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Religious Gathering Ended in Tragedy; India's Crematoriums Overwhelmed with Corpse; India's Local Leaders Care About Career Than People's Lives; Nepal's COVID Cases Rising; Insurgents Fought with Myanmar's Military; U.N. Warns of Myanmar's Alarming Situation; Alexei Navalny Not Backing Down; Dozens Killed In Stampede At Religious Event In Israel; South America Fighting Its Deadliest Virus Wave Yet; Brazil Receives First Batch Of Pfizer-BioNTech Doses; Pakistan Imposes New COVID Restrictions For Eid Holiday; U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan Begins; Havana Syndrome Attack Near White House; SpaceX Crew Begins Journey Back To Earth. Aired 3-4a ET

Aired April 30, 2021 - 03:30   ET




MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: And welcome to our viewers joining me from and all around the world. I'm Michael Holmes. I appreciate your company.

We are of course following a tragedy unfolding at a crowded religious gathering in northern Israel. At least 44 people are being killed there in a stampede, about 100 others taken to hospitals, many in the critical condition. The scene descended into chaos while tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews and others were gathered to celebrate the Lag BaOmer holiday on Mount Meron.

CNN's Hadas Gold is there, joins me now with the very latest. Bring us to date on what you've been hearing.

HADAS GOLD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I am standing on the road leading you up to Mount Meron to where this festival is taking place, it takes place at an ancient tomb of an ancient rabbi. And we have been seeing bus after bus, it must be hundreds of buses driving up and down this hill, ferrying people away from the mountain and back to their homes.

It gives you an idea as of just how many people are at this festival. We've seen reports that it could have been upwards of 100,000 people attending this festival. But it turned tragic last night at 1 a.m. when on the stairway there was some sort of incident cause some sort of stampede. And that led to what we're seeing now, these tragic numbers of around 44 people dead, more than 100 in the hospital and injured.

It is not clear exactly what causes, but from the videos and images we are seeing from last night it's clear that it was a very crowded space. Something happened that cause people to start falling in some way and that led to complete chaos. In fact, Magen David Adom which is the ambulance service here is calling it one of the worst civil disasters in Israeli history.

We've been hearing from medics who were on the scene who told CNN in the last few hours that when they first arrived, they at one point saw around 20 people getting CPR all at the same time. This is an incredibly tragic evening here.

And sadly, for many people here, they're used to these types of scenes but in terrorist situations not a sort of civil accident. And so, of course, many of the questions is what happened, how did it happen and why.

HOLMES: And the other thing too, is it's important to remember that this is an annual event, this happens every year, it didn't last year because of COVID. And presumably without major incident before. Do we know what was different this year?

GOLD: Right, Michael. And in fact, in previous years there were reports of even more people than were here this year and so that is the big question. What was different about this time? Because the police know this event is happening, they prepare for it well in advance. What was different about the crowd control here.

Now the police commander in charge of the northern command here has already taken responsibility for the event but there are already calls for an investigation into what was different, what caused this potential bottleneck situation, this potential stampede. What cause it.

And also, important to keep in mind is because of the crowds it was difficult for the -- for medical attention to get there in a quick manner. Because of just how crowded it was they needed to make space for the medical professionals.

And a lot of people are questioning why was this allowed to take place during, especially during coronavirus with such this high numbers, how were they not able to control the crowds. And what is leading to what is being called the worst civil disaster in Israeli history.

We are still seeing on social media, for example, post from family members showing pictures of their loved ones asking people for any sort of intermission, they have still not heard from some of their loved ones. Those are some really sad stories coming out of this.

HOLMES: You know, give us a sense of how difficult the emergency operation was, too. Because it's a small area, a densely packed with people. The media shows some, you know, quite narrow areas where people were walking. So, how difficult did that make it for the emergency crews?

GOLD: Well, of course, first of all, we are on a mountain. And when your -- and when you look at the images from where this ceremony, where this festival takes place you see just a mass, a sea of people crowded in really narrow areas. It didn't seem like there was really any space to move. And for the most part, this is supposed to be a very festive happy holiday. There's bon fires, there's singing, there's dancing and it is completely packed. So, you can imagine when there is some sort of stampedes, some sort of

chaotic situation like that there's already barely enough space to move. So for the medics to be able to get in there, to get in there with their supplies and try to get people out we have seen some -- some video out of there that is really hard to watch just to see how crowded it was, how tangled it was with everybody there so that people could get them out.

And the medic that spoke to CNN in the last few hours just saying that when they went in there it was just grab whoever you could find and start giving treatment and trying to save as many lives as you could.

HOLMES: A desperate situation. Hadas Gold, thanks so much.


Now the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases has now passed 150 million worldwide. That number is greater than the population of Russia. Think about it that way. About one in five of those cases have been in the United States. Of the 150 million people infected, more than three million dying from the virus.

