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Japan Weighs Emergency Measures as Health Experts Meet; New Study: Antibodies Detectable for at Least 11 Months; U.S. Intel Divided on COVID-19 Origin; E.U. Mulls Sanctions Ahead of Lukashenko- Putin Talks; Tens of Thousands Flee Volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo; Growing Calls to Release Hundreds of Detained Men in Tigray; 18 Bodies Discovered in Former Officer's Backyard; Container Ship Carrying Chemicals Burns Off Sri Lanka. Aired 12-12:45a ET

Aired May 28, 2021 - 00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN VAUSE, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Powerful, more destructive than the one before.

[00:00:05]

Well, for months, as the health warnings have only grown louder, Olympic organizers for the Tokyo Summer Games have had the same dogged consistent message. No more postponements, no cancellations.

But now, the organizing committee and the Japanese government are facing some crucial decisions. The government expected to decide anytime now on extending a state of emergency for areas struggling with a surge in COVID-19 cases.

And after a round-table meeting with experts, Tokyo 2020 is holding a news conference, at this hour, to discuss plans to keep athletes and the public safe.

Japan is averaging about 4,500 cases a day, according to Johns Hopkins University. Figures compiled by CNN show only about 2 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. Doctors say one of the main concerns is now mutations of the virus.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NAOTO UEYAMA, CHAIRMAN, JAPAN DOCTORS UNION: There is a possibility that the South African, and the Indian variants, could spread around the world through the Olympics. And we also cannot deny the possibility of a new variant being generated. If that were to happen, it would be called the Tokyo Olympics variant, and it will be condemned in the next 100 years as a foolish act of mankind.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAUSE: Live now to Tokyo. CNN's Blake Essig standing by for us. Blake, this would be an Olympic legacy nobody wants.

BLAKE ESSIG, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No. And it somewhat seems inevitable. Whether there is an outbreak or not, that these Olympics will always be remembered for this pandemic and the way that Olympic organizers and the Japanese government have handled this whole situation.

Now, fueled by the U.K. variant, COVID-19 cases across Japan remain high. The country continues to see a record number of patients in critical condition, and the medical system remains strained. That's despite the fact that Tokyo and several other prefectures here in Japan have been living under a state of emergency since the end of April.

While the current state of emergency order was set to expire on Monday, Japan's prime minister will decide later today whether or not to extend it.

Now, if he does, a state of emergency would expire just about a month before the Olympic Games are scheduled to open. Now, that might seem significant, but Olympic organizers have made it quite clear that it's not. They recently said that the games would go ahead, even if Tokyo was under a state of emergency at the time.

While Olympic organizers continue to push ahead, the governor of Chiba prefecture, just east of Tokyo, has announced that the torch relay will bypass the entire prefecture. He said that the decision to cancel, and instead hold a torch lighting, was made in the best interest of local residents' safety and security.

Now, a doctors' union in Japan has also, once again, called for the Olympic Games to be canceled. And although their biggest concern is virus variants, the union is also questioning Olympic organizers' plan to set nine hospitalized for athletes. And that's because, during the month of July and August, medical professionals say that hospitals are already overwhelmed with patients being brought in with heatstroke.

To put that into perspective, John, in 2018 alone, more than 1,000 people died in Japan because of a heat wave.

VAUSE: OK. Wow. That's obviously an issue, but does it -- it seems to sort of take second place over what we're talking about here with the pandemic. And along with that, one of the big problems Japan is facing is this low number of people who have been fully vaccinated.

So with that in mind, the E.U. has sent 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to Japan. The question, though, is it an issue of supply, or is it just a sort of simple question of reluctance? If they have the supply there, will that mean that, you know, 100 million doses will be administered, which is about 40 percent of the population?

ESSIG: Yes, I mean, that would be the case. But, here in Japan, John, supply isn't the problem. Only about 2 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, and medical professionals say that a lack of manpower, and a chaotic reservation and distribution system, is what's to blame for the slow rollout.

Now, I recently spoke with an infectious disease specialist who told me that, if holding the Olympics is the most important thing, then vaccines are the right option, but he said giving vaccinations to host an event is wrong. He says it should be done to protect people's lives.

VAUSE: OK, Blake. Thank you, Blake. Blake Essig there in Tokyo with the very latest.

CNN medical analyst Dr. Jorge Rodriguez is now live with us from Los Angeles. Good to see you. It's been a while, Jorge. So thank you for being with us.

