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Call for Peace Talks in South Sudan; Friends of Kidnapped American Warren Weinstein Speak Out; Analysts Say Al Qaeda Stronger Than Year Before; International Winners and Losers Of 2013; Gay Ugandans Live in Fear; Piranha Swarm Attacks Swimmers

Aired December 27, 2013 - 12:30   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Gun battles between government forces and those loyal to the former vice president have left the streets littered with bodies.

Regional powers are calling for a new peace talk in the oil-rich nation.

Our Frederik Pleitgen joining us now from New York with the very latest on this.

It is heartbreaking, Fred, that so many people would enjoy the independence of this new nation only for this now to be happening just over a year later.

So, we're hearing that South Sudan's government agreed to a cease-fire in principle, but what does that really mean?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it means that they agreed to a cease-fire if the other side is going to agree to a cease-fire, as well.

And certainly at this point, there doesn't seem to be any sort of indication that is the case.

The regional powers that you were talking about are African nations that met in the Kenyan capital earlier today, and they said that they are demanding action for a cease-fire to happen immediately.

They say if there is no cease-fire within the next four days, then they will consider taking action themselves.

Again, we're not exactly sure what that means. However, they say they are going to stay with this and they want this to be resolved before year's end.

Right now, it does not look as though that is going to be the case. As we said, the government for its part is saying its willing to go into talks, unconditionally.

However, the rebel fighters who are loyal to the former vice president are saying that they will only enter into talks, will only go for a cease-fire, if key allies of the vice president are released from detention. They've been in detention because he's accused of launching a coup against the president, something that he denies.

So, right now, the situation is still very difficult and there is a lot of fighting going on, especially in the oil-rich north of the country, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Which means it is very dangerous, potentially dangerous, for those U.N. peacekeepers on their way and those already there.

So, to what extent are they able to protect civilians?

PLEITGEN: Well, that's their main mission. The interesting thing about the U.N. peacekeeping force is that it has been increased drastically, as we've said. And they hope for the next peacekeepers to arrive within the next 24 hours.

They aren't going to try and get between the two warring factions at this point. Their main goal and their only task, really, is to protect civilians.

They said they are going to use all their means to do that. They've been authorized to use force wherever civilians are in danger.

And right now what's happening is that a lot of civilians are on the run in that country, and the U.N. said today that it's as many as 120,000 people who are on the run, that many of them are on U.N. bases, so they are going to try and protect those civilians on those U.N. bases.

The bases have been attacked in the past and clearly the U.N. wants that to stop. They've even employed attack helicopters.


WHITFIELD: A situation.

Fred Pleitgen, thanks so much, from New York.

Also overseas, people who know Warren Weinstein personally are speaking out about their friend who is being held hostage overseas.

Al Qaeda released a video of Weinstein on Christmas Day showing him pale and beaded -- much -- bearded, rather -- much different and older looking than he was kidnapped in Pakistan two-and-a-half years ago.

A friend of the Weinstein family talked about him on CNN.



He's 72-years-old. Quite honestly, I didn't recognize him in the picture. He has changed so dramatically from the person he used to be in terms of appearance. I would hope that something could be done so that he has a chance to be reunited with his family with his wife, with his children with, with his grandchildren and not to have to die in captivity in a foreign country far away from those he loves.


WHITFIELD: In the video, Warren Weinstein appeals directly to President Obama and the American public to press for his release.

It's the third time al Qaeda has released images of Weinstein since his abduction.

Military analysts tell CNN al Qaeda will start the new year stronger than the year before and the terror group is actively planning more attacks in the Middle East, in Europe and even in the United States.

Here's Barbara Starr.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: CNN has learned recent intercepted messages from senior al Qaeda operatives in Yemen are renewing concerns the group is planning to attack.

The intercepts don't indicate specific targets but are described by one source as, quote, "active plotting".

SETH JONES, RAND CORPORATION: There are multiple indications that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is plotting attacks both within Yemen against U.S. and other western structures as well as overseas.

STARR: The group in Yemen already well known for the failed underwear bomber attempt to bring down an airplane Christmas day, 2009. Four years later the U.S. intelligence community believes it poses the greatest threat of an attack on the U.S.

JONES: They're still capable of conducting attacks outside of Yemen including plotting attacks against the United States in multiple locations including trying to conduct attacks against the U.S. homeland especially by taking down aircraft.

