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Lebanese Christian Cabinet Minister Assassinated, Syria and Hezbollah Implicated

Aired November 21, 2006 - 09:00   ET


Good morning, everyone.

I'm Tony Harris.


For the next three hours, watch events happen live for November 21.

And here's what's on the rundown this Tuesday morning.

A deadly school bus crash -- today, calls for safety belts. We follow the investigation this morning in Alabama.

HARRIS: Iraq's neighbors lending a hand -- Syria and Iran trying to help stop the bloodletting or nosey neighbors with an agenda?

COLLINS: And "Seinfeld" actor Michael Richards apologizing -- a racial tirade on stage. It's nothing to laugh about, in THE NEWSROOM.

HARRIS: Milestone in the Middle East -- today Iraq and Syria restoring diplomatic ties after nearly a quarter century break.

CNN's Arwa Damon is in Baghdad.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a very complex situation, if we just start with Syria to begin with.

Syria has been accused both by the Americans and by the Iraqi government of allowing a flow of foreign fighters, of weapons and of funds going directly to the insurgency to come across its border. The U.S. military is still estimating that some 50 to 70 fighters a month are coming across its border.

Now, the two countries have pledged to work together, to try to secure that border. But that still is one of the main issues of contention, which directly impacts security and the violence here.

And then if we look to Iran, well, Iran has come under direct accusation by both top U.S. military and political leaders here for funding, arming and training the militias and the death squads. In addition to that, both U.S. and British military intelligence believe that Iran's ultimate goal is to, at first, for now at least, increase the sectarian violence because they ultimately want a stable Iraq, but one that is a weak state, one that Iran can exert a certain amount of influence over, have a certain amount of control over.

And when it comes to the Iraqi government, from the perspective of the U.S. and from the perspective of most of the Sunni Iraqis here, from the perspective of most of the secular Shia Iraqis that live in this country, they believe that Iran has an uncomfortably close relationship with the Iraqi government.

Remember, many of Iraq's current top tier politicians, including the prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, spent a significant time in Iran when they were in exile here.


HARRIS: And once again, we're hoping to hear, in just a couple of moments, from Iraq's foreign minister, Zabari, on all of the issues raised by Arwa Damon.

COLLINS: The world's top diplomat says the U.S. is "trapped in Iraq." United Nations chief Kofi Annan says Washington needs to carefully consider when to pull its troops out of the country. He also says the war could have been avoided altogether and it remains the largest blemish of his 10-year term.


KOFI ANNAN, U.N. SECRETARY-GENERAL: On the question of regret, I still have to say there's a war in Iraq and that the debate and the discussions that took place in the Council could not helped stop the war. I firmly believe that the war could have been avoided and the inspectors should have had a bit more time.


COLLINS: Tehran's two way talks with Iraq -- will they turn into a three way discussion now?

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is due in the Iranian capital this weekend. He will meet with President Mahmood Ahmadinejad.

Now, Reuters is reporting Iran has also invited Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. The wire service says if he visits, he could join the meeting between the Iraqi and Iranian leaders.

As of on, Syrian officials tell CNN President Assad has no plans to be in Tehran. There's been talk of involving Syria and Iran in diplomatic efforts at peacemaking in Iraq. But, a U.S. State Department official says he is skeptical anything positive could come from that.

HARRIS: A deadly detour for a school bus in Alabama. Three kids dead following a 30-foot fall. Many more are still hospitalized this morning.

CNN's Rusty Dornin joins us live from Huntsville with details -- and, Rusty, this is a horrible story.

Good morning to you.

What's the latest?

RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there are still 15 kids in the hospital, some still in very serious condition. Of course, this community really trying to come to grips with this very freak accident that happened yesterday morning.

You can still see the school bus on the street below the overpass where it plunged yesterday morning. NTSB investigators expected on the scene soon to piece together the final puzzle of this story.


DORNIN (voice-over): It was just after 10:00 Monday morning. Forty-three students from Lee High School were taking the bus to the local technical center for classes. A witnesses told police as the bus crossed the overpass, a small car seemed to swerve toward it.

CHIEF REX REYNOLDS, HUNTSVILLE POLICE: The car may have come close to and/or struck the bus, causing the bus to strike the rail and ultimately leaving the elevated part of the interstate.

DORNIN: Police now say that that car was driven by another high school student, but it's still very unclear whether that car hit the bus. The bus plummeted 30 feet and crashed into the street below.

Three teenaged girls died in the crash. Several suffered serious injuries. Some had to be pulled from the front portion of the crushed vehicle.