And for the ninth day in a row, India reporting more than 300,000 additional COVID-19 infections. Reaching another record number of cases today. Now, experts say the actual numbers though are likely much higher. There's been a lot of underreporting. Thousands of people lining up outside of hospitals, another makeshift medical center are hoping for lifesaving oxygen or the chance at a bad. Mainly they are turned away.

Despite the crisis, India, though, moving forward perhaps inexplicably with elections. Health experts say the rallies and voter lines are super spreader events. More than eight million people are expected to vote in west Bengal's assembly elections.

Now the number of dead has overwhelmed cemeteries working around the clock but still unable to cope. And crematoriums are running short on wood for funeral pyres.

CNN senior international correspondent Sam Kiley is in New Delhi, and a warning his report has some disturbing images.


SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is a Sengapalli (Ph) crematorium, they're dealing with 150 people who are coming here to be burned. They are not able to be seen off by their families, indeed their family members have to take in ticket in an office just over there, a bit like visiting a bank, that gives them a place in the queue.

And the queue has been long all day long. There been many dozens of people backed up here, it's now towards the end of the day they're hoping to get them cleared through by sunset although the pyres will continue to burn. And this is all happening at a time when the government is continuing to allow or indeed insist on super spreader events like elections, election gathering, election counting, and a consequence of the failure of public health is this.

Dozens and dozens of victims of the COVID pandemic being burned here very often in ceremonies that are bitterly lonely with just one or two friends in attendance. And at a crematorium that whilst is dealing with 150 people a day. And these are the carts that bring in the loads of wood for each and every one of the pyres.

But this crematorium whilst it's dealing with 150 a day has had to create this extra piece of territory to see people off in. It's been as crowded as this since sunrise and it will be crowded as this at sunset. And everybody we've spoken to here blames the central government.

This is a government that has allowed a net export of coronavirus vaccines, a government that seem to indicate earlier this year that it felt that India had reached some kind of herd immunity without a massive vaccination campaign. And a government that continues to campaign over elections at state and regional level.

It is a government that puts politics clearly above the public health of its people. And after all, India is a country that has a space program. It's able to put aircraft carriers at sea into the Indian Ocean and more wildly, it wants to take a place on the Security Council as a permanent member of the United Nations. But its government has allowed this.


HOLMES: Sam Kiley reporting there. Now India's military is pitching in to start moving a desperately needed medical supplies around the country especially oxygen.

CNN's Clarissa Ward with more from New Delhi.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Well, this morning we woke up and saw on Twitter this hospital saying that essentially, they were about to run out of oxygen and that 70 COVID patients in their care might die potentially if they didn't get some soon. We went to talk to them. Take a listen to what the administrator had to say.

WARD: How much longer do you have before you run out of oxygen?

ABHA SAXENA, GENERAL OPERATIONS MANAGER, SEHGAL NEO HOSPITAL: Today, we have just, I mean, it is hardly one or two hours it will last. And every day we are facing this problem of oxygen.

WARD: I can hear these people coughing. I mean, they are obviously desperate. What happens if the oxygen runs out?


SAXENA: If they don't get oxygen they can die, they might not be able to survive. That's for sure. They won't survive for long.

WARD: And are you dealing with this every day?

SAXENA: Yes, we have been dealing with this every day for the past 10 days. Every day we have to fight for the oxygen. Every day we have to keep messaging. Every day we have to have to say that we are running short of oxygen, please give us the oxygen, please give us the oxygen.

WARD: So, this is a question of life and death.

SAXENA: Yes, it is a question of life and death.

WARD: It's important to remember these are some of the lucky ones, people who end up in a private hospital like this one gives you a sense of just how dire the situation is.


HOLMES (on camera): Clarissa Ward reporting there from New Delhi.

Now, many in India blame the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his handling of the crisis. A spokesman for his ruling BJP party spoke with CNN's Christiane Amanpour about those accusations.


NARENDRA TANEJA, SPOKESMAN, BJP PARTY: We are the government in India, so of course responsibility is first and foremost ours. Good or bad, whatever it is. And it is our responsibility and we're trying our very best but this did come as a surprise. Today a lot of people are saying that you should have done that, you knew in February, but at that time scientists, doctors, they were more or less of the same view.

Politicians, we politicians formed the opinion that we are getting, we are more or less getting out of the COVID situation. We, our views are basically coming out of their, you know, kind of analysis, the kind of reports, feedback we were getting from scientists and doctors including those living outside of India. But Indians living outside of India. But evidently, something went wrong.


HOLMES (on camera): And find out how you can help combat India's COVID crisis, you can go to Plenty of resources there.

