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Fourteen Marines Killed by Roadside Bomb in Iraq; Repair Job on Shuttle Underbelly Successful; Moroccan Medics Offer Relief to Niger

Aired August 03, 2005 - 12:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: Live from CNN Center, this is YOUR WORLD TODAY.

STEVE ROBINSON, DISCOVERY ASTRONAUT: That's why I have it out here.



ZAIN VERJEE, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: A NASA astronaut moonlights as a handyman, making a quick repair to Shuttle Discovery.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was terrible. Horrible. All people -- all people were screaming. There were fire, there was smoke.


JIM CLANCY, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Alive to tell the tale. A happy ending to a hard landing for hundreds of flyers.

It is noon in Toronto, and at the Pentagon. I'm Jim Clancy.

VERJEE: And I'm Zain Verjee. A warm welcome to our viewers throughout the globe.


We begin in Iraq, where insurgent forces have taken a deadly toll on U.S. forces.

CLANCY: This time it was a roadside bomb. The toll: 14 Marines Wednesday, northwest of Baghdad. The blast struck near a site of a firefight just two days ago. That firefight left six Marines dead.

Attacks around the country have killed 43 U.S. troops in the past 10 days alone, and more than 1,800 now since the war began. The latest attacks came in Haditha, one of a string of Sunni cities in the volatile Anbar province where insurgent fighters have put up fierce resistance.

Now, there's a lot of ground to cover here. We're hoping to talk with Baghdad. They're having technical problems in the way of some incoming.

Also, we have Barbara Starr at the Pentagon -- Zain.

VERJEE: Barbara, what details did the Pentagon -- was the Pentagon forthcoming with at a briefing earlier today about the Haditha attacks?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Zain, what they are saying here is very little because they say that these attacks are so recent they don't have a lot of information.

Now, the 14 that were killed earlier today in Haditha were apparently members of the same Ohio Marine Corps Reserve unit as the six Marines killed on Monday. The ones today were killed by a roadside bomb, an IED.

Here at the Pentagon, they are noting that these roadside bombs are becoming much more lethal, although there aren't as many of them. They're telling us that some of the roadside bombs they're seeing now are structured to have a so-called penetrating capability. In other words, an ability to more readily penetrate and go through the armored vehicles that the U.S. has been using to try and defend itself against these roadside bombs.

The six Marines killed on Monday in Haditha were not in their vehicle. They were on a foot patrol. They were Marine Corps Snipers, apparently killed by small arms fire. Not clear how those six Marines got overrun so quickly by enemy forces -- Zain.

VERJEE: And the sixth Marine in that attack's body was found a ways away from the others, wasn't it?

STARR: That is correct. That is a matter of very intensive investigation at this hour by forces in Iraq and the Pentagon here.

The sixth Marine was found about three miles away from the other five, those snipers that were killed in that initial small arms attack. He was found about three miles away.

All of the Marines, by the way, were found, we are told, stripped of their weapons, their radios, and their communications gear. But in the last several minutes there has been another disturbing development.

An insurgent Web site has posted a photograph of a man who is dead, who is very terribly injured, who appears to be wearing Marine Corps-style military uniform trousers. We can't show you the picture. It's explicit and graphic, not suitable for television.

But it is possible, it is possible, not verified, it could be that sixth Marine who was found three miles away from his other dead, killed colleagues. No one is able to verify it at this point, but that is a picture that is now on an insurgent Web site and has been seen -- Zain.

VERJEE: Is there any evidence, Barbara, to suggest that Iraqi security forces could have sold out U.S. troops? What's the Pentagon saying?

STARR: Well, look, that's an issue that they constantly look into, of course, because there have been reports that Iraqi security forces have been penetrated, if you will, by insurgents, insurgents joining the Iraqi security forces, going in, and then conducting activities from within Iraqi security forces. That's been an ongoing issue. It has decreased in recent months.

What nobody knows at this point is if that played any role in these Haditha attacks. It is something they are looking into, we are told.

VERJEE: And how ready are Iraqi security forces themselves to take over any part of Iraq?

STARR: It varies, as you just pointed out, from various -- in various regions of Iraq. Generally, it has been more quiet in the south. In Baghdad, in the western provinces, the insurgency, as we see, is really still going full tilt.

