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First Flight of Lebanon Evacuees Make it to America; Marines Arrive in Beirut to Help American Citizens Leave; Israeli Guns Still Blasting Away at Suspected Hezbollah Strongholds

Aired July 20, 2006 - 09:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Home sweet home. The first flight of evacuees makes it to America. Many more Americans still waiting to get out of Lebanon while fighting intensifies at the Israel-Lebanon border and beyond.
That's ahead on this AMERICAN MORNING.

And good morning to you. Welcome to a special edition of AMERICAN MORNING.

I'm Miles O'Brien in New York.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Soledad O'Brien, reporting live for you this morning from the Port of Larnaca in Cyprus -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: We begin with the latest developments, Soledad, in the crisis in the Middle East.

Israeli tanks and big guns still shelling southern Lebanon as troops cross the border, targeting Hezbollah guerrilla strongholds. Israel says it is not a full-scale invasion, but the country is not ruling one out either.

The first American evacuees back on U.S. soil, arriving at the Baltimore airport a couple of hours ago. About 8,000 Americans have asked to be evacuated to safety.

U.S. Marines now in Lebanon helping other Americans get out of the war zone. They're headed to the USS Nashville, an amphibious transport dock. Marines in Lebanon for the first time since a Hezbollah suicide bomber targeted the Marines barracks in 1983, killing 231 -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Hundreds of foreign nationals have landed here in this port in Cyprus, Miles. Let's show you some pictures of the Blue Dawn, the Canadian ship bringing in a couple hundred Canadians and a couple of Americans as well.

It arrived a couple hours ago. They had a very orderly disembarkment, very quiet, very calm. They move them through the port, as they have done with other ships.

Earlier this morning, we saw the Orient Queen. They did their disembarkment. It came in around 1:00 in the morning local time. Take a look at some home video. These come to us from Chantelle Kerry (ph). We gave her a video camera in Beirut and asked her to shoot some pictures for us as she came across on that ship. And you can see much different conditions than we saw on that Norwegian cargo ship yesterday, where people describe the conditions as pretty -- as pretty awful.

Folks came through, processed through, passport, immigration, Customs as well. And then for many, it was off to the airport. Take a look at these pictures.

For many people, a long, long wait, 24 hours, 36 hours, as they try to figure out how to get back to the states. The embassy, in some cases, put them on a charter. But if they were able to take a private flight out, then -- you know, a regular commercial flight out, then they -- then they did that as well. But it meant a big wait. There's no direct flights out of the airport.

Things are getting crowded, though. Sixty thousand to 70,000 people they're expecting, evacuees and refugees, could be making their way through this port, and some officials are unhappy with that.

Some people, though, who are very, very happy are those who have gotten to the end of the line at Thurgood Marshall International Airport, is where we find Bob Franken this morning with some very happy returning evacuees.

Hey, Bob.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There are 145 less of them at your end, Soledad. And now the ones who landed here about two and a half hours ago are trying to make their way home to make travel reservations.

I have with me -- I'm going to call you the bad news dower brothers.

These are Joseph and Alek Daher (ph), 18 and 12, who are from New Orleans. And last summer, their big highlight of the summer was Katrina, of course. And now you've had this.

This has been quite a series of misadventures.

JOSEPH DAHER, EVACUEE FROM LEBANON: It has. I mean, I'm hoping next summer I can just relax somewhere, maybe the Caribbean or something. I don't know. Somewhere safe.

FRANKEN: Tell me about -- tell me about what was going on for you.

J. DAHER: For me, I wasn't near the fighting. Like, I wasn't in Beirut or anything. I was north of Beirut. So it wasn't as bad. But we were all anxious to get out, like most Americans in Lebanon.

Basically, we just were all day, you know, on the Internet, or watching CNN, the news, anything, for any information that the embassy would give us. And we were just ready to get out, packing our stuff, and things like that.

FRANKEN: Alek (ph), it was kind of an ordeal. It took a while, didn't it?


FRANKEN: How long?


J. DAHER: It was about a week since the fighting started. It started last Wednesday. So it's been about a week. But, you know, during that time, we still had fun. He still went to the beach and had friends.

FRANKEN: Still went to the beach?

J. DAHER: Right, yes. I mean, we were waiting for any news. So...

FRANKEN: So, how were the U.S. officials? How well were you treated? How efficiently were you treated?