DR. JORGE RODRIGUEZ, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Thanks, John. Always a pleasure.

VAUSE: I want you to listen a little more from the head of the Japan doctors' union, explaining how the Tokyo Games could end up producing this Olympic strain of the coronavirus.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UEYAMA: If the Olympic Games are to be held in Tokyo, this will mean that people will be coming to Japan from 200 different countries around the world. Tens of thousands of people, indeed. This could mean potentially that all the different mutant strains of the virus that exist in different places will be concentrated and gathering here in Tokyo.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[00:05:04]

VAUSE: Is that a legitimate concern? I mean, how realistic is that?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, until it happens. So I do think that it is a realistic concern.

We all want things to open, but wanting something and wishing for something doesn't make it so. I think the potential for disaster is real -- is real and it could happen.

Listen, right now, Japan is on a huge surge, having approximately 50,000 cases per day. So unfortunately, this could be a perfect storm. And vaccinations appears to be the only way to maybe thwart this. But, again, the world is going to convene for athletes, and it may also be convening for different variants of the virus. So it's a possibility.

VAUSE: And there are plenty of those existing variants, which are spreading around the world right now. In particular, the B-1.617.2. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATT HANCOCK, BRITISH HEALTH MINISTER: The variant, first identified in India, so called B.1.617.2, is still spreading. And the latest estimates are that more than half, and potentially as many as three- quarters of all new cases are now of this variant.

(END VIDEO CLIP) VAUSE: That's the U.K. health secretary. We had a recent study from Pfizer and AstraZeneca, saying that vaccines are effective against the Indian variant. Also, too Moderna, more recently.

There was an emphasis, though, on the effectiveness after two doses. So, apart from that -- that issue, is there any reason for any major concern here when it comes to vaccines and the Indian variant?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, as you said, John, the vaccines have been shown to be effective against this "Indian," quote unquote, variant if you receive both vaccinations. That's the problem.

Right now, the U.K. is at a very low level, except for certain areas, where as the person said, two-thirds of the new infections are due to this variant. So is there concern? I'm a worrywart. There's always concern.

But right now, it seems that the U.K. is on top of it. They're putting together some not very popular restrictions, but this is the way the world is going to be for a while. We are going to have to jump and dive, and we're going to have to change, sometimes at a moment's notice, depending on what's happening.

VAUSE: Yes. I guess at least those countries that do have ample supplies of vaccines can breathe a little easier.

But much of the world does not have that luxury, and COVAX, that international coalition led by the WHO to try and distribute vaccines around the world, is calling for the rich countries to share a billion doses.

Here's part of a statement from COVAX, explaining why. "By donating vaccines to COVAX alongside domestic programs, the most at-risk populations can be protected globally, which is instrumental to ending the acute phase of the pandemic, curbing the rise and threat of variants, and accelerating a return to normality."

So, what's the cost-benefit analysis here? Vaccinating low-risk kids in wealthy nations, versus most of the at-risk population around the world? You know, where does it rest?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, I think, obviously, the answer is if we take all the emotions apart, then we need to vaccinate higher risk populations throughout the world.

We're not going to be safe -- and this has been said before -- until the whole world is safe. To think that we are isolated, not every country is New Zealand, where you really are, you know, isolated by an ocean, or Australia. There is commerce. There is tourism. There is movement among nations.

And this is not going to be over until the richer nations, definitely step up and do their part. And if for nothing else, for the selfish reasons that we in the United States, or in Canada, or the U.K., are not going to be safe until the poor countries are also safe. It's as clear as that. VAUSE: I just want to finish up quickly with new word that immunity

from COVID-19 may last a little longer than first thought. This study was published in "Nature." It found antibodies declined rapidly in the first four months after infection, and then more gradually over the following seven months, remaining detectable at least 11 months after infection."

Researchers also encouraged after planting memory cells in recovering patients. So what's the bottom line here on unity and what those memory cells do?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, the memory -- the bottom line is that immunity is something that's very complicated. And not only do you have antibodies, but the bone marrow has certain cells, memory B cells, and memory T cells.

So the bottom line is, if you have COVID, you still need to get vaccinated. You have the chance of being almost like a supercharged immunity person.

And, if you have not been vaccinated, you really, at the end of the day, don't stand much of a chance to fight this virus. You're going to get it eventually.

