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CNN SATURDAY MORNING NEWS

Countdowns Continue Across the Globe; Gifts for Soldiers; New Years Celebrations

Aired December 31, 2005 - 10:30   ET

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


RANDI KAYE, CNN HOST: And welcome back once again. You are looking at a live picture from Zhuhai, China, and Times Square, New York. Festivities there already underway. In Zhuhai we are just about half an our or show before the new year -- that's when it starts in China. And it is 13 hours and counting for New York.
Welcome back to CNN SATURDAY MORNING, I'm Randi Kaye.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN HOST: And I'm Fredricka Whitfield. On this last day of 2005, let's take a quick look at some of the other stories making news right now.

New pictures just in to CNN this morning of Iraq's Baby Noor. She's now closer to badly-need medical treatment here in the U.S. The 3 month old suffers from a severe form of spina bifida. She flew out of Baghdad, bound for Atlanta, where she is set to arrive just a few hours from now. Our live coverage of Baby Noor resumes at Noon Eastern, right here on CNN.

A trio of bombings target both civilians and police in Iraq, killing seven and wounding 11 more. Five civilians died in an explosion in front of the Sunni-influenced Iraqi Islamic Party. Two more bombs directed at Iraqi police detonated in central and southern Baghdad.

And the tinderbox known as Oklahoma is under a state of emergency as 22 counties are dealing with wildfires. Flames have burned nearly 30,000 acres and are blamed on one death as well. Firefighters say they've contained the fires for now, but warm, dry weather just isn't helping their battle. Fourteen fire-fighting teams from four southern states are enroute to help out -- Randi?

KAYE: President Bush returns to Washington tomorrow after spending the holidays at his Crawford, Texas, ranch. During his down time, the president has been doing a little reflection and looking ahead. CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux has more now for us from Crawford. Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Randi. As a matter of fact, by many accounts it was a tough year for the president. But the president in his message to the American people, of course, looking ahead. He thanks the American people for their contributions, opening their homes and hearts to Katrina victims. He also, of course, recognizes U.S. troops around the world and of course he promotes the U.S. mission in Iraq, really seen as the cornerstone of the president's legacy. The president specifically saying here, "In 2005, Iraqis three times exercised their right to vote in free elections, and the Afghan people conducted successful parliamentary elections. In the coming year, America will continue to stand beside these young democracies and lay the foundation of peace for our children and grandchildren."

There are two things, two issues, Randi, that the president will stress. Of course, he will continue to talk about Iraq and promoting democracy, but also the growing economy as well. Most immediately, when heading back to Washington, there will be a number of things. They'll be looking for modest legislative victories, also pushing for the Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito, through that nomination process, and of course trying to get on the other side of those congressional hearings over the domestic spy program.

Now, Randi, we don't expect to see the president today. We've been told, of course, he's at his Crawford ranch with the family. He is kind of an early to rise, early to bed type of guy. So we don't expect that he's make it by midnight. And we will check in on those New Year's resolutions to see what the president has ahead -- Randi?

KAYE: All right. Looking forwarding to hearing those. Suzanne Malveaux, thanks so much.

And join us tonight on CNN, when we bring in the new year. Our own Anderson Cooper will be live in New York's Times Square with music, memories and a whole lot more. The party kicks off at 11:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN.

A happy ending to a hostage drama. It's just one of the stories making news around the globe this morning. For more, let's check in with Shanon Cook, from our international desk. Shanon?

SHANON COOK, INTERNATIONAL DESK: Hey, Randi, thank you. A very happy ending for 2005 for one family, indeed. We've learned that a kidnapped German family vacationing in Yemen has been freed. They were taken hostage Wednesday. The family of five and their Yemeni assistants were abducted while driving in the mountains of eastern Yemen. The Yemeni News Agency says tribesmen released the hostages today and they're all fine.

Turning our attention to Indonesia, eight people were killed and 45 wounded when a nail bomb exploded in a marketplace in Palu, the capital of a province in central Indonesia. The market was packed with people buying pork for New Year's Eve celebrations. Many of the victims are believed to have been Christians. Indonesian police are investigating whether the explosion is linked to attacks on Christians earlier this year.