J. DAHER: Oh, it was nice. They put us on a military helicopter to Larnaca, Cyprus. And once we got there, they told us that they had chartered planes waiting for us to take us back to the United States. And every step of the way, there were State Department, Department of Homeland Security officials helping us, you know, fill out forms, doing everything we need to do.

FRANKEN: And now it's on to New Orleans.

They have a flight to catch in about an hour.

On to New Orleans and hopefully a brighter future for you two guys.

J. DAHER: Yes, hopefully. That's all. I mean, just getting ready to go back home.

FRANKEN: Thank you very much.

And Soledad, at your end, there are thousands upon thousands who want to say the same thing. They just want to get back home.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes. Hopefully for those guys a much less eventful summer the next time around.

Thanks, Bob.

Barbara Starr is just across the Mediterranean. She is just off of Beirut. She's with the Marines on the USS Nashville, as they help in assisting getting Americans out of Beirut. She's got this report.

Let's listen.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: We are on board the Nashville, and one of its landing craft, one of the small boats that comes out from the deck of the Nashville, has now made several runs into Beirut to pick up stranded Americans. CNN went with them earlier today as they picked up the first several boatloads of Americans who had been told to assemble at a port area along the Mediterranean.

The Navy ship came in. There were about 40 Marines on board. They got off. They went into, stepped onto Lebanese territory, which was quite an historic event in itself, because, of course, the Marines haven't really been here in many, many years, and began helping people get on board that landing craft and get back to the Nashville, where they are now going to spend the next several hours.

You were talking about the crush of evacuees from this situation. In the last several hours, this ship has already picked up some 700 Americans from literally the shore line of Beirut. And it's going to try and make several more runs into Beirut before dark, before the end of the day. And they hope to eventually load, they tell us, 1,200 American citizens on to this Navy warship.

I wish everyone could see the scene on deck right now as we sail, approaching sunset off the coast of Beirut. Hundreds and hundreds of Americans sitting on the deck.

Music is playing. They are sitting on cots. As you would well expect in situations like this, small children running around, playing, pretty happy to be on a Navy warship, talking to Marines, talking to sailors.

Of course, many of the parents, many of the elderly people here trying to get some rest. They are very exhausted. They've been in Beirut for many days now waiting to be taken out.

The scene here on board the Nashville is one of exhaustion, but relief, certainly, to be out of Beirut. I must tell you that many people are telling us their biggest worry now, of course, is the relatives they have left behind.

Many of these people, of course, Lebanese-Americans, and they have left many of their relatives in Beirut. All of them expressing a great deal of concern about what is going to happen to those people.

For its part, the U.S. military says they are willing and absolutely able to stay off the coast of Lebanon to rescue as many Americans as want to get out in the coming days.


S. O'BRIEN: That's Barbara Starr. She's on the USS Nashville, reporting on those efforts.

Stranded Americans have to absolutely be overjoyed to see those Marines, if they've been struggling to get out of Beirut. Those Marines are there to help. Let's get right to Jamie McIntyre. He's at the Pentagon with more on their mission.

Hey, Jamie. Good morning.


At this point, the plan is to try to move everybody to Beirut and get them out by sea. But military planners are also looking at the worst-case scenario. What if Americans are trapped in southern Lebanon and can't safely move over land? And it's clear now that they're ready really for any contingency.


MCINTYRE (voice over): The U.S. is considering sending U.S. Marine helicopters deep into Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon to extract Americans, but only if they can't get safely to coastal evacuation points, according to a senior defense official. It's one reason four ships from the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group, along with 1,200 Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, are en route to Lebanon, the three-star admiral in charge tells CNN.

VICE ADM. PATRICK WALSH, U.S. MARINES: Well, the idea is that we have the capability to extract people, no matter where their location is. And without getting into a lot of detail, that's part of our planning effort now.

MCINTYRE: Publicly, U.S. commanders are hesitant to talk about what could be a risky mission, flying over territory controlled by an organization labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. government. The preferred option remains busing people from the south to the Port of Beirut, where they can transfer to ships. But right now that's not safe.

MAURA HARTY, ASSIST. SECRETARY OF STATE: As you have heard us say before, we are really -- we do not encourage people to go over land on their own at this point.

MCINTYRE: Pentagon officials stress the current plan is for everyone to leave Lebanon from the Port of Beirut, but said no options are being ruled out entirely.

