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Border Afghan City Falls to Taliban; Greece Wildfires; Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games; Evidence of Possible Belarus Prison Camp for Dissidents; Tanker Hit by Iranian Drone; Iran's New President Takes Office. Aired 2-2:45a ET

Aired August 7, 2021 - 02:00   ET




MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello and welcome to CNN NEWSROOM, appreciate your company, I am Michael Holmes.

Coming up here on the program. On the front lines inside Afghanistan, where the Taliban are, quickly, gaining ground.

Also, Greece battling more than 150 wildfires, some, not far from the capital.

Also, all the action in Tokyo, as the Olympic Games gets set to wrap up.


HOLMES: America's long promised withdrawal from Afghanistan, almost complete, with peace nowhere to be found there. Instead, the Taliban advancing relentlessly. It is displacing hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians.

On Friday, the key city of Zaranj, near the border with Iran, became the first provincial capital to fall to the Islamist militants. Hours later, the Afghan defense ministry said that its air force killed the Taliban's shadow governor for the province. But the U.N.'s special envoy to Afghanistan had this, strong warning.


DEBORAH LYONS. U.N. SPECIAL ENVOY TO AFGHANISTAN: In the past weeks, the war in Afghanistan has entered a new, deadlier and more destructive phase.

The Taliban campaign during June and July to capture rural areas has achieved significant territorial gains. From this strengthened position, they have begun to attack the larger cities.


HOLMES: Now Kandahar is one of those larger cities, now under attack. It is strategically and symbolically important. And Afghanistan's national army is fighting, desperately, to maintain control.

But Kandahar's half-million residents have few means of escape and fewer options. CNN's Clarissa Ward takes us behind the front lines in the besieged city.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On the road to Kandahar's front line, there is still civilian traffic, even as the Taliban inches deeper into the city. Afghan commandos have agreed to take us to one of their bases.

WARD: This used to be a wedding hall. Now it's the frontline position.

WARD (voice-over): Most of the fighting here happens at night. But Taliban snipers are at work 24 hours a day.

WARD: From snipers?


WARD (voice-over): The men tell us the Taliban are hiding in houses just 50 yards away from us.

WARD: And they shoot from people's homes? They shoot from civilians' houses.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, you see this is all civilians' homes. We cannot use, you know, the big weapons, the heavy weapons.

WARD (voice-over): Up on the roof, Major Habibullah Shaheen wants to show us something.

WARD: So you can actually see the Taliban flag just over on the mountaintop there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are flag.

WARD (voice-over): It's been nearly a month since the Taliban penetrated Afghanistan second largest city. Since then, these men haven't had a break. U.S. airstrikes only come in an emergency. The rest of the time it's up to them to hold line.

"We feel a little bit weak without U.S. airstrikes and ground support and equipment," he says, "but this is our soil and we have to defend it."

GUL AHMAD KAMIN, MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT, KANDAHAR: Bombardment using heavy weapons.

WARD (voice-over): In a villa in the eastern part of the city, Kandahari lawmaker Gul Ahmad Kamin is hunkered down. In decades of war, he says he's never seen the fighting this bad.

KAMIN: Millions of people in this city are waiting for when they will be killed, then someone will kill them, when their home will be destroyed. And it is happening every minute.

WARD: Just spell out for me here.

The Taliban is basically surrounding the entire city of Kandahar now, is that correct?

KAMIN: Definitely yes.

WARD: And so, where is there to go?

KAMIN: Nowhere. So, there is only two options do or die.

WARD: Do or die?


WARD: And what does do look like?

KAMIN: That is the thing to convince different sides to ceasefire, to work on peace, to convince them to not to fight, not to get.


WARD (voice-over): But that is a tall order, in a city where war has become part of everyday life.

WARD: You can probably see there's a lot more cars on the road than there were previously and that's because in just two minutes at 6:00 p.m., the cell phone network gets cut across the city and that's when the fighting usually starts.

WARD (voice-over): Throughout the night the sounds of gunfire and artillery pierce the darkness. Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban. They are intent on taking it back and the government knows it cannot afford to lose it.