So, whether you have antibodies or not, if you have been vaccinated or been exposed, your body is going to remember how to fight this virus. That's the bottom line.

[00:10:03]

VAUSE: Supercharged. I like it. Jorge Rodriguez, thanks so much. Good to see you.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.

Well, for the past year, the U.S. intelligence committee -- community, rather, has been searching for the origins of COVID-19. They're now facing a 90-day deadline to reach a conclusion.

The office of the director of national intelligence admits the agencies are still divided on a definitive answer. "The U.S. intelligence community does not know exactly where, when, or how the COVID-19 virus was transmitted initially but has coalesced around two likely scenarios." This is a statement from them. "Either it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals, or it was a laboratory accident."

The lab leak theory suddenly gaining traction after U.S. intelligence reported several lab workers in Wuhan, China, were sent to hospital in November 2019 with symptoms consistent with COVID-19. And that was weeks before China reported its first official case of COVID.

Beijing insists the virus came about naturally, not from a lab. The foreign ministry is accusing the U.S. of pursuing the lab leak theory as a way of embarrassing China.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ZHAO LIJIAN, CHINA'S FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN (through translator): The U.S. does not care about facts or truth and has zero interest in a serious, science-based study of origins.

Their aim is to use the pandemic to pursue stigmatization, political manipulation, and blame shifting. They are being disrespectful to science, irresponsible to people's lives, and counterproductive to the concerted efforts to fight the virus.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAUSE: CNN's Will Ripley is following this for us from Taipei in Taiwan. So Will, you know, I'm rubber, you're glue stuff doesn't seem to work here, because at the end of the day, what matters is evidence. And there is increasing evidence on one side that this virus might have emerged from a lab. There's not a lot of evidence coming from the other side.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There are two theories that the U.S. intelligence community is really looking at seriously, John. One is the lab leak theory. The other, that the virus came from some sort of unnatural interaction between people and animals.

Was it necessarily the seafood market in Wuhan? Well, new questions being raised about that. But from the Chinese perspective, there is a full-core propaganda press. You just played from the ministry of foreign affairs, this is a new editorial in "The China Daily," calling it more mudslinging by the U.S., that the lab leak is a smear campaign, a conspiracy theory propelled by prejudice, and political need.

And they say they might be more keen to let scientists back into the Wuhan Institute if the United States was keen to let scientists into its own secretive labs and bases without offering any evidence as to why China believes that the virus originated from multiple locations around the world at once, a theory that, again, they continue to not really be able to backup, other than that they're just throwing it back out there, John, because, obviously, China has even called it a political virus.

From the Chinese perspective, they lose face, and they could potentially face repercussions if something were to get out that is even more embarrassing than the widely-accepted theory that the virus originated in China, in Wuhan, at that seafood market, or one of the other dozens of really hundreds of wildlife markets that exist in Hubei province.

VAUSE: I guess the question is, when it comes to this review by U.S. intelligence, exactly what will they be looking at? And "The New York Times" is reporting that "President Biden's call for a 90-day sprint to understand the origins of the coronavirus pandemic came after intelligence officials told the White House that there are a raft of still-unexamined evidence that required conditional computer analysis that might shed light on the mystery, according to senior ministration officials." This, in many ways, will access to the site where this all happened,

would have been helpful, especially in the early stages. It does seem that there could be some very significant new developments come out of this without getting any access that so many people have been calling for in China.

RIPLEY: CNN's own reporting, John, talked about nearly 200 pages of previously overlooked evidence that now American, not really even spies but scientists, are going to be pouring over.

This isn't an annex to the World Health Organization's report. Remember, January and February, they said 17 people to Wuhan and the surrounding area, but the findings of that report have since been, you know, if anything, been accused of being incomplete. Because a lot of times, their assessments were based on conversations, as opposed to actual analysis of the real raw data.

So yes, "The New York Times" says that it's going to be unlikely that there's an email or a text message showing evidence of a lab leak. But they do seem to indicate in their reporting that there is a trove of information that the United States still needs to pore through.

VAUSE: OK. Will, thank you. Will Ripley, live for us with the very latest there in Taiwan. Thank you.

Well, the Belarus government is claiming it had very good reasons for diverting a Ryanair flight that just happened to have a dissident journalist on board who is now in state custody.

But the problem here is the timing just doesn't make any sense. Well, the Russian authorities say they received an email about a bomb on board, and that's why they had to force the passenger plane to land in Minsk.