Even today, though, Iraqi officials and U.S. officials sat down for their first formal meeting of a joint working group to discuss this very question: how soon and where in Iraq could the security situation be turned over to Iraqi forces and allow U.S. troops to withdraw? In the west, however, there's no indication that's about to happen. U.S. troops still very much on the offensive, conducting this campaign through the Euphrates River valley against these insurgent strongholds -- Zain.

VERJEE: Reporting from the Pentagon, CNN's Barbara Starr.

Thank you, Barbara.

We're going to bring you more on this story in our broadcast -- Jim.

CLANCY: Well, in neighboring Iran, a new president officially on the job. It was in a Tehran ceremony that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was installed after a pronouncement from Iran's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In his inaugural address, Mr. Ahmadinejad made a plea for worldwide disarmament of weapons of mass destruction. This on the very same day that an Iranian official reiterated his country's plans to resume nuclear activities at its Isfahan (ph) plant. That official called an IAEA request for a delay unacceptable.

VERJEE: A critical repair job on the underbelly of the Space Shuttle Discovery is now complete, and it was easier than astronaut Stephen Robinson might have expected.

Let's turn to CNN's Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien, who joins us now.

Miles, he made it look easy.

Well, I understand we actually are not able to connect with Miles. We'll try and do that also later in the broadcast.

Actually, we'll do it now.

Miles, he made it look easy, right?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SPACE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Zain. Zain, I was busy listening to NASA, and I guess I was making things look easy here too.

But yes, it was really interesting, because when you consider all that was said about this space walk, unprecedented, high stakes, risky, on and on it went, in the final analysis it took about an hour and six minutes from mission go-ahead to the final -- well, the final frontier of the space shuttle's belly, at which time astronaut Steve Robinson removed a couple of protrusions, a couple of gap fillers that were sticking out. And there it was.

Take a look at it. It was, in a way, kind of anticlimactic. I think even I could do this.

But the key is -- the key is getting to that point, of course, which is what the preparation was all about here for NASA, as it kind of adopted an Apollo 13 mentality in this case because they had some serious concerns that those gap fillers, which are there lodged between those tiles, would, in effect, disturb the flow of hot gases over the shuttle as it reentered the atmosphere and create hotspots, sort of a blow-torch effect on certain spots of the tiles. But Steve Robinson was able to get over there and pull those two gap fillers out, leaving the shuttle's bottom smooth as it needs to be in order for a safe entry.

But I was just listening to the briefing. You know, they still have not cleared the shuttle for a return.

There is a problem with a little piece of a blanket very near the cockpit window that Eileen Collins uses, the commander's window. And the concern is not so much for thermal heating, but the possibility that this piece of blanket would fall off and damage some portion of the space shuttle upstream, or downstream, whichever way you want to look at it.

So, as a result, the possibility still exists for yet another space walk, a repair space walk. So the drama on this mission does continue.

Let me just show you some animation to explain what we're talking about with those sticking-out gap fillers. As the plasma passes over the shuttle, if it is not completely smooth it causes that kind of a disturbance. And as you can see there, it kind of redirects the heat and focuses it in spots on the shuttle, takes away the insulation of the so-called boundary layer of molecules, and could, you know, cause a tile to fail and could ultimately lead to damage to the shuttle.

No one was saying whether it would cause a repeat of Columbia two-and-a-half years ago, which as you'll recall disintegrated when the heat shield was compromised, killing the crew of seven. But nevertheless, NASA is not taking any chances this go-round -- Zain.

VERJEE: Miles, I've tried on one of those gloves that astronauts wear, and what I found was that it's incredibly difficult even just to move your fingers around. So with an operation such as we saw today, give us a sense of some of the training involved, just how difficult it was.

O'BRIEN: Well, that's one of the key things here. First of all, it is very bulky working in them. And not only when -- when you try on the gloves on the ground -- I've tried them on, too -- they're not inflated, which makes it even worse. It's kind of like constantly having to squeeze on a tennis ball just to close your fingers.

Some spacewalkers have told me after a long space walk they get back in the shuttle, they pull off their gloves, and their hands are bloody from just the constant squeezing. So that's -- that's one thing.

But then consider the other thing, that putting on that suit increases your body volume by about 30 percent. And so everything you do, where your forehead is, where everything is, is about 30 percent greater. So you really have to be aware of where that helmet is, for example.

