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Italy Win Championship; Billionaire Space Traveler Recounts Groundbreaking Journey; Afghan Refugee Family Stranded at Istanbul Airport; Tokyo Enters New COVID Emergency with Olympics in 11 Days; Rare Displays of Anger in Cuba Over COVID Response, Economic Woes. Aired 12-12:45a ET

Aired July 12, 2021 - 00:00   ET


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Welcome to CNN NEWSROOM, everyone. I'm Michael Holmes. Appreciate your company.


Coming up this hour, you see it there, the thrill of victory. Italians celebrate after clinching their first major title in 15 years at Euro 2020's final.

Also --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Three, two, one, release, release, release.

RICHARD BRANSON, VIRGIN GALACTIC CEO: For the next generation of dreamers, if we can do this, just imagine what you can do. Yay!


HOLMES: Making history. Richard Branson goes where only a handful of people have gone before, reaching the edge of space aboard a rocket developed by his own company.




HOLMES: And fed up in Cuba. Rare protests in the streets over the lack of freedom and an ever worsening economy.

Italy will be waking up with a new title, European football champions, and perhaps a few hangovers, as well. That crown was claimed late on Sunday after the team toppled England in a dramatic penalty shootout, sparking wild celebrations all across Rome.



HOLMES: The street party stretched well into the night after fans gathered to watch the Azure hand England heartbreaking defeat.

They celebrated Italy's first major title in 15 years, its first European championship in more than 50 years. The Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, congratulating the team and is set to greet the players at a ceremony in the coming hours.

Now, while England scored the first goal just two minutes into the Euro 2020 final. It seemed the Three Lions could be headed for victory at long last, but Italy then equalized in the second half with its own goal, 67 minutes in, the site standing level at one-all after extra time.

Italy eventually winning that penalty shoot-out, 3-2. Now, Italy's victory in a packed Wembley stadium in London, a crushing blow, obviously, for England. Prince William, who was there in attendance, told the football players to be proud of themselves and to hold their heads high.

CNN's Cyril Vanier following with more reaction from London.


CYRIL VANIER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There's no such thing as an easy loss when your team makes it to the final of a major tournament like a European championship. But this one would have been particularly heartbreaking for England fans who really did believe for most of the game the trophy of a major football tournament. For the first time in more than half a century.

But it was not to be. The Italians equalized in the 67th minute, took the game to a penalty shootout and then managed to edge out England. And you know, being a fan of the England football team over the last half century has come with its fair share of disappointments on frustrations, and unfortunately, today it will have to be added to that list.

There was such a compelling narrative around this team. Not only was it a supremely talented group, but they're also very likable players. They have a very likable manager, Gareth Southgate, who was something out of a redemption tour, because of course, he was part of the 1996 England team that lost to Germany in the semifinals of the European championships on penalty shootouts.

And there was a real desire by the fans we spoke to ahead of the game to believe in this compelling sports narrative that they were destined to win this time. That they had the momentum because they were playing at home. But that did not happen. Then they were heartbroken.

If things had gone the other way, they were looking at a parade, a celebration, a possible knighthood for the England manager, Gareth Southgate, on a bank holiday. All of those things will not happen. The positive spin that can be put on this this evening is that the

England men's football team remains a very talented young group full of talent, and they will now have the hunger and the maturity going into next year's World Cup less than 18 months from now.

Cyril Vanier, CNN, London.


HOLMES: London's Metropolitan Police say they made 49 arrests for what they call a variety of offenses while policing the Euro 2020. Here's a look at some fans breaking through barricades at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

Some then seen clashing with police in the street. Police say 19 officers were injured while confronting volatile crowds.

And police also report that they are investigating, quote, "a number of offensive and racist social media comments being directed towards footballers," unquote.

England's football association released a statement saying it is appalled at racial abuse and that it condemns all forms of discrimination.

And joining me now for more on all of this, the match and more, CNN Sport's Patrick Snell.