LAWANDA JEFFERSON, SCHOOL BUS ACCIDENT VICTIM: They was bleeding real bad and couldn't walk and they had blood everywhere on them.

DORNIN: Lawanda Jefferson was battered and bruised, but she was alive.

JEFFERSON: I hope they get much better and I'm sorry for the ones that just died and hope their families take it OK.

DORNIN: The families were frantic following news of the crash, desperate to find out if their children were on the bus or what their condition was. Many survivors were conscious when they arrived at the hospital, but not coherent.

DAVID SPILLER, HUNTSVILLE HOSPITAL: There were many who were not able to tell us who they were and they had no means of identification on them.

DORNIN: A freak accident in a tight-knit community, something people here are having a hard time getting their arms around. KEITH WARD, MADISON COUNTY SCHOOLS: It just reaches down and clutches your heart and you just -- you're in shock. You want to cry. You just don't know what you could do to make that pain go away, because you know it's not going away.


DORNIN: What you're looking at now is the part of the overpass, And the NTSB investigators did tell us that chunks of concrete, when the bus hit that side ramp or that rail, took out chunks of concrete. It slid all the way down there. And the interesting thing is that they are telling us that the bus driver was on the on ramp. He never went over the side with the bus. They don't know whether he was ejected or he was able to climb out. Apparently he has been in very serious condition and has been in and out of consciousness. And they say they will be talking to him today.

But just a real quick shot here to show you, this is this orange Celica that was involved in the crash. NTSB did tell me two front tires are flat. Now, they don't know whether it happened before or after the accident. That's what they're going to be looking at when they're trying to figure out exactly what caused this crash -- Tony.

HARRIS: And, Rusty, just quickly, is there -- is there a call that is being sounded in the community this morning? Anything that you're hearing suggesting that there needs to be a conversation about seatbelts on all school buses?

DORNIN: Well, you're hearing the safety concerns come up. And even the NTSB is voicing those concerns. Those are the things they are going to be looking at. Now, whether seatbelts could have helped in something like this, where a bus plunges 30 feet over the side of the overpass, they've discovered that in some situations, seatbelts can cause more injuries for kids.

And the one thing that the investigator did point out to me is the difficulty of -- these buses carry kids who are four and five years old up to high school. So it's often very difficult to design these seats to be able to handle the various children that are being transported on these buses during any time of the day.

HARRIS: Rusty, has the driver of the vehicle, the Celica, has that driver been interviewed by police?

DORNIN: He has been interviewed by police. NTSB investigators are going to be talking to him today, however.

Also, we don't know if there are any criminal charges that are pending. From what we understand, they did tell investigators that their tire blew out. Something happened to make the care lose control and that's when it hit the bus. But as investigators told me, we do not use only the interviews to determine what happened in an accident. We use the science. We map exactly what happened in the accident to determine what happened.

HARRIS: Yes. And, quickly, what kind of shape is the bus driver in?

DORNIN: The bus driver is reportedly in serious condition. He was in and out of consciousness yesterday afternoon. It was very difficult for police to even talk to him yesterday.

But NTSB investigators will be talking to him today.


CNN's Rusty Dornin for us in Huntsville, Alabama.

Rusty, thank you.


COLLINS: Shelved, pulled, done -- no more O.J. Simpson book or TV special on the killing of his ex-wife. But Simpson walks away with a consultation prize.

CNN's Jason Carroll with the story.


JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If he did it, the public will have to wait to find out how O.J. Simpson would have gone about it. Late today, News Corp, owner of FOX News, bowed to increasing criticism and scrapped the publishing of Simpson's book, titled "If I Did It."

News Corp also canceled plans to air a TV special where Simpson's book explains how, hypothetically, he would have killed his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ron Goldman.

In a statement, News Corp Chairman Rupert Murdoch said, "I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill- considered project."

It wasn't just a public outcry. Much came from within News Corp's own ranks. FOX's Bill O'Reilly harshly criticized the decision to publish the book and air the interview, calling it "simply indefensible and a low point in America culture."

O'Reilly went a step further, saying he would boycott Simpson's book, as well as any companies that advertised during the televised special. FOX's Geraldo Rivera expressed his anger on ABC's "Good Morning America."

GERALDO RIVERA, HOST, "GERALDO AT LARGE": Well, I think this project, whoever created it and wherever it's going to air, is just about as low as you can go. This is a -- an appalling idea involving a low down and dirty double murderer.

CARROLL: The revolt within FOX gained momentum over the past few days. A dozen local FOX stations refused to air the Simpson interview. Ron Goldman's family set up a Web site where thousands signed an online petition to boycott the show and the book.