That was their biggest concern, that as Steve Robinson got close to the shuttle, if he went to kind of look in and see what was going on, his helmet might clock the shuttle and cause more harm than good. And that would have been a bad day. But fortunately, they're well trained and they understand all those implications -- Zain.

VERJEE: Miles O'Brien. Thanks a lot, Miles -- Jim.

CLANCY: Well, if you and all of your friends saw a miracle right before your eyes, it would be all the talk at the office, your school, even around your home, wouldn't it? Of course it would. And that's why people this day are talking so much about the landing and the fire aboard a jetliner, 320 people on board. All of them survived with only seconds to spare.

The crew is getting the credit. It went down -- it landed in Toronto. It was an Air France flight. Lightning may have been involved. It's getting at least some of the preliminary blame, but the investigation still has a long way to go.

Jeanne Meserve has more on a remarkable story.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've got an aircraft slide off the end of the runway. You will not be landing on Runway 24. Approach clearance is canceled.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Planes were diverted from Toronto's Pearson International Airport Tuesday after Air France Flight 358 attempted to land in stormy weather and ran out of concrete. The Airbus A-340 overshot the runway, ended up in a ravine, and burst into flames.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We had come to a complete stop, so it's not like you -- you think anything else is about to happen. I mean, even though we had a hell of a roller coaster going down the ravine. But as soon as there was some smoke and fire outside -- and I can't tell how the other people reacted because I was at the very, very end of the plane, the absolute last seat of the plane. And so, you know, all I could think of was, get off.

MESERVE: To witnesses, indeed to all the world, it looked like a catastrophe. But miraculously, all 309 people on board the plane got out safely.

STEVE SHAW, GREATER TORONTO AIRPORT AUTHORITY: The aircraft was evacuated very rapidly. The emergency services responded very quickly. And at this stage, we're very satisfied, of course, that there are no fatalities.

MESERVE: Passengers escaped with their lives and had chilling stories of survival.

AHMED ALATOWA, AIR FRANCE PASSENGER: When we come to land at the airport, so everybody clapped to the captain. That -- they think everybody is OK. But when -- after that, we feel bump, bump, bump, bump, bump.

Then the fires come beside me, the window we see the fire. And the wings is gone. The tire is gone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The stewardess in the back seat says, "Fire, fire, fire" and "move, move, move, move. And then they put the toboggans down and we all slid out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You don't think you're jumping. When I got to the bottom of the chute and looked around and saw the flames, I only thought of one thing, is to just get out of there as fast as possible.

MESERVE: After hours of uncertainty, family members were reunited with loved ones at the airport, overcome with relief that this time the worse did not happen.

MARK JOHNSTON, WITNESS: When you see smoke like that, you know that that's not a good thing. Oh, my god, that's, you know, bad. People are going to be dying on this.

MESERVE: Jeanne Meserve, CNN, Toronto.


VERJEE: Now, there's a story for YOUR WORLD TODAY.

CLANCY: All right. Some people are calling this man the mastermind behind the July 7 transit bombings in London. British officials hoping to get some answers soon about his role in the attacks. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CLANCY: Welcome back. You're watching an hour of world news here on CNN International.

Zambia reports it is going to send suspected al Qaeda operative Haroon Rashid Aswat back to Britain. Zambia's president signed deportation papers Wednesday for Aswat, who was wanted for questioning about his alleged role in the July 7 London transit bombings.

CNN's Walter Rodgers joins us now with a bit more on that.

Walter, what do British police think he can tell them?

WALTER RODGERS, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's a very good question, and this is a very interesting story, Jim, because he has no charges against him in the United Kingdom. There's no evidence at all to this point that he was in any way related to the July 7 bombings of mass transport systems here in the United Kingdom. But he is -- that is to say, Aswat is coming back here.

He is being deported by the president of Zambia, where he's sitting in a jail there. And it does appear as if the Zambians want to get rid of him, because while the British may want to question him, the Zambians are also under some pressure from the United States, which has an arrest warrant for this man. And there have been some reports that Aswat's family wants him to be deported to the United Kingdom to prevent him from being sent to the United States.

Why do the Americans want Aswat? Well, simply because they believe he can give them information about the earlier attempt in 1999 to establish a terrorist training camp in Bly, Oregon.

So consequently, if you were Aswat's parents, you'd want him back in the United Kingdom. He is a British subject. He was born here. He would be more entitled to legal rights here than in the United States. And his parents feel that he might be sent to Guantanamo Bay.

