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Crisis in the Middle East

Aired July 20, 2006 - 06:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: The U.S. Marines return to Beirut for the first time in more than 22 years since the bombing of the Marine barracks by Hezbollah. This time they are there to get Americans out of harm's way. Day nine, the war rolls on, where are the peacemakers on this AMERICAN MORNING?
Good morning. Welcome to a special edition of AMERICAN MORNING. I'm Miles O'Brien in New York.


We are again at the port in Larnaca in Cyprus this morning -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Soledad, thanks. Back to you in a moment.

We begin with the latest developments on the crisis in the Middle East. Israeli soldiers fighting Hezbollah forces inside Lebanon right now. There is talk Israel may send a large force into Lebanon to try to root-out Hezbollah positions.

In the air, Israeli fighters pursuing Hezbollah's leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, dropping 23 tons of explosives on a single command bunker in Beirut.

U.S. Marines now on Lebanese soil for the first time since a suicide bomber killed 241 Marines in Beirut in 1983. They are there to help evacuate American citizens.

The first wave of evacuees expected to land in Baltimore in about 30 minutes. Customs and border security have brought in extra help to make the process quicker for those evacuees.

Back to Soledad in Cyprus.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Miles, thanks.

The port here in Larnaca is in some ways a very typical port, hundreds of ships come in. Some of them are commercial ships, some of them are passenger ships, some of them are cargo ships. And it's one of the country's biggest gateways out to the rest of the world of course. Of course we're watching it now because this is the entranceway for many of the evacuees who are coming essentially straight across the Mediterranean from Beirut.

Let's give you a shot of the French ferry. It's right behind me here. That came in around 4:00 in the morning local time. The last couple of the days going back and forth. We've seen it make at least two runs. Earlier today, around 1:00 in the morning, the American ship finally arrived. We saw a number of people sort of hanging off the balconies and hanging out the window as they were very eager to obviously get to shore after a really, really long ride.

Now conditions on board the ship significantly better than what we were telling you about yesterday when that Norwegian vessel pulled in. The vessel that carried, you know, cars and carried tractors. This time around, much better conditions.

But folks came off, some of them with heat exhaustion. We saw those folks pulled off first. And then we saw a woman, who is still unidentified, a relatively young woman, injured right hand, bandaged. They put her onto a little bit of a gurney, brought her out into the ambulance and took her away. Lacerations on her face as well.

The rest of the folks boarded buses. And those buses took them not far to the actual port building. And that building is where they began the processing system, essentially customs. They -- whatever luggage they had had to be gone through.

Inside, chaotic, but at the same time actually quite organized. They were offered food and water and a place to sit while they were processed and while they figured out the very next step to get them on to their next destination. In some cases, it was the airport.

Take a look at these pictures that we shot a little bit earlier this morning, really just after dawn, you could see the airport quite filled up already. Some people looked at a long wait, 24 hours in some cases, and in some cases even more. And they were going to just camp out at the airport because, of course, the hotel situation here hard to find a place nearby. The taxicab situation to the port also very difficult. And some people felt, well, the best bet was just to stick it out and hang out for even up to 30 hours just to wait for their flight.

Of course one thing everybody has in common is very thankful that they are out of Beirut and out of harm's way. What about the other folks who are still in Beirut and trying to make their way out now?

Let's get to Barbara Starr. She is on board the USS Nashville. It is off the coast of Beirut, and she joins us from there.

Barbara, good morning.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: We are now on board the first U.S. military ship that has landed here in Beirut harbor and it's picked up hundreds and hundreds of Americans coming down the hill from the city being boarded onto this boat. We will now make a trip back to a larger warship where they will be given food, water and shelter. But I think, as you can see from the pictures we're showing you, these are hundreds of Americans. There are families here, children in strollers, very young people. There are some very elderly people, people with medical challenges. Some of the children on board the ship are doing pretty good. They seem to be in pretty good shape there. They are taking this all in their stride, as young children often do. A lot of parents very worried, very concerned about getting their children and their families out.

The Marines on board are right now are just loading this ship up as fast as they can with as many people as they can. They're trying to make several runs into Beirut today, get everybody out they can by dark and then withdraw until another day when they may have to come back.

But right now the story here is that hundreds of Americans are now on -- into a U.S. military turf. They are on a U.S. Navy ship. And they are now safe and they are headed back to their homes.