You know, I wanted to ask you, how much of a hero Roberto Mancini is now? I mean, he built this national team up. The lows of not qualifying for the World Cup to now European championships. But what does that mean for him?

PATRICK SNELL, WORLD SPORT: It's extraordinary. What he has done. How he has transformed the Azure, as we like to say in my best Italian. It's incredible.

When you think about it, look, when they didn't qualify for the 2018 Russian World Cup, that was unthinkable to a nation that lives and breathes the beautiful game of football. Utterly unthinkable.

What has he done? He's turned it all around. He's made them champions of Europe. Remember, Italy are four-time champions of the world. I was actually in Berlin in 2006 when they won the World Cup final against France, again on penalties on that occasion.

I was part of the revelry, shall we say, that night. I know what it means to Italian football fans. But Mancini, absolutely, that undisputed footballing savior. A 34th straight win now for the Azure, quite incredible. I do believe they were worthy winners on the night.

Of course, heartbreak for the English, but I thought Italy had been outstanding during this tournament, no question about that. And as we said earlier in the programming, their second European title and their first in over half a century, would you believe. Michael, let's hear now from the man himself, the Italian head coach.


ROBERTO MANCINI, ITALY MANAGER (through translator): It was quite unpleasant to have to go all the way to the penalty shootout. I think we would have deserved to finish the game earlier than that, but we are very happy for Italians. Italians living abroad, there were many at the stadium today. Italians all over the world and especially Italians all across Italy, because I think we have given them a wonderful month of success and joy. And we are very happy about that.


SNELL: And I think that says it all, Michael, especially when you consider where the country has been through, as well, with COVID and everything. It's such a powerful statement for them.

HOLMES: It is. You know, I wonder. I mean, things -- a long list of things that you know that I didn't. And that is it's only the second time in history of the European competition that it went to a penalty shoot-out, which -- which of course, is nothing that any fan really wants to see.

And the other interesting thing is back in 1996, the England manager, Southgate, famously missed a penalty, which knocked England out of the same competition, but this is a young team. A bright future, I imagine you'd say.

SNELL: Did you have to go there with Southgate?

HOLMES: I'm sorry about that. Yes.

SNELL: That's still -- a quarter of a century.


SNELL: It's still painful. Look, absolutely. England has much to be proud of, Michael. There's no question about that.

But I do feel this was one that got away from them. This was a real chance to snap that 55-year trophy drought. You have to go back to 1966 for the last time they were crowned champions of the world, which is a magnificent achievement, but nothing in 55 years.

But yes, terrific young players. Your boy Harry Kane leading the line. There's no question about that. There have so much to be proud of. Look, they built on what they achieved in Russia in 2018, they got to the semifinals. This is a natural progression. They only conceded two goals all tournament. And I think it does bode really well for the next Men's World Cup, which is Qatar 2022.

But heartbreak. Look at those images for those players there. And of course, heart goes out for 19-year-old Bukayo Saka there, who had that penalty save by Donnarumma.

HOLMES: Exactly. And since we got you here, I want to make good use of our Patrick Snell time. It was -- it was a big day for Italy, not just on the football pitch. They had a Wimbledon finalist on standard (ph) court, even if he didn't take home the big hardware.

SNELL: He didn't, but tell you about the thing he did very well against a certain Novak Djokovic, shall we say. Look, no disgrace in losing to the top-ranked player in the world, the best player in the world now when it comes to tennis.

Look, he is celebrating, Djokovic, the super Serbian celebrating a 20th Grand Slam title. Why is that significant? Because it takes him level with the great Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Michael, that's 60 Grand Slam titles between --

HOLMES: And they're all still playing.

SNELL: Right, they're all still active. How lucky are we to be witnessing three of the greatest of all time at the same time. Djokovic also has won all three Grand Slam titles so far this year. He's going for the calendar slam.


He did drop a little nugget, which was quite interesting. A little newsy line, saying he was only 50/50 now for the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics. So we'll see -- we'll be watching that one carefully to see what his final decision will be.

HOLMES: He is worried about the restrictions.

SNELL: Right.