Thus, his parents want him back here. The Zambians want rid of him. And the British would like to talk to him about other things, perhaps not just the July 7 incidents -- Jim.

CLANCY: There was a period in time when the United States requested Britain to hand over Aswat. They declined.

RODGERS: That's true. And again, Guantanamo is the issue.

But again, Aswat remains in Zambia at the time -- at this time. The Zambian president says he's going to send him to Britain, deport him to Britain.

This are -- again, this is -- this is not extradition, however, because there are no legal charges against Aswat here. So again, he would be coming back here, perhaps for his own -- for his own protection. Now, one of the things which is of interest to the British, of course, is that Aswat was indeed an associate of Abu Hamza. And Abu Hamza is a radical Muslim cleric now sitting in a British jail.

He is accused of conspiring to incite murder against Jews in the United Kingdom and a number of other terror-related charges. And there have been photographs of Aswat with Abu Hamza.

So the British could certainly want to talk to him in the context of Abu Hamza, and perhaps help build their case against this man, who, as I say, is sitting in a jail here in the United Kingdom. And therefore, Aswat could help make the case against Abu Hamza. And if he did, he might be able to cut some sort of deal by which he'd never go to the United States, where there is an arrest warrant for him.

So his return to Britain is multifold in terms of reasons, but basically, the Brits just want to talk to him at this point. He is a British subject -- Jim.

CLANCY: All right. We have to thank you for that. Walter Rodgers, reporting to us there from London.

Well, a British man has been arrested in Thailand. He was carrying more than 450 fake passports. Police detained this man at the Bangkok airport after discovering his cache of bogus identification cards. The man was traveling from Thailand to Scotland. He claims to have purchased those passports from a Pakistani man on Thailand's Samui Island.

VERJEE: Let's take a look at some of the stories making news now in the United States.

President George W. Bush is beginning a month-long holiday at his ranch in the state of Texas. But aides say it'll be a working vacation with many meetings and speeches planned, including one in the town of Grapevine, Texas, on Wednesday. Mr. Bush will address a range of issues from regional trade to terrorism.

Supreme Court nominee John Roberts says judges should remember the limitations of their role, which he says does not include solving social problems. Responding to a Senate committee questionnaire, Roberts said he would honor established Supreme Court rulings. But the nominee didn't comment specifically on the controversial Roe versus Wade decision legalizing abortion.

In Los Angeles, an autopsy shows it was a police bullet to the head that killed a 19-month-old girl during a hostage standoff. In July, LAPD members stormed an apartment where a man was holding his young daughter as a human shield. The man, who was firing at police, was also shot to death.

CLANCY: Adidas has decided to, well, just do it, I think they say.

VERJEE: Coming up, the athletics gear giant teams up with Reebok to double-team their top competitor. We'll bring you the details on the buyout in our business update.


VERJEE: Time for a check on what's moving the markets in the U.S.


CLANCY: We're going to have a roundup of the main stories coming up in just a moment.

VERJEE: Plus, examining the insurgency. Attacks are taking a heavy toll on U.S. troops in Iraq. Dozens have been killed in the past two weeks.

That story and much more ahead here on YOUR WORLD TODAY.


CLANCY: Welcome back to YOUR WORLD TODAY on CNN International. I'm Jim Clancy.

VERJEE: And I'm Zain Verjee. Here are some of the top stories we're following. Canadian authorities say Toronto's Pearson International Airport was under a lightning alert when an Air France plane crashed and burned on Tuesday. But it's too soon officially to blame it on the weather. All 309 people on board survived. Investigators are still at the crash site, searching for flight data and voice recorders from Air France Flight 358.

CLANCY: With just a few tugs, space shuttle astronaut Steven Robinson removed two pieces of fabric dangling from the underside of the Discovery. The unprecedented repair job was critical because of concerns that fabric could have led to a fire during re-entry in the atmosphere. Discovery is to return to Earth on Monday.

VERJEE: A roadside bomb has killed 14 U.S. Marines and an interpreter northwest of Baghdad. It's near the site where six U.S. marines were killed in a firefight two days earlier. Forty-three U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq in the past ten days alone, and more than 1,800 since the war began.

Joining us now from Baghdad is our correspondent Aneesh Raman. Aneesh, what lies behind the spike in U.S. casualties?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're always told, Zain, on the ground that we will see spikes, especially as we come towards any number of these seminal watershed political events. We're now just ten days away, a little over that, from when the constitution is to be drafted. But those sort of spikes we often see in the capital itself.