By day, an eerie calm hold. The U.N. says more than 10,000 people are now displaced in this city. On the outskirts of town, we find 30 families camped out in an abandoned construction site.

WARD: (Speaking foreign language).

He's saying that none of these children have fathers, all of their fathers have been killed in the fighting.

WARD (voice-over): Thirty-five-year-old Rubbina fled with her two daughters to escape the fighting after her husband was shot dead. But still, it gets closer and closer.

"Last night I didn't sleep all night," she says, "and the fear was in my heart."

In the short time we are there more families arrived. Street vendor Mahmad Ismael says they fled the village of Malajad after an airstrike hit.

"Three dead bodies were rotting outside our home for days, but it was too dangerous to get them," he says.

"The Taliban is attacking on one side. The government is attacking the other side. In the middle, we're just losing."

Back at the base, dust coats the chairs were wedding guests would normally sit as the siege of Kandahar continues, life here is in limbo with no end in sight -- Clarissa Ward, CNN, Kandahar.


HOLMES: Greece, desperately trying to contain dozens of wildfires burning out of control across the country. Some of the most dangerous, just outside of the capital. That is where more than 700 firefighters, are battling intense flames around the clock. The fires taking a deadly turn Friday, when a volunteer firefighter was killed.

At least 20 people have been taken to hospitals. Journalist Elinda Labropoulou, joining us, live from Athens.

Good to see you.

What is the latest from the front?

ELINDA LABROPOULOU, JOURNALIST: Well, the fires are still raging, all around Athens, as you said. It is exactly where I am. And as you can see behind me, there are many homes. This is a residential area, so this is how close the fire has gotten to Athens.

People are constantly asked to evacuate, as the fire gets closer and closer. Hundreds of firefighters are on the ground right now and Greece is asking for national assistance, which keeps pouring in.

Assistance from France has arrived, Cyprus as well, we understand, both, Sweden and Switzerland, are sending in aid today as well, in order to take part in these firefighting efforts. But Michael, the devastation is really visible everywhere. Let's have a look.


LABROPOULOU (voice-over): Smoke-filled sunrise over a charred farm in Greece. Many of the animals who once grazed in these fields did not live to see the new day. Those that did look shell-shocked, some of them burned.

The farmers says wildfires engulfed everything. The wreckage still steaming from the ferocity of the flames.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): A catastrophe. The fire came around midday with swirling winds and homes were burned. A lot of animals burned to death, rabbits sheeps (sic), dogs, everything.

LABROPOULOU (voice-over): Dozens of fires are burning throughout the country, fueled by temperatures topping 40 degrees Celsius. Officials say it is a dangerous and unpredictable situation.

Countries like France, Sweden, Switzerland and Israel are sending manpower and equipment to help in the fight.

But for firefighters north of Athens, that aid cannot come soon enough as they battle town by town to try to stop the spread of the blazes, a struggle made tougher as the fires have reignited from hot temperatures and high winds.

Thousands of people have been evacuated. There has been intense aerial campaign in some areas, with helicopters streaking through the smoke and unleashing torrents of water on the flames. Some residents on the ground also pitching in to beat back the fires with brush.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): The House is behind here. You can see the roof. I'm not leaving. I sent my kids away. Whatever I can manage. This is a life's work. I just can't leave it.


LABROPOULOU (voice-over): The Greek Coast Guard mounted a major rescue operation by sea with the help of tourist boats to pick up more people, stranded on an island near Athens after wildfires cut them off and left them with nowhere to go.


LABROPOULOU: With the winds picking up today, it will be another very difficult day in Greece.

HOLMES: All right, Elinda Labropoulou on the spot in Athens, thanks.

We'll take a quick break on the program. When we come back, the Olympics got off to a rocky start to the U.S. men's basketball team. We will tell you whether they redeemed themselves with a gold medal on the line, that's coming up.

Also it's been raining on the Olympics today and there could be a lot more on the way. We will have the latest from the International Weather Center, after the break.




HOLMES: Welcome back. It is Saturday in Japan, the last full day of the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday night, the closing ceremony, will wrap everything up. Now there is still plenty more action to see. Let's talk about it with Blake Essig, standing by, in Japan.



