YAHYA: No, we will see definitely a quick de-escalation of the fighting. The last time there was a ceasefire in Gaza, the fighting against -- again -- along the Lebanon border stopped, so did various attacks against U.S. and other troops. I mean, they just stopped. That's a precondition for bringing down tensions in the region.

Now, is that putting a -- you know, putting the groundwork, will that lay the groundwork for a more long-term and sustainable peace? No. I think there are lots more -- there's a lot more effort that needs to be put in that area for a medium to long-term sustainable peace.

However, in the short term, we need to stop the bloodshed. We're talking now around 27,000, 28,000 people already dead in Gaza, more than 70 to 80 percent of the place, at least northern Gaza, totally destroyed, hospitals, schools, cemeteries, public records, I mean, everything. And a humanitarian crisis, famine in Gaza.

BRUNHUBER: Yes, to that end --

YAHYA: So --

BRUNHUBER: If I can, to that end, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is traveling to the region again, trying to get more humanitarian aid, this is his fifth trip since the attacks began. Do you expect him to have any more success this time?

YAHYA: You cannot be pushing for humanitarian aid and defunding UNRWA at the same time. The bulk of humanitarian support -- I mean, Palestinians rely on UNRWA for, not only humanitarian support now in a time of crisis, but pretty much for every side of their life.


And defunding UNRWA, it's not just about Palestinians in Gaza. This is going to have an impact on Palestinians in Lebanon, in Jordan and in Syria. And on the broader, again, security and stability of the region.

So, we can push for humanitarian aid and as much as we want, but that will not make -- I mean -- it's the -- it will not be provided in the way it needs to be provided to the Palestinians and Gaza. UNRWA is the one organization that can get this aid and get it fast. It has the infrastructure. It's been working with Palestinians for decades, so it just does not make sense to me.

And the alleged -- I mean, the alleged employee -- the employees that have allegedly took part in the horrific October 7th attack have already been laid off even without seeing what the evidence was. I think Antony Blinken himself has not seen what the evidence is against these. So, I think we need to, kind of, maybe put things in a different perspective in terms of what does bringing increasing humanitarian aid to Gaza mean and how do we really get it to the Gazans?

BRUNHUBER: Right. We'll have to leave it there, but really appreciate your analysis. Maha Yahya in Beirut. Thank you so much.

YAHYA: Thank you. Pleasure.

BRUNHUBER: Here in the U.S., President Biden has clinched a landslide victory in South Carolina, the first official Democratic primary leading to the election in November. CNN's projecting he's crashed his two opponents, Minnesota lawmaker Dean Phillips and author Marianne Williamson with more than 96 percent of the vote, and he will pick up all of the state's 55 delegates.

As CNN's Eva McKend reports, the state's black voters once again played a crucial role in Biden's win on Saturday.


EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Though the results of this primary contest is not surprising, this state's still hugely consequential for President Biden. It was South Carolina and the black voters in this state that brought his campaign back to life in 2020. That is why he pushed so hard for this state to hold the first in the nation primary.

And when you speak to black voters across the state, the reviews are mixed. Some are really excited about Biden. They still give him a lot of credibility for being Barack Obama's vice president. Others have economic anxieties and feel as though routinely voting for Democrats, they have very little to show for that. And then you have pragmatic voters, people who are so concerned about Former President Donald Trump returning to the White House. They think voting for Biden is a safe bet.

Listen, Democrats here, they say that they are excited about the black turnout, that they were able to get to rural parts of the state like never before via bus tours and other mechanisms. And they say the enthusiasm here from black voters will be mirrored across the country.

Eva McKend, CNN, Columbia, South Carolina.


BRUNHUBER: Meanwhile, experts say this year's election is likely to be a rematch between President Biden and Former President Donald Trump, with yet another referendum on Trump than on Biden and his policies. Here's CNN's Senior Political Analyst Ron Brownstein.


RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST AND SENIOR EDITOR, THE ATLANTIC: The mobilization for both -- for the Democratic side is really much more Trump than Biden. I mean, Trump's voters are enthusiastic about Trump. Some Biden voters are enthusiastic about Biden, but in polling, including the CNN poll these past few days, most of them say they are voting to prevent Trump from imposing his vision of what America should be.

And Biden has struggled with young voters from the outset, from the 2020 primaries. They were never enthusiastic about him. They are -- they have been hit hard in this economy, but Trump is anathema to everything that most of them profess to believe on issues like inclusion of LGBTQ people, abortion rights, democracy, climate.

And so, Biden does need to do better among young people than he is doing today. The Gaza war, Israel war with Hamas is a particular problem with that cohort, younger voters. But he has a lot of ammunition to use ultimately in that many of these voters, particularly, younger women voters are deeply hostile to Trump and what he stands for.

I will say it is likely that if Biden wins a second term, it is more likely to be because he improves among older voters where he is running relatively better than he did in 2020 than among younger voters where he faces the risk of something more like 2016, not necessarily a lot of them voting for Trump, but a significant percentage peeling off, splintering off to vote for various third- party options.



BRUNHUBER: All right. When we come back, millions in California brace for heavy rains and severe flooding. How communities are preparing to weather the storm.

Plus, deadly wildfires are burning across Chile. Officials are sounding the alarm. Telling residents to flee to safety. Stay with us.


BRUNHUBER: Millions of people in California can expect heavy rain, severe storms and life-threatening flooding as another atmospheric river moves in as we speak. Millions of sandbags are available and rescue equipment has been prepped. A number of places in Southern California have issued evacuation orders because of the flooding risk, and also the risk of mudslides, landslides and debris flows. Several school districts in Santa Barbara County have already canceled classes for Monday. Some residents say, they're bracing for the worst and hoping for the best.


DAVID GREEN, RESIDENT: Everything that I've read, you know, has us getting, you know, five, six, seven inches, which is essentially six months' worth of rain in about three days. So, it should be a doozy.

GEOVANI OLIVARES, RESIDENT: Hopefully it will be a fast moving one so it won't, you know, saturate us too much, but hopefully not. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BRUNHUBER: CNN Meteorologist Elisa Raffa has the latest.



ELISA RAFFA, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Dangerous and life-threatening, those are the words that the National Weather Service is using to describe the flood event that will unfold Sunday and Monday in California. We now have a level 4 out of 4 high-risk of excessive flooding for parts of Southern California. And that's incredibly rare, not just for California, but really for the U.S. when you get that high risk.

Now, that's issued fewer than four percent of the days that we have that flooding risk issued, but it's responsible for 80 percent of our flood damage across the U.S. and nearly 40 percent of flood related deaths. So, you really can't take these words lightly. Dangerous, life-threatening are really the words to describe what can unfold the next couple of days.

There's the flood watch that's in effect from Sacramento down to San Diego for widespread three to six inches of rain for more than 40 million people. And you can see why there's that moisture plume that just sits over California over the next couple of days. That's part of the problem, is it's going to sit and it's going to stall, and it's also fueled by really warm ocean temperatures. Those ocean temperatures are one to three degrees above average right now and that can really pump that sponge even more.

So, dangerous and life-threatening flash flooding is really on the table. And we're talking about flooding at rivers and urban in the streets as well. Mud and debris flow could cause some landslides as well as, especially over previous burn scars, down trees and power lines can also be an issue, especially where you're saturated from all the rain that you have got the last couple of days.

And then adding in salt to injury, this storm is not just about water. It's also about wind. We have high wind warnings in effect where we can see gusts 65, 70, even 80 miles per hour possible. We could see some wider gusts in that lighter tanning -- tan shade there, 45 mile per hour gusts. But something to really watch out for, especially as that ground is so saturated, you can see some of those colors pop of some of those wind gusts over 40 to 50 miles per hour.

Here's that storm, kind of, hitting land by Sunday morning. The heaviest rain goes north first, then slings into Southern California as we go into the afternoon and evening hours. L. A. kind of getting the brunt as the Grammys will be going on. We'll find some of that heavy rain continuing to pile in Monday and Tuesday as that fire hose just continues to sit there.