What we're seeing now is really an emergence of -- a ratcheting up, if you will, of violence in Al Anbar province, an area in northwestern Iraq where there's known to be a hotbed of insurgent activity. A number of operations are under way to try and curb the flow of foreign fighters, but we heard from the Pentagon today that they are doing a number of operations at the same time to try and limit the movement and abilities of the insurgency there, that a key front line in the war against the insurgents.

Yet, we're still seeing casualties. Six marines killed in one incident near Haditha on Monday, another on that same day killed by a suicide bomber, and then today, a massive explosion that left 14 marines killed in their vehicle. So all of this underscores how dangerous parts of Iraq remain, how critical it is that forces are here and how difficult the conversations must be between the U.S. military and the Iraqi government about any sort of timeline or any sort of condition-based withdrawal or reduction of forces -- Zain.

VERJEE: What more can you tell us about the American operation in western Iraq in and around Haditha?

RAMAN: Sorry, I didn't catch all of that. But what we can tell you is that the operations we know of, one specifically called Operation Saeed, is right along the Syrian border, trying to prevent insurgents from coming freely across as it appears they have done before. A lot of this, as well, we're being told, depends on the Iraqi government becoming much more aggressive with its neighbors, Iran and Syria specifically, to try and prevent people from coming in.

Western diplomats on the ground here tell us that Syria, for example, has completely within its capability the chance to close off and seal that border and really curb the number of foreign fighters that are entering this country. But throughout Iraq, you're seeing militias that are now coming out of their own. You're seeing police forces not capable in certain areas of really pushing back against the insurgency.

Today, an American journalist in the south, in the town of Basra, where we had been told it was relatively safe -- it was an example of what Iraq was striving towards. He had reported on a rise in Shia fundamental Islam there, which raises dangerous questions about allegiance for those who are in the forces. Not just a Sunni insurgency, but the Shia that are in these police forces.

At one moment they could be police officers, but if they're part of the Badr Brigade, an arm of SCIRI, which is a religious-based political group, they could, in turn, have allegiance elsewhere. So all of this makes any discussion about how secure Iraq is and where to begin in terms of allowing Iraqis to take over enormously complex -- Zain.

VERJEE: Aneesh Raman reporting from Baghdad -- Jim.

CLANCY: Well, to zero in a little bit more on what Aneesh was talking about there, that U.S. journalist found shot to death in the southern city of Basra. His name was Steven Vincent, and he recently wrote an opinion piece for "The New York Times," in which he said security forces are unduly influenced by religious groups, ranging from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr. Vincent wrote that security forces are "recruited from the same population of undereducated, underemployed men who swell these organizations' ranks ... many of Basra's rank-and-file police officers maintain dual loyalties to mosque and state."

Let's talk a little bit more about those allegations. What is the reality on the ground? For that, we're joined by Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Is it likely that this situation of dual loyalties lies there? And here we're not talking about the insurgents, who are largely Sunnis. Here we're talking about the Shia, who make up 60 percent of the country. And they do make up the vast majority of those in the security forces.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Well, Jim, of course it's a serious concern and a very tragic day, and I know we all feel for the loss of this individual, as well as all the marines. However, I have to say that in regard to Basra, while I am concerned about political trends there, on the whole I'm still very impressed by the amount of restraint shown by Shia in Iraq in general. They seem to recognize, I think very accurately, that democratic processes will tend to get them more influence.

Now, that doesn't mean that all of them want to play by the ballot box, but as we know, their supreme spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Al-Sistani and many other Shia leaders, have really wanted to say, let's just be patient and realize that things are pretty much on our side. It doesn't mean that every extremist is going to listen to that kind of rhetoric.

But on balance, I've been rather impressed by the behavior of the Shia. And they, plus the Kurds, have been reaching out, as we know, to the Sunni Arab political groups, trying to bring them into this constitution writing process. So, yes...

CLANCY: You're talking about the mainstream there, though.


CLANCY: You know, Muqtada al Sadr, a man who was isolated by the United States, isolated by the then-interim government in Iraq, did battle with U.S. forces, took refuge, you know, in the mosque of Imam Ali there. You know, it's -- the situation there, he's on the fringe. Do you see the danger, as more stability comes, in the very political sense you're talking about there for Iraq, more chaos could come out of it?