I want to tell you about a Peruvian man who recently underwent surgery to have his thumbs replaced. A former army officer, 22-year- old Francisco del Alamo Benevente (ph) lost his thumbs and an index finger while training with explosives. Doctors in Maryland in the U.S. transplanted one of his toes to one hand and turned his index finger into a thumb for the other hand. It sounds pretty tricky, but doctors say he's doing very well, though he has a lot of physical therapy ahead of him. Del Alamo Benevente (ph) returned home to Peru yesterday.

Now we know New York City puts on a world-class show for New Year's Eve, but Sydney, in my in native Australia doesn't do such a bad job either. Check this out. Nice. You can see those cute little red lit-up hearts in the sky. I like it. Tens of thousands crowded Sydney Harbor to ring in the New Year just a couple of hours ago. And Randi and Fredricka, I always enjoy this time of year because invariably, I always get a couple of people asking me if we have a special way of saying Happy New Year down in Australia because we have slang words for just about everything.

KAYE: Like bloke.

COOK: Well, yes. A couple of people have even asked if we say G'day New Year. Happy to say that we don't. We just say good old Happy New Year. If you're lucky, we might throw in a "mate." Happy New Year, mate.

KAYE: Or bloke. I still like that. It's comical.

COOK: It's a blokey word.

Yes. It is.

Affectionately named to the buddies.

COOK: Well, to the guys, not to the girls. The girls are sheilas -- don't be calling a female Australian a bloke. She'll get very upset and very feisty.

KAYE: She told us.

Okay, my sheila friend. Thanks, Shanon.

COOK: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: It seemed like a simple thing but it brightened the day of hundreds of U.S. soldiers. And it was all because of one Georgia woman. After hearing from her husband in Iraq that a lot of soldiers don't get any mail at the mail call, she started writing campaign with family and friends and she ended up with 2500 letters and cards to send out. Laurie Junko joins us now.

Good to see you, Laurie.

LAURIE JUNKO, HUSBAND SERVING IN IRAQ: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: And just in time for the holiday season, that you decided to launch this. How did you learn about the fact that there were so many soldiers abroad who weren't getting those gift packages, those goody bags, those letters from friends and family?

JUNKO: Hopefully most are, but I know there are some who don't have the family resources to send them letters and packages as much as others. So I thought it would be nice to have everybody have something, especially over the holidays. WHITFIELD: So you learned about it through your husband, Captain Matt Junko, who is stationed abroad. And when he told you that, you know, this is a situation for a lot of the guys and gals over there, this really touched you.

JUNKO: It did, because we know how nice it is to hear from friends and family here. And imagine being far from home and not ever getting any mail or any letters just to say, Thank you for what you're doing.

WHITFIELD: So you thought it would be just something a few friends and family members of your own could get involved in, but never did you realize it would mushroom into something so colossal.

JUNKO: Not at all.

WHITFIELD: Tell me how it happened.

JUNKO: I initially started out just sending an e-mail to some friends and family asking them to write five cards saying, Thank you for your service, Happy Holidays, we appreciate what you're doing, and then send them to me and I'd put candy on each and I would send them to my husband, and he could dole them out to his troops.

WHITFIELD: So he's actually helping to distribute them on the other end.

JUNKO: He is.

WHITFIELD: So that means he's also developed a relationship with soldiers he wouldn't have otherwise. What are these soldiers telling him about what it's like to receive these letters and gifts?

JUNKO: He's gotten several people come up to him saying, Thank you so much, please tell your wife that we really appreciated it. I've received letters back saying how much it meant to them and what a nice thing it was for them to receive something, especially over the holidays, from people that they didn't even know.

WHITFIELD: So do you expect it's going to extend now beyond the holidays? If originally it started out as just maybe a hundred cards and letters that would go out, and now it's 2500. You can't stop this, it seems.

JUNKO: I don't want to. It's fantastic. And I would encourage people to continue sending stuff, because it's not just over the holidays that they need the support; it's all throughout the year.

WHITFIELD: So what's the advice? How do they do it, if they want to get involved?