India's neighbors meanwhile are keeping a wary eye on the crisis unfolding next door particularly Nepal. The country has limited resources and cases have exploded amid India's surge. Worst of all, Nepal struck a spike comes during peak tourism season for Mount Everest climbers.

CNN's Kristie Lu Stout joins me now from Hong Kong with more. And I guess as the outbreak in India worsens, you got infections rising right across the region and especially Nepal. Bring us up to date on that. KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. India shares a long and

porous border with Nepal and the border remains open despite this catastrophic second wave of viral infection taking place in India. As a result, cases are spiking in Nepal. Cases of COVID-19 in Nepal are rising at a rate of 30 percent compared to 3 to 4 percent just two weeks ago.

Local lockdowns have been imposed in cities across the country such as Kathmandu. But as people move from the cities to their home villages concerns are rising that this mass movement of people will just is further contribute to the ongoing spike in COVID-19 infections in Nepal.

We have also been following reports of tourists getting infected by the coronavirus at Mount Everest base camp. This is something that the Nepali government has denied. But according to one Norwegian mountaineer who we talk to, he said he caught COVID on Everest.


LU STOUT: Evacuated from Everest base camp after developing COVID-19 symptoms at 5,000 meters.

ERLEND NESS, NORWEGIAN MOUNTAINEER: I felt weaken. I had no headache. My oxygen level was very low. In base camp I was getting worse. I was checked by two doctors in base camp and they found some cracks in my lungs.

LU STOUT: Norwegian mountaineer Erlend Ness was medevac to hospital in Nepal's capital Kathmandu. It brought a temporary end to his decade-long dream to climb Everest.

NESS: When I tested positive when it come it was quite a shock. And then I realized that the expedition was over for me.

LU STOUT: In preparation for the event, Ness had trained for two hours a day for six months. And he had already climbed six of the world's highest seven summits, and attempted Everest once before in 2018.

NESS: To summit the biggest mountain in the world is a big dream for every climber. I think we wanted to stand on the summit and see the view.

LU STOUT: After Ness was hospitalized in Kathmandu, he says he tested positive for COVID three times. He is now in recovery.

UNKNOWN: How are you, Erlend Ness?

NESS: I'm good. Thank you.

LU STOUT: He says he got a negative test before heading to the mountain and doesn't know where he picked up the virus. Two sources from base camp tells CNN that there have been dozens of suspected COVID-19 cases there in the past few weeks. But a spokesman for Nepal's Tourism Department deny that there had been any cases there. [03:14:57]

This comes as neighboring India battles the world's worst outbreak of COVID-19. The border between the two countries still open. The seriousness of the wider situation left Ness grateful for the care he received in the hospital.

NESS: I was lucky on a way. Someone died at the hospital when I stayed there so it could have been worse.

LU STOUT: This rapidly developing COVID threat in Nepal is likely to derail the gradual reopening of Everest where more than 400 climbers were granted permits this spring, the main season for attempting the world's highest peak.


LU STOUT: The Norwegian climber said that he paid $60,000 U.S. dollars for the expedition. That is the standard price. Again, some 400 people have received permits to climb Mount Everest during this peak season. So, this is a major money spinner for Nepal.

But given the spike in infection in Nepal and in India, given the long porous border between both countries and the fact that it's still open, and given the fact that both places have yet to impose nationwide lockdowns, one has to wonder how much longer these expeditions should go on. Michael?

HOLMES: Yes, absolutely. Kristie, great report there. Kristie Lu Stout in Hong Kong, thanks.

And coming up, we will have the latest on our breaking news out of Israel where dozens of people have been killed in that stampede at a religious festival. That's when we come back.

Also, intense fighting erupts in Myanmar between the military and insurgents. A rebel army leader speaks exclusively to CNN. Why he says the regime must be stopped. We'll be right back.


HOLMES (on camera): Now months into the coup in Myanmar, the violence is expanding far beyond the cities fighting between the military, and insurgent groups has intensified.

Paula Hancocks spoke exclusively with the leader of a rebel army and is with us now live from Seoul. What did you hear?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Michael, at this point what we're seeing along the border with Thailand specifically, is a fight for some very strategic areas. The military wants to keep hold of guard posts to guard that border. And the ethnic armed groups want to make sure that they can clear those guard posts so that they can get humanitarian aid into Myanmar and if need be, get refugees out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HANCOCKS: Late last month, ethnic armed fighters staged a surprise attack. An intense gun battle ended with the full of one of Myanmar's military guard posts in Karen state along the border of Thailand. The Karen National Liberation Army took eight soldiers prisoner. Their leader speaking exclusively to CNN says they are treating them humanely. Treatment they would not expect if the tables were turned.


