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Hostage Asks Obama to Make a Deal; Americans Held Captive Abroad; Shakeup in Turkey; Kim Jong-un Orders Combat Troops to Be Ready; Japan's Prime Minister Visits Shrine to War Dead; Boxing Day Sales Begin; Five Wounded by Bomb in Cairo; Clashes in Bangkok; Ethiopian and Kenyan Heads of State Visit South Sudan

Aired December 26, 2013 - 12:00   ET


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Twenty-three Americans detained overseas, many held captives for years. Is the U.S. government doing enough to free them? We will look at that.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: The North Korean leader threatens violence, telling his troops to prepare for war. A familiar threat or signs of imminent combat?

HOLMES: Plus, Boxing Day in British Commonwealth nations and, so far, this traditional shopping holiday is living up to its name.

Welcome to AROUND THE WORLD, everyone. I'm Michael Holmes.

WHITFIELD: I'm Fredricka Whitfield, in for Suzanne Malveaux.

An American man held hostage by al Qaeda for two and a half years is making a direct plea to the president of the United States.

HOLMES: Indeed. His name is Warren Weinstein. And in a video released by his kidnappers, he says he feels abandoned and forgotten, his words, by his country. He also says his health is failing.

WHITFIELD: Weinstein is 72 years old. He was grabbed from his home in Pakistan in summer 2011. This is the first image we've seen of him in more than a year. He speaks not only to the president, President Obama, but to the American media and to his family.

HOLMES: Elise Labott is our foreign affairs reporter in Washington.

Elise, you know, it's not the first time that we've seen him. What do we make of this video and what's being done about it in Washington?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: Well, Michael, you can see that the years have really taken its toll on him. In return for his release, the kidnappers are asking for release of all al Qaeda prisoners and a halt to drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia and Yemen. That's not going to happen because the U.S. maintains its position it will not negotiate. It doesn't want more kidnappings if terrorists feel the U.S. is willing to bargain for their release. But still, Mr. Weinstein is making a desperate plea for help from President Obama. Let's have a listen to what he had to say.


WARREN WEINSTEIN, HELD HOSTAGE SINCE AUGUST 2011: I'm now over 72 years of age. I'm not in good health. I have a heart condition. I suffer from acute asthma and the years have taken their toll. I've been cut off from my family. My wife, who is over 70, my two daughters, my two grandchildren, my son-in-law, and perhaps new members of the family whom I've never met. Needless to say, I've been suffering deep anxiety every part of every day, not knowing what is happening to my family, not knowing how they are, and because I am not with them.


LABOTT: And he said that he spent his whole life in the service of the U.S. government and the American people and he's really not just pleading to President Obama, but to Secretary of State Kerry and the American public and the people to say, listen, you know, please don't forget about me. I don't want to be another statistic here.

WHITFIELD: So, Elise, in this video, Weinstein is asking the administration directly to negotiate for his release. But what is the government's response to this request today?

LABOTT: Well, they're not saying very much. In a statement provided to CNN, Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said that, "we are working hard to authenticate this latest report, but we reiterate our call that Warren Weinstein be released and returned to his family.

You know, Fred, these type of cases are handled very quietly and low key. The U.S. doesn't want to do anything that could jeopardize any efforts going on to get him out. He does work for a private company, which was doing contract work in Pakistan. They could be working on something. But we have to say, we haven't seen any public acknowledgement of any of that type of efforts. We have reached out to the family, of course, but they're not saying anything. Obviously, not having him home at the holidays, another hard year for them.

WHITFIELD: Indeed. All right, Elise Labott, thanks so much.

So, Warren Weinstein is certainly not the only American who is either detained or being held hostage overseas right now. At least 23 U.S. citizens in these countries, you're about to see, are either being held captive by extremist groups or jailed by countries that are hostile to America.

HOLMES: Yes, among them, we're talking about people like Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent, who disappeared in Iran almost seven years ago. He's been in the news recently. His captors sent pictures to his family. You're also talking about Bowe Bergdahl. Remember that name. He's a U.S. soldier captured from his post in Afghanistan. The Taliban have held him since 2009.

WHITFIELD: And then Alan Gross is a U.S. government employee jailed in Cuba. Several U.S. officials, including former President Jimmy Carter, have personally pleaded for his release. So far, no success. HOLMES: And then Kenneth Bae has been in the news, too, recently. Detained in North Korea for more than a year, the government there convicted him of what they call hostile acts against North Korea.

Let's bring in Bob Baer to talk about this. Bob is a CNN national security analyst, also a former CIA operative.