S. O'BRIEN: What a relief, certainly, for those folks who have been very desperate to get out.

Barbara Starr with the Marines on the USS Nashville.

Let's throw it back to Miles who is in New York -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, back with you in just a little bit, Soledad, thank you very much.

Israel says it has hit more than 1,000 targets since the war began and they are stepping up attacks in Lebanon this morning. Once again, Israeli fighters targeting Beirut and beyond. The Lebanese prime minister saying his country has been torn to shreds.

Anthony Mills live now from Beirut with more, -- Anthony.

ANTHONY MILLS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The last few hours in the Lebanese capital have been fairly quiet as the foreigners flee, as the boats load up at Beirut port and the real evacuation process gets under way.

But of course strikes have continued elsewhere in the country, and indeed throughout the night here in Beirut, with loud explosions from the southern suburbs where we understand that the stronghold of Hezbollah was targeted with 32 tons of explosives. However, Hezbollah's directional capacity, its capacity to function, appears to be still unimpaired with Hezbollah officials saying that their leaders were unhurt in that strike.

Back to you, -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Anthony, the prime minister of Beirut says his country is being torn to shreds. There's very little he can do about it, though, right?

MILLS: The government is incapacitated effectively. It has among its members two Hezbollah members. So very difficult for the government to really go after Hezbollah, and not for that reason alone. Hezbollah is a well-armed group. It's the only group in Lebanon to keep its weapons after the end of the civil war in 1990. It has a wide populous, a port base among Shiite Muslims in Lebanon. And indeed, the army itself is composed, to a great extent, of Shiite Muslims.

And the question is, if that army were sent against Hezbollah in the south, in the southern suburbs, to try to control them, then the loyalty of those Shiite Muslims in a fragmented country would be in question, and conceivably we could find here in Lebanon a return to civil war -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Anthony Mills in Beirut, thank you very much.

Israel is not ruling out an all-out ground invasion of Lebanon. But for now, the ground fighting in southern Lebanon amounts to isolated skirmishes between Hezbollah and the Israeli forces. At the same time, Israeli artillery keeps blasting away from just south of the border.

CNN's John Vause live now from Jerusalem with more, -- John.


Well that artillery is trying to stop the Katyusha rockets, which continually fall down on Israeli towns and cities. And within the last few hours, Israeli authorities report that the towns of Tiberias and Carmiel and a few others have also come under attack from Hezbollah missiles. No reports of casualties so far, but it comes a day after two young children were killed by Hezbollah missiles in the town of Nazareth, bringing to 15 the number of Israeli civilians who have been killed so far.

The Israeli military also says there having ongoing gun battles with Hezbollah militants just across the border in the same place where two Israeli soldiers who were killed yesterday. So far today, the military says at least three Israeli soldiers have been badly wounded.

And within the last few hours, Israeli officials say their warplanes have carried out attacks in the eastern part of Lebanon on Hezbollah training camps, as well as the Al-Manar television station, which is affiliated with Hezbollah. Also striking what they say were 23 suspected Katyusha rocket launching areas.

And overnight, just to follow up on what Anthony said about that airstrike on the underground bunker, the underground headquarters of the Hezbollah leadership, Israel saying it dropped 23 tons worth of explosives. Included in that were bunker-buster bombs. And also from the head of Israel's military, a claim that now those airstrikes have greatly reduced Hezbollah's ability to fire those Katyusha rockets and other missiles -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: We should remind people there are more fronts in this war, John. While we've been focused on what's going on in southern Lebanon and on the border there, in Gaza and in West Bank, there is further action to tell people about.

VAUSE: Well there's been another Israeli airstrike in Gaza. According to Palestinian medical sources, two, maybe three people have been killed in that latest airstrike there. So Gaza, obviously, is still continuing a two-front war for the Israelis.

There is also another kidnapped Israeli soldier there. He is being held by militants from Hamas. He was kidnapped on June 25.

So there is this two-prong battle for the Israelis. But it certainly seems that while the Israeli Air Force and military and Army is continuing the bombardment of Lebanon, it is also continuing with its operations in the Gaza Strip.

M. O'BRIEN: John Vause in Jerusalem, thank you very much.

So what do Americans think about all of this? A CNN poll conducted by Opinion Research Corporation finding close to half, 45 percent disapprove of the steps the president has taken, 38 percent say they approve, referring to President Bush and how he's handling the crisis.