So, again, all the yellow widespread three to six inches of rain, some of the oranges and red showing where we could see some of those locally higher amounts. And then don't forget where it's colder in the mountains, we're looking at several feet of snow.


BRUNHUBER: Chile's health ministry has issued a special alert for the Valparaiso area as blazes continue to burn. More than 50 people have died and more than a thousand homes damaged by wildfires in the country. You can see beachgoers stare in wonder at ominous skies blackened by the heavy smoke.

One man is being detained by police in connection to a fire. They say, he started while welding in central Chile. No one was hurt in that incident. But just listen to this heart stopping video. It's a driver going through the flames while trying to keep his passengers calm. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Move along, move along. Close all the windows. Close all the windows. Now we're going, we're going, we're going. Stay calm, stay calm, stay calm. Inside here nothing is going to happen to you.


BRUNHUBER: Wow. Officials tell CNN the death toll is likely to rise. Nearly 400 residents are reported missing in one coastal city. More than 90 fires are burning in different parts of Chile, affecting more than 100,000 acres.

All right. Just ahead, Russian police take journalists into custody. We'll have the details after the break. Please stay with us.



BRUNHUBER: 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".

More now on the U.S. and U.K. strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen. U.S. officials say they hit 36 targets at 13 locations in the country. They say those targets were facilities used in attacks on international shipping.

CNN Pentagon Correspondent Oren Liebermann has more on the attacks in Yemen.


OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: For the third time in recent weeks, the U.S. and the U.K. carried out joint strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen. This time, the coalition airstrikes targeted 36 targets across 13 different locations in Yemen. As the U.S. and the U.K. backed by a coalition of Australia, Bahrain, Denmark, Canada, the Netherlands, and New Zealand try to disrupt the ability of the Iran- backed rebel group to target international shipping lanes in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

It was U.S. F/A-18 fighter jets taking off from the deck of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as two destroyers. The USS Gravely and the USS Kearny launching Tomahawk Land Attack cruise missiles that took part in these strikes. The U.S. went after underground storage facilities, command and control, missile systems, drone storage and operation sites, radars, and helicopters of the Houthis.

So, in that target list, you see the effort of the U.S. to try to disrupt the abilities of the Houthis to continue to attack commercial vessels as well as U.S. warships. In the statement from the joint coalition, they also specifically mention a January 27th attack when the Houthis successfully hit the Marshall Islands flagged oil tanker, the Marlin Luanda. This is worth pointing out because the ship had to issue a distress call because it was burning, forcing a U.S. destroyer to respond, as well as others.

And that's the grave nature of what the U.S. sees here, and what the U.S., the U.K., and others see it as so important to respond to the Houthis and let them know that if the attacks continue on international shipping, so too will the U.S. And the U.K. strikes on Houthi targets. Again, that attempt to throw off or disrupt their ability to continue these attacks. Despite these latest U.S. strikes, the Houthis promise the attacks will continue.

Oren Liebermann, CNN, in the Pentagon.


BRUNHUBER: Iran's foreign minister reportedly told the U.N. that these strikes make it difficult to reach a political solution in the region. According to a state-run media, he's slamming the U.S. for trying to, "Resolve issues by force." ?Russia also criticized the U.S. and requested an urgent U.N. Security Council meeting, which, according to sources, is happening on Monday.


Now, the Russian ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement saying, "The United States is purposefully trying to plunge the largest countries in the region into conflict."

Russian officials say, at least 28 people were killed after a strike on a building near the front lines in eastern Ukraine. Moscow claims, Ukraine was targeting a bakery when it hit a two-story building in Lysychans'k, a town occupied by Russian forces. CNN can't verify these claims and Kyiv hasn't made a comment on the incident. Lysychans'k was captured by Russian forces in July 2022. It was one of Moscow's last conquests before Ukraine's successful summer counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region.

Meanwhile, a Russian official says a massive fire broke out at an oil refinery in Volgograd after Ukrainian forces launched a drone attack on the city. Russia's military says, all drones were intercepted and the fire was contained without casualties.