O'HANLON: Yes. I agree that these extremists are not the same as the political moderates who are in the government. But let's also note, Jim, that most of the Shia population have not chosen to align themselves with the extremists. And you have not seen big riots like the ones we had last year in Najaf. That was the last period of major Shia violence.

And for the most part, we're seeing the majority of clerical and political figures trying to discourage this kind of extremist behavior. So while it's certainly important to keep an eye on these kinds of trends, I still remain fundamentally more optimistic about the Shia and fundamentally more concerned about the Sunni Arab population.

Obviously, you're right, we have to keep our eye on that, and there are extremists in both camps, but I'm not going to take one or two specific tragic incidents in Basra and conclude that therefore there is a Shia fundamentalist movement that's going to turn more violent. I don't think the evidence supports that yet.

CLANCY: The evidence -- and there's going to be a lot of people talking about the fact that there have been, what, 20, 21, casualties among U.S. troops in the past few days alone. And as they look at that, they wonder what's going on. Is this because the U.S. military is taking the fight to the remaining strongholds of the insurgents? What's your view there?

O'HANLON: Well, that's a very important question. And, of course, that is in the classic Sunni Arab region out in the northwest. These are horrible tragedies. I would never have guessed this many marines could have been lost in such a short a space of time. Apparently, it's the use of, in today's tragedy, improvised explosive devices or a big car bomb. In the previous one, on Monday, it was ambush.

Either way, you're seeing a very, very well-organized insurgency that is distressingly capable still in this region. And I think we've seen the final nail in the coffin against Vice President Cheney's argument back in May that the insurgency was in its last throes. Unfortunately, there is just no serious basis for reaching that conclusion right now.

CLANCY: You know, in the words of General Ham at the Pentagon briefing today, he called them "adaptive." Clearly, they're using new techniques to counter the armor. But more troubling than that may be the feeling among some that some of the insurgents who are inside the security forces drawing a salary may have, in one way or another, really put U.S. troops at risk in this one?

O'HANLON: Yes, I wouldn't be surprised, because the lethality of this explosion suggests that they knew where U.S. troops might go, about what time they would be there, and that they also had some sophistication in making the weaponry. So it's very hard to prove this, of course. And you've suggested that it's just a theory, and that's right. But I'd have to be pretty nervous about that possibility myself.

CLANCY: Right, the Pentagon's even voiced some concerns about that, no doubt about it. Michael O'Hanlon, as always, there at the Brookings Institute, good to have you with us.

O'HANLON: Thank you, Jim.

VERJEE: Next on CNN, miracle workers in Niger.

CLANCY: Jeff Koinange introduces us to a group of doctors from Morocco who are saving lives, even as they risk their own. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CLANCY: Welcome back. You're watching YOUR WORLD TODAY, an hour of international news right here on CNN. Let's take a minute. We've been talking all this week about Niger. Let's get a closer view of it, the country, its people, now in the midst of a shattering famine. Landlocked, Niger is one of the hottest places on Earth. It is located in the Western Africa's Sahel region, southeast of Algeria, north of Nigeria. It's about twice the size of the U.S. state of Texas. Eighty percent of the country is a desert. Only the southernmost 20 percent is savannah, or plains, and even there, agriculture is limited due to recurring drought.

The harsh, hot merciless environment takes a toll. One in eight newborns will die in infancy. That's 30 times the infant mortality rate of a country like France. Even an adult can only expect to live until the age of 42. Most of Niger's eleven-and-a-half million people live in the southern region. That's 20 percent per capita income, though, only $900 a year, 63 percent of its people living below the poverty line. Uranium ore is Niger's chief export. Subsistence farming, the only way of life for millions of its citizens, and when drought strikes, most of Niger's people are at the mercy of nature. Two-and-a-half million people, including 800,000 children now said to be at risk of starvation. That according to the United Nations.

Well, after many months, that widening famine finally bringing some international aid and international doctors to Niger. Very important that. Most are with overseas humanitarian groups, of course. But one contingent working doggedly to save lives consists of army medics from nearby Morocco.

And Jeff Koinange tells their story.


JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They come here in their thousands every day, to an abandoned stadium on the outskirts of Maradi. They are the sick, the miserable and the downtrodden, in search of miracles.