When asked if the U.S. should play an active role in trying to resolve the conflict though, 65 percent say no, 27 percent say yes.

And when it comes to how the U.S. government is handling the evacuations of Americans, you heard some of those evacuees criticizing the government, 53 percent say they did a good job, while 29 percent give the government a poor rating.

We're going to crunch those numbers a little further. In just a little while, we'll get some analysis on all that in our next hour with our senior political analyst Bill Schneider.

Happening this morning.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads to the United Nations for a meeting on the Middle East crisis. Rice will meet with the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, top officials from the European Union.

President Bush addressing the NAACP convention today. His first speech to the civil rights group since he took office. CNN will carry it live beginning at 10:30 Eastern.

Barry Bonds may soon find out whether he will be indicted on perjury and tax evasion charges. The term of the grand jury investigating him expires today. Also today, Bonds' personal trainer will be released from prison. He was there for refusing to testify to the grand jury.

And a tropical storm watch in effect for parts of Massachusetts. It comes as Tropical Storm Beryl meanders up the East Coast. The storm expected to weaken later today.

Which brings us to Chad Myers at the CNN Center with more on Beryl and elsewhere.


M. O'BRIEN: Hello, -- Chad.

MYERS: Hi, Miles.

Yes, Beryl is kind of 60 miles per hour, still moving up to the north, still kind of making some tracks up toward New England, although the official forecast does have it turning out to sea. Obviously the cone of uncertainty still well into Boston, well into Plymouth.

And in fact, now those tropical storm watches have been upgraded to tropical storm warnings from Plymouth all the way back down into Nantucket, which means that we are expecting tropical storm conditions in the next 24 hours there.


Back to you guys.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you very much, Chad. Back with you in just a little bit.

After a short break, we'll check back in with Soledad who is in Cyprus. Americans grateful to be out of Beirut and there at Larnaca, but now what for them?

And then for many who can't make it out by ship, they are attempting to get out over land through Syria, although the U.S. does not recommend Americans do this. We're live on the border. We'll tell you what's going on there as well.

And later, how does the Arab world feel about all of this fighting? We're going to talk to the Arab League's secretary-general and find out where the Arab moderates are this morning.

And Carrie Lee with business headlines for us.

CARRIE LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, thank you.

Very strong market rally yesterday following words from Fed Chief Ben Bernanke. Will the gains continue into today's session? We'll take a look coming up on AMERICAN MORNING.


S. O'BRIEN: We're back at the port of Larnaca this morning in Cyprus. The Cyprus foreign minister says he is very concerned about the influx of refugees and evacuees through Cyprus. He says they're actually not really equipped to handle the estimated 60,000 to 70,000 people who could be coming from Beirut right to these shores.

In fact, there was a big influx of Americans. They docked right over there on that dock right there early this morning, 1:00 local time. And what we saw, if you take a look at the tape, even before people were allowed to get off, they were already amassing either on the balconies or at the windows to take a look as they waited pretty patiently for the disembarkment process.

A couple of people had heat exhaustion. A couple of elderly people had to be treated. A woman, who had some kind of injuries, right arm, right hand, right wrist, seemed to be bandaged up. She had some lacerations on her face, too. She was one of the first people taken out, brought off in an ambulance.

Everybody else, though, then was allowed off. And they basically milled around, got on some buses and they were brought over to the port to start the process of really getting on their way home.

It looked pretty chaotic, but actually it was fairly well run. They're making some options available to the Americans. You can stay. The embassy would put them up in some kind of housing. You could take your own flight out. You could wait to get on a charter flight. And many people sat around and sort of milled their options.

As a rule, they were all very relieved and they were all very grateful. For some people, the bombing started when they began their vacation. Listen.


ZAR YASSIN, EVACUEE: I get up Wednesday morning and the airport is closed already. You know a week of nothing but misery and traveling from one town to town to find safety for me, for my pregnant wife, for my child, and for what, I don't think it's about the two kidnapped soldiers anymore, I think it's more political. They're trying to get political gains at this point.



HANNAH SQUEID, EVACUEE: It was kind of scary because you could hear the bombs and you could also kind of feel it sometimes. So...