HOLMES: Sports such as gymnastics, swimming, as well as track and field may get all the glory at the Olympics. But there's another sport going on behind the scenes that diehard enthusiasts are determined to keep it alive, despite COVID-19. For more on that, here's CNN's Blake Essig, joining me now from Japan.

Blake, nothing about Tokyo 2020 is going as planned and I know you have found that out. That includes the continuation of a tradition as old as the modern Olympics itself.

BLAKE ESSIG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Michael, at the Olympics under normal circumstances, there is a sport among spectators, bigger than anything you will see on TV.

But these Olympic Games have been anything but normal. The general ban on speculators and the strict COVID-19 counter measures put in place have had a big impact both on the field of play and off.


ESSIG (voice-over): At every Olympics, there are a few things you can count on, the rings, the torch, the world's best athletes and, perhaps, lesser known, the pin traders.





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is difficult to describe it. Unless you have seen it with your own eyes, you wouldn't believe it.

ESSIG (voice-over): For more than a century, pin trading has become as much a part of the Olympics as the events themselves.

ESSIG: I love it.

ESSIG (voice-over): This is what it looked like in 2014, at the Winter Games of Sochi. Before joining CNN, I was there reporting for KTUU in Anchorage, Alaska.

ESSIG: This one.

You want to trade this one or no?

No, you're not trading this one?

ESSIG (voice-over): Back then, I was feeling the pin trading frenzy, wheeling and dealing, like I had a clue. The fan base for these fantastic fasteners is enormous and few people do it better than Schlum Sefrier (ph).


ESSIG (voice-over): Originally from Israel, Sefrier (ph) has lived in Japan for decades. He got hooked on pins in 1998, at the Winter Olympics in Nagano. Now he claims he has accumulated one of the largest and rarest pin collections in the world.

SEFRIER (PH): And it is a classic design. So I really like it. It's one of my favorites.

ESSIG (voice-over): But the ongoing pandemic is changing the game in Tokyo.

SEFRIER (PH): Under normal circumstances, if you would come here to Tokyo or to any Olympic city, in a normal time, everywhere you look, right, left, up, down, you see pins.

ESSIG (voice-over): With virtually all spectators banned and almost no way to trade in person, the Olympic Committee is taking the game high- tech, opting for non-fungible tokens or NFTs as Olympic pins, in an effort to keep the pin trading tradition alive.

SEFRIER (PH): I had an opportunity to trade one a couple of days ago. And it looks nice, actually. It comes in a nice, fancy box and the hologram, it can change the designs. So the idea is great. It's a genius, genius idea.

ESSIG (voice-over): But virtual pins aren't for everyone. Keichi prefers the real, touchable, tangible, pokeable, pickable thing. That is why he is trying his luck, outside the new national stadium.

KEICHI, PIN TRADER (through translator): I roam the city in search of other pin traders and places to trade my pins. I think pin trading is a way for people to connect with each other, even if they don't speak the same language. It's just so fun.


ESSIG (voice-over): In connecting the people of the world, that is what the Olympics are all about. Unfortunately, finding that connection this year has been tough.

SEFRIER (PH): I'm very disappointed.

ESSIG (voice-over): Since the games started, Sefrier (ph) says he spends most of his time camping out alone, at a post without a fastener, pinning his hopes on a late games comeback in the face of enormous odds.


ESSIG: They say that every pin has a story, Michael, and the story of pins here at Tokyo 2020, is that they are, essentially, nonexistent. I just attended the USA-France men's basketball, game a little earlier today. A surreal experience, felt more like a scrimmage, than a gold metal game, based on the sights and sounds.

But I digress; walking around, in and around the venue, what you don't see are pins on people's hats, shirts or lanyards. For the Olympics, that is just not normal.

Now I have to ask, you one question. You've no doubt accumulated quite the assortment of, pins while covering the games in Barcelona, Atlanta and Athens.

So I have to ask, are you ready to trade the real thing for the digital variety?