FRED GOLDMAN, FATHER OF RON GOLDMAN: We want to say thank you, thank you to everyone in this country who raised their voice and stood up for the right thing and made certain that a corporation the size of News Corp wasn't and won't make money on this nightmare.

CARROLL: Before the plug was pulled on the deal, Judith Regan, publisher of Regan Books, owned by News Corp, explained why she went forward with the controversial project.

"I made a decision to publish this book and to sit face to face with the killer because I wanted him and the men who broke my heart -- and your hearts -- to tell the truth, to confess their sins, to do penance and to amend their lives."

(on camera) Regan could not be reached for comment about the book or TV cancellation. Simpson's attorney told CNN even though the deal has already fallen through, Simpson has already been compensated for the deal. The book's publisher made an undisclosed payment toward his children's' education.

Jason Carroll, CNN, New York.


COLLINS: Hey, it's snowing in the South. I keep looking out the window.


COLLINS: Are you talking like this kind of South, Atlanta South or...

MARCIANO: Yes. Come on.


MARCIANO: I mean you go to be early, but it was snowing last night. There were some flakes flying around the Atlanta area. But...

COLLINS: It wasn't snowing at my house. I would have been out there paying in it.

MARCIANO: Well, because you take a Lear jet from Tampa every morning to get here.

COLLINS: Yes, right.

HARRIS: Yes, yes. A couple of flakes in Atlanta just sort of shut down the city.

COLLINS: That's good.

HARRIS: Wouldn't you? That's basically what happens around here.

MARCIANO: That's it.

Let's show you North Carolina, guys...

HARRIS: The Lear jets...


HARRIS: Three good reasons to stay in THE NEWSROOM this morning.

COLLINS: Don't be a crash test dummy. Find out which cars topped the Insurance Industry's safety list.

Plus, if you drive American, you might be out of luck on this one.

And a mystery man -- in the shadows, a holy warrior claims to be a spy for the West.

Inside Jihad with our Nic Robertson.

HARRIS: And there's this...


MICHAEL RICHARDS, ACTOR: I'm not a racist. That's what's so insane about this.


HARRIS: "Seinfeld" actor Michael Richards says he's sorry. He calls his onstage racial rant three minutes of crap. His words in THE NEWSROOM.


COLLINS: Some information just in to us here at CNN.

We have been able to confirm that -- a Christian TV station is telling us Lebanese cabinet minister and Pierre Gemayel is seriously wounded after being shot in a Beirut suburb.

We want to go ahead and bring in Octavia Nasr.

She is on the telephone with us, senior editor for Arab affairs -- Octavia Nasr, tell us what all of this means.

What happened?

OCTAVIA NASR, SENIOR EDITOR FOR ARAB AFFAIRS: This is, obviously, this is huge for Lebanon, very important to put thins in perspective. This is not just any minister that was shot. Basically, it is an assassination. He was shot in the head. Arab media at this point, especially Lebanese media, are confirming that he was killed and also Sadr Hariri, you know, the head of the -- what they call the Independence Bloc in Lebanon, just announced it at his press conference, that Pierre Gemayel is, indeed, dead. What this means is really chaos for Lebanon, at least for the short-term, because this is a government that was struggling with a lot of opposition from Hezbollah and the other pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon. Already, Hariri pointed the finger at Syria, saying that Syria is behind the assassination. This is what the majority in government will be saying.

The only people, you know, being cautious about pointing fingers are the -- those that support Syria. And basically what is going to happen now is that there will be chaos. This is one minister missing from the government, the government that had approved, only last week, an international tribunal to look into the assassination of the senior Hariri, which took place last year, February of 2005, which started a whole new era for Lebanon, with Syria pulling out its troops, with the government basically forming a new government, taking hold.

And now, this very government that took over last year is facing a lot of opposition. And with losing one Christian member of it, this is going to create chaos for this government.

The more likely scenario at this point is that this government is not going to be able to work effectively. There will be calls for a new government or an immediate replacement of this one minister.

So, while the country is now going to be mourning this one huge personality, I have to tell you, this is not just any person that was assassinated, once we confirm the assassination. At the point, we're reporting it based on Arab and Lebanese media. But once this assassination is confirmed, this is going to create a lot of anger on the streets of Lebanon, because this is going to be seen as Syria and its supporters inside Lebanon really meddling with the business, with the democracy, with the constitution, with everything that really makes up Lebanon at this point.