S. O'BRIEN (on camera): And what did you do? I mean I can't imagine what I would do if I started hearing and seeing bombs. Well what did you do to sort of you know comfort yourself?

SQUEID: Well we all like stayed together so we wouldn't be scared or anything. We watched some movies and stuff like just to comfort ourselves.



GEORGE MASSOUD, EVACUEE: Every time we make it to the embassy, they tell us we can't help you, wait for a phone call. I mean, it's a joke.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We didn't wait for no phone call, we just decided on our own just to go and take a chance and get on the boat.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SAM HAMA, EVACUEE: My wife had to call the States, the State Department, and get somebody, her brother and her cousins both State Department, and get us out of there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's how a lot of people got out. If they had people in the States call and call their senators.



MS. ABBAS, EVACUEE: They didn't call us. We just heard from friends. I happen to know a friend and I -- in the embassy, and they just kind of told us that way. There wasn't enough phone calls. Once you knew where the pickup point was, it just -- all the people just came.



BEATRICE EL-HAGE, EVACUEE: We registered. Everyone on the boat was actually saying they registered you know two, three, four times. We didn't get any word for about four days. And last night at midnight, they said can you be down here at 9:00 in the morning?

NABIL EL-HAGE, EVACUEE: I think State did a really great job. I mean they called us. They told us where to go, what time and it was extraordinarily well organized. I really think they should be commended.


S. O'BRIEN: Some people giving huge kudos to the Department of State, and the embassy as well, for the organization and getting the job done. Other people feeling that in fact they didn't get a lot of information. Everybody feeling relieved and very grateful.

And many people feeling very sorry for the folks they left behind, a lot of relatives and a lot of friends and a beautiful, beautiful land, and they feel very, very sympathetic toward the people there who are choosing to remain behind -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, thank you very much, Soledad. Back with you in just a little bit.

Upwards of 60,000 foreign nationals or people with dual citizenship trying to get out of Lebanon right now. We've heard much about the journey to Cyprus. You just heard about it from Soledad. But there is another route out over land through Syria. While Americans are discouraged from taking that route, hundreds of others are streaming across that border.

CNN's Hala Gorani is on the border and has a live report for us now.

Hala, hello.


I'm at the Ashdated Yabush (ph) border crossing. Today alone you saw 50,000 people have made the cross -- have crossed the border into Syria. Lebanese citizens over the last 48 hours, 100,000 people. That brings the total to 150,000 Lebanese citizens.

And you can see behind me, I'm going to step out of the way, people crammed onto open-air trucks with all their belongings, their suitcases, their children. They have chartered buses, they're in minivans. These are people who have stuck it out, Miles, so far over the last six or seven days, but who told me, you know what, the fighting just got a little bit too close to home and I'm not taking any risks. I'm taking my family and I'm leaving.

The big question now, Miles, is what happens to those individuals once they're in Syria? What they're asked to do now is fill out a little piece of paper, like this one, with their names and their phone number. And they were given another phone number of a host family in a Syrian family home that has accepted to take them in. So for the next two or three days, that problem seems to be relatively solved.

But the question is, going further, will this become a long-term refugee issue if the fighting in Lebanon becomes so intense that people here feel in two or three weeks, or even two or three months, that it's still not safe to return to their homes in Lebanon -- Miles?

M. O'BRIEN: Hala, have you seen any Americans there?

GORANI: I have not seen any Americans here. These are mainly Lebanese refugees and evacuees, individuals who are perhaps among the poorest who feel they need to leave. And this explains perhaps why many of them have decided to wait so long before leaving Lebanon.

They have told me we waited five days, six days, you know we were hoping that the conflict would end. But then when they realized that bombs were falling close to home, they said we're not taking that risk. We might not have the money to spend a whole lot of time in Syria once we get there, but it's better to be safe, at this point, than sorry, as it were, in Lebanon -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Hala Gorani on the Syrian-Lebanon border, thank you.

Still to come on the program, Fed Chief Ben Bernanke's magic words. How he helped the Dow score its best day of the year.

And Congress takes on the federal courts barring judges from tampering with a school-age tradition.

Stay with us for more AMERICAN MORNING.


M. O'BRIEN: Sure would be interesting if you said a single sentence and that would move a market. Carrie Lee, would you like that power?

LEE: We don't have that power?

M. O'BRIEN: No, we don't.

LEE: OK, all right. I thought you were talking about us, no.