HOLMES: He didn't like that he might not be able to take his racket string up.

SNELL: Yes, he did mention that. Important to him. But also, look, three Wimbledon titles on the balance, as well.

HOLMES: Oh, my goodness. It's just extraordinary to have all three of them, as you say.


HOLMES: WORLD SPORT coming up. And just repeat that ash party (ph) one at Wimbledon.

SNELL: An ash party (ph). Did very well historically. A stark weekend to tell you.

HOLMES: All right. Good to see you, Patrick Snell. A legend.

OK. Now, billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson is calling his historic journey to the edge of space "the dawn of a new space age." And Sunday's flight made for an exciting moment right here on CNN.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RACHEL CRANE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is that historic moment that Richard Branson and his team at Virgin Galactic had been waiting for, for nearly two decades. We have release.


HOLMES: Pretty exciting stuff, wasn't it? That was CNN's Rachel Crane describing the moment.

Virgin Galactic supersonic space plane the VSS Unity detached from the mothership. And you can see it there streaking into the edges of space. The voyage marks a watershed moment for the space tourism industry. And for Branson, his lifelong dream finally achieved.


BRANSON: To all you kids down there, I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now, I'm an adult in a spaceship with lots of other wonderful adults, looking down to our beautiful, beautiful Earth. For the next generation of dreamers, if we can do this, just imagine what you could do.


HOLMES: Amazing stuff, isn't it? Branson now the first billionaire to travel into space on a ship he helped fund. Now, that gives him some bragging rights over the Amazon mogul, Jeff Bezos, who is scheduled to blast off on his own space company's rocket next Tuesday.

Now, as I mentioned, CNN's Rachel Crane was on hand for the launch and spoke to the Virgin Galactic founder and newly-minted space traveler himself, Richard Branson.


CRANE: This flight was nearly two decades in the making. The company saying that Richard Branson's maiden flight was flawless. And nobody more excited about that than the company's founder and new astronaut, Richard Branson himself.

I had the opportunity to speak with him following the flight about the excitement and the energy of it. Take a listen to what he had to say.

BRANSON: I dreamt of going to space since I was a kid. I've always pictured what it would be like. It was just far more extraordinary than -- than I could ever imagine.

From the -- from going naught to 3,000 miles an hour, seven or eight seconds, being pressed back into the seat. The roar of the -- the roar of the rocket to arriving in space, and the -- and the silence. And you know, to -- to looking out of the window, to seeing how glorious, glorious, the colors of the sky, to unbuckling and floating, just literally lifting. Just going off to the ceiling and floating. Looking back down in these big windows. Now the spaceship is upside-down, facing back down to the Earth.

Seeing these three float around underneath me, like some giant fish. Get out of my way. I want to see the Earth.

And -- and then, of course, when we came back into the Earth's atmosphere, the shuddering as the spaceship comes back in. And anyway, it was just a pretty extraordinary day.

CRANE: But luckily for him, this was not a dream. This was reality. Space enthusiasms all around the globe are celebrating, and that's because Virgin Galactic and Branson hope that this fourth manned spaceflight will help usher in a new era of space travel.

The company saying that they expect to start their commercial operations in early 2022. That's when people like yourself and I could potentially one day hop a flight on their vehicle.

It's going to cost us. Right now, those tickets selling for around $200,000 a pop. A cost that Virgin Galactic has said might go up before it comes down.


HOLMES: Rachel Crane there.

Now back on Earth, Branson hopeful about the future of space travel, where equal access for all is the norm and not the exception.



BRANSON: We're here to make space more accessible to all. And we want to turn the next generation of dreamers into the astronauts of today and tomorrow.

We've all, us on the stage, have just had the most extraordinary experience. And we'd love it if a number of you can have it, too. So just imagine a world where people of all ages, all backgrounds, from anywhere, of any gender, of any ethnicity, have equal access to space. And they will, in turn, I think, inspire us back here on Earth. If you've ever had a dream, now is the time to make it come true.