HOLMES: No, absolutely not. But I was about to say, if you pick one up there, I will give you one from Athens, the 2004 games. I will give you an Athens one, if you get me one from Tokyo.

ESSIG: Done. I'm right there with you, man. No substitute for the real thing.

HOLMES: Exactly. Deal. All right, we will email and sort out the trade. Great story, thank you, Blake, I appreciate that.

Blake Essig there for us.

Now a storm headed for Tokyo is impacting the last weekend of the competition. The final round of the women's Olympic golf actually was suspended, briefly, due to the threat of lightning. Tropical storm Mirinae could bring some heavy rain and some wind gusts this weekend.


HOLMES: Quick break here, when we come back, political dissidents in Belarus fearing that they could be locked up south of Minsk.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR (voice-over): A new sign saying, forbidden border and entry.

HOLMES (voice-over): Just ahead, a look at the facilities showing indications of, possibly, being a prison camp -- that's when we come back.





HOLMES: Welcome back, everyone.

The Biden administration, expected to unveil a new round of sanctions against Belarus. It will be the latest action in response to crackdowns on protesters and dissidents by president Alexander Lukashenko.

A congressional source, telling CNN, to expect an announcement on Monday, the one year anniversary of the country's disputed presidential election. The Belarusian opposition leader meeting with U.S. President, Joe Biden, last, week in Washington, providing a list of companies close to the Lukashenko regime that she would like to see sanctioned. There is troubling evidence about where some of those political

dissidents, targeted by the Belarusian government, could end up. A facility, deep in the forest, showing signs of being a prison camp. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh, with this exclusive report.


WALSH (voice-over): A chilling sight, not from the last century but last month. A possible prison camp built inside Belarus for political prisoners.

CNN obtained this footage of what witnesses said looked like a newly refurbished camp about an hour's drive from the capital Minsk. A new sign saying forbidden border and entry.

A three-layer fence electrified they said. New moving surveillance cameras, bars and reflective screens on the windows of newly rebuilt barracks. No prisoners yet. What look like a soldier inside and regular military patrols who told our witnesses outside to leave. One local talked to them anonymously.

My friend Sasha a builder told me they refurbished this place, he says, there are three levels of barbed wire and it's electrified. I was picking mushrooms here when a military man came up to me and said I can't walk here.

The building sits on the vast site of a former Soviet missile storage facility surrounded by forests. The repairs came not long after defecting police officers released secret recordings of senior police discussing the need for prison camps at several sites.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The assignment to develop and build a camp but not for prisoners of war or even the interned but a camp for especially sharp-hoofed for resettlement. And surround it with barbed wire along the perimeter.

WALSH: Not surprising CNN hasn't gained access to the interior of site, so we can't definitively say that it is intended for use as a prison camp but a Western intelligence official I spoke to said that use was, quote, possible, although they didn't have direct evidence.

In the current climate it's tough to imagine what else the camp could be for. Opposition leaders fear its possible use, why President Alexander Lukashenko forces during future protests.

FRANAK VACORKA, SENIOR ADVISER TO SVIATLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Not surprising that he is trying to build something like a regular prison camp because the new wave for protests will come up anyway. It can be triggered by his statement. It can be triggered by economic situation but it will come.

And he understands but he also wants to be prepared more than last year in 2020. And this is why I would not be surprised that such camps are being built.

WALSH (voice-over): Belarusian officials declined to comment and have called the recording about the camps fake news when it was released saying that they follow the law.

These images emerge after a week's long crackdown against remaining independent media inside Belarus and dozens of arrests. Inside Belarus the protest movement is being persecuted so hard, it now holds remote flash mob demonstrations like these filmed by drones. But some of it is finding ways to hit back, CNN has learned.

These are railway saboteurs, apparently in action. They say their operations, the details of which we aren't disclosing, just trigger alarms that stop trains on the tracks. Risking nobody safety and causing traffic to slow down, they say. We spoke to one organizer.

When our skies are blocked, he said, we should block the land as well. The main goal is to cause economic damage to the regime because all the delays cause them to pay huge fines.

This action was carried out, they said, on a key route from Russia to the European Union.