SAW BAW KYAW HEH, CHIEF OF STAFF, KNLA: I see the Burmese dictatorship is very evil, very bad so I cannot feel, I cannot stay like that. So, I want to tell all people in my country here we need to cooperate together.

HANCOCKS: The military has not acknowledged that any soldiers are missing but through state-run media accuse the KNLA of violating the 2015 ceasefire. A cease-fire that ethnic group say ended when the military seized power.

The military did say there would be repercussions and within hours airstrikes began on a terrorized population. Children's photos still hang on the wall of this destroyed school, a broken lesson schedule listing math, English, science. A symbol of a routine that's been shattered.

The villagers had already fled so no one was hurt in this air strike. But most are now too scared to go home in case the fighter jets return. Humanitarian groups believe more than 20,000 are displaced in Karen state alone. Hiding in the jungles.

This mother says, "my children have diarrhea, and now so did the adults." There is no clean water or food. This man says his 6-year-old son was killed in an airstrike. They buried him where he died. He says when the fighter jets came his grandmother took him far away from the home but the jet dropped its bomb at the spot they had fled to. My son was injured and then died.

Some have tried to cross the border into Thailand but say they were pushed back by Thai military. The border is closed due to COVID-19. Humanitarian aid groups are calling on the government to allow them to cross. Thailand says it will provide aid but will not take sides.

This is becoming a familiar sight in some of Myanmar's ethnic areas. Deserted villages, livestock roaming free and fields neglected. Planting season should start within weeks. If it doesn't, United Nations warnings of rising hunger and desperation will be exasperated.

HEH: If we cannot destroy this government, we must feel we are not secure all the time. So, we need to try to stop the regime like this. We need to destroy the dictatorship.

HANCOCKS: Fighting this week is so close to the border it can be seen from Thailand. Burning guard posts light up the night sky. Then dawn breaks on another day of violence in Myanmar.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HANCOCKS: So, for tens of thousands, Michael, they are living in limbo at this point, many of them far too scared to go back to the villages in case those airstrikes start once again.

And as mentioned, and it is important, it is planting season very soon for many of these farmers. If they can't get back to their fields, or if they feel too afraid to go back to their fields for fear of being attack by the military, then that will have serious repercussions for food insecurity being in the months ahead. Something which we know that the United Nations is very concerned about. Michael?

HOLMES: Yes. Yes. Worry that 48 percent of the population could be going hungry. Thank you so much, Paula. Great reporting there. Paula Hancocks in Seoul.

Well nearly half of Myanmar's population as we were just discussing there could be push in to poverty by years end. This is the new U.N. report that Paula mentioned there. Dual crisis are tormenting the country. The COVID pandemic of course and the coup d'etat.

The U.N.'s Development Programme warns that if the security and economic situation does not stabilize soon up to 25 million or 48 percent could be living in poverty by next year. Compared that to just 25 percent about four 4 years ago. The U.N.'s Development Programme administrator explain the impact.


AHIM STEINER, ADMINISTRATOR, U.N. DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME: You need to have traction supply chains, movement of people, movement of goods and services, the banking system essentially suspended. Remittances not being able to reach people. Social safety payment that would have been available particularly to poor households not being paid out.

These are just some of the immediate impact. And a protracted political crisis could obviously worsen this. Because what we are seeing right now is job losses from the COVID pandemic now into the political crisis because the cumulative impacts of what I have just described. If they continue throughout this year, well, indeed lead to further impoverishment and particularly affecting those who are just living above poverty line. Those are the most vulnerable and they are the first to be affected.

The urban households who live on their small businesses are essentially not being able to operate anymore. But it also female head in households that are at the garment industry that will not be able to operate properly. Job losses then. Children, together with our sister (Inaudible) in UNICEF, the estimate, you know, up to eight million children could be affected by this increase poverty rates that we are estimating and projecting in the reports.

So, you can see that across Myanmar society this is a major setback in not only development, but also in terms of inequality and vulnerability.

(END VIDEO CLIP) [03:25:05]

HOLMES (on camera): That was the U.N. Development Programme administrator Ahim Steiner.

Now the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has some harsh words for Vladimir Putin calling the Russian president a, quote, "naked king who wants to rule indefinitely." It was a very think Navalny who made those remarks when appearing remotely in a hearing on his defamation case.

CNN senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is in Moscow with the latest.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It was remarkable hearing in the Moscow court as Alexei Navalny appeared via video link. Now all of this was in appeals hearing for a defamation case in which he had convicted earlier this year for allegedly defaming a World War II veteran.

Now Alexei Navalny at the beginning certainly didn't look very strong. He is of course currently recovering from a hunger strike where his doctor said that nearly killed him. He still looks very thin. His head was shaved. He was wearing the black prison clothes at the prison that he is currently in. And he actually told the court that he currently only weighs about 72 kilograms and also that he is currently only eating about five tablespoons of porridge a day.