JUNKO: There are several websites that are wonderful and they have information about where to send letters, cards, gift bags. And they also have names of soldiers who are willing to accept things from strangers and just a lot of good information is on the Internet. WHITFIELD: So you've extended a great holiday treat to all of them, and I know this has felt good for you, but at the same time I imagine the big gift that you're hoping to get is that your husband would be coming back home soon. Do you have any idea of when his deployment ends?

JUNKO: He should be coming home some time in February.

WHITFIELD: All right. We'll look forward to that for you. Congratulations on a great project. Laurie Junko, thanks so much and thanks to -- you know, I'm sure on behalf of all the soldiers out there who are now receiving a lot of the letters. They appreciate that.

JUNKO: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: All right.

Randi?

KAYE: Thanks, Fred.

The New Year brings with it some unique new laws for 2006, one of them inspired by celebrities like Lindsey Lohan. Stick around to find out what that is.

Plus, alternatives to the massive parties like the one you'll see live in Times Square tonight. A preview of the 2006 First Night celebrations still ahead on CNN SATURDAY MORNING.

And we want to take you back live to Zhuhai, China, where the New Year will ring in in just about 18 minutes from now. Celebrations already underway.

And we also want to show you some live pictures from Hong Kong, also just about to ring in the New Year. Festivities already underway there, as well, crowds gathering, waiting for the New Year. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KAYE: If you're just now joining us, here's a look at the morning's top stories. This afternoon Baby Noor will arrive in Atlanta from Iraq for a life-saving surgery to repair a potentially fatal birth defect. You're seeing new pictures just in to CNN of Baby Noor. Members of the Georgia National Guard discovered her while on a routine knock and search mission in a Baghdad neighborhood.

It's going to be a slow journey home. The Florida teen who traveled to Baghdad without his parents' knowledge is still in Kuwait. Farris Hassan's sister says he'll stay there until next week before he returns home. Farris, a 16-year-old journalism student was going to visit Iraq this summer with his parents, but decided he couldn't wait. He was going to do it on his own.

Fire fighters have a good portion of the Oklahoma grass fires under control, but they're hoping dry winds and New Year's fireworks don't set back their efforts. They're investigating the blazes as possible arson.

2006 will be a tough year for paparazzi in California, but a good year for hybrid car owners. Here are some of the new laws going into effect on year's day.

A rash of celebrity car chases, including one involving Lindsey Lohan, inspired a new so-called stalkerazzi law in California. It increases penalties against overly aggressive photographers. They will now be liable for three times the damages they cause and they lose any payments that their published photos might bring them.

New Year's Eve revelers in Rockport, Massachusetts, will get to ring in the New Year with a champagne toast for the first time in more than a century. The town was dry for 150 years. Now ,a new law allows restaurants to sell alcohol with a meal.

Owning an environmentally-friendly car will really pay off in the new year. Owners of some 13 hybrid car models will be eligible for tax breaks. They range from $250 to just over $3,000 for a Toyota Prius.

WHITFIELD: The Prius being made even more popular and famous because so many celebrities have decided they're driving them and even Toyota apparently gave the Prius to a number of celebrities to show up at the red carpets.

KAYE: And now they get a tax break, too.

WHITFIELD: So folks are -- can't wait to get their hands on that vehicle.

Well, it may sound hard to believe, but not everyone is planning to drinking champagne to bring in the New Year. A look at a popular alternative to rowdy parties and heavy drinking, live next hour on CNN SATURDAY MORNING.

Plus, a year they will never forget along the Gulf Coast. Be sure to join us next hour when we take you live to Louisiana for a look at what's ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KAYE: And there it is. Not very crowded just yet, but you're looking at a live picture there of New York City's Times Square on the left side of your screen. And on the right side, the city of Hong Kong -- just about nine minutes away from the New Year's celebration there. Both getting ready for ringing in 2006.

