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Fighting Between Israel and Hezbollah Militants Intensifies; New Attacks by Israel Today in Southern Offensive; Bush and Putin Meet; State Department Tries To Get Americans in Lebanon to Safety; Bush Calls on Syria to Help End Mideast Crisis

Aired July 15, 2006 - 09:00   ET


BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: You just heard it, more Israeli shells have rained down on Lebanon. Tension in the region is on the rise this morning.
From the CNN Center right here in Atlanta, good morning everybody. I'm Betty Nguyen. This is CNN SATURDAY MORNING. It is 9:00 a.m. right in Atlanta, but 4:00 p.m. in Lebanon, which we are watching very closely.

TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: As the rockets go off.

Good morning everyone, I'm Tony Harris. Thank you for starting your day with us. Our top story in a moment, but here is a look at other news happening right now.

NGUYEN: Smoke rises over Beirut. The Mideast plunges deeper into crisis. You at this new video coming into CNN, Israeli forces launched a barrage of air attacks in Lebanon over the last several hours. The strikes hit roads and bridges in northern Beirut and Hezbollah militant targets in the south. We have live reports from throughout this region just minutes away.

In the meantime, new attacks by Israel today in its southern offensive. Israeli forces struck Gaza twice. Palestinian security sources say a house was hit and at least two people were killed. Israel says the attack targeted a building used by Hamas to store rockets. And Israel says it has recovered the body of a sailor missing after an attack by Hezbollah militants. Three others are still unaccounted for. Israel says an Israeli warship was attacked by a missile, not a drone, as one newspaper reported.

HARRIS: In Baghdad today, the mass kidnapping of the Iraqi Olympic committee. Iraqi police say the head of the committee and at least 30 staffers were taken captive by gunmen dressed in Iraqi military uniforms. More on this story as new details emerge.

President Bush and Russia's President Putin have signed off on a new plan for fighting nuclear terrorism. The two met face to face just a few hours ago ahead of the G-8 Economic Summit that begins about three hours from now. Officials say their agreement seeks to bolster control of nuclear materials to get them out of the hands of terrorists.

Astronauts on Discovery are performing a final inspection to determine if the shuttle is good for the flight home. The craft undocked from the space station almost three hours ago. Three other checks have gone well. Discovery is scheduled to return to earth Monday.

For complete coverage of breaking news and today's top stories stay with CNN, the most trusted name in news.

NGUYEN: As the crisis in the Mideast develops we are watching it from every single angle. You're looking right now at many of the different television stations that we're monitoring these station coming out of the Mideast including Al-Arabiya, Al-Jazeera and also the Hezbollah television station a TV station which as you know is banned here in the U.S. But we are watching it to determine if any new developments are coming out of this crisis, which does continue to escalate today in the Mideast. We are on top of every angle. Stay with CNN for all of that.

HARRIS: So here's what we know. More bombs and rockets rained down in the Middle East. Fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants intensifies. Israel launched a litany of attacks across Lebanon. Its forces struck targets in the north for the first time since the latest conflict started. Lebanese officials say 15 people were killed in a strike on a mini bus in the south.

Hezbollah retaliated by firing more rockets into northern Israel. More than a dozen rockets landed. Many in the border town of Nahariya and Israeli forces say they found the body of a sailor missing after Hezbollah attacked an Israeli warship. Three other sailors still unaccounted for. Israel now says the ship was hit by an Iranian made missile.

NGUYEN: Our correspondents are covering the Mideast crisis from all angles as mentioned. We have live reports this hour from Paula Hancocks in Nahariya, Israel. You see her there at the top of the screen. Aneesh Raman is in Syria. White House correspondent Ed Henry is at the G-8 Summit in Russia. We are going to go live to all of them through out the show.

HARRIS: The current eruption of violence in the Mideast is overshadowing today's planned agenda at the G-8 Economic Summit. President Bush addressed the crises just over four hours ago calling on Syria to exert its influence over Hezbollah. Earlier on this morning's program I spoke to White House counselor Dan Bartlett. He reiterated that the president placed the blame for the escalation in violence squarely on the militants.