However, Alexei Navalny certainly did not hold back. He ripped into the court. He also ripped into Russian President Vladimir Putin. Here is some of what he said. Quote, "you are all traitors." He is speaking directly to the court there. "You and the naked king -- there he is speaking about Russian President Vladimir Putin -- are implementing a plan to seize Russia and the Russians would be turned into slaves. Their wealth will be taken away from them, they will be deprived of any prospects. You have implemented that plan. No matter how hard you try to steal the victory, you will not succeed," Alexei Navalny said.

Now he did lose these appeals hearing. The conviction was upheld and Alexei Navalny and his organization certainly are facing a lot of troubles here in Russia as well. His organization announced on Thursday that they are shutting down all of their regional office.

Of course, they've already been ordered to suspend all of their operations while another court here in Moscow is currently in the process of possibly declaring them an extremist organization. And Alexei Navalny today also found out that he and two of his associates are also currently being investigated in another criminal case that they hadn't known about before.

Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Moscow.

HOLMES: We're going to take a quick break here on the program. When we come back on CNN Newsroom, chaos at a religious festival in northern Israel, dozens killed in a stampede. We'll have the latest on this breaking news when we come back. Also, Brazil now officially has more than 400,000 deaths from coronavirus. It's only the second country to confirm that many. We'll take a closer look at Brazil and the rest of South America.

We'll be right back.




HOLMES (on camera): Welcome back to our viewers all around the world. I am Michael Holmes. You are watching "CNN Newsroom."

We have got more now on the breaking news out of Northern Israel. Police investigating what triggered a deadly stampede at a crowded religious festival. The death toll stands at 44. Almost 100 others injured, many of them in critical condition. One medic describing the chaotic scene as one of Israel's worst disasters.

And you can see there, shoes, bags, debris, left behind as many scramble to evacuate with through what are really narrow alleys and walkways. About 100,000 orthodox Jews and others were gathered there for the Lag B'Omer holiday.

Now, Avi Marcus is at the scene, joins me now on the line. He is the head of the medical department for the rescue organization United Hatzalah Mount Meron, Israel. Avi, thanks for being with us. I mean, it sounds like there were frantic efforts to save lives. Tragically, not all successful, of course, just give us a sense of what the scene was like?

AVI MARCUS, MEDICAL DEPARTMENT, UNITED HATZALAH MOUNT MERON, ISRAEL (on the phone): Hi. Good morning from Israel. In one word, in Hebrew, it's called (inaudible), but it was hectic. The (inaudible) just dropped down or something like that arrived really quick and found one guy lying on his back with people doing CPR. And so, I thought, OK, the person was injured. And after two minutes, I come from the background and I saw lots of people, tons of people lying one on top of the other, and medics just performing CPR on all of them. It's just a tragedy, not too much (inaudible), lost of lives, and as you said, buckles and shoes -- one on top of each other -- that's the way to describe how it was.

HOLMES (voice over): It is. It's impossible to imagine just how that much of appear. What sorts of injuries are there were talking about. Crush injuries? What did you see?

MARCUS (on the phone): No, they weren't any crush injuries. The people were just -- they pushed all together standing in one place and people just fell one on top of the other. So the people that were under just crush on the people without getting broken bone or anything. They suffocated. These people just suffocated.

HOLMES (voice over): That's just horrible. Avi, how difficult was it to get people out? I mean, what were the challenges for emergency workers?

MARCUS (on the phone): Yes, yes. It was a place, it's a very small place, and they are on the stairs, some of it, some of them -- I would just to have to jack people taken them around, whenever we could make people just to stay down and see if we can do CPR on them or not. Most people, they're taking out to street to where the people that you are alive. Lots of people were just doing CPR, after several minutes decide there's nothing to do CPR for.

If we go and look at the medical side, we've had a mass casualty like that. The people that are not breathing, we just do CPR (inaudible). Other people, we have to treat. It's just very hard decision to decide who's going to survive if you do CPR or not.

And as a paramedic and head of the medical division of United Hatzalah, I have to tell my medics, please stop even though some of the patients were young kids, or you know, people like our age.

HOLMES (voice over): I cannot imagine having to make that choice when to give up and move on to the next person. The other thing too, we see this video and I'm not sure if you've seen it where, you see how people are funneled in to what is a very narrow sort of walkway, or access way, I mean, just jam-packed with people. Are you surprised that was allowed? I mean, because it does seems not to be very safe. We are looking at right now.

MARCUS (on camera): This thing happen every year, (inaudible) every single-year. We have a hundred thousands of people coming up to say grace for 10 hours. This is only the shorter time because we have Shabbat coming in later on. So, it's service day like 40 hours where people come up and go down. It was a very short period of time because we have Shabbat coming in. So, I think with more people coming in in less time. It is much more crowded.