So expect reaction from the U.S. expect reaction from Europe, expect reaction from the whole world. But, at the same time, there will be groups that will be very cautious as to pointing fingers toward Syria at this point -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Yes, Octavia Nasr, you talk about this particular person being someone who really resonated with a big personality.

Is that true, as well, with the people of Lebanon?

I mean you talk about chaos within the government and someone who will certainly have to replace this minister.

What about the people and their relationship with him?

NASR: Right. Pierre Gemayel is a young man who comes from a family of politicians in Lebanon, a very prominent family. Gemayel a Christian Maronite, basically his grandfather is the person who started the political group, the Falangists, in Lebanon.

And, you know, his grandfather was a very prominent figure. And later on, his father and his uncle were also prominent figures. As a matter of fact, his uncle, Bashar Jamail (ph), was assassinated himself as a president-elect of Lebanon.

So, basically this is a family that paid a high price in the -- during the civil war of Lebanon and now with this assassination, once confirmed, this will definitely resonate with the people. Many people stand behind this family and also the group itself.

Remember last year, 2005, February of 2005, Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, was assassinated.


NASR: And that drove people to the streets, demonstrating in the streets and basically calling for Syria to pull out of Lebanon and calling for the pro-Syrian government to just go home. And that's exactly what happened.

But since then, many people, you know, many observers, many experts who are very aware of what's going on in Lebanon and said that Syria is not going to be letting this happen just so easily, that Syria continues to meddle in Lebanon's business.


NASR: As a matter of fact, you heard President Bush several times, Condoleezza Rice, many people in this administration -- in the U.S. administration calling on Syria to stop meddling in Lebanon's business for this very reason.

COLLINS: All right, Octavia Nasr...

NASR: So with this assassination, this takes the finger back to point at Syria.

COLLINS: All right, well, we certainly appreciate your insight on all of this

Once again, the news we're getting in here at CNN, we are confirming that Lebanese cabinet minister and Christian leader Pierre Gemayel is -- has been shot and killed.

We're going to be going to our correspondent, Brent Sadler, in just a few moments, to find out more.

He is in Beirut.

We will get to that just as soon as we can.

HARRIS: And we want to bring you Iraq's view of its new relationship with Syria.

Let's talk with the foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari.

He is in Baghdad with us this morning.

Mr. Zebari, thanks for your time


HARRIS: Mr. Zebari, let met first ask you why now?

Why this new relationship with Syria at this moment in time, when things seem to be at such a tense moment in terms of relationships in the Middle East at large?

ZEBARI: Well, this is the first visit by a senior Syrian official to Baghdad over the last three years, since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime. And this visit was worked out very closely between the Iraqi government and the Syrian government, and quietly. And it has been there for several months.

The Syrians were resisting in the past to restore a full diplomatic relationship. Now, Iraq has an elected, constitutional government, so the foreign minister, who visited us, we discussed the issue of restoration of diplomatic relations and establishing a direct official channel of communication between our two governments. It was welcomed.

And today we made an announcement to restore our relations soon. And it will be followed by other steps. We discussed with the Syrian visiting delegation all the issues that concerns my government, including security...

HARRIS: Well, Mr. Zebari, let me pick up on that point...


HARRIS: If I could, let me pick up on that point here.

You were obviously in the meeting with Iran's foreign minister or with Syria's foreign minister.

So let me ask you if the conversation of the borders came up in that conversation. Our reporting indicates that Syria has been allowing fighters, foreign fighters, to cross into Iraq from Syria.

Did the discussion of securing those shared borders come up?

ZEBARI: Yes, indeed. It came up and several times over the course of the two day visit with all the Iraqi leaders he had the opportunity to meet. And the message was unanimous. The message was unified -- we expect you to do more, to cooperate in terms of security, to prevent the infiltrators from crossing the border, to establish mechanisms, working mechanisms, in order to prevent those infiltrators from using your borders. And, in fact, they responded.

But this was the first visit and we don't expect that in one visit we would be able to resolve all of our problems. This is a process. I think the visit opened the door for further technical discussions on the security issue.

HARRIS: But -- pardon me, Mr. Zebari.

Pardon me, but shouldn't that be something that's pretty simple to resolve, the idea of Syria -- you doing a better job of securing your borders?

This is a problem that has plagued Iraq for the last three plus years now. If you had done a better job, perhaps we wouldn't have the instability in country that we have now. It doesn't seem to me that that would be too difficult an issue to put on the table and have addressed in a straightforward, forthright manner.

ZEBARI: Yes. You are absolutely right. But the problem is before, Syria didn't have the political will and the political intentions, in fact, to reach out to the Iraqi government. I mean, unless we have some common understanding, it will be extremely difficult to resolve the security issues, the infiltration, the support for insurgents, whatever.