We're talking about Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve Chief, talking yesterday to Senate committee and really sending stocks rallying. Basically he said that inflation does remain a concern in this economy, but that economic growth does seem to be moderating and that could put some downward pressure on inflation going forward.

And that was pretty much exactly what Wall Street wanted to hear. Dow Jones industrials gaining over 200 points, up about 2 percent. That is the second strongest one-day point gain on the Dow so far this year. You can see the Nasdaq and S&P not too far behind.

Now today Bernanke is talking to a House committee. Testimony will be the same question-and-answer period, a little bit different, so Wall Street will be paying attention once again. But so far it is looking like a pretty decent open for stocks, looking slightly bullish.

A couple of names we're watching. Intel, shares down 1.5 percent on their profit report. Shares of Apple Computer up 8.5 percent on Q2 numbers. So a lot of tech names today to watch.

M. O'BRIEN: Those iPods still keep shipping out there.

LEE: And Macintosh computers are doing well also.

M. O'BRIEN: Let's -- let me ask you this about Ben Bernanke. Help us understand this.


M. O'BRIEN: The reason the market loved that so much is they think there may be less a desire to keep raising interest rates?

LEE: Right.

M. O'BRIEN: Is that the basic deal?

LEE: Right. Even though inflationary pressures are going on right now, he's saying moderating the economic growth going forward, and that's what Wall Street cares about, right, future interest rates, that's going to -- the slower the economy or the -- when the economy pulls back, that means that the Fed could be less inclined to keep raising rates. And they next meet on August 8.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Carrie Lee, thank you very much.

LEE: OK. Sure. M. O'BRIEN: Israeli defense forces say they have targeted now more than 1,000 targets in southern Lebanon. They say primarily those targets are Hezbollah installations where you've seen those rocket launches that have headed into northern Israel. But in many cases, of course, civilians are caught in the crossfire. And in many cases those civilians are now seeking cover in bunkers in southern Lebanon.

CNN's Karl Penhaul joining us live now from one such bunker with some people who are, quite frankly, living in fear on this day.

Hello, -- Karl.

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, these people have been down here for nine days now. Some of them only live a few blocks away. It's not they've come from some of the outlying villages a little ways out of the city of Tyre, they live two, three blocks away. They say they're too frightened to stay at home, and so they've come down into this underground basement, which is serving now as an improvised bomb shelter. All told, probably about 40 people have been staying here for nine days. That's six, seven families, children included.

You might see some of them alongside me here. Twin brother and sister, Mohammed (ph) and Nura (ph), and 10-year-old Maliki (ph) here. But their parents are here, their aunts and uncles are here as well.

And down here in the basement, there are no sanitary conditions, there are no toilets, there's no running water.

During the day what they're doing is sending one or two family members out into the streets to go and forage for food. When I say forage, what I mean there is for them to go out to one or two of the corner stores that have remained open.

But a lot of the other citizens of Tyre, the ones who are rich enough to have a car or to pay for taxi rides, have left. These people are common folk. Ali (ph), a fisherman, and another man, Hussein (ph), he's a carpenter. These people haven't got money to flee and they stay here all day and all night. They say it's too dangerous to go outside -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Karl, do these people here, do they express allegiance to Hezbollah?

PENHAUL: In no shape or form, Miles. Again, this is southern Lebanon and political and military sensitivities here are very strong. It's not the kind of subject that people feel happy talking about. It's certainly not a subject publicly that they will talk about.

I have had one or two very private discussions with people. They don't even like a foreigner, like myself, to mention the word Hezbollah in public because there is such a fear by Hezbollah's military apparatus of infiltrators and spies, Israelis principally coming across the border, that they are -- everybody is very tight- lipped. And basically, though, what they do say is that they know that there is one nation responsible for the bombs falling on their city, and they say that Israel is responsible for that. They also accuse America of backing Israel -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Karl Penhaul in a bunker in Tyre, thank you very much.

The morning's top stories are straight ahead, including they're getting ready in Baltimore to process the first flight of American evacuees. They should be arriving shortly. And we're live to greet them as well.

And then we'll talk to a New Jersey woman whose children and ex- husband are stuck in Lebanon still. The roads destroyed, the bombs are falling around them and the anxiety levels are growing. We'll check in with them, see how they're doing on this AMERICAN MORNING ahead.



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