But CNN received an image of the email with a time stamp showing it was sent almost half an hour after Belorussian authorities alerted the plane's crew about the supposed threat.

The e-mail provider, Proton, confirms the timing.

Meantime, E.U. authorities are focusing on how to punish Belarus for what's been described as state-sanctioned hijacking. This comes as the Belarusian president gets ready to meet with his staunch ally and Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who's already seeking a lot of support for Alexander Lukashenko's regime.

We get more now from CNN's Matthew Chance.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's not that clear what Russia's intentions are. But what we know is that so far, two European carriers, Air France and Austrian Airlines, have been forced to cancel flights to Moscow, because Russia has refused to give them permission to take an alternative route that would bypass Belarusian airspace. If that continues to happen, it could be a major escalation of the

crisis and potentially cause widespread disruption to air travel in and out of Russia and possible even across Russia.

The European Union, of course, advised airlines to avoid Russian airspace and ban flights from Belarusian Airlines. A response to the extraordinary events of the weekend, in which Belarusian authorities forced the passenger airline, en route from Athens to Lithuania to land in Minsk.

Transport officials in Minsk said there had been a bomb threat. But the fact that two passengers on board the aircraft were detained on the ground in Minsk as provoked a wave of condemnation from Moscow, of course, which says they've got no reason to doubt the official Belarusian version of events.

Later on, on Friday the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko will be here in Russia for face-to-face meetings with his counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Meetings that will be closely watched to see how much backing the Kremlin leader is prepared to offer his -- his Belarusian president, given the fact he's preparing for a very important, much anticipated summit next month with the U.S. president, Joe Biden.

Matthew Chance, CNN, Moscow.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

Vause: We should also note the U.N.'s aviation agency is opening an investigation into the plane's forced lending.

Well, panic and chaos are gripping a major city in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Almost a week after a deadly volcanic eruption, thousands are fleeing in fear of another more powerful one to come. A report from Goma in a moment.

Also, a discovery of bodies in the backyard of a former police officer triggering a murder investigation in El Salvador.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAUSE: The United Nations has agreed to launch an international investigation into the 11-day conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The U.N. Human Rights Council voted Thursday to adopt a resolution brought by the organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Palestinian delegation to the U.N.

[00:20:03]

The Hamas-run health ministry has said more than 240 Palestinians in Gaza were killed by Israeli airstrikes during the latest round of violence, including 66 children; 70,000 left homeless. The U.N. Human Rights Commission says Israel's actions may constitute more crimes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MICHELLE BACHELET, U.N. HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: It's found to be indiscriminating and disproportionate in the treatment of civilians and civilian objects. Such effects may constitute war crimes. On the other hand, it is also a violation of international humanitarian law to locate military assets in densely-populated civilian areas or to launch attacks from them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAUSE: The commissioner added that rockets fired by Hamas violated international humanitarian law by failing to distinguish between military and civilian targets.

Amnesty International, though, said both sides could be guilty of committing war crimes.

The Israeli military has said 12 people, including two children, were killed in Israel during those rocket strikes.

The mass exodus of a major African city underway this hour as a deadly volcano threatens to possibly erupt a second time. Tens of thousands of people are leaving Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And for many of the southern evacuees, the destination and their futures are unknown.

CNN's Larry Madowo is near the stricken city.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LARRY MADOWO, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A state of cares (ph) and panic as people flee the city of Goma following what scientists call an unprecedented situation. Residents of ten neighborhoods evacuate their homes with only what they can carry. Mattresses, essential items and little else. Hundreds of thousands hit the road on Thursday, according to aid agencies.

MAPENDO RACHEL, EVACUEE: They said our houses could collapse because of the earthquakes. So we're leaving, because we're afraid. A crack already appeared under my bed.

MADOWO: What sounds like a description of an apocalypse is a reality facing this part of Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

The eruption from Mt. Nyiragongo on Saturday this puts them on the high-risk path of lava flow or catastrophic implosion from magma underground, and increasing earthquakes have led to fear of a second eruption.

(on camera): This is the scramble to leave the danger zone of Goma. Thousands of people using every mode of transport available to them to try to get to the safety zone in Sake. We're about eight miles out, and traffic is backed up all the way.