HOLMES (voice over): Yes. I see what you mean. And for those who don't know how big of an event this is, tell us, you know, how important it is for so many Israelis, I mean it's an annual event.


It wasn't held last year, because of COVID. But it's actually also marked all around the world by Jews, but how big is it there in Israel?

MARCUS (on the phone): We -- every year, we have like thousands of people coming up in 40 hours. So, lots of (inaudible) people is scared to -- everyone, you know, (inaudible) and pushy and all things together.

HOLMES (voice over): Avi Marcus, I really appreciate your time there with United Hatzalah. And thanks for the work you did and all of those who worked with you. We really appreciate it and our sympathies.

MARCUS (on the phone): Thank you so much, thank you.

HOLMES (on camera): Well, let's turn to South American now, where multiple countries are fighting desperate battles against the coronavirus. Brazil, now reporting more than 400,000 people have lost their lives to COVID-19, only the second country to reach that milestone after, of course, United States.

Argentina in Columbia also dealing with their own devastating outbreaks as Stefano Pozzebon reports from Bogota.


STEFANO POZZEBON, JOURNALIST (on camera): Coronavirus continues to wreak havoc in South America from Patagonia to the Caribbean Coast. The region is being ravage by the pandemic.

On Thursday, Argentina reporting a record increase of 561, that's in the last 24 hours, while intensive care units are reaching capacity. A little bit north in Brazil, not a record increase in deaths but the crossing of this threshold of over 400,000 people dying of COVID-19. One of every 500 Brazilians have lost his lives to the virus, because of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

And in Colombia, also on Thursday, yet another record increase in deaths with 505 victims, in the last 24 hours. It's the first time that Columbia reports more than 500 victims in less than a day, since the pandemic began. And while we are seeing all across the region that vaccination campaigns are continuing and are partially picking up pace, the impact of new more deadly and more infective variant is really bring in the region to the point of collapse with deadly rates not seen in the first waves of the pandemic last year and earlier this year.

An expert are afraid that the worst might still yet to come for many of these nations unless many more vaccines are deployed every single day. For CNN, this is Stefano Pozzebon, Bogota.


HOLMES (on camera): And speaking of coronavirus vaccines, Brazil may soon speed up its rollout, thanks to this, 1 million Pfizer-BioNTech doses, the country's first batch from that manufacturer, still part of the deal for a 100 million doses. The Pfizer-BioNTech shots is one of four vaccines approve there. About 6 percent of Brazil's population is being fully vaccinated so far. Far behind its neighbors, Chile and Uruguay.

Pakistan, meanwhile has imposed new coronavirus restrictions for the Eid holiday next month. Like its neighbor, India, Pakistan, also dealing with shortages of medical supplies including oxygen.

CNN producer, Sofia Saifi has the latest via Skype from Islamabad.


SOPHIA SAIFI, CNN PRODUCER: It is fairly obvious that Pakistan has been extremely shock by what is happening in its next door western neighbor of India. And due to this, the country has taken many precautions which some critics are saying too late. But have now been issued specific notifications calling for lockdowns between provincial travel, a ban on tourism with Eid holiday just around the corner in mid-May, the military has been called in. However there still is, there is still a lot of crowds in markets. The Prime Minister himself went ahead and has specifically requested that the people of the country follow social distancing guidelines, that they wear masks.

But if they do not, he will be compelled to impose a lockdown. There has been data shed by the national command center on coronavirus, sharing that about 85 percent of beds and hospitals, in one of the most populous provinces of the country in Punjab, they are now occupied at 85 percent capacity. Oxygen is running low.

So, with the Eid holidays right around the corner, it just remains to be seen. How many more stricter measures the country is going to take with regards to (inaudible) the spread of this pandemic.

Sophia Saifi, CNN, Islamabad.



HOLMES (on camera): Now in the U.S. a stunning COVID statistics. The CDC, now estimates that more than one-third of Americans have been infected with COVID-19. According to the numbers shared by the agency on Thursday, roughly 35 percent of the population is believe to have caught the virus though the end of March. Now that means total infections are about four times greater than the 32 million, that have been officially reported.

It is the beginning of an end for America longest war as the withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan gets underway. We will have the latest from the region coming up.

Also, two people in Washington report the same symptoms U.S. personnel experience from a mysterious attack in Havana. What federal investigators are finding. You are watching CNN Newsroom.


HOLMES: The White House has announced that the American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is nor formally underway. A top U.S. general saying, it is a complex operation that will unfold over the coming weeks. President Joe Biden, setting a deadline for the drawdown to be complete by September 11th.