BRIG. GEN. MICHAEL BARBERO, DEP. DIR. FOR JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: We are also forming a task force which gives the on-scene commander the absolute flexibility to execute his mission.


MCINTYRE: The State Department thinks there is -- there are about several hundred Americans in southern Lebanon. It's not sure of the exact number. For now, it says those Americans are in a holding pattern until it's safe and prudent to move them -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: That's a scary position to be in. Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon for us.

Jamie, thanks.

Let's get right back to Miles in New York -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Thanks, Soledad.

Coming up, we're going to meet an American family in Cyprus. A few days ago, they were dodging bombs, on the run, living in fear. Soledad will tell you their story.

Also ahead, Hezbollah's money trail. We'll tell you how buying a pack of cigarettes on the street could be putting money into Hezbollah's pockets.

And under fire and online, gripping home movies of the nighttime bombing in Beirut and more ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


M. O'BRIEN: No end in sight for the incoming in southern Lebanon. The big Israeli guns just south of the border still blasting away at suspected Hezbollah strongholds.

Israeli ground troops are also in southern Lebanon. We're told it is not a full-scale invasion, however.

CNN's Paula Newton is just back from the border. She was near some of those big guns. She joins us live now from northern Israel -- Paula.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, you have to tell me. I'm not exactly sure how well you can see that.

That's two Black Hawk helicopters pounding some positions here in southern Lebanon. It's been nine hours now, and this fight with Hezbollah and the Israeli soldiers is still going on.

What is happening here is, this morning, in this incident, and one other just west of here, they've had three Israeli soldiers seriously wounded. Hezbollah took them on.

Sorry, we're not in the shot anymore. Sorry about that.

I'm still trying to figure out what's going on up there. But anyway, they had three soldiers seriously wounded. And they are still in their right now. Israeli media reports say that two Hezbollah are dead.

The problem here, which is the problem with Hezbollah, is they are a bit of a phantom force. Are there two? Are there 20? Are they lying in wait?

The Israeli forces will stay in there to really complete their original job. Keep in mind, the unit that's in there has already had a tank leave after anti-tank missile fire and two of their unit injured.

They're still in there, the Israeli defense forces telling me, trying to sweep up their original job, which is trying to go into those Hezbollah outposts, figure out missiles, rockets, launches, anything else that they need to cleanse that area and make sure it's not a threat to the community that really is right along that border -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Paula, those Black Hawk helicopters, they looked like they were firing something down. Are they providing some kind of cover for troops on the ground? Is that your understanding?

NEWTON: Exactly. I was just going to say that what's happening here is they're called -- and, of course, you can't hear it now. Well, there goes one. There's an artillery round going back in, and then the Black Hawks were called for support.

But it's not as if they've called for ground support. They may be just cleaning up the operation that they started this morning, and that includes pounding those positions.

Keep in mind, if they've buried all that weaponry under tunnels or in bunkers, they really need to clean that area up and make sure that they've targeted what they need to in order to get rid of the launchers, the missiles and the rockets, and anything else that might be there. In the same time, they're trying to repel Hezbollah.

I don't -- I don't get the indication that there's any -- any combat right now, that they're actually fighting with Hezbollah at this moment. But they want to make sure they clean up the area -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Tell us about your story a little bit, Paula, because we've been seeing you the past couple of days. You were right beside the big guns as they were doing all that shelling.

The Israeli defense forces have shooed you out today. Why?

NEWTON: Well, it's becoming much more sensitive. Now, first off, we were on one side of the guns yesterday. We wanted to see where those shells were landing.

They were landing along these hills. So we came here to see what was going on with the fighting. They lost two Israeli soldiers here yesterday in the fighting.

When we arrived, we were there for several hours and could see what was going on in terms of the soldiers coming in and out, the tanks, and, of course, the aerial bombardment. And when we got there, they were in the thick of the fighting.

The Israeli military just old us, look, it's not safe. We moved. We were right there on the front line looking at everything. They moved us away.

Then we went to another location. They told us, no, it's a security zone. They moved us away again. We've come as close as we can with a good vantage point to still keep an eye on it.

Keep in mind, Miles, the more soldiers that are injured, the more that they realize Hezbollah are in those hills back there and ready to engage them, the more they're going to want to clear out those communities. And never mind us. There are people in that town still living there, hunkered down in their homes.