(voice-over): More people trying to cross the border into the safety of neighboring Rwanda. UNICEF projects that up to 280,000 children could be displaced in the aftermath of the volcanic eruption. This mother of six tells me she's left everything behind except her

kids. "It's all in the hands of God," she says. The Congolese government says the priority is the preservation of human life.

But the crowded evacuation routes leads through small towns like Sake that they're hardly prepared for the influx of internally-displaced people.

Aline Mugisha prepares a small dinner for her three children outside a church but worries about where their next meal will come from.

ALINE MUGISHA, EVACUEE (through translator): We don't have the means to take care of ourselves. There's limited food. They are sleeping on the floor. And we are suffering too much.

MADOWO: The latest eruption that killed dozens and displaced tens of thousands put indescribable stress on an already worn-down population. The Norwegian Refugee Council, a leading humanitarian organization, says the DRC is the world's most neglected displacement crisis in 2020.

JAN EGELAND, SECRETARY-GENERAL, NORWEGIAN REFUGEE COUNCIL: He has the richest mineral base on earth, this country, but the people living on top of this mineral reservoir are among the poorest people in the world and the most neglected.

MADOWO: The city of Goma emptied into the night as panic spread. Many who have yet to reach their final destination slept rough on the streets, anxious about a potential disaster.

Larry Madowo, CNN, Goma.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VAUSE: The French president has acknowledged France's quote, "overwhelming responsibility" in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Survivors and researchers accuse France of supporting the Houthi regime, a key ally in Africa, even after the massacres had started. In just 100 days, more than 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, were killed by Houthi militants. Here's Emmanuel Macron.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EMMANUEL MACRON, PRESIDENT OF FRANCE (through translator): But France has a role, a history and a political responsibility in Rwanda. And it has a duty to look history in the face and to recognize the suffering that is inflicted on the Rwandan people by allowing silence to prevail over the examination of the truth for too long.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAUSE: Well, Macron stopped short of a public apology. Survivors' groups had mixed reactions, as you would expect, to that statement.

Meanwhile, a State Department official is warning Ethiopia and Eritrea that it might impose additional sanctions if the violence and atrocities in the Tigray region do not stop.

[00:25:02]

It comes just days after CNN reporting witness accounts that soldiers there beat townspeople and rounded up hundreds of young men from displacement camps. Both the U.S. and the United Nations are demanding their release.

CNN's Nima Elbagir recently reported from Tigray explaining how U.S. and U.N. officials are responding to CNN's latest findings.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Just days after the United States announced financial sanctions and visa restrictions on Ethiopian and Eritrean officials that they say they believe are complicit in violations in Ethiopia's Tigray region.

CNN was sent this video, filmed secretly in Shire town in Tigray. It shows desperate parents gathered at the U.N. offices in Shire, desperate to hear word of their loved ones who they say were taken away by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers, forcibly detained and beaten.

CNN shared this investigation's findings with the United Nations. And the resident coordinator has called these detentions arbitrary, saying that there are serious violations of humanitarian law and calling for the immediate release of these young man.

We also shared our findings with Senator Chris Coons, President Biden's envoy to Ethiopia. And he is also calling for the immediate release of these young men, saying that if they are harmed or if they are not released, then there must be accountability.

Nima Elbagir, CNN, London.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VAUSE: Well, when we come back, the U.S. may be on drawdown from Afghanistan, but an exclusive CNN investigation has found Al-Qaeda remains a force with international connections.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The U.S. treasury in January said al-Qaeda was, quote, "growing in strength" here. That Afghan intelligence I spoke to go further, saying it's more substantial than that. And Al-Qaeda provided expertise by bomb making, but also in finance, in moving cash around.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAUSE: Welcome back, everybody. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm John Vause.

In Afghanistan, new signs that al-Qaeda remains a worldwide threat even after the American military pulled out. The U.S. is way ahead of schedule on a full withdrawal due for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in September, but as CNN's Nick Paton Walsh tells us in this exclusive report, the terrorist group is still up and running in Afghanistan, maintaining a web of international connections and could attack the west again.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WALSH (voice-over): Al-Qaeda, the reason the U.S. went to Afghanistan are greatly diminished. The Biden administration said...

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is time to end American's longest war.

[00:30:04]

WALSH: But a CNN investigation has discovered al-Qaeda very much alive and thriving in Afghanistan, linked to global sales the U.S. is hunting.

Seeing Afghan intelligence officials tell CNN al-Qaeda are communicating with their cells worldwide from Afghanistan, getting shelter and support from the Taliban in exchange for expertise and could be able to attack the west from there by the end of next year.