WALSH (voice-over): CNN can't independently confirm it was effective.

WALSH: If there is an impact on rail traffic, it could have great significance outside of Belarus and here Lithuania, because so many goods from the east rely on this network to get to Europe.

WALSH (voice-over): Signs both sides could be adopting new harsher tactics and what may await fresh protests as the screws tighten -- Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, Vilnius, Lithuania.


HOLMES: Growing tensions between Hezbollah and Israel after multiple rockets are fired from Lebanon towards Israel. We will have a report from northern Israel, after the break.




HOLMES: Welcome back.

For the first time in years, Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon, have fired a barrage of rockets toward Israel. That, provoking an immediate response by Israel, which fired artillery back across the border.

All of this, stoking fears that the confrontation, could easily, spiral out of control. The U.N. special coordinator, from Lebanon, pleading for calm saying, "The potential for miscalculation presents the risk of serious consequences. Maximum restraint is required to prevent further escalation."

CNN's Hadas Gold, in northern Israel, with the latest.


HADAS GOLD, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm in Metula, which is just 1 kilometer away from the border with Lebanon, where it has been relatively quiet, despite the fact that, earlier on Friday, 19 rockets were launched from Lebanon, toward Israel.

Although rockets have been launched from Lebanon, toward Israel's recently just a few days ago, those have largely been attributed to Palestinian factions.

On Friday, Hezbollah, the militant group that is backed by Iran, largely controls southern Lebanon, just took responsibility for these attacks. The first time they have launched rockets, from Lebanon, toward Israel, since 2006.

It is being seen as a very serious escalation, in the tensions along the border.

However, the Israeli Defense Forces saying, while they did respond to these rockets by striking what they, said were the rocket launch sites in southern Lebanon, they do not want a further escalation although they are prepared to do so, if necessary.

They said they noted, Hezbollah targeted these rockets toward open areas, not toward populated civilian areas and that the IDF believes, this is part of Hezbollah's way to try to show, they still control southern Lebanon.

The real question will be, what will happen next?

Will Israel strike further targets in southern Lebanon?

Will Hezbollah in some, way respond?

Right now, a very tense and potentially very volatile situation -- Hadas Gold, CNN, Matiullah, Israel.


HOLMES: The U.S. military, concluding that last week's deadly drone attack on a tanker ship near Oman was, carried, out by Iran.


HOLMES: The foreign ministers of the G7 nations issuing a joint statement on Friday saying, quote, "All available evidence, clearly, points to Iran."

Iran, insisting it had no role in the attack. We get the latest now, from CNN's Fred Pleitgen, in Iran.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The U.S. military, now says that it has evidence that the drone that was used to attack the Israeli-managed ship Mercer Street was manufactured, in Iran.

Essentially, what the Pentagon is saying is that a forensic, team from the U.S. military, went on board that ship after it was hit and what they managed to do, is they managed to recover some of the parts of the drone, which they say was a suicide drone.

In other words, one that crashed into the chip, killing two of the sailors. And they managed to recover some parts of that drone.

They said, looking at those parts, it became clear, those were parts that were usually used by Iran. They also said, that drone had used military grade explosives.

Now of course, before all of this, the U.S. and Israel had blamed the Iranians for the attack. Iran denies all of that. However, the Israelis have come out and have, said they will be able to retaliate against Iran, on their own.

This has caused some angry reactions here, from the Iranians. You have the spokesman for Iran's foreign minister, saying, quote, "In another brazen violation of international law, the Israeli regime now blatantly threatens Iran with military action. Such malign behavior, stems from blind, Western support. We state this clearly, any foolish act against Iran, will be met with a decisive response. Don't test us."

Of course, all of this comes just on the heels of a new president, taking office here in Iran, a hardliner, Ebrahim Raisi, who has said that Iran will continue to act boldly, here, in the Middle Eastern region -- Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Iran.



HOLMES: Sanam Vakil is the deputy head and senior research fellow in the Middle East/North Africa Programme at Chatham House, joining me now from Los Angeles.