What I saw was the men around trying to keep an eye on businesses and homes, and the women and children and elderly people have left. That was in the town of Avivim -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. Thank you very much, Paula Newton.

That brings us very well to Karl Penhaul, who is with some of those civilians, those women and children, in particular, trapped in this crossfire, huddling underground in bunkers and in bomb shelters as these explosions continue incessantly overhead.

Karl is live from one of those shelters in Tyre, Lebanon -- Karl.

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, six or seven families are down here, and that's the entire family, women, children and men. These are people too -- generally too poor to leave. They haven't got the fare for a taxi to Beirut, and they haven't got their own vehicles to allow them to get out of here.

Now, what -- what the situation is here is that these are the basements of normal apartment buildings.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. I think we just lost Karl Penhaul. As you can obviously understand, it's difficult, transmission, in a war zone like that. We'll try to regain our connection with him and bring him to you as soon as we do that.

In the meantime, let's get to Soledad in Cyprus -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Miles.

Well, talking about difficulty in a war zone, we want to tell you about the Suede family. They were on vacation in west Beirut when the bombs starting falling. In fact, they -- they landed at the airport on a Tuesday. Within 48 hours, the airport had been blown apart.

They moved and moved and moved again, trying to avoid strategic locations. Finally, they were able to get to safety here in Cyprus. And they join us.

Nice to see you guys. Thanks for talking with us.

We've got Ahmad and Allison Soueid and daughter, Hannah, who's 9, and son Michael, who is 13 years old.

It must be pretty terrifying to go through this experience and then have kids with you, all the more terrifying. Tell me a little about your experience. AHMAD SOUEID, AMERICAN EVACUATED TO CYPRUS: The difficulty was really hearing the bombs close to us and making decisions on what we need to do for safety for the children.

S. O'BRIEN: How did you know what you needed to do? I mean, you said you moved and you moved three times.

AHMAD SOUEID: Well, first, we went -- we stayed at my brother's house, which is where we intended to stay, not knowing that there was going to be a war. And the house is in an apartment at the top level of a building. And there was nothing protecting us from any air. And there's glass all around.

S. O'BRIEN: So that was obviously a bad choice.

AHMAD SOUEID: So, we went to my mother's house and we stayed with her. And then we heard they were bombing bridges and TV stations. And there's a bridge on one side of the building and there's a local TV station on the other.

So, we decide that wasn't a wise thing to do either. We shipped everybody, and we moved to another house which was closer to the financial district of Beirut and relatively safe. You know, about five miles away from the southern suburb where the bombing mostly was happening.

S. O'BRIEN: Allison, I've heard people come off the ship and say that the job the embassy did was terrific, that they were wonderful. And other people come off and said that the job the embassy did was horrific and it was chaotic and awful.

What's your opinion of how the experience was?

ALLISON SOUEID, AMERICAN EVACUATED TO CYPRUS: It was chaotic trying to find out where to go, and where you needed to be. But I think under the circumstances, with the number of people that they have to move, the personnel that we met with and that worked with us and at all of the stops were nothing but helpful. You know, very motivated to help us and make it easy for everybody coming through. So, I have -- I have no complaints.

S. O'BRIEN: Michael, you're 13 years old. How afraid were you? You heard the bombs going off.

MICHAEL SOUEID, AMERICAN EVACUATED TO CYPRUS: Yes. Yes, you could feel them, too. I mean, it's really scary, yes, because it gives you a whole point of view. Because you'll be, like, watching the news sometimes and you hear about it, and it just gives you a whole different mentality about how things go on, like in the Middle East. I mean...

S. O'BRIEN: Yes. Kind of a lesson that you didn't necessarily want your kids to learn firsthand.

Hannah, I've got to ask you a question. We talked a little bit earlier this morning when you were coming off this ship. How scary was it for you? I mean, I know your mom and dad, I'm sure, were trying to keep everybody calm. But did you know kind of how serious it was?

HANNAH SOUEID, AMERICAN EVACUATED TO CYPRUS: Yes, it was kind of scary, because you could hear them really loud sometimes, and then sometimes you couldn't hear them very loud. And you would see them on the news. And it was kind of scary.

S. O'BRIEN: So what happens now? You got the family all together. I know that was an important thing for you, to keep everybody together and the little bit of luggage that you have.

Where do you go now?