HOLMES: Let's bring in Greg Autry, who's joining us from Cape Canaveral in Florida. He's a space policy expert and a professor at Arizona State University's Thunderbirds School of Global Management. Great to see you. Your thoughts on the flight, first of all? What it means? What it achieved?

GREG AUTRY, PROFESSOR, THUNDERBIRDS SCHOOL OF GLOBAL MANAGEMENT, ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY: Well, for me, personally, you know, I was on the runway at Mojave, California, in 2004, when Sir Richard announced Virgin Galactic.

And I have engaged and followed with the effort ever since. This is important for me, too. I'm so happy to see the success and the tenacity, and persistence that he has applied a payoff for him, for the team, and the company.

But this is going to be a similar moment in human history. This is a dipping point where we're not just leaving the planet with a government program and a, you know, few quasi-military people. This is the moment that humanity really begins our expansion out of the atmosphere.

HOLMES: Yes. That's an interesting way of putting it. And let's get the negativity, if you like, out of the way. Because people are saying things like, you know, this is a couple of rich guys playing with toys no one else can afford. But you have an argument against that.

AUTRY: Certainly. First of all, every great invention that we've had in the past was originally something that, you know, only the wealthy could afford. I remember paying $1,200 for my first CD player. That's not the point.

The point is that they're putting their money, their private capital, into something that's going to make the world better for all of us.

And secondly, by getting a lot of people up there, and seeing, I've had the opportunity to be friends with a number of astronauts, and when they come back, they're changed. They see the world with no borders. They see that thin atmosphere, and realize how precious our biosphere is.

Getting a bunch of wealthy and powerful people to experience that transformative awareness is -- is hugely valuable.

HOLMES: And space does have implications for climate change in a good way. We've learned a lot about climate change from space, right?

AUTRY: Absolutely. We wouldn't know anything about climate change without space data from NASA. Solar power was developed in great extent by NASA, and DOD for four satellites. GPS makes every transportation system on earth more efficient. More CO2 emissions than any other technology that's ever been developed.

To pretend that investing in space is -- is not the right thing to do for our environment, is incredibly shortsighted.

HOLMES: I wanted to ask you if you thought that this is a sustainable business, in terms of, you know, profitability. And that eventual accessibility for ordinary people. And, also, what are the implications for future commercial flights?

AUTRY: So, a lot of people have said, you know, this only lasts -- everybody that's superrich will go a couple of times. Then it will be done, or there will be an accident, and it will stop.

And I say, look at what's happening on Mount Everest. Every year, hundreds of people are going. They've had to put ladders in, in order to get them through faster.

And when you do that, you actually march, apparently, by the frozen, dead bodies of people that went before. And it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to mount this campaign. I don't think that you'll see anything different here, except that space tourism is much more pleasant and safer than that.

HOLMES: Wow. Yes. It was interesting to -- to see Branson had kids there as part of the media briefing. And it struck me that that's been important to him the whole way through. Inspiring kids to take an interest in space and its potential.

AUTRY: I do have to say, I've had the opportunity to speak to all three of the billionaires involved here, at one point or another, and Sir Richard has been, by far, the most sincere and passionate about what this means for -- for the future of our planet and our people. And, you know, that just shines through every time you see it.

HOLMES: Greg Autry at the Kennedy Space Center, really great to speak with you. Certainly a momentous day, as you say. We really appreciate it. Thanks.

AUTRY: Thank you.


HOLMES: We'll take a quick break. When we come back here on CNN NEWSROOM, Haiti plunges deeper into chaos after Wednesday's presidential assassination.

Now, the country's first lady speaking out about the attack. That's still to come.

And also, they say a return to Afghanistan would be a death sentence. The family sleeping on airport floors to escape the Taliban. That's when we come back.



HOLMES: The U.S. is joining the investigation into the assassination of Haiti's president, Jovenel Moise. At least 28 people are suspected in the plot, but questions about exactly who masterminded the attack, and why, remain unanswered.