DAN BARTLETT, WHITE HOUSE COUNSELOR: The president made very clear his position on this issue. First and foremost it is important that we recognize why we're at the point we are in this conflict. That is because Hezbollah with the support it appears of Iran and Syria attacked a sovereign nation. They went across their borders, they killed people, and they took hostage soldiers. They have been lobbing rockets into civilian neighborhoods.


HARRIS: White House correspondent Ed Henry is live in Old St. Petersburg. Ed, good day to you.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good day to you, Tony. That is right you know, President Bush is here and he started out with some one on one meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin today in advance of the official kickoff of the full G-8 Summit tonight. A lot of issues on the agenda for Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin touting their friendship both of them, saying that that will help them bridge the divide on other issues.

So far some sharp differences between the two men. Stealing the show a little bit during a one on one meeting today, they did announce that they had forged on a global initiative to work together to fight nuclear terrorism. They are also trumpeting the fact that they have a joint determination to really stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. But on the issue of all of this Mideast violence some differences there. The president as you noted a moment ago really focusing in on Hezbollah.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The best way to stop the violence is to understand why the violence occurred in the first place. And that's because Hezbollah has been launching rocket attacks out of Lebanon into Israel and because Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers. That's why we have violence.


HENRY: Now in previous news conferences Mr. Bush has also mentioned Israel and said that he believes Israel has to be careful not to overreact so they do not topple the fledging democracy in Beirut. The president did not mention that this time, whereas Mr. Putin at this press conference said he blamed both sides, basically, went after Hezbollah but he also said that Israel has to have a balanced response.

Then on the thorny issue of Russia's move toward democracy, whether or not Mr. Putin is backsliding there, when Mr. Bush at a news conference touted the move towards democracy in Iraq, Mr. Putin let loose with a little bit of a jab at the president. Take a listen.


BUSH: Talked about my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world like Iraq where there's a free press and free religion and I told him that a lot of people in our country you know would hope that Russia would do the same thing. I fully understand, however, there will be a Russian style democracy.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I will tell you quite honestly.

BUSH: Just wait.


HENRY: Now you can hear the president at the tail end of that pointing out down the road he does feel there's progress now and there will be down the road. Iraqi democracy will be built and will be solid. But a pretty tough punch there from Mr. Putin, especially since Mr. Bush bent over backwards during the press conference to say that he feels that Mr. Putin in a private meeting last night really explained his march toward democracy here in Russia, despite a lot of criticism by human rights organizations who believe Mr. Putin has been restricting the rights of the Russian people.

Also Mr. Bush has been saying in recent days he did not want to publicly criticize Mr. Putin. Obviously Mr. Putin did not follow suit, Tony.

HARRIS: I would say. White House correspondent Ed Henry in Old Saint Petersburg appreciates it. Thank you.

NGUYEN: Right now the State Department is trying to work out some sort of plan to get Americans trapped in Lebanon to safety. CNN's Gary Nurenberg joins us from Washington. Gary, time is always critical in any evacuation plan. What does the State Department have in mind?

GARY NURENBERG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well they are working on it Betty. Early this morning the State Department issued what it calls a message to American citizens in Lebanon saying it is still working on a plan to help get them out.

State says it is working with the Defense Department to figure out how it might move Americans from Lebanon to Cyprus where they have a better chance of getting on commercial flights for home. Those commercial flights, the State Department says are the safest and most efficient way out.

State says Americans should leave if they can get out. In issuing the statement, the State Department makes it clear it does not provide free transportation but will make what it calls repatriation loans to those who need them to pay for transportation.

The department is also in touch with airlines to make sure there are sufficient flights to handle what could be the crush while all this planning is going on, there are no evacuations under way right now but military sources tell CNN the Defense Department is working on different ways to evacuate the estimated 25,000 Americans who are now in Lebanon and who might choose to leave.