We're hearing reports that journalists were detained after Russian police cracked down on a protest at Vladimir Putin's election headquarters. One Russian source said authorities pulled men from the crowd of protestors in Moscow. Seven journalists were taken to one police station, at least 27 other people were driven to another station, but only one of them was an actual protestor. The source says, one state media employee has been released.

Now, the protest was part of a growing movement of women demanding that their husbands and sons be brought home from the war.

CNN Contributor Jill Dougherty spoke about the challenge these demonstrations pose for Vladimir Putin. Here she is.


JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, FORMER CNN MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF, AND ADJUNCT PROFESSOR, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: You know, I think a lot of it is the Kremlin's dilemma. What do they do with these women? Because, you know, they're really not political per se. They're grassroots. They're not really very well organized.

And -- you know, face it, if you had pictures of women being hauled off and hit with batons, it would be a very bad look for the Kremlin. So -- and these are the mothers and the girlfriends, spouses of people who are serving in this, as Putin calls it, the special military operation. So, they're doing what they're supposed to be doing. And the message is not, we -- you know, we hate the war. They don't even call it a war. So, the -- what they want is they want their husbands and sons, et cetera, back.

And so, how do you -- how does the Kremlin really, you know, fight against that? It's virtually impossible in, kind of, a P.R. way and in a society way in Russia.


BRUNHUBER: A politician who dubbed himself the world's coolest dictator is expected to cruise to re-election in El Salvador today. Polls in the country's presidential election are set to open in a few hours. Nayib Bukele won praise for his crackdown on the country's notorious gang violence, but critics say the price for that is the loss of many freedoms and abuse of human rights.

Stefano Pozzebon reports.


STEFANO POZZEBON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Jacqueline Anaya (ph) breaks down in tears when she talks about her niece, Jocelyn, who was just 20 years old when she was murdered in the streets of San Salvador.

JACQUELINE ZELAYA (PH) NIECE MURDERED IN SAN SALVADOR (through translator): It was hard to take her to the hospital like that. Just like I saw he when she was young, I said her goodbye.

POZZEBON (voice-over): The pain still fresh seven years after she was killed. Back then, El Salvador was close to being a failed state with the highest murder rate in the world. It was gangs like the infamous Mara Salvatrucha or MS 13 who set the rules. To these days, Anaya (ph) doesn't know who killed Jocelyne. She is sure, however, on who turned the tide on crime.

Nayib Bukele became president in 2019 and quickly tied his name to a security crackdown that sent tens of thousands to jail and effectively taking the gangs off the street. A state of emergency was declared in 2022, granting the government exceptional powers to deploy the army and allowing the police to detain any citizen without charge for up to 15 days. Besides curtailing civil rights, such as due process.

The government claims El Salvador is finally safe, and Bukele is cruising to re-election this Sunday. But his critics, such as Human Rights Watch, accuse him of mass indiscriminate detentions and even torture.

POZZEBON: At CNN, we spoke with a woman who was arrested on November 11, 2022. The police claimed that she was part of a gang. She denies the crime and says that she never saw a judge. Six months later, she was found not guilty and was released. But she says that she was put through inhumane conditions inside the prison. We are hiding her identity for security reasons.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Not a day went by that I didn't find a bug or a fly in my food. And we had to eat that food because there was nothing else.

POZZEBON (voice-over): The government that meets their thousands of innocent people may have been imprisoned by mistake, but doubles down on the crackdown and points to the deaths of policemen in the line of service as a reason to carry on.

Neither Human Rights Watch nor other shameless NGOs will say anything about the lives of our heroes or their families who are now hopeless without them.

Leaving the door wide open on the tight line between security and individual freedoms.

Stefano Pozzebon, CNN, Bogota.


BRUNHUBER: For the first time ever in Northern Ireland, a nationalist politician is the first minister. Michelle O'Neill of Sinn Fein was sworn in on Saturday, marking a seismic shift in Northern Ireland's history. Her party was once considered the political arm of the Irish Republican Army during the violent period called the Troubles.