BARBARA: Analysts say the group rebounded in 2013 from battle field losses. U.S. drone strikes have had mixed results.

A drone attack this month failed to kill an al Qaeda planner believed to be behind a plot to attack the U.S. Embassy. Yemen says more than a dozen members of a wedding party were killed in that attack.

Yemen's al Qaeda leader Nasser al-Wahishi (ph) also advising al Qaeda fighters across the region.

And those al Qaeda affiliates from Yemen, to Syria, Iraq and Libya are growing stronger. The threat they posed worries key members of Congress.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN HOST: Are we safer now than we were a year ago, two years ago?


REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS (R), MICHIGAN: I absolutely agree that we're not safer today.

STARR: In Iraq, police are trying to crack down, but al Qaeda openly operates training camps near the Syrian border and from there al Qaeda has moved into Syria with weapons and tactics learned during the U.S. war in Iraq.

Inside Syria, a key al Qaeda affiliate also stronger than a year ago, about a hundred Americans along with potentially hundreds from Europe are fighting alongside thousands of militants.

JONES: If they were able to return to Europe and to get access to the United States or return directly to the United States, they were not put on any watch list, they would pose a very serious threat.

They're well-trained, they're radicalized and they have the ability and intent to strike the U.S. homeland.

STARR: Analysts say the rise of the new al Qaeda affiliate is part of the price paid for years of attacks against the old core al Qaeda.

Many of those leaders are long gone, including Osama bin Laden, and now the new affiliates have much more autonomy, much more freedom to operate as they see fit.

Barbara Starr, CNN, the Pentagon.


WHITFIELD: And as we continue our review of the year, we can't close the book on 2013 without looking at the winners and losers of the year.

That's coming up, next.


WHITFIELD: All right. Here's one way to look at the news in 2013. There were winners and losers.

Michael Holmes has a look at the countries and leaders that did well and those that did not.


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ambassador Burns, great to have you back again.

Let's talk about winners and losers from 2013. If you're going to talk losers, something we discussed in the big international stories segment, losers have got to be not just Syrian refugees but refugees around the world. There are so many people displaced by conflict.

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR: Yes, and the irony here, Michael, is that we're living in a time when the strongest countries are not fighting each other.

That's a good thing, obviously. It's mercifully good. But there are millions of refugees all across the world on nearly every continent.

United Nations just last week issued an emergency appeal for $13 billion in international assistance just to support the refugees in place.

It's a major problem for the entire global community, and we've seen it most dramatically in Syria.

HOLMES: When you look at another country, North Korea, which is in the news, usually for the wrong reasons, do you see losers there in terms of the population?

BURNS: Well, the population of North Korea has been victimized by this mafia dictatorship, this family that runs North Korea.

They've just had this brutal execution of the uncle. They have continued repression of human rights.

The North Korean people are cut off from the everything that's good in the world, from the Internet, everything that's good about technology and modern life and they're living in this heartless communist system.

It's really a pity, one of the last bastions of that brutal authoritarian communist rule we knew in the 20th century.

HOLMES: I'm going to throw this one out there, too.

When you look at American politics affects the world around the world, do you think that voters in the United States when they look at their Congress are losers, as well, as from 2013?

BURNS: I think Americans are dissatisfied by the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. by both political parties, and the inability of our government to move forward.

Here again, there's a bit of a bright light. Congress is very close to passing a budget bill.

That may seem ordinary to some people around the world. For us it's a big step forward. Let's hope we can have more bipartisanship. 2014.

HOLMES: Let's talk winners from 2013. The nuclear deal and let's see how that unfolds but the deal that's been done with Iran. That could be a big winner.

BURNS: If it's possible to negotiate a final agreement sometime in the first half of 2014 between Iran, the United States, the E.U., China and Russia, it will be historic. It will mean that we don't have to see another war in the Middle East, that this great country, Iran, can emerge from its isolation, but the Iranian government needs to make these fundamental decisions and compromises to see that peace secured.

HOLMES: And I notice something you're interested in, too, global public health. Some countries, polio is still a problem, Syria, Pakistan, as well.

But there have been advances on global public health in the last year or so.

BURNS: There have been. They're quite striking and quite optimistic.

There's a chance to eradicate polio in the next five to 10 years. There's a chance in our lifetime malaria could be eradicated.

There's been so much virtuous work done by the Bill and Linda Gates Foundation, by the U.N., by governments like my own that HIV infection rates are coming down, tat treatment is better for people in sub- Saharan Africa.