One scenario evidently would have the American military receive permission from Lebanon to fly into the country and evacuate the relatively small number of American workers at the Embassy there. That of course would have to be done with Israeli knowledge so there would be no mistakes made. The airport in Beirut is totally out of commission. This would tentatively obviously be an alternate field. Another potential option would be to have an American aircraft carrier move to the area to handle a larger scale of evacuations of Americans should it come to that. There are a number of contingencies and Washington this morning is trying to figure out what will work best. It says the State Department rather says it will "work around the clock and will issue updates when plans firm up." Everything up in the air right now Betty but we'll let you know when new developments take place.

NGUYEN: Some of those contingency plans are going to take a little more time than others. So we will wait on that more. Thank you, Gary.

HARRIS: And we have breaking news coming into the international desk. Here is CNN's Anand Naidoo with more on it.

ANAND NAIDOO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks Tony. We have breaking news coming in right now. We are going to show you some pictures now, which we're getting off an Arabic television station in the Middle East. These are pictures of the latest Israeli raid on Lebanon.

Israel continues to hit targets, the road and bridge targets, in northern Lebanon and also hitting Hezbollah targets in the south of Lebanon. So far we heard that 15 civilians were killed today when their mini bus was hit. That's according to Lebanese security forces. We are hearing from the Israelis they are investigating that incident.

As I pointed out that for the first time Israel has been hitting -- now these are the pictures that we're looking at from an Arabic television station. This would be the picture from Lebanon as an Israeli air raid is taking place right now. We're getting these pictures live. I stand to correction. This is a tape. This is a tape that we're looking at of an Israeli air raid on Lebanon.

Earlier we heard that Israel had for the first time hit targets in the north of Lebanon. They hit a bridge near the town of Hermel. This is close to the Syrian border. They continue to hit targets in the southeast, Hezbollah targets near Tripoli and the town of Tyre.

One other important bit of news that has just come to hand. We reported earlier on that Hezbollah missile that hit an Israeli warship. Initial reports said four sailors were missing. Then we heard that one body had been recovered, three sailors were missing, and now the latest we are getting from Israeli television. That ship is now back in port, two sailors are dead and two are missing. That's the latest.

Back to you, Tony.

HARRIS: Thank you.

NGUYEN: Well, many Israelis along the northern border with Lebanon are huddled in bomb shelters. One of the towns hit by Hezbollah rockets is Nahariya. CNN's Paula Hancocks joins us live from there and Paula brings us up to speed on what has developed so far today. PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Betty, so far today we had about 40 rockets plus hitting the northern Israeli towns. That brings it to 300 or more over the past couple of days since Wednesday when this escalation started. Now here in Nahariya, it's very close to the Lebanese border. If you just see over my shoulder. This is north and about six miles approximately in that direction is Lebanon. And that's the direction that these rockets have been coming from.

Many of them have hit this particular town. One hitting shops just a couple of blocks this way. Also a couple of blocks this way as well. But the interesting fact is nobody is on the streets. This is almost a ghost town. It's right in the middle of the school holidays. This is a sea resort, as well. There is hardly a car on the road. The majority of people you see on the streets are actually journalists.

The police have told many of these shops to shut up and not open again until the alerts are over. Also telling people in this town to stay out of exposed areas. Many people have their own bomb shelters. As they needed them about 24 years ago when Israel first went into Lebanon. There are other bomb shelters, as well, for the community.

People here -- many are angry that this is happening to them. Many are scared the amount of rocket that are coming into these northern Israeli towns. So far four Israelis have been killed but also at the same time many are angry with the politicians themselves. We have had many people coming to talk to us.

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, still saying that he will have no negotiations, no prisoner swap, the militant action will continue, the residents here, many of them are trying to move further south to Tel Aviv where they believe they will be safe. They have heard from an Israeli military source that could possibly in Hezbollah's control a rocket that could go sixty kilometers and hit Tel Aviv itself -- Betty.

NGUYEN: So the search is on to get out of the line of fire. Paula Hancocks joining us live from Nahariya. Thank you for that.