That uncertainty has plunged Haiti even deeper into political crisis, as rivals jockey for power, and the hollowed-out Haitian parliament remains in a state of disarray.

Meanwhile, patients continue to face food and gas shortages, fueled, in part, by gang violence that has long played the country. And, in the wake of the presidents giving many a worry, it will be the gang leaders who fill Haiti's power vacuum. Over the weekend, an audio message was posted on the Twitter account of Haiti's first lady, who was also shot in the attack. And she encouraged Haitians to persevere through the chaos.



GRAPHIC: Tears will never dry up in my eyes. My heart will still bleed. But we cannot allow the president to die a second time. It's true, I'm crying. But we can't let the country go astray.


HOLMES: Several Haitian officials have confirmed that the first lady was speaking in that recording, although CNN has not independently confirmed the authenticity of the audio.

A Taliban offensive is forcing some countries to make tough choices in Afghanistan. India says it is pulling out some consular staff as fighting near Kandahar intensifies. They say the move is temporary until the situation stabilizes.

But the Taliban aren't just gaining ground near Kandahar. This video reportedly shows civilians and security forces fighting the Taliban. This is in Takhar province.

According to "The Long War Journal," most of that region had already fallen to the Taliban. And as the U.S. nears full withdrawal, a return to Taliban rule looks more like a pending reality. And that is driving a new wave of refugees.

Jomana Karadsheh reports to us on a family stranded in Turkey after a desperate bid to flee their homeland.


JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As America's military presence in Afghanistan nears, and with the Taliban continuing to gain more and more ground, so many Afghans are terrified at what might happen to them. They are looking at every possible option, to try and get out of the country.

Here in Istanbul airport, we found a -- one of those many stories, these desperate attempts, to try and flee Afghanistan, to escape the Taliban.


A group of 16 Afghans, members of an extended family, say they bought tickets to a Euro 2020 match in St. Petersburg last month. That allowed them to get on a flight from Afghanistan to Russia with a stopover in Turkey without needing visas. The plan is to apply for asylum when they got to Turkey.

But they have been stranded in the transit area here for about three weeks. It is a heartbreaking situation. They've been sending us photos and videos of what they have been going through. Children sleeping on the floor. Some in the group appear like they need urgent medical attention.

Take a listen to one of them describing what they have been going through. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are living here without food, water, and milk

for our baby.

We have nowhere to sleep, and we're on ground. We escaped from Afghanistan, due to life-threatening situation with Taliban.

KARADSHEH: So we've come here to the airport to try and meet this group, but they have since been moved to an immigration holding area.

They don't know what is going to happen to them, whether they're going to be allowed to apply for temporary protective status in Turkey, which will allow them to apply for asylum later on elsewhere. They're really worried that they could be put on a flight back to Afghanistan.

They say going back is not an option. Since they left Afghanistan, their hometown in Herat provinces has fallen into the Taliban. A relative, they say, was recently killed.

In the words of one man in that group, he says, sending them back to Afghanistan would be like a death sentence.

Jomana Karadsheh, CNN, Istanbul.


HOLMES: The Turkish interior ministry didn't respond to CNN's request for comment, but the family tells CNN they have now been allowed to submit an application for international protection and are awaiting a decision.

When we come back, rare scenes in Cuba. Crowds of protesters in multiple cities showing their anger against the communist government. We'll tell you why.

Also, Tokyo tries to balance the upcoming Olympic games, with a new coronavirus state of emergency. We'll have a live report from the city, straight ahead.


HOLMES: Welcome back to our viewers all around the world. I'm Michael Holmes. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM.

Israel is offering a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine to the immunocompromised after an uptick in the Delta variant infections in that country.


The country's health minister saying doctors will decide if patients are eligible.

On Sunday, a former FDA commissioner and current Pfizer board member told CBS the company has seen declining effectiveness of the vaccine against the Delta variant, and it is focused mainly on all the patients and those vaccinated a while ago. In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson will announce new criteria

for the country to enter step four of its reopening plan. The statement says four different criteria must be met to roll back restrictions further, including proof that vaccines are reducing hospitalizations and COVID-related deaths.