Now, I think they have a new attitude and they, for the first time, they expressed their full support for the government, for the political process, for national reconciliation.

And we did give them, we did provide a member of the delegation with detailed information, detailed intelligence that my government and our security agencies has on the activities of the insurgents, of some involvement here and there. And we agreed that these issues need to be followed up vigorously.

HARRIS: OK -- I ...

ZEBARI: The Iraqi government will not tolerate any longer Syria's attitude.

But we will hold them to their words.


And let me ask you, if I could, about -- I guess we're not calling it a summit anymore -- but, clearly, there is a meeting that is going to take place in Iran over the weekend, perhaps, that will include Iraq's president and, perhaps, a representative from Syria, as well.

What -- what is the purpose of the meeting? What do you hope comes of the meeting?


I explained the position of my government today in Baghdad, in a press conference. In fact, those informations are not accurate. There isn't any summit meeting, a tripartite summit meeting between the presidents of Iraq and Syria and Iran.

And people were confused, in my view, about -- my, the president...

HARRIS: Well, clear it up for us, if you would, please.

ZEBARI: Yes. In fact, the Iraqi president has an outstanding invitation to visit Tehran by Ahmadinejad, the president of the Islamic Republic. And that was scheduled to take place soon, on the 25th.

So that is the story. It would not be joined by President Bashar al-Assad. In fact, the president of Iraq also received, during the Syrian delegation visit, an invitation from Bashar al-Assad to my president to visit Syria.

But these are two separate things.

HARRIS: I see.

ZEBARI: I don't think there is a possibility for such a summit under the current circumstances.

HARRIS: Well, can you give me one tangible as to what you hope comes out of the meeting with Iran's president and Iraq's President Talabani?

Give me one hope, one wish as to an outcome.

ZEBARI: Well, again, it's the same demand, the same request. We -- our top priority is to improve security. And we believe our neighbors can help if they have the political will to help the Iraqi government.

And definitely that issue would be a top priority in our discussions in Tehran also.

HARRIS: Mr. Zebari, let's leave it right there.

Thank you for your time.

ZEBARI: Thank you.

Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you.

COLLINS: This news just into us now at CNN.

We have been able to confirm that someone has been shot and killed in Lebanon. We want to give you the most information that we have at this time.

This person's name, he is a Lebanese cabinet minister, Christian leader, Pierre Gemayel. He is a very popular person, as we have been learning from our Octavia Nasr, and the people seem to really resonate with him.

Also interesting, his brother was also killed way back in 1982, Basher Gemayel. Certainly a family of politicians there in Lebanon.

We are trying to get more information for you about what this could mean. But once again, Lebanese cabinet minister and Christian leader Pierre Gemayel has been shot and killed. We are trying to figure out how this happened and who may have claimed responsibility for this possible assassination.

And who eventually could possibly be a replacement for this person who, once again, was described moments earlier as a person full of personality and full of leadership abilities for that country. We will continue to follow this for you.

Our Brent Sadler is in Beirut gathering more information as we speak. We will bring it to you just as soon as we have it.

HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Have you been following this story? Comedian Michael Richards is apologizing publicly for stepping way over the line. This racial rant caught on tape. CNN's Brooke Anderson has the follow-up. We warn you, the language in this next report is disturbing.


BROOKE ANDERSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): There was nothing funny about the angry, racist words comedian Michael Richards, best known as Kramer from "Seinfeld" spewed from the stage of the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, Friday night, in reaction to some unruly audience members.

MICHAEL RICHARDS, COMEDIAN: Throw this man out, he's a nigger! He's a nigger! He's a nigger!


RICHARDS: He's a nigger! A nigger! Look, there's a nigger!

ANDERSON: This cell phone video was obtained by the entertainment website

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That was uncalled for! That was uncalled for!

RICHARDS: What was uncalled for? It's uncalled for you to be on my ass, you cheap f (bleep). You guys have been talking and talking and talking!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's uncalled for you (bleep) cracker-ass motherf(bleep)! That was uncalled for, you all me a nigger!

RICHARDS: He's a nigger!

ANDERSON: The reaction to Richards' rant has been shock and outrage, as evidenced by a protest outside the Laugh Factory and a heated exchange inside during a news conference addressing the incident.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Take responsibility. No justifying. Wrong! Wrong!

PAUL RODRIGUEZ, COMEDIAN: I hear you. I hear you. Can I say something, please?