I want to ask you about the new, Iranian president in just a moment. First, wanted your take on the U.S. and others, blaming Iran for the attack on Mercer Street ship off the Oman coast.

If it indeed was Iran, what would be the motive and what is the risk versus reward calculation?

SANAM VAKIL, CHATHAM HOUSE: Well, Iran and Israel, have been engaged in what is now being referred to as a shadow war, where Israel has been targeting Iran's nuclear facilities and also, striking out at Iranian targets on the seas.

They're also engaging in cyberattacks and Iran is looking for opportunities to retaliate. This retaliation, is probably what we witnessed in this, really, devastating incident on the Mercer. HOLMES: As you say, many calling what's going on between Iran and

Israel now a shadow war.

How easy is it for there to be a miscalculation and a provocation from either side, to trigger something much more serious than a shadow war?

VAKIL: There is a huge, gross, sort of space for miscalculation here. I think that the Iranian government, however, is looking for opportunities to push back against Israeli efforts to constrain Iran's regional activities and their nuclear program.

So it is taking opportunities where it sees them. Those opportunities are few and far between. So it is a risky gambit. This could, very easily, spiral out of control.

HOLMES: Yes, quite worrying. Let's talk a little more about the new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi. Many presidents have at least, nominally, been described as reformers, it's perhaps challenged ideologically the supreme leader of the day.

Is it fair to say that Raisi is more of a loyalist to Iran's theocratic system?

VAKIL: Yes, I think it is a good characterization. Raisi has been very close to the security and the intelligence establishment and has risen through the ranks, primarily through Iran's judicial system. He has a very checkered past, involved in sentencing over 5,000 political prisoners to death in Iran, in 1988.

And since then, probably has been seen as someone who is a trusty footsoldier of the, Islamic Republic.

HOLMES: The reformist bloc was, undoubtedly, the biggest loser of the 2021 campaign.

Where do reformists stand now in Iran?

It is social law, democratic reform, even possible in today's Iran?

VAKIL: Iran's both elected and unelected institutions are conservatively dominated.


VAKIL: There is a sort of monopoly of power among conservatives in Iran. With reformists formally out of power in all branches and also at the local level, it is time for them to reflect on the reformists' project.

I don't see reformism as having delivered anything since it first became a political force in 1997. So now out of office the question is, are reformists going to sit on the sidelines, become a more engaged opposition or reimagine what reformism could be inside Iran.

HOLMES: Yes, good take there. Raisi, really he has a pretty weak mandate from the election. The turnout was the lowest in Iran's voting history.

How is that impacting his position, ability to deal with corruption, improving the lives of the people as he's promised to do?

Then you have nuclear negotiations and the sanctions pressure.

How does that lesser mandate harm him?

VAKIL: You are right; his plate is really full and there are issues on all sides that he has to contend with. And indeed participation in this presidential election was at an all-time low.

But I think the political establishment and the supreme leader, prioritized having a trusty loyalist in the executive branch to help create unity, within Iran's very divided political establishment.

Perhaps, they can push forward and address some of these pressing issues, including the nuclear negotiations in Vienna but also the economic challenges and as you mentioned, really pressing environmental ones as well.

HOLMES: Yes, great analysis. Sanam Vakil, thank you so much.

VAKIL: Thank you.


HOLMES: Now the fourth wave of COVID, starting to turn up the pressure on French hospitals. Medical facilities in some regions seeing a significant uptick, including in intensive care.

A government spokesman, describing it as a problem knocking on hospitals' doors. Meanwhile, a new COVID health pass, in effect nationwide on Monday. It proves that someone was vaccinated or had a recent negative test. The pass will be required at many public places.

The U.S. has hit a big vaccination milestone as the country battles its own coronavirus surge. More than 50 percent of Americans, now, are fully inoculated, according to data released on Friday.

But the virus is moving at unprecedented speed across the nation's COVID epicenter. The state of Florida, reporting more than 134,000 new cases this week, the highest number since the pandemic began, over 20 percent higher than the week before.

Thank you for spending part of a day with me, I am Michael Holmes, "MARKETPLACE AFRICA" starts after this short break. I will see you in about 10 minutes.