You know, we're talking about here, too, not people who have gone through legitimate court proceedings, if you'd like, for crimes committed. We're talking about men and women who are being held hostages, basically, political reasons. What are the difficulties here? And explain the distinction.

BOB BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I mean, the fact that they haven't committed a crime, or a recognizable crime, you know, the United States can't provide defense lawyers, it can't provide advice, pressure on these governments. They're political prisoners and they are subject to the political winds. Our relations between these countries or the radical groups. You know, you take al Qaeda on one end of the scale and we have no relations at all. You take Cuba on the other, who jails people for political crimes. And there's not a whole lot the government can do.

WHITFIELD: And so to that point then, when the U.S. government says it does not negotiate, its tradition is not to negotiate with extremist groups. So are we saying that if there is a release of any number of these people, it's likely to be -- going to be out of goodwill by the captors or these nations?

BAER: Look, they're very whimsical, to say the least. Whether it's North Korea or al Qaeda they, you know, they check the political winds. And if they see some benefit, they release these people. I think the good news is they're keeping them alive. I mean these groups have matured a bit and -- but on the other hand, this Weinstein's -- the demands of his captors is the release of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the man responsible for the '93 bombing of the World Trade Center. It's just not going to happen. And I don't know what sort of deal, you know, and I put in quotation mark deal, the State Department could offer, but it would certainly be through Pakistan, which would have relations with the group that kidnapped Weinstein.

HOLMES: It's difficult for Pakistan government, though, isn't it? I mean with a lot of these groups, particularly up in the Waziristan region, they're pretty independent. They don't listen to the Pakistan government either, in the case of Weinstein.

BAER: Exactly. I mean the Pakistani army can barely get off the roads in the tribal areas. They are subject to the same kidnappings and murder by al Qaeda. There's not much they can do. You know, as far as getting directly at the kidnappers, they probably don't even meet them. There's some intermediaries I'm sure, but it's very tenuous.

WHITFIELD: And also tenuous is North Korea. You've got at least one American now being held there. Apparently he was convicted of a crime, according to that country. And then you had this latest kind of high- profile stunt involving Dennis Rodman, because of these basketball visits. Do you see, in any way, these two things coming together with some sort of release or agreement of release of freedom for this Kenneth Bae?

HOLMES: Yes, he's probably the best chance, wouldn't he? Ken Bae, isn't he the best chance, do you think?

BAER: Oh, I think Ken Bae is. I mean I think this leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, is, you know, he might just agree with Rodman. You know, Rodman got and sit down with him and say, hey, dude, let's get this guy out. And I could see this guy releasing him. I think we'll see him before we see the rest of them.

HOLMES: All right, Bob, thanks so much. Bob Baer there.

And, yes, those people, some of them years and years they've been held.

WHITFIELD: Yes, we'll -- I know the families are praying -

HOLMES: Exactly.

WHITFIELD: That there will be some hopeful outcomes in all of this.

HOLMES: Yes. And just ahead, the U.S. sending help to Iraq in an effort to stamp out al Qaeda violence. There is that terror network gaining ground. A lot of people say it is and has been for months. We're going to talk about that at the bottom of the hour.

WHITFIELD: And the Associated Press is reporting the leader of an al Qaeda group may have sought to kidnap United Nations workers in Syria. The report quotes Iraqi intelligence officials who say the man is the head of the Nusra Front, a powerful al Qaeda group. And this year one U.N. worker was kidnapped and held for eight months in Syria.

HOLMES: Indeed. And another two dozen U.N. peacekeepers were briefly held and they were eventually released. Meanwhile, 45 people were killed in violence across Iraq on Christmas Day. We reported on this briefly. Two car bombs killing 38 people in Baghdad. One of those bombs was outside a Christian church in Baghdad. The Christian community there is being persecuted for some time now since the war started. The other bomb was at an outdoor market in a Christian neighborhood in Baghdad.

WHITFIELD: The U.S. embassy in Baghdad condemned those attacks. Iraqi police say terrorists targeted Christians celebrating Christmas. They are believed to be 500,000 Christians in Iraq, half the number that lived in Iraq a decade ago.

HOLMES: Yes, the rest have fled.

Well, a government shakeup underway in Turkey amid widespread protests in Istanbul and the capital Ankara. A complex story. You've got the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announcing a reorganization of his cabinet. That's one word for it. He got rid of half the cabinet, 10, in fact, in this reshuffle. Three of the ministers resigned first. They stepped down after their sons were arrested, or detained, in an anti-corruption sting.

WHITFIELD: Mr. Erdogan blames the instability on meddling by his political rivals, but prosecutor cited instances of corruption, including bribery and money laundering.