Now, she'll share power with the Unionist Deputy First Minister. The two are pledging to work together and serve all of Northern Ireland regardless of party affiliation, religion, or background.

All right. Coming up, it appears that plastic waste is everywhere, even in places where humans don't normally live, like Antarctica. We'll show you what scientists are finding in those once pristine waters. That's coming up. Stay with that.


BRUNHUBER: Well, no matter how pristine the landscape, it seems no place on Earth is safe from pollution. Scientists are looking for and finding evidence of microplastics in one of the world's most remote places, Antarctica.

Isabel Rosales reports.


ISABEL ROSALES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In Antarctica, a continent with almost no humans, Paulo Tigreros hunts for manmade pollutants. Namely, microplastics, which have infiltrated what should be one of the best-preserved ecosystems on Earth.


PAULO TIGREROS, COLOMBIAN MARINE BIOLOGIST AND RESEARCHER, JORGE TADEO LOZANO UNIVERSITY (through translator): We are polluting the waters of Antarctica, a continent that at this moment we call the heart of the planet. We are contaminating it with microplastics.

ROSALES (voice-over): The marine biologist uses a net to sieve water, looking for particles not even five millimeters in size. They form when plastic breaks down, including synthetic car tires, textiles, or other consumer products, things we would hope not to see in our oceans or food, but it might be inevitable.

The U.N. says, we produce more than 430 million tons of plastic worldwide every year, with an estimated 200 million tons in our oceans right now. New Zealand researchers first found microplastics in the Antarctic snow in 2019. Now, this team is checking for more.

TIGREROS (through translator): Microplastics themselves are a pollutant. It is a material that is not natural. The sea does not produce plastic. Plastic is produced by human beings. And if we find microplastics here, it is because somehow, in whatever form, it arrived here.

ROSALES (voice-over): Researchers say, these tiny pollutants could be traveling via ocean currents, the atmosphere, even animal feces. Krill can easily mistake microplastics for their typical meal of phytoplankton. Higher up on the food chain, penguins and even whales eating the krill and just the same particles. Tigreros says, in whales, the microplastics likely enter the intestines before affecting their lungs and reproductive systems, even their ability to swim.

Only adding issues on the continent as it and the rest of the world grapple with the effects of climate change. TIGREROS (through translator): The microplastics we have today may not be from our generation but from generations ago. Maybe we are leaving another problem for the generations to come.

ROSALES: Tigreros and his team who work aboard a Colombian Navy vessel aren't the only ones hunting down these microscopic dangers. Last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency joined forces with Argentina, launching an investigation into Antarctica's microplastics. The agency says, these pollutants could damage ice and trap heat, causing glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise. Now, these scientific expeditions will provide a thermometer reading of just how dire the world's microplastic problem really is.

Isabel Rosales, CNN.


BRUNHUBER: All right. Still ahead, the greatest football player of his generation doesn't even have to step on the pitch to make his fans go wild. We'll show you why Hong Kong is in the grip of messy mania, that's coming up. Stay with us.



BRUNHUBER: Soccer fans in Hong Kong are going crazy right now over the presence of World Cup Champion Lionel Messi. The superstar and his Inter Miami squad traveled to East Asia for a friendly against a group of local standouts. Inter Miami is up three-one right now as the match winds down. And Messi, well, he hasn't even played.

With us, Kristie Lu Stout reports. It's still a day that Hong Kong football fans will remember for years.


KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Messi Mania is sweeping Hong Kong with tens of thousands of fans clamoring to see the Argentine football legend and superstar here at Hong Kong Stadium to play with his team, Inter Miami, and a preseason friendly against Hong Kong.

This is Inter Miami's first ever international tour. It's co-owner, David Beckham is also here adding some additional star power to the proceedings. This is a sold-out match. Tickets sold out within one hour of going on sale just over a week ago. There's 40,000 seats in the stadium, all sold to the fans. And we spoke to one lucky fan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm happy to see them, obviously. I think it's great for Hong Kong and all the fans. All the Argentina supporters and all the new Inter Miami supporters. Yes, it's great. He hasn't been here since 2014 and he was -- he came as a runner-up, World Cup runner-up, and now he's coming as a world champion. So, that's -- it's perfect.