AHMAD SOUEID: Well, actually, my brother and his two kids also were with us on vacation, and they came with us on the same boat. So, we're trying to make accommodations to travel to Frankfurt tonight and then meet my older brother in France and spend a few days with him before head go back home.

S. O'BRIEN: So, eek out a little bit of that vacation?

AHMAD SOUEID: That's right.

S. O'BRIEN: Oh, that has been...

ALLISON SOUEID: And his two daughters went through Damascus to get out, the brother that we're meeting in France. So, we'll meet with them as well.

S. O'BRIEN: And they're safe and they're OK?


S. O'BRIEN: Excellent.

Well, the Soueid family, we thank you for talking with us and sharing your story. We really appreciate it. Good luck to you in the rest of your travels.

I know you're sort of halfway to where you need to be. And I hope you do get a couple of days of vacation in at least.

AHMAD SOUEID: Thank you, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Thanks a lot. Our pleasure.

Let's get right back to Miles. He's in New York -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you, Soledad.

Coming up, Hezbollah's finances. Where is it getting the money to fight this war? Would you believe a black market for Viagra pills?

That story is ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


M. O'BRIEN: Happening "In America," in Florida, they're still trying to figure out why the cruise ship Crown Princess suddenly listed hardly to one side, injuring 20 people. It happened Tuesday off Port Canaveral. Investigators want to know why word of the trouble came to the Coast Guard via a passenger's cell phone.

In Florida as well, a judge gives the green light for a doctor to scan Lionel Tate's brain. Tate was just 12 when he was convicted of killing his 6-year-old playmate. That was back in '99, but he was sentenced to 30 years in prison in May for violating his probation. His lawyer asked for the scan, claiming Tate has brain damage.

A British man under arrest in London on a U.S. terror charge. Twenty-six-year-old Saed Talla Assan (ph), accused of funding terrorist Web sites, Assan (ph) arrested in Connecticut. He faces federal conspiracy charges.

Enron founder Kenneth Lay had some serious heart disease when he died. An autopsy shows he had clogged arteries and two heart attacks before the one that killed him. He died in Colorado a few weeks ago, you'll recall, convicted, though not yet sentenced for fraud and conspiracy in connection with the collapse of the one-time energy giant, Enron.

In Washington, the House passing a bill to protect the phrase "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. The measure would bar federal judges from telling school kids they can't recite that phrase. The bill now faces an uncertain future in the Senate -- Carol.

CARLSON: Let's talk a little health right now, shall we?

In this morning's "House Call," a new Harvard study says women who are overweight in their teens have a greater risk of dying young.

Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen joins us from the CNN Center in Atlanta to tell us more.

Good morning.


Carol, this is a huge study of 100,000 women, and it asks the question, if you're overweight at 18, does that mean you have higher risk of dying prematurely, meaning between the ages of 36 and 56? This study definitely said yes. Those women do have a higher risk of dying prematurely.

Let's take a look at some of the weights and heights that they figured out with this study. For example, if a woman is 5'6" and weighs 190 pounds, she is more than twice as likely to die young compared to a very slim woman. In another example, if a woman is 5'6" and weighs 175 pounds, she's more than 50 percent more likely to die young, compared to a slim woman.

And the causes of death -- and no risk of dying young if someone is that weight, 5'6", 125 pounds. No increased risk of dying young.

Now, why did these women die prematurely? There were several causes of death, cancer, heart disease, stroke. Also, overweight and obese women in this study more likely to commit suicide, which is certainly an interesting finding.

Now, what happens here biologically is that women who are overweight or obese at 18 are pretty much more likely to be overweight or obese into their adulthood. Just having that weight puts you at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer. Plus, the overweight and obese women in this study more likely to smoke, less likely to exercise -- Carol.

COSTELLO: OK. So, the study was about women. But would the same hold true for men, do you think?

COHEN: There have been other studies, similar kinds of studies that look at men and what weight they are in their teens and what it means later. And they have found similar findings that, indeed, being overweight at 18 puts you at a higher risk for dying prematurely.

COSTELLO: Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen.

Thanks so much.

COHEN: Thanks.

M. O'BRIEN: Coming up, the Middle East in crisis. Fighting a war isn't cheap. So, where is Hezbollah getting all its money? We follow the money trail, and part of it leads right here, to the U.S.

Plus, meet some of the families who have evacuated Lebanon. See how parents are comforting their kids after such a hellish experience.

That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.



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