ANDERSON: Comedian Paul Rodriguez, a club regular, who was also on the bill Friday night and Laugh Factory manager Jamie Masada (ph), said Richards was allowed to come back and perform the next night because he told them he planned to apologize when he took the stage again. That apology never came.

RODRIGUEZ: The audience came here expecting to see Kramer and they got Mark Furman.

ANDERSON: During the O.J. Simpson trial, former LAPD detective Mark Furman was painted as a racist by the defense team because of racial slurs caught on tape. Richards refused to speak on camera after his act Saturday, but he did appear via satellite on the "Late Show" with David Letterman, to apologize.

JERRY SEINFELD, COMEDIAN: I was extremely upset about it. And he is extremely upset about it. And I asked him if he would come on the show tonight.

RICHARDS: I lost my temper on stage. I was at a comedy club trying to do my act, and I got heckled and I -- I took it badly and went into a rage.

For me to be in a comedy club and flip out and say this crap, you know, I'm -- I'm deeply, deeply sorry. I'm not a racist. That's what's so insane about this.

ANDERSON: But will it be enough? A coalition of African- Americans leaders have condemned Richards and the Laugh Factory has banned him.

RODRIGUEZ: He will not be accepted on this stage until the community, the African-American community and its leaders tell us that he has made proper amends.

ANDERSON: Making it clear that no one's laughing at Michael Richards' latest act. Brooke Anderson, CNN, Hollywood.


COLLINS: A deadly school day. A horrific bus crash kills three kids. But what caused the bus to plunge off a bridge? The investigation coming up in the NEWSROOM.

HARRIS: And we're "Minding Your Business" this morning, Ali Velshi here with a preview.

Ali, good morning.


I'm always telling you about supply and demand. Today I'm going to tell you about two things you can't do without, and the supply and demand situation for them. One is homes, the other one toilet paper.


COLLINS: Want to get you some more information now about the situation we have been telling you about in Lebanon, where we have learned here at CNN that Lebanese cabinet minister and Christian leader Pierre Gemayel, you see his picture there, has been shot and killed.

We want to get directly to Beirut. Our Correspondent Brett Sadler is on the telephone to tell us more about what he knows.

Can you put this into context for us, Brent? We are hearing that it would seem any political leader on the anti-Syrian side is likely considering themselves a target today.

BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They're the target for much longer than today, there's been a string of assassinations over the past two years, and assassination attempts against not only Lebanese politicians but journalists as well.

Confirmation of the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, a son of a former president of Lebanon, and a member of the parliamentary bloc that's essentially anti-Syrian and has been under tremendous pressure from Hezbollah-led opposition supported by Syria. This is assassination really does shake, again, the very foundation of the politics in Lebanon.

The country has been undergoing a political meltdown for the past several weeks with Hezbollah, leading a political onslaught to bring the Western-backed government of the Prime Minister Fouad Siniora down, threatening street protests, imminently.

It was Saad Hariri, the son and political heir of the former five-times Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, was amidst a news conference that the news of this assassination came through to him. And I can tell you inside the house, the Hariri household, where that press conference was taking place there was anger and there were tears as a result of this assassination. It will only exacerbate, according to observers here, an already precarious and dangerous situation.

COLLINS: Let me ask you this then. It may be far too early in trying to put all this into context and what it could mean for the country as a whole. Who would the person be that would need to fill this obviously very important cabinet minister position? Is that something that could be talked about on a day like this, or for much later future discussions?

SADLER: We're in the midst, obviously, of breaking news here right now, but essentially you have, according to the parliamentary majority here, they say, primarily anti-Syrians, that there's been an attempt by a assassins unknown to eliminate a crucial member of the cabinet, the industry minister, at a time when the cabinet was struggling with a two thirds majority of 12 MPs, six, essentially either Hezbollah or Muslim Shiite, all close to the pro-Syrian president, had walked out of the cabinet just over a week ago.

The cabinet had passed through some very important agreement on a tribunal that's under the umbrella of the U.N. to try suspects in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The elimination by assassination of this MP, obviously, changes the balance.

I'm going to put you on right now, with Saad Hariri, who just come in front of me. He is the parliamentary leader here, of the son of the assassinated prime minister. And it was during that news conference that he was given formal notification that Pierre Gemayel had been assassinated and was killed.

I'm going to put him the phone right now

COLLINS: All right, Brent. Thank you.


COLLINS: Saad Hariri, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for being with us. Your thoughts on the unfortunate events that happened in your country today?

HARIRI: Well, first of all, I want to condone his family and his father. Pierre Gemayel was one of the people who stood by the 14th of March, who was one of the founders also of the seeds (ph) of revolution.