Data must also show undue pressure wouldn't be put on the NHS or, quote, fundamentally change risks caused by new variants.

Meanwhile, the Summer Olympics are set to begin in just over 11 days, even though the host city, Tokyo, is now under a new state of emergency, due to a rising number of COVID-19 infections.

Olympic security officials are expected to meet in the coming hours as part of final preparations. And IOC President Thomas Bach is scheduled to welcome arriving delegations within person and remote meetings.

CNN's Blake Essig joins me now from Tokyo to talk about this. I just can't believe it's only 11 days, Blake. Tell us more about how the state of emergency, how it's going to work and how it might play into Olympic enjoyment for locals?

BLAKE ESSIG, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. You know, Michael, it is hard to believe that we are just 11 days away from the start of the Olympics, but the buzz and excitement that's typically associated with the games doesn't seem to exist.

Instead Tokyo is filled with a sense of uncertainty. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise and the capital enters its fourth state of emergency. The latest order will last until August 27 to be in effect throughout the Olympics.

The current state of emergency mainly impacts bars, restaurants and department stores. They're asked to limit their hours of operation. And in the case of bars and restaurants, not served alcohol. If they don't comply, fines will be issued.

Now, for 22 straight days, Tokyo has seen an increase in the number of infections compared to the previous week, largely driven by the Delta variant in a scaled-back state of emergency order that clearly didn't work.

Now, cases reached their highest total over the weekend since mid-May. Now at this point, the vaccination rollout in Japan continues to move at a snail's pace, only about 17 percent of Japan's population is fully vaccinated. And perhaps that's a big reason why Olympic organizers recently announced that in Tokyo a majority of the prefectures where events will be held, they'll do so without fans.

Now over the weekend, Hokkaido and Fukushima joined the list of prefectures to ban fans. Currently, 97 percent of Olympic events will be held inside empty venues.

Now at this time, only a total of 26 sessions being held in three different prefectures that are not under a state of emergency will allow venues to be filled to 50 percent capacity or a maximum of 10,000 fans.

Now despite a majority of spectators being banned, there's still a lot of frustration among the people regarding the Olympics. For months, businesses have been closed. Events canceled. And people have been asked to make sacrifices to prevent the spread of infection.

Now those sacrifices will continue for at least another six weeks. Yet Michael, the Olympics are set to get underway in just 11 days.

HOLMES: Amazing. It really has come up. Blake Essig in Tokyo. Good to see you, my friend. Thank you.

Now, parts of South Korea are coming under the strictest level of coronavirus restrictions. The prime minister says for the next two weeks, people in Seoul and neighboring regions are advised to stay home as much as possible.

Bars and nightclubs will be closed, restaurants and cafes limited, and most public events will be banned.

Infections have been surging in the area, the country reporting 1,100 new cases on Sunday. More than half came from the greater Seoul area. Officials say only about 11 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated.

Now, we have been seeing outpourings of rage in Cuba, thousands of protesters marching in the streets of several cities angry over economic conditions and the way the government is handling the coronavirus pandemic.

On Sunday, the country reporting a record number of new cases and deaths. Patrick Oppmann tells us about the protests and how the government is responding.


PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Thousands of protesters took to the streets here in Havana and across Cuba on Sunday, demanding change. This is something that almost never happens here, that people engage in anti-government protests. The government does not permit it.

Usually, they're shut down very, very quickly. And many people are just too afraid to openly criticize the government, but on Sunday it was a very different picture.


As thousands of people did just that, they said they were sick of energy shortages and empty store shelves. Many complain about the government's coronavirus response.

The economy here has been deeply, deeply damaged. Its economy was already ailing before the pandemic, but now with more than a year of almost no tourism, very little tourism to this island. People are hurting. And many of the people in the streets said they were simply not afraid

anymore. They have nothing left to lose. And Cuban police officers, they criticized their government. They called for a change.