Seventy year-old Aminata (ph) says she spent three straight nights out here, hoping to be among the lucky few to be admitted inside these walls. Her entire body aches, and she has a high fever.

Others like Hawa Mohammed (ph) are too sick and exhausted to move. Their rescuers reach them one by one. They are not Western aid workers, but soldiers from a fellow Muslim country, medics from the royal Moroccan army. They've set up this mobile-hospital unit made up of tents, complete with examination rooms, surgical wards, a pediatric unit, X-ray and radiology departments, everything a hospital would need.

There are about 70 Moroccan soldiers here, led by a colonel and orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Ahmed Moudene. He's a 30-year veteran of peacekeeping missions and a man who knows a thing or two about misery. "We've treated more than 11,000 patient so far in the last four weeks," he says. "They arrive here in a very bad condition, and our job is to try and make them better."

The team of 22 surgeons and doctors landed here nearly a month ago, courtesy of the Moroccan government. They're been going non- stop, even when the king of Morocco paid a visit.

"It's like a normal hospital, only it's under a big tent and can easily be assembled and dismantled," he says.

On an average day, he says, the medical team treats more than 500 patients. Diseases range from malaria, the biggest child killer in Africa today, to pneumonia. The biggest problems here are diet- related. "Bad food, bad water lead to infected stomachs," he says.

Twelve-year-old Abdela Ahiyed (ph) has a swollen stomach caused by an infection. The surgeons here say he arrived here just in time. "He has parasites in his stomach. He's been suffering for quite a while. But now that he's here, we'll try and make him better," he says.

Moudene and his squad of doctors and nurses go through each case, they say, as though they were back home. The Moroccan team also carries out several surgical operations a day, no small challenge in this environment. Many of the ailments are treatable with simple medications, medications simply not available in Niger, but plenty in the Moroccans' pharmacy. Even so, these mercy workers know their efforts can't cope with the overwhelming demand.

"We're going to need more help. Perhaps more will come to the aid of this poor nation," he says.

Souleman Abdi (ph) has already defied the odds here by reaching the age of 77. Now he has a new lease of life after receiving medication to cure an ailing leg, a small gesture of appreciation in a land where misery loves company, but where a small group of soldiers are keeping people alive.

Jeff Koinange, CNN, Maradi, in Southern Niger.




CLANCY: In space, we all watched in awe just a few hours ago and saw the first ever shuttle repair.

VERJEE: It looked really easy, but it was important. Discovery's due to return to Earth on Monday.

CLANCY: Zain, let's go back, take another look at some of the sights and sounds from this unusual space walk.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Soichi Noguchi will be first out of the air lock, followed by Steve Robinson as they set up tools and equipment in support of what could be a seven-hour excursion today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, Andy, I'm in the great outdoors.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Pilot Jim Kelly reports that he and Wendy Lawrence will be moving in to the International Space Station momentarily to take up their positions at the robotics work station, operating the Catadarm (ph), the station robotic arm for the duration of the space walk.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE Sit back, relax, enjoy the view.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am doing exactly that. A rare opportunity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's a good time to thank the folks who put these suits together. The suits are perfect. My suit is perfect, the fit (INAUDIBLE) and the gloves are great. Appreciate all the work and careful, careful attention to detail that went into making these things.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: he locking bars were a bit stubborn in being clamped down, but now have been firmly locked in place, and the ESP, or the external storage platform, is a new component to the International Space Station, the new three-ton platform that is holding spare parts for future shut assembly missions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Okay. From the camera views, can you confirm tat this is properly stowed?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Actually, we're watching you out the window.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So here it is. How do you like that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It looks pretty good.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My plan is to do a gentle pull with these A- number one fingers here. If that doesn't work, I'll use the forceps and do a slightly stronger pull. If that doesn't work, we'll go to the (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, it goes without saying that we don't want to see inadvertent contact with tile or the belly of the orbiter.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And you've got a lot of things still hanging on you, even though we cleaned you up. So try to keep (INAUDIBLE) know where they are.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I am ready to go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's your show, Steve, take it away.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. I've got it, and I'm pulling. It's coming out very easily. Beautiful. OK. That came out very easily. It looks like this big patient is cured.


VERJEE: Dramatic pictures from that world.

CLANCY: The patient is cured. That is the view of YOUR WORLD TODAY here on CNN International. I'm Jim Clancy.

VERJEE: And I'm Zain Verjee. This is CNN.