And today, as we have warned the international community that our revolution is under attack and people are -- Syria has always tried to annihilate the members of 14th of March. Today, one of our main people, main believers in a free, democratic Lebanon, has been killed. And we believe that the hands of Syria are all over the place because today, in a few days it will have been the second vote on the international tribunal that Syria has always been trying to avoid.

COLLINS: Sir, can you tell us a little bit more about what this will mean for the people, the morale of the people of Lebanon?

HARIRI: Well, the people of Lebanon will not give up on the international world tribunal. This will make them even more hang on to the tribunal, to a free democratic Lebanon. Pierre Gemayel was a son, was a brother to all of us, and we will defend this, we will justice to those who killed Pierre Gemayel.

I'm sorry.

COLLINS: I know this is incredibly difficult, once again, want to be reminding our viewers of who we are speaking with at this time. Saad Hariri, we certainly appreciate your time, your insights, the son of Rafik Hariri. Certainly a difficult time for your country.

Can you tell us how they will look forward? You say they will not give up, the people of Lebanon. How will they continue to look forward?

HARIRI: Rafik Hariri was killed and we stood strong against those criminals, against those assassins, against that regime that only believes in killing, the same thing they are doing in Iraq, they are doing in Lebanon. They are a bunch of -- of criminals, assassins that needs to be prosecuted in the international tribunal.

Unfortunately, until this day, they have been killing us. But I believe that the Lebanese people will stand strong together to face this difficult time with, with resolve. And we will prevail in the battle to bring those to justice. This is not a time to give up.

Blood that has been shed to free our country from the hands of an external regime, from the regime that was involved in killing Rafik Hariri, in killing a lot of people. And also, I would like to say is that this regime is also involved in sending hundreds and hundreds of people to Iraq to kill Iraqis and Americans also in Iraq. This is a regime that has to come to an end, and face justice, international justice, and to bring it down as soon as possible.

COLLINS: Is the security of your country right now in jeopardy, sir? With the way that you describe all of what you just did? It would lead us to believe here in the U.S. that there would be serious issues with that.

HARIRI: We will -- our people are peaceful people. You know, when we demonstrated, we demonstrated on the revolution, we demonstrated 2 million people holding Lebanese flags, and we freed our country peacefully. They are the murders.

Yes, there is a security problem and the security problem is this regime, the assassin regime that will to pay the price. We will not be afraid of it because we have, you know, we have faith in our country, we have faith in God, we have faith in everything, in Lebanon, and the people of Lebanon.

COLLINS: Again, we so appreciate your time here today. Saad Hariri, he's the son of Rafik Hariri, your father assassinated in February of 2005. Speaking to us today on the breaking news you see there on your screen, a Lebanese cabinet minister, this man on the screen, Pierre Gemayel -- a Lebanese cabinet minister and, of course, Christian leader as well.

Brent Sadler, thank you to you as well, coming to us live from Beirut. We will continue to follow this story. And certainly the context of it, and what it all means for this country and the people of Lebanon as we continue here today.

HARRIS: Let's take a moment and catch you up on the president's travels, President Bush visiting the nation's 50th state this hour, the Hawaii stopover following his eight-day trip to Southeast Asia. First up this morning, breakfast with American troops in Honolulu, then a briefing at U.S. Pacific Command. The president is scheduled to arrive at the White House late tonight.

The opening bell sounded a short time ago. Let's get you a market check. The Dow up 8, early trading. The Nasdaq flat at this time. The big news driving the markets this morning will probably be the news that home prices down, just a little over a point for the third quarter. We will check those numbers with Ali Velshi coming up shortly.

COLLINS: We are going to be continuing to follow the story that we have been bringing you this morning on the Lebanese cabinet minister and Christian Leader Pierre Gemayel. Has been shot and killed in Lebanon.

We will bring you all the information as we have it. Live reports from Beirut coming up in a moment, right here on CNN. You are watching the most trusted name in news.


HARRIS: Mysterious deaths in New Jersey to tell you about. Police found the bodies of four women in a ditch behind a strip of motels. The gruesome scene was just outside Atlantic City near a visitors welcome center. Police say all the women were facedown in several inches of water. Autopsies are set for later this morning.

COLLINS: Tragedy on the school bus. A federal investigation now under way in Huntsville, Alabama. The bus fell 30 feet off an overpass. Three students were killed. Many others are in critical condition. Investigators are looking at an orange Toyota that may be involved.


DEBBIE HERSMAN, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: There is some contact evidence. We're looking at paint transfer on the wall, on the concrete barrier. We're looking at damage to the Celica. We are also looking at any damage or any marks, evidence of marks that are on the bus.