This is a good global story in global health worldwide.

HOLMES: Let's talk about a winner, whether Americans might like it or not. Russia's got to be a big winner in terms of its global standing, at least.

BURNS: I do. It's a double-edged sword. Russia certainly has increased its influence in the Middle East. It's become one of the power brokers in Syria, yet -- it's cynical in Syria, but it's become a power broker.

It's a very important country in the Iran negotiations and the Russians are just about to host the Sochi Winter Olympics in February.

So, by all accounts, I think, the Russian government is more prominent in the world today.

The double-edged sword would be the cynical maneuvers by President Putin, so often in Ukraine, certainly, but also in Eurasia, to see the Russians trying to exploit other countries.

I do think it's a little bit of a mixed bag, but certainly you'd have to say the Russians are more prominent than they've been in a long time.

HOLMES: And to wind it up, as a man who lives the world stage, are you happy about 2014?

BURNS: Am I happy about 2014?

HOLMES: Yeah, you looking forward? Do you think it's going to be a good year?

BURNS: I think we have to guard against all these problems we've talked about. but there are a lot of reasons to believe the global economy's coming back.

There are growth rates positive now in Europe, in the United States and in Asia.

That means a lot to lift people out of poverty and stabilize the international situation.

If an Iran deal can be achieved, if we can make progress on Syria, then obviously those are the great challenges of 2014.

So a lot of work ahead for governments and for people all around the world.

HOLMES: Covering a lot of ground there, again, Nicholas Burns, Ambassador Burns, thanks so much. Great to get your thoughts.

BURNS: Thank you, Michael.


WHITFIELD: Also coming up, gay and afraid in Uganda.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I've (INAUDIBLE). I've been beaten on so many occasions I can't count.


WHITFIELD: Meet one woman who refuses to leave her home, afraid that she'll be sentenced to life in prison for her sexuality.


WHITFIELD: All right, welcome back to AROUND THE WORLD.

Members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot say they plan to form a human rights organization focusing on the protection of prisoners. They spoke to reporters today in their first news conference since being released from prison on Monday. The women spent almost two years behind bars for singing a protest song at a Moscow cathedral back in 2012. One of them says Russian President Vladimir Putin pardoned them solely to improve his image before hosting the Winter Olympics.


NADEZHDA TOLOKONNIKOVA, FREED ACTIVIST (through translator): Putin understands his Olympics can be boycotted. He doesn't want this PR project of his to fail because a lot of money has been stolen from the budget, which could have been used for better purposes. He needs some sort of political relief. Among those in prison are people who are not forgotten by the world and I'm very grateful to the world for not forgetting them. That's why it was possible for Putin to release people like me, Alyokhina and Khodorkovsky because we did not have a long time left to serve.


WHITFIELD: All right, very bold, freed activist there.

All right, now to Uganda, where a strict anti-gay bill awaits the president's signature. Under a new law that cleared the Ugandan parliament December 20th, gay Ugandans could face life in prison. International human rights groups are calling on the president to veto that bill. It has members of the gay community there in fear for their lives. Here is Arwa Damon after talking to a number of people who are afraid to show their faces in public.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) I got so much involved with God, praying so hard to like change me.

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Malcolm still prays, but now knows who he is, transgender, born female, but identifying as male, in a nation that is deeply conservative, religiously, and rabidly homophobic.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Physically, it's -- it's painful because it has been mostly done by my family.

DAMON: Male relatives, including, he says, by his own brothers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They want to teach me like how to behave like a woman. And they raped me. I was around 17.

DAMON (on camera): And you had no one to protect you? No one who you could talk to about it?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No one. All the people I ran to were just blaming me. That experience made me hate my family. It made me leave them and I just stayed with my grandmother. But, unfortunately, she also died.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We went out to the Europeans (ph).

DAMON: Most members of Uganda's LGBT, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community, tend to live secret, double lives.

JACQUELINE KASHA NABAGESERA, FOUNDER, FREEDOM AND ROAM UGANDA: People are out but they've gone back to the closet now.

DAMON: Jacqueline Kasha Nabagesera, a gay rights activist, one of the few to speak out in public.

NABAGESERA: (INAUDIBLE). I've been beaten on so many occasions I can't count.

DAMON: Kasha goes to great lengths to protect those around her from repercussions because of her sexuality, rarely leaving her home, and these days never alone.