U.S. Treasury in January said al-Qaeda was, quote, "growing in strength" here, but an Afghan intelligence official I spoke to go further, saying it's more substantial than that. That Al-Qaeda provide expertise like bomb making, but also in finance, in moving cash around.

Core Al Qaeda members number in their hundreds, most assessments conclude, but it's not how many, but who, which is most telling. Key is senior al Qaeda Husam Abd al-Rauf, known as Abu Muhsin al-Masri, a mastery here on an FBI wanted poster issued in 2019. An al-Qaeda veteran, he was in on 9/11 before it happened, said Afghan officials.

WALSH: Al-Masri crossed into Afghanistan from Pakistan in 2014 and over six years, I was told, moved around different provinces in Afghanistan, something that senior Afghan intelligence officials say would only be possible if he had the assistance of top Taliban officials.

But he was in October tracked down to here, a tiny Taliban-controlled village in Ghazni that we can only see on satellite images. Afghan Special Forces lost a soldier raiding this compound, so fierce with the Taliban resistance. Al-Masri died of injuries here.

(on camera): When they went through al-Masri's possessions, his computer, they found messages communicating with other al-Qaeda cells around the world, talking about operational matters, not necessarily attacks, but also about how soon Afghanistan could be a much freer, easier space for them to operate in.

(voice-over): Then, something curious happened. We're getting a lot about al-Qaeda in Afghanistan's global connections, particularly in this case to Syria.

There were two rare U.S. strikes on al-Qaeda cells in Syria immediately afterwards. This one on the 15th of October, and another a week later, both in Idlib.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. military said they were, quote, "not aware" of any connection to the Afghan raid, but a senior Afghan official told me they were most likely connected because the Americans asked the Afghans to delay announcing their rate for over 10 days. And during that delay, before the Afghans broke the news, both Syria strikes happened.

Strikes on al-Qaeda figures are often announced by Afghan intelligence, who present the threat as why the U.S. must stay. A Taliban spokesman ranked CNN saying the claims were false and designed to keep American money coming to Afghanistan. He also said the Taliban had agreed to kick out terrorists as part of their peace deal with the United States.

(on camera): I was told there isn't evidence at this stage that al- Qaeda is plotting attacks on the west from Afghanistan, but still, as they grow in freedom of movement I was told it is considered simply a matter of time till that may happen. Raising the question, is the reason why the U.S. Came to Afghanistan in the first place going to wind up the reason they have to come back?

Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, Afghanistan.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VAUSE: To the surprise of absolutely no one, Bashar Assad has won a 4th term in office with a landslide win in Syria's presidential election.

He was challenged by two relatively unknown politicians. Enough for thousands to celebrate in the streets, though, a victory in of what activists have been calling a sham.

he United States and several European countries say it was neither free nor fair. It should have been held under U.N. supervision.

President al-Assad dismissed those comments on Wednesday after casting his ballot. Al-Assad's presidency has been defined by conflict. This is the second election hands one since an uprising 10 years ago spiraled into civil war. Hundreds of thousands have died. Millions have been displaced. Al-Assad's has been repeatedly accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, allegations he denies.

To El Salvador now. A former police officer faces charges after a horrific discovery in his backyard.

Earlier this month, officials found at least 18 bodies buried there, most of them, women, and at least some were sexually assaulted. But as CNN's Patrick Oppmann reports, investigators are concerned there could be more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A week after finding a mass grave and a former police officer's backyard, officials in El Salvador continue to unearth the bodies of more of his alleged victims.

So far Salvadorian police say they've found at least 18 bodies. Many of them are women who they believe are victims of sexual abuse. Officials say there may be more bodies ahead yet to recover.

[00:35:02]

Former police officer Hugo Osorio Chavez is one of 11 people charged with murder after the human remains were discovered in his backyard. According to the attorney general's office, if convicted Osorio Chavez could face more than 100 years in prison. Officials say that Osorio Chavez was dismissed from the national civic police 15 years ago for allegedly raping a minor and having sex, they say, with an underage person.

After he was released from prison, police say, he began to approach his alleged victims through social media.

Saydad (ph) Espanol in El Salvador reported that neither Osorio Chavez nor his attorney have commented on the allegations.

The case has shocked Salvadorians, who are all too used to sky-high murder rates and allegations that police commit crimes are protected from prosecution.