HARRIS: Well the Bush administration is calling on Syria to help end this latest crisis in the Mideast. Aneesh Raman has made his way to Syrian capital Damascus; he joins us live via broadband. Aneesh what is the view from Damascus?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Tony, good morning, we heard from the state-run news agency earlier today voicing strong support for what they call the resistance movement in Lebanon, against Israeli occupation, anger at the Israeli assaults on southern Lebanon.

Interestingly, though, the word Hezbollah was not used at all in this statement. Syria is aware that as tensions escalate so does international scrutiny on their relationship with Hezbollah. They know that here. It is why I'm here. We got in with relative ease in terms of visa in one of the hardest countries to get into in part because the Syrians want to publicly and eagerly downplay the connection. We heard from Syrian officials outside of the country saying that Hezbollah and Hamas are essentially independent organizations. They do not need Syria to carry out the operations. At the same time they continue to voice support for both. So Syria is watching things closely and is aware that if Israel thinks Syria was directly involved in Wednesday's abduction of the Israeli soldier and takes action on Syria then this entire situation Tony could escalate dramatically and instantly.

HARRIS: OK. Aneesh Raman for us in Damascus, the capital of Syria. Aneesh appreciate it. Thank you.

NGUYEN: There are a lot of developments going on right now. So let's get you the latest now to CNN's Anand Naidoo who is manning the international desk. Anand, what has happened? Can you hear us?

NAIDOO: Thanks, Betty. Just getting some information now. At the international desk we're hearing Reuters reporting that Israeli warplanes have bombed the Lebanese-Syrian border crossing point. Reuters, according to witnesses, saying Israeli bombing planes have bombed the Lebanese-Syria border crossing point. This is now expanding the conflict in Lebanon. Expanding it right up to the Lebanese-Syrian border. Earlier we reported that Israel continued to hit targets in the north of Lebanon for the first time today. It's been hitting targets in the north of Lebanon.

It has been concentrating most of its firepower in the past few days in south which is the strong hold of Hezbollah but now it's been hitting targets in the north. Hit a bridge near the town of Hermel, which is in northern Lebanon. It also hit a road there. It continued to hit targets, Hezbollah targets in the south near Tripoli.

And also we're hearing that the Hezbollah militants have continued firing Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. Most of the rockets landed in Nahariya, 12 Katyusha rockets were fired. We heard that one rocket even landed further into Israel. The range of these rockets is increasing all the time. It landed near a holiday resort in Israel. That was a rocket fired by Hezbollah militants.

We are continuing to monitor these developments here. Checking on the report on the attack on a Lebanese-Syrian border crossing point, we are monitoring Arab television stations. We'll bring you the latest as we get it.

HARRIS: Just to make a point here, clearly now we're looking at the map here and clearly what is happening is that militarily it looks like Israel is just trying to isolate Beirut and Lebanon because if you're talking about attacks now to the north and to an attack to the Lebanese-Syrian border, clearly that is designed to cut off any access from Syria so clearly the Mediterranean is covered now, the southern border is covered and now the border crossing between Lebanon and Syria.

NAIDOO: Right, Tony. Israel made clear from the outset that its aim in hitting these targets is to cut off all land and sea routes to the militants this would fit in with those goals. HARRIS: OK. We know that you'll be working with the international desk to bring us the very latest. We appreciate that. Thank you so much. We are going to take a quick break and come back with more of our continuing coverage. Crises in the Middle East. You're watching CNN SATURDAY MORNING.


NGUYEN: All right lets update the crises in the Middle East right now. Israel launched a litany of attacks across Lebanon today. Its forces struck targets in the north for the first time since the last conflict started, the latest one. There is a report just out of Reuters of a strike at the Lebanese-Syrian border. Hezbollah is firing back.

Militants fired more than a dozen rockets into northern Israel. The Associated Press is reporting that two Israeli sailors were killed in an attack on an Israeli warship, two other sailors still missing. Israel now says the ship was hit by an Iranian-made missile.