NABAGESERA: I've tried to come up with a security plan of my own to see to it that I stay alive because I believe you're a better activist alive than dead.

DAMON: Homosexuality has always been illegal in Uganda and now parliament has just approved a bill that is waiting presidential signoff. Draconian measures, life in prison for repeated homosexual acts and simply being viewed as promoting homosexuality, a crime that could land someone in jail.

STANLEY NTAGALI, ARCHBISHOP, CHURCH OF UGANDA: The homosexuals, the recipients are children of God who (ph) are welcome to repent and have everlasting life.

DAMON: At church on Christmas Day, praise from the archbishop.

NTAGALI: Sexual immorality, homosexuality and lesbians (ph) and I want to thank the parliament for passing that.

DAMON: The widespread belief is that homosexuals are possessed by the devil or victims of sexual deviance brought in by the west.

NTAGALI: Maybe in your country you understand, but here it's a new thing, a new idea that is not from here. Someone is imposing it on us. Another kind of colonialism (ph).

DAMON: But Kasha will not be scared off.

NABAGESERA: I'm not going to allow someone to push me out without a fight. Another thing is that our movement needs a face. Our movement needs a face. I don't want them to think that they've won because the battle is just starting now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She was also blaming me.

DAMON: For a community already living in the shadows, the fear is that the new bill only legitimizes the violence against them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's so hard when the people you expect to be near you are just the people who are hurting you the most.

DAMON: Arwa Damon, CNN, Kampala.


WHITFIELD: And then coming up, piranha-like fish attack injuring 70 people in Argentina. That story right after this.


WHITFIELD: All right, frightening stuff here. Dozens of swimmers were attacked by a swarm of piranhas in Argentina. It happened at a beach along a river near Rosario on Christmas Day. The Associated Press reports that seven children lost parts of their fingers and toes. These fish are known for their razor sharp teeth. Joining me now is George Parsons. He is the senior director of fishes at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.

So officials in Argentina say this is insignificant, an insignificant attack, but it doesn't really happen often. So, George, is that the case that this is unusual particularly on this river?

GEORGE PARSONS, DIRECTOR OF FISHES, SHEDD AQUARIUM: That is -- yes, that's definitely the case. We did some work down in Argentina and Brazil and the Amazon and we actually went looking for piranha. And they were very skittish fish. Very, I think, all the conditions here were just so right and so rare that they all came together in one big thing and this is an unusual freak occurrence.

WHITFIELD: Really? So you said the conditions were so right, meaning, what, food supply was down, is it because of this time of year and it just so happened that all of these people in the water just seemed like perfect prey?

PARSONS: Yes, so we're at the right at the end of the dry season, the beginning of the rainy season. So a lot of the times the water level will be down, the temperature was really warm. So the piranhas go up to the surface to get more oxygen. And at that point, maybe at that point the swimmers were -- there were more swimmers in the water because I know that they're having an unseasonal heat wave, as well. So it's just all the conditions were right.

WHITFIELD: Oh, interesting. So it is common knowledge though that dry season means that's when, you know, piranhas are most active. It would seem that people in that area would know that.

PARSONS: Yes. Well, food supply gets a little bit lower in the dry season. So -- and like I said, it's a super rare occurrence and it's just -- there must have been some other external influences, as well. Maybe some fishermen might have been throwing some carcasses over or something like that. But, generally, they do not go after humans. We were -- when doing work in the Amazon, we had to really hunt them down to even see them. And once they saw us, they just took off. So they're really, really skittish animals.

WHITFIELD: Wow. OK. So ordinarily, really quickly, what do they usually like to go for, just to kind of comfort people who just might be swimming in waters that piranha are known to be?

PARSONS: Sure. Well most of them, most of the piranhas, especially these types, are fish eaters. They do eat insects as well a lot of times. And some even eat fruit and nuts that fall from the trees in the rain forest.

WHITFIELD: All right. Well, not this time. It was a holiday feast for them. George Parsons from the Shedd Aquarium, thanks so much. Appreciate it. And happy holidays to you.

PARSONS: Happy holidays.

WHITFIELD: All right, thanks so much for watching, everyone. I'm Fredricka Whitefield. The CNN NEWSROOM continues right now with Brianna Keilar.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, Target confirms that hackers did, in fact, steal customers' debit card PIN numbers during that massive breach of 40 million accounts.