WHITFIELD: And it looks so empty in Times Square, of course, because the three-quarters of a million people aren't there yet, but we heard the New York police commissioner earlier saying that they are blocking off the area in preparation for it. So there you go. A quiet Times Square for now. KAYE: Absolutely. But if you're looking for an alternative way to celebrate, we want you to check your community calendar, because we want to tell you about these First Night celebrations. It's a family- oriented alcohol-free way that you can start off your New Year, if you'd like to do it that way. And joining us now from Washington with a closer look is David Sullivan. He's the executive director for First Night International.

David, Happy early New Year to you.

DAVID SULLIVAN, EXEC. DIR. FIRST NIGHT INT'L: Happy New Year to you, and Happy First Night.

KAYE: Thank you very much.

Why don't you tell us a little bit about these First Night celebrations?

SULLIVAN: First Night is spread through three countries: Canada, New Zealand and the United States, where the predominant number of cities are. And what the purpose of this event is, is to celebrate the New Year in a unique way, which is using arts as a catalyst to bring communities together in urban environments where we use the city as a stage, turning around and celebrating all cultures, all walks of life and the ability for everyone to come together at this unique moment in time.

KAYE: And who was smart enough to start this type of celebration and when?

SULLIVAN: Well, it was started in 1976 in Boston. The founder, Clara Waynewright and a group of ten community-activated artists decided that they really wanted to create a meaningful way to end the bicentennial in a finale that would be remembered in the city. So first night was created as an event that specifically was supposed to be alternative to normal New Year's Eve revelry.

So back in 1976 they expected 20,000 people to turn out, and actually 60,000 people turned out, which clearly indicated to everyone there was a demonstrated need for people wanting to come together on that night and to create a family event and a family event for all of mankind. So the bottom line here is that it really sort of made an effect back 30 years ago and now it's replicated in 109 other cities throughout the world.

KAYE: These are really family oriented. No alcohol involved, correct?

SULLIVAN: That's correct. That's not the main focus of the event. We are not making a comment about that, because restaurants and bars are open in all of the cities where First Nights are involved. But actually where the performances are held, we do not turn around and have liquor, nor do we encourage sponsorship from liquor companies.

KAYE: What's your advice to other cities who might want to start a First Night celebration? Where do they get started.

SULLIVAN: Bless you for asking me that. You can certainly contact us at our website, which is firstnight.com, where there is a whole area that you can look to, to find an application process. And for those that are going to First Nights this evening, there still is time to buy buttons at each one of these locations, as well as being able to check out their artistic programming, because on our website all those cities are listed and all of the programs are being offered.

KAYE: I saw on some of the video we were showing, a lot of the people in those pictures have costumes on -- is that also something that you're expected to bring, or is that something that the cities provide or --

SULLIVAN: What happens is in each one of these areas, there are a number of different opportunities for people to be able to work with their hands and create various different things. We have processions in a lot of our cities where actually the people that are standing on the side actually come in and participate, as well as people literally come and dress in a festive way.

This is not a formal attire evening. This is an evening where everybody joins together, and is created unto themselves. So they bring their own presence in that process. We encourage people to be festive and reach out to anybody that they haven't seen during the rest of the year. And that's something that's quite unique about First Night.

KAYE: Very nice. Looks like a lot of fun.

David Sullivan, Happy First Night.

SULLIVAN: Happy First Night to you, too.

KAYE: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: Randi, alternative is cool, but you know there are a lot of folks who want to stick to tradition, which means the bubbly is flowing. Don't tell David.

KAYE: Just don't tell David Sullivan that.

WHITFIELD: The bubbly is flowing in some places and they're making their resolutions already because the clock has already struck midnight in many parts of the world. And it's still inching closer, however, to other places like, right now you're looking at a live picture of Hong Kong, where people are ready to celebrate the New Year just, what, four minutes away now? More on those celebrations worldwide when we come right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KAYE: Well, the global countdown has begun for marking the New Year. You're looking at a live picture of Hong Kong where 2006 is -- shoot, only what -- less than a minute away. And you're also looking at another shot of Taipei -- same situation. Well, in the city of Hong Kong, it promises a sound and light extravaganza from the building surrounding Victoria Harbor.

WHITFIELD: Let's listen in.

(COUNTDOWN IN CHINESE)

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