STOUT: We also spoke to a Hong Kong footballer who was selected to be on the pitch with Lionel Messi. He called it a dream encounter. This is what he told us, Jordan Lam saying, I was so surprised to get into the final squad. I think it's a dream come true. Playing with the GOAT, Messi, is something that I never imagined in my life.

Now, Hong Kong authorities are hoping that this event could help turn Hong Kong into a hub for major events. They call this something like the mega event economy, hoping that big events like the Hong Kong Sevens, like our Basel, like Messi in Hong Kong would be able to drive in more tourism, as well as bring in some more upside to the Hong Kong economy. But when you talk to the fans here, and they are totally excited right now, this is not about the economy. This is all about the beautiful game and a chance to see their hero here in Hong Kong.

Kristie Lu Stout, CNN, outside Hong, Kong Stadium.


BRUNHUBER: All right. And sticking with soccer, there are reports that French superstar, Kylian Mbappe, will join Real Madrid once his contract with Paris Saint-Germain ends this year. The sports network, ESPN, says Mbappe has not informed either team of his decision, but he's expected to make the announcement next week.

All right. We're just hours away from the music industry's biggest award ceremony. The Grammys and putting that show on air is often an act of faith that everything will go according to plan, or at least will be memorable and exciting. The Grammys executive producer spoke with CNN and told us to expect the unexpected.


ELIZABETH WAGMEISTER, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: (voice-over): Music's biggest night is one big concert. Fun for us.

BEN WINSTON, GRAMMY AWARDS EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: You never want -- know what's going to happen on a live show.

WAGMEISTER (voice-over): Nail-biting for executive producer Ben Winston.

WINSTON: I always say that doing these shows is like running off a cliff and just, like, hoping that the parachute opens.

WAGMEISTER (voice-over): Last year, Beyonce missed her first award, stuck in L.A. traffic. As was opening act Bad Bunny, nearly throwing off the whole show.


WINSTON: And then it happened that you can see as the show starts last year, he's actually pulling his jacket as he begins because he literally -- we went -- somebody drove down the traffic in a golf cart, grabbed Bad Bunny out of his -- and he drove him, and he got there with seconds to go.

WAGMEISTER (voice-over): This year, expect Billy Joel, SZA and Joni Mitchell.

WINSTON: First time she's ever been on the Grammys, which is crazy for me, in a 60-year career.

WAGMEISTER (voice-over): In a Grammy first, you too will perform and present an award from the Sphere in Las Vegas. And Taylor Swift could set a Grammy record, but will we see her on stage?

WINSTON: The Taylor one is tricky because she's actually got a show in Japan a few days later, only three artists in the world have won album of the year three times, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, and Taylor. And so, if she was to win this year's album, that's the first time anyone's ever won four. And she'll be a big part of it just as she always is dancing in the audience, enjoying herself and having a great time, I think.

WAGMEISTER (voice-over): A moving 16-minute in memoriam is planned, with four performers honoring legends like Tina Turner, Tony Bennett, and Sinead, O'Connor. Expect unplanned surprises too. Like that awkward Ben and Jen shot that went viral last year.

WINSTON: I actually think it was really unfair on them because I watched them -- because, obviously, I've got all 20 cameras where I sit. I can see it. They were up dancing, having the time of their lives. It was just unlucky for them that that one moment.

WAGMEISTER (voice-over): And Winston says, prepare to be shocked by the final presenter of the night.

WINSTON: They are an absolute global icon. I think jaws will drop to the floor. People will be on their feet. The only condition they gave is that it was a surprise.

WAGMEISTER: Elizabeth Wagmeister, CNN, Los Angeles.


BRUNHUBER: All right. That wraps this hour of "CNN Newsroom". I'm Kim Brunhuber. I'll be back with more news in just a moment. Please do stay with us.