Ben Wedeman, following the latest developments for us from Beirut, in Lebanon. And of course, Ben, the big questions is what happens once the drawdown is done?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that is really the big question, that obviously has many Afghans worried, and it's important to keep in mind that, whereas the U.S., and NATO, there pulling their forces out, they say by September 11th of this year. It is not that the war is over. Actually, the war continues.

The Taliban control about half of the country, and the Afghan people have paid an incredibly high price for this war, according to one count between 2001, and now around 66,000 Afghan police and soldiers have been killed.

And of course, many more civilians have died as a result. And essentially, this is a situation, very similar to what happened in Vietnam in the early 1970s. In January 1973, the U.S., finally, pulled out of Vietnam. But, just two years later, the Vietcong, and the north of the Vietnamese forces, took over the rest of the country.

Now the question is, can the Afghan government forces resist the Taliban? And they don't look to be in a very good shape right now. Officially, there are 300,000 members of the Afghan security forces, but, it is believed that the number is much lower because, it basically, officers are reporting higher numbers in pocketing (ph) the salaries.


And certainly the Afghan security forces have found it increasingly difficult to recruit new members. According to a tally kept by the New York Times the daily death toll for Afghan security forces is 287, and the question is how long it can the Afghan government without the help of NATO and U.S. ground forces, and air cover, continued to resist the Taliban who, clearly, say this U.S. withdrawal, the NATO withdrawal as a victory. Michael?

HOLMES: And an opportunity, the notion power sharing doesn't seem to be something that they gravitate through naturally. Yes. Ben Wedeman, I appreciate it, good to see you my friend. Thanks.

CNN military analyst Lieutenant general Mark Hertling joins me now. He is a former army commanding general in Europe and the seventh army and also a commander of multinational forces north in Iraq where we've spent some time together.

Let's talk Afghanistan, Mark, the withdrawal process is underway. It was interesting, the joint chiefs (inaudible) said it is quote, a complex operation and not without risk. What are the logistics of getting those troops and equipment out and what are the risks?

MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST, RETIRED ARMY FORMER COMMANDING GENERAL: Yes, it's a good question, Michael. And what I would say is, don't use the word withdrawal. The chairman specifically called it a retrogrey (ph) operation. And that has doctrinal definition along with it. The definition is actually a task which involves organizing movements away from the enemy.

Now, in some cases, the enemy may force that operation or a commander may executed voluntarily, because he feels like he can gain an advantage either (inaudible) or strategically. That's a lot of military, a lot of military speak, but what it means is we are choosing to do this. And as Chairman (inaudible) did say, it's complex, it's extremely

hard, and it's not without risk. There's going to be plenty of risk here, and you know, for most people will think about just the 2,500 people, the military personnel that have to be moving out. It's much more than that from a logistical operation and it is extremely hard.

You're talking about four nations with forces on the ground, with allied forces and the Afghan forces because, as you know, there's a lot of NATO forces in Afghanistan. It is the accountability of equipment, it is a transference of some equipment, some will go to the Afghan army. It's centralizing people and equipment, so you could ship them out. It's caring for the personnel while this is going on and it's bringing in other people, other forces can help defend, because this is an opportunity time for the enemy to take advantage of the (inaudible).

HOLMES: And to that point, what do you think will be the impact on the battlefield as they drawdown goes on? I mean, the Taliban controls vast swaths of the country, I think we have a map we can show people. And, they are obviously, intent on regaining power. And this is not a group, likely, to want to share that power.

HERTLING: Right. And that is definitely been shown over the last couple of years even as they've done the peace process. What you are talking about too, Michael is the mission of the U.S. Forces, part of the problem in Afghanistan, that mission for U.S. forces has change multiple times. Started out as counter-terrorism, and it went to counter insurgency, then it went to nation building, now it looks like it maybe going back to counter terrorism.

And each one of those, kinds of mission, have different requirements for forces. The majority of forces in Afghanistan, right now, both NATO and the U.S., are either counter-terrorism forces, that means they go after the bad guys, in specific surgical strikes, or training forces, which most of the NATO countries do.

So, you're talking about packets of forces -- allied forces around the country that are working with the Afghan military and Afghan police. It's going to be very difficult, because your map probably showed but I can't see it, but as I know, the Taliban and various other forces that are considered the enemy do hold large swath of land all over Afghanistan.

HOLMES: And its not -- I mean, it's not hard to see the Taliban back in control in two, three years, maybe four. And that's in fact their state of aim, along with sharia law and so on. What is your assessment of the threat, or return to rule by the Taliban? And what would be the effect of that for ordinary Afghans?

HERTLING: There are a lot of people, and I would be one of them that says that there is a possibility for an intense civil war as this goes on, between the Taliban and the Afghan government under (inaudible).