Since the grim discovery, family members of missing women have gathered outside the home to see if their loved ones might be buried inside.

Patrick Oppmann, CNN, Havana.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VAUSE: Still to come, a container ship still on fire after more than a week. And now officials fear tons of oil could spill into the ocean. A live report in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAUSE: Hard to believe, but it seems smoking is on the rise around the world with new research, which has found the number of people who smoke tobacco products reached 1.1 billion worldwide in 2019.

That same year, the data also showed smoking cost close to eight million deaths, and nearly 90 percent of those deaths were in people who were current smokers.

The five countries with the largest number of smokers are China, India, Indonesia, the U.S. and Russia.

Well, officials in Sri Lanka are trying to prevent an environmental disaster right now. A container ship carrying chemicals has been burning off the coast for a week. And there are fears that 320 metric tons of oil on board. It could spill into the ocean.

CNN's Paula Hancocks watching all this for us, joining us now live. How can they prevent this from happening?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, at this point, it's a joint effort between the Sri Lankan navy and also Indian Coast Guard. They are effectively trying to douse the flames around the clock, 24 hours a day.

They're using firefighting tugs. They're using helicopters from both sides, as well.

But the fact is, this has been burning, as you say, for over a week now. This -- this fire started back on May 20, and the concern is that this ship could actually sink.

We've had some very serious concerns from the minister of fisheries in Sri Lanka. Over the past few days saying they didn't understand how they could prevent this ship from sinking.

They have brought more help in from Europe, though. We know the Dutch experts are trying to help them prevent the sinking of the ship. That would surely create an environmental disaster as the oil seeps into the sea then. So they are trying desperately to keep it afloat.

But it does appear as though things are getting slightly more stable than they have been in previous days.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NISHANTHA ULUGETENNE, SR LANKA NAVY COMMANDER: At the moment (ph) here, helping at this time with the Indian coast guard. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the company and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) port authority. At the moment, we are in a very stable condition, as the boat (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- this completely.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HANCOCKS: Now, recent days have also been dealing with heavy winds. So certainly, favorable conditions would help the situation.

Now, it's believed to have started from a leakage from one of the containers on board the ship of nitric acid, which then created this fire.

Now, authorities are investigating exactly what happened, clearly. But we're hearing from the company that owns the vessel that they have made two stops in -- in previous ports. One in India, one in Qatar, and it requested that this particular leaking container be taken off the vessel but were advised that there simply wasn't the specialist knowledge and expertise immediately on hand to be able to do that at those ports.

So clearly, officials in Sri Lanka are looking at how it got to the point that it was able to come into their waters and get to -- to such a dangerous situation, but clearly, the priority for them at this point is to make sure that this ship does not sink.

We hear from Indian officials that if it does, and from Sri Lankan officials, what will happen is you will see the oil very quickly coming to the surface. They have tried to put oil blooms around the vessel itself to prevent the oil from spreading too far.

And also, one of the bays very closely, they have been trying to protect, as well -- John.

VAUSE: So what are the actual chances that the ship will go down? So is there a timeframe on this? What are they looking at?

HANCOCKS: Well, we heard from fisheries minister in Sri Lanka on Tuesday, saying that he believed it was an 80 percent chance of this ship going down. Now clearly, that hasn't happened yet, but they are still struggling to put the flames under control. So they're not out of the woods. It's not definite that this ship will not sink.

But they have brought in more expertise, as I say, some Dutch experts coming in to try and keep it afloat at -- at any cost. And we don't know how quickly it might happen, but clearly, the issue is the amount of oil on board would instantly go into the ocean.

VAUSE: Paula, thank you. Paula Hancocks, live with the very latest on that very desperate stuff, that ship going down. Thank you.

Well, there's been a stark warning from the World Meteorological Organization. The earth will likely reach a dangerous climate tipping point in the next five years.

It says there's a 40 percent chance the average global temperature will temporarily reach the 1.5 degrees Celsius mark above pre- industrial levels.

Climate scientists often point to that marker and say it would dramatically increase the risk of extreme drought, wildfires, floods, and food shortages.

Last year the world's average temperature: 1.2 degrees warmer. Ever so close to that 1.5. Do the math. Just 0.3 away.

I'm John Vause. I will be back at the top of the hour with another hour of CNN NEWSROOM. In the meantime, stay with us. WORLD SPORT is up next.

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