It's too early to say what caused this accident. We are looking at a number of factors, so we can say that the bus driver was found on top of the overpass. The students were inside the bus, down below.


COLLINS: The bus driver is among those still in the hospital this morning. Investigators hope to talk with him soon. The bus had no safety belts for students. Investigators are looking at whether seat belts would have helped.

HARRIS: We continue to follow the breaking news out of Lebanon today, out of Beirut. Lebanese Christian leader shot and killed. Christian Lebanese parliament member Pierre Gemayel, the son of a former prime minister, leader of an anti-Syrian bloc in the parliament, shot and killed by an apparent assassins today.

More on this breaking story when we come back. You are in the NEWSROOM.


COLLINS: Want to quickly get you to Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of State, making comments on the breaking news we have today, the Lebanese cabinet Minister Pierre Gemayel shot and killed. Let's listen in to what he has to say.


NICHOLAS BURNS, UNDERSECRETARY, U.S. STATE DEPT.: The March 14th Coalition represents what's right about Lebanon. Politicians, political leaders who are dedicated to democracy, who wanted to return Lebanon to a position of real sovereignty, and free Lebanon from Syria's influence, and free Lebanon from the politics of violence and assassination.

It's a very sad day to someone, a young leader like this, who was devoted to public service, to be gunned down. So, it does instill in us a belief that we have to redouble our efforts and those of our friends in the Arab world, as well as in Europe, to support the Siniora government.

We have seen statements from Mr. Nasrallah, and others, over the past few weeks that are meant, we believe, to destabilize Lebanon and to divide the country. And we oppose those statements.

And we call on all countries to support the unity and territorial integrity of Lebanon, and to free Lebanon from these acts of political intimidation, and terrorism. This was an act of terrorism today.

OK. If we have -- if you have no further questions on Lebanon, I'm happy to talk about ...


COLLINS: Once again, a news conference there from the U.S. Department of State, that was Nicholas Burns. He is the undersecretary of State making comments about the news of the apparent assassination of Lebanese cabinet Minister Pierre Gemayel.

We want to go back to Beirut, our correspondent -- I beg your pardon, we had Brent Sadler on the phone, who was there, working very hard to gather information on what all of this means for the country, and for the people there. We will continue to follow this story, bring you just as much as we can as soon as we have it.

But once again, you see on your screen there, someone who is described as a young Christian leader, want to look at this video as well.

This is brand-new video coming in to us. Bear with us while we get the coordinates locked up for you so we can take a look at that video, from the scene of the incident that happened. This is actually the hospital now, Lebanese cabinet Minister Pierre Gemayel shot and killed today, moments ago.

We just heard word from Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of State, talking about what type of influence this gentleman had, working very hard to free Lebanon from Syrian influence. He has called on all other countries to hope that -- you see people just very, very upset in this country today. Want to go ahead and bring in Brent Sadler.

Brent, tell us more, as you come to us live from Beirut now, about the reaction of the people, as we look at this video, new video in to CNN here of the scene at the hospital, people obviously distraught with this news.

SADLER: That's right, Heidi.

This is the latest in a series of high-level political assassinations that have struck this country over the past couple of years. A political meltdown has been going on here for the past several weeks, essentially putting a head-long confrontation politically, political forces that supported by the United States and other Western countries, led by Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, on the one hand, and Hezbollah-led opposition trying to topple that Siniora government, essentially backed by both Syria and Iran.

Both sides have been trading bitter accusations against each other. The Siniora camp accusing Hezbollah of trying to essentially carry out a political coup, by demanding the government make way for a new administration that will give Hezbollah essential blocking power in the cabinet.

There were six cabinet resignations over a week ago. The government, even though there were 18 ministers, that was enough to pass through very important agreement on the U.N. draft text, that would set up an international tribunal to try suspected killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Now, top-level Syrians, as well as pro-Syrian Lebanese are implicated in that murder, and the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority led by Saad Hariri, the son and political heir of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has been claiming that Syria is essentially involved in a Syrian-Iranian plot, it's claimed, to topple this government. To try to derail that international tribunal to protect the Syrian regime.

Now, Saad Hariri was told the news that Pierre Gemayel, one of the 18 MPs still left in the Siniora cabinet has been assassinated, I understand shot twice in the neck at fairly close quarters. So, that changes the dynamics inside the cabinet of Fouad Siniora, if there was one more resignation or another -- a loss of life, that effectively would put an end to this Siniora government. Doubtless of the fact that it's been withstanding the opposition pressure.


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