HARRIS: Besides the Middle East the other big story CNN is tracking this morning is the very large and extremely dangerous wild fire in Southern California's Yucca Valley. Today could be brutal for both fire crews and homeowners. CNN's Dan Simon joins us with a live report from the scene. Dan good morning.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Tony. Good morning from Command Central here at Yucca Valley High School and it is going to be another tough day for these firefighters. You know when our crew and I woke up this morning we couldn't believe it when we looked at the digital thermometer in our car at 4:00 in the morning it was 99 degrees.

You can imagine what it is going to be like for the firefighters up in the hills. Although the two fires merged yesterday that doomsday scenario that folks were fearing that the homes would go up in smoke that does not seem to be happening today.

Crews say basically those homes; those populated areas seem to be out of the woods in particular the Big Bear Lake area seems to have escaped danger. Let's talk about numbers for a second. 69,000 acres so far have been scorched, 95 square miles. That's the two fires combined.

When we talk about containment they look at the fires as separate entities. The big fire, 35 percent contained. The smaller one, the Miller fire, five percent contained, resources, 2,700 firefighters, three dozen aircraft. Damage Tony, 56 homes destroyed as well as 118 other buildings. When they talk about damage, they don't talk about the homes saved and of course it's in the hundreds if not the thousands.

Meanwhile, Governor Schwarzenegger has been keeping a close tabs on everything. He's going to be showing up here at Command Central in a couple of hours to meet and greet with the firefighters and also get a firsthand perspective in terms of how the fire is being fought. We'll of course cover that and bring you the very latest as the day progresses.

Tony back to you.

HARRIS: Dan thank you. Dan Simon following this huge wild fire out in California.

NGUYEN: Also following it is Bonnie Schneider who is in our weather center. Bonnie, you actually have satellite imagery that shows how big this truly is with all the smoke that is coming up in the air.

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It's really incredible. The temperatures are soaring as Dan mentioned, 99 degrees at 4:00 in the morning. The reason we're getting so much heat right now. Is we are in the middle of a big heat wave and actually what we're looking at are heat advisories posted for a good portion of the fire area where temperatures are not only going to get to the 90s but up to 103 degrees today. Winds will be strong. We may see some strong afternoon wind gusts at 30 miles an hour. That's something we'll be watching closely.

Well, as Betty mentioned, we can show you from outer space what the fires look like. The special graphic shows you where the fire is and how far the smoke plume stretches. Here's the fire down in Southern California in Yucca Valley.

Look at this, this is the smoke, you can see extending all the way to Nevada and straight to Utah and even through parts of Arizona -- such a large fire, tens of thousands of acres burning. The smoke carries from state to state. That's something unfortunately that should continue because of the winds we're watching so closely across much of the region.

It's not just going to be hot across the desert southwest we're also looking at hot temperatures in the northeast. Right now not to bad, but eventually as we work our way through the afternoon, we're looking for the chance of thunderstorms to roll through but not cooling things down. The heat will sore all the way up to places like Minneapolis where today Betty and Tony, we're looking for a high of 100 degrees. Going to be hot across the country.

NGUYEN: It's July. Thank you, Bonnie.

We are still continuing to watch those developments unfolding this morning in the Middle East and the crisis that is escalating there.

HARRIS: We want to remind you, is also an invaluable resource. There you can find maps and interactive, you can also click through gallery features and images of the conflict as it escalates.


NAIDOO: Hi there again from the international desk. We have a development in the crises in the Middle East. We're hearing Reuters is reporting that Israeli warplanes fired four rockets at a border crossing point between Lebanon and Syria. That means that the crisis is escalating. Now moved to the Lebanese-Syrian border. No other details available.

Reuters are quoting witnesses as saying that these four rockets were fired at the border crossing point. We are checking this out, we will bring you more details as we get. There is a Syrian army position, which is located near that attack where that attack took place.

Next we are going to go to taped programming to "OPEN HOUSE" with Gerri Willis but we're continuing to track and follow developments in the Middle East. We'll break into that taped programming and bring you the latest as we get it here at CNN. There will be a full newscast at the top of the hour. Right now "OPEN HOUSE."



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