But so far, at least, those calls have fallen on deaf ears, because we saw several arrests, people being taken away by the police. We saw the government sending in of their own counter-protesters that said they supported the revolution to try to drown out of the anti-government.

Protesters and Cuba's president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, said that the supporters of the revolution needed to take to the streets, needed to defend the revolution, and he was giving them an order to flood the streets to defend their government.

So far, at least, despite these calls for change, unprecedented calls for change, the Cuban government does not appear to be giving an inch.

Patrick Oppmann, CNN, Havana.


HOLMES: Cuba's president blaming the U.S. government for the protests, saying sanctions caused the economic misery that the protests are rallying against.

The White House national security adviser drawing attention to the government's response on protesters, tweeting this, quote, "The U.S. supports freedom of expression and assembly across Cuba and would strongly condemn any violence or targeting of peaceful protesters who are exercising their universal rights."

Quick break. When we come back, how the annual 12th of July festivities in Northern Ireland are being marred by tensions over Brexit this year. You're watching CNN. We'll be right back.


HOLMES: Pope Francis made his first public appearance since undergoing colon surgery last week. The 84-year-old pontiff delivering his weekly prayer from the balcony of the hospital in Rome where he is recovering.

The Vatican says he's gradually getting back to work and that his blood tests are satisfactory. He's expected to be released from the hospital in the next few days.

In Northern Ireland, bonfires were lit across the country over the weekend to kick off the annual 12th of July festivities, but these celebrations by protestants are being viewed as provocative by some members of the Catholic nationalist community.

CNN's Nic Robertson following this year's events from Belfast.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice-over): A narrow escape. A metaphor for a weekend of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Northern Ireland tradition, historically primed for potential violence. The Irish protestants celebrating a 331-year-old victory over Irish Catholics.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is just what we do. Like, it's just -- we see it every year. So --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a good family event. It gets a lot of bad press, but you can see it's a lot of family and kids here. It's part of our culture. And we'll continue to celebrate it every year.

ROBERTSON: Mostly families having fun. Teenagers getting a little drunk, but underlying the festivities, frustrations, and Northern Ireland's piece, compounded by Brexit and new customs regulations for protocols they fear threatened their constitutional ties to the U.K.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The protocol has caused a lot of anger in our community. And it's all one-sided. Enough is enough. There's nothing else to give.

ROBERTSON (on camera): Of the 250 bonfires to be lit over the weekend, police say only two or three are contentious. In recent years, tensions around this annual event have been subsiding. But this year, frustrations underlying everything are high.

(voice-over): At peaceful parades through Protestant neighborhoods, all part of the same annual loyalist commemorations, families line the road, bonding in their shared heritage, haunted by a common perception. Pro-Irish Catholics are making gains at their expense.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've always had issues. And I don't know if it's always going to be resolved. Hopefully, it can. I'd like my kids to grow up in a nice, friendly country. You know what I mean? But in the meantime, we wouldn't want them forgetting their heartaches (ph).

ROBERTSON (on camera): Brexit and the protocols are straining Northern Ireland's piece. But the parades and bonfires went off largely without incident this weekend. It's significant. But it's not by chance.

(voice-over): Behind the scenes, organizers have been working hard to defuse tensions.

MERVYN GIBSON, GRAND SECRETARY OF THE ORANGE ORDER: We decided to deal with the protocol after the 12th of July. We wanted our members and supporters to have a good day.

ROBERTSON: The concern now, until the protocol issue is resolved, another flash point is just around the corner.

WINSTON IRVINE, COMMUNITY WORKER: We saw very serious violence spill onto the streets here in April this year. And, yes there's every chance that those type of things could return again.

ROBERTSON: A bullet has quite literally been dodged this weekend. A source told CNN guns were being readied to stop police moving this contentious bonfire. Local organizers denied the claim, but the worry now: the guns could come out again.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Belfast, Northern Ireland.


HOLMES: Thanks for spending part of your day with me. I'm Michael Holmes. You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram, @HolmesCNN. Stay tuned now for WORLD SPORT. And there's been plenty of it.