But, you also have other war lords, throughout the country, as you know. You've been there several times. They all are going to be vying for power. So, this is going to be an interesting chess match between not just the Taliban which seems to hold the upper hand in a lot of the areas and they are certainly intimidating and conduct influence operations around the country. And they are certainly affected the Afghan security forces not just in the last couple of weeks but over the last couple of years, in terms of killing large numbers of those security forces.

That in, and of itself is not going to contribute to keeping the Afghan government stood up and operate. So, yes, you would probably going to see a return to Sharia law. There are going to be, certainly, within the rural population, there are going to be take overs of cities, by Taliban forces. Those are all the kind of things that our intelligence, the U.S intelligence forces have to monitor.

And as General Miller claimed, the other night and John McKenzie, the central command commander said, we would have to institute over the horizon, potential, for counter-terrorism. All of that is very difficult.

HOLMES: Yes, according to some reports, more than a hundred security force personnel killed by the Taliban in just the last couple of weeks. And it's probably just a taste of what's to come.

Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, I'm going to live it there, thank you so much.

HERTLING: Thank you, Michael. I appreciate it.

HOLMES: The Palestinian authority, President Mahmoud Abbas has postponed elections for the Palestinian legislative council and the presidency. That move, sparking anger among Palestinians who have not elected viewed leadership in 15 years.

Abbas not -- is blaming Israel for not guaranteeing that Palestinians, in east Jerusalem, can cast their ballots. Voting a sensitive issue there, because Israel considers Jerusalem its territory, while Palestinians see this in portion of the city as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

And, on going mystery in Washington over a suspected invisible attack that causes debilitating symptoms and has affected one White House staffer. We will have the details when we come back.


HOLMES (on camera): Well, in just a few hours, four astronauts from SpaceX crew one mission will begin their return home to earth. The three Americans, and one Japanese crew member have been at the international space station for almost six months.

NASA says the plan is for SpaceX crew dragon spacecraft to undock from the station later on Friday, splash down at one of seven targeted landing zones is expected on Saturday. Earlier this week, the departing American commander handed the reign's of the ISI to another Japanese astronaut. Good stuff. U.S. Federal investigators, looking into a mysterious

attack near the White House, eerily similar to the attacks on U.S. personnel in Cuba, you might remember back in late 2016.

CNN's Alex Marquardt, with the latest on that.


ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): It's called Havana's syndrome for where the strange, debilitating attack against U.S. personnel were first noticed.


Now, sources telling CNN about at least two more on American soil. Similar mysterious incidents, including one late last year, right near the White House.

AVRIL HAINES, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Thank you for your attention on this issue, it's critically important.

MARQUARDT: The country's top intelligence official is saying she is focus on the attacks, believe to be the result of directed microwaves. The pentagon is also investigating. Multiple sources telling CNN that defense officials brief Congress earlier this month telling lawmakers that the White House incident, in November, happened near the grassy oval area known as the ellipse, just south of the White House. An official from the National Security Council was sickened.

Another incident, first reported by GQ, happened across the (inaudible) river Arlington Virginia in 2019. Also, seemingly directed at another White House staffer. Similar attacks have struck U.S. diplomats, and CIA officials, not just in Cuba, but China, and Russia as well. Including Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer who says he was hit with an attack, while visiting the Russian capital, in 2017.

MARC POLYMEROPOULOS, FORMER SENIOR CIA OFFICER: I woke up in the middle of the night, with an incredible case of vertigo. The room was spinning, and I want to throw up.

MARQUARDT: Polymeropoulos served in the Middle East, and Afghanistan, but because of the Moscow attack, he was diagnosed with the traumatic brain injury and had to retire from the CIA.

POLYMEROPOULOS: I have a headache every day since that night in Moscow. It's never gone away day and night.

MARQUARDT: A study this year by the national academy of sciences found the most likely cause of the symptoms was directed pulse radio frequency energy. Symptoms include ear popping, vertigo, pounding headaches and nausea. Alongside the Pentagon, the State Department and CIA have also launched investigation.

WILLIAM BURNS, CIA DIRECTOR: I will make it extraordinarily high priority to get to the bottom of who is responsible for the attacks. MARQUARDT: And who is responsible remains a major question. U.S.

officials have said it could be Russia, it could be China, they simply do not know. I want to underscore how extraordinary an attack here at the ellipse would be. This is the ellipse, just south of the White House, which you can see right there. This is one of the most secure places in the country, you have U.S. secret service, U.S. park police, D.C. metropolitan police and yet, a White House staffer, may have been targeted just steps from the White House. Alex Marquardt, CNN, Washington.


HOLMES (on camera): I'm Michael Holmes, thanks for spending part of your day with me, you can follow me on Instagram, and Twitter, @homeCNN. Do stick around. "CNN Newsroom" continues with at Kim Brunhuber, next.