Andrew Finkel joins us now from Istanbul.

So is this really about corruption, Andrew, or is it about a power grab in disguise perhaps?

ANDREW FINKEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the prime minister would like to depict it as a power grab, but it seems that the prosecutors, which moved against a whole group of people just over a week ago, seem to have uncovered some pretty serious evidence, including huge amounts of cash, which have been stored away in shoe boxes in the head of a private bank, of a state-controlled bank, and also in the safe of sons of those ministers who resigned. So Mr. Erdogan really has a fight on his hands to convince people that what he's really trying to defend, the integrity of his government, as opposed to stopping a corruption investigation.

HOLMES: Andrew, when you fire half the cabinet and you've got ministers stepping down, one of those minister saying that Mr. Erdogan should also resign. And these claims that within the government, within the police and the prosecutor's office, that they're being anti-government and then the other side -- there's even conspiracy theories about an exiled Islamic cleric in the U.S. involved here. What does this mean for his stability? His ability to stay in office?

FINKEL: Well, there must be some questions now. I mean Mr. Erdogan, if you would -- looked at him two weeks ago, with solid support in the country, 50 percent, at least, of the population really approving of the job that he was doing, it's hard to believe that he's now on the ropes. And yet there are a series of very serious allegations. They seem to be moving closer and closer. He's taken various steps to stop these allegations going forward, including removing the prosecutor from his job. The prosecutor, as you say, complained very voluably (ph) that he was - his work was being prevented, that there was an obstruction of justice going on. And yet the - you know, the - Mr. Erdogan is a man who just knows how to play offense and he's going to continue doing so.

HOLMES: But, Andrew, I mean, this is - I mean for U.S. viewers, too, this is a crucial ally, a crucial regional player there, neighboring Syria. This can't fall apart. If this falls apart politically, what does it mean in a regional sense?

FINKEL: Well, falling apart, I mean Turkey, if the government is forced to resign or if Mr. Erdogan is forced to step down, then there will be an election and someone will replace him. It's not as if Turkey itself is going to fall apart. Yes, the lira's under assault today and the stock market isn't doing as well it was doing two weeks ago. But, you know, it's not a - this is a big country and a strong country and indeed many people say, well, the fact that a man with Mr. Erdogan's autocratic pretensions is unable to stop civil servants from doing their jobs properly and investigating corporation is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.

HOLMES: Yes, it's a complicated and difficult situation. Andrew, thanks so much. Andrew Finkel there in Istanbul for us.

WHITFIELD: Here's more of what we're working on AROUND THE WORLD.

Ice breakers race to rescue a ship stranded off the coast of Antarctica. But will it be another day or so before help can arrive?

HOLMES: It's a bit chilly out there.

Also, North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un tells his troop to be ready for a war that could break out, quote, "without any prior notice." Is he serious or is this more of the same? We'll talk about that as well.


HOLMES: Welcome back.

North Korea's leader showing, again, he can shake up that part of the world with a few words.

WHITFIELD: Doesn't take much.

HOLMES: Not for the first time, saying some rather disturbing things. Is anyone listening? That's the question.

The state news service in North Korea reporting that Kim Jong-un has ordered all combat troops to be ready to fight at anytime.

WHITFIELD: And, of course, that sent ripples across the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

Our Karl Penhaul in Seoul today.


KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Michael, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made comments Christmas Eve during a visit to Unit 526. That's a joint task force of the army, navy, and air force.

He told his troops to be on high alert because war could break out at any time.

In many ways, these bellicose statements are nothing knew and the North Korean military is always on high alert. Around 70 percent of the million-man force is based close to the DMZ, poised to strike South Korea at any time.

But U.S. and South Korean intelligence officials say that, in the coming months, they do expect some provocative actions from North Korea.

Why? First of all, January 8th, we have Kim Jong-un's birthday, and at 31, he has to show his own people he's tough enough for this job. Also, in the first quarter of 2014, expecting joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, and the North Koreans always see this as a provocation and like to respond in kind.

Thirdly, of course, don't forget, that earlier in December, Kim Jong- un order the execution of his own uncle on charges of treason and shady business dealings.

So right now, the reclusive leader's trying to stick out his chest and show the world who is in charge.

But right now, North Korean observers say, they suspect these latest comments by North Korea's leader may be more showmanship than substantive.



HOLMES: All right. Karl Penhaul there in Seoul, South Korea.

Again, it could be a little cry wolf going on, because this is a regular thing now.

WHITFIELD: But he's getting attention that he's seeking.

HOLMES: Exactly. That's what it's all about.


On to Japan now, today, the prime minister did something that was not popular with other countries nearby. He visited a shrine built to honor Japanese war dead, but people in South Korea and China don't see it that way.

HOLMES: Yeah, because they were invaded by Japan, and war criminals are buried at that shrine.

Now, those governments, Chinese government, the South Korean government, they regard the shrine as a symbol of Japan's aggressive imperial past. They believe the soldiers honored there, as I say, some of them war criminals.

A Chinese official says the visit hurts their relationship with Japan.


QIN GANG, CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN (via translator): Abe's visit to the Yasukuni shrine has undermined the basis of China/Japan relations and created new obstacles for further improvement of bilateral relations.

The Japanese side will have to be responsible for all consequences from his visit.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HOLMES: Yeah, and they are already arguing, of course, about the islands in the area. There's all sorts of disputes between those two countries, anyway.

WHITFIELD: Adding on to pile of controversies -

HOLMES: It is.

WHITFIELD: -- in that region.

HOLMES: But it does happen regularly, whenever a prime minister goes there, and they do go there, this pops up, again, so Abe knew what he was doing when he went there.

WHITFIELD: Yeah, all right.

Long lines and freezing temperatures, it didn't stop these -

HOLMES: Boxing Day.

WHITFIELD: -- Boxing Day shoppers.

HOLMES: I'll tell you all about that.

WHITFIELD: I can't wait.

HOLMES: Boxing Day, yeah, we'll talk about it when we come back.

WHITFIELD: OK, school me.


HOLMES: We're talking before the break about Boxing Day.


HOLMES: Yeah. It's a huge shopping day in London, but in also other countries throughout the British Commonwealth, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, places like that.

WHITFIELD: It's not "boxing" boxing.

HOLMES: No, it's nothing to do with pugilistic enterprises. It's more about --

WHITFIELD: Out of the way.

HOLMES: Think "Downton Abbey." The rich people in the old days, they had the staff working on Christmas Day, and then they boxed up the leftovers in little gifts for the staff and sent them on their way.

And that's what the holiday traditionally was about back then. Now, it's become something else.

WHITFIELD: Commercial.

HOLMES: Oh, yeah.

WHITFIED: Now, retailers are really excited about it.

And Rosie Tompkins joins us now from London amid the shopping madness to explain.

So, is it kind of parallel to what people in the States think is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, everyone goes shopping? What's this Boxing Day, in retail-speak, all about now?

ROSIE TOMKINS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's a shopping frenzy. That's exactly what it is.

Boxing Day in the U.K. in full swing, and it's such a tradition it's become not just a British tradition, not just a Commonwealth tradition, as you said, Michael, but really a global phenomenon.

We were at Selfridges this morning before the doors even opened, and there were queues of thousands of people.

And what was really interesting about the queues was how international the crowd was. The word has spread globally about Boxing Day as an event to come and experience here in London.

Here's a little sample of some of those we met in the queue.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is my first time, and I'm from Korea.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We come from Thailand.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I've been seeing it like from far, from Asia, so I wanted to like try it myself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you come here on holiday, it's one of the things to tick off on your list, Boxing Day sales.


TOMKINS: So, there we go. It's high on the list for tourists coming to London. They have to experience it.

Now, while Boxing Day has always been the official launch of the sales, we're seeing a shift away from that, and that's largely due to online shopping, which is on the rise, at its highest ever, now accounting for 20 percent of nonfood sales and that's having a knock- on effect on where discounts start early online and that blurs the line of when sales begin.

Having said that, habits don't change that fast. People still come in huge numbers to the High Street where it's suspected to take in $4.2 billion across the U.K. And that's a good sign for improvements in 2013, and going into next year, Michael.

HOLMES: Yeah. Wow. Yeah, online is all what I do.

WHITFIELD: All the way.

HOLMES: You won't find me queuing up outside Selfridges.

Of course as Rosie knows, too, it's a public holiday, too, Boxing Day, so everybody's off around the --

WHITFIELD: So there's no excuse.

HOLMES: Good to see you, Rosie.

No, no.

WHITFIELD: Get out there. Stand in line.

HOLMES: I did not know, Rosie educated me there, that it's a big tourist thing now, obviously.

WHITFIELD: Yeah, we saw that. That was very international.


WHITFIELD: Thanks so much, Rosie and Michael, for that awesome explainer. I never knew about Boxing Day.

HOLMES: Boxing Day.

WHITFIELD: Now, I'm all about it.

HOLMES: Nothing do with the boxing.


Al Qaeda, gaining ground in Iraq, now the U.S. is sending help. Details right after this.