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Indonesian Search Crews Comb through Debris for Victims after Tsunami; Erdogan Urged Trump to Withdraw Troops from Syria; Mulvaney Predicts U.S. Government Shutdown will Last until New Congress; Land Mines Cleared from Historic Site in West Bank. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired December 24, 2018 - 03:00   ET




GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The death toll rises in Indonesia. There are fears another tsunami could happen. More on what that nation's president is demanding to avoid being caught off guard again.

The U.S. pulling the troops out of Syria. The president leaving the fight against ISIS to the person he says, the man who could do it, namely the Turkish president, Erdogan.

Also ahead, these presents didn't come wrapped under the tree but they may be the best one gets. A surprise reunion for service members and their families this holiday season.

Live from CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta. Welcome to all our viewers around the world. I'm George Howell. NEWSROOM starts.


HOWELL: Indonesia is dealing with the aftermath of Saturday's deadly tsunami and the nation's president is demanding action now. Joko Widodo says that he is ordering authorities there to buy early warning detectors.

He has been touring areas hit by the tsunami; at least 281 people have been killed and thousands have been left homeless. Rescue workers continue to search for survives. Here is how one survivor described what happened.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I saw the huge waves at around 9:30; I rushed to the guest rooms and told the guests and my manager to run. And we evacuated to a higher place. The waves were 2-3 meters high, they became even higher after hitting the walls. The waves hit the area three times as they became stronger and stronger.


HOWELL: That tsunami ripped across parts of Java and Sumatra. It caught so many people off guard because there was no earthquake. It was likely triggered by a volcano. You can see from this video, that volcano continues to erupt. That raises fear it could generate another tsunami and that could strike without warning.

CNN's Will Ripley is with me following details on the story from Hong Kong.

Will, the death toll continues to rise; the threat of another tsunami is a real concern.

What more are you hearing?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is so terrifying for people along the Indonesian coast right now, who didn't really know that a volcanic eruption can trigger something like this. It is not completely unprecedented.

The reason why there wasn't a warning is that Indonesia doesn't have a viable warning system. They have a network of buoys that are supposed to detect tsunamis far out in the ocean. Those buoys were installed after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

But they have been down for six years since 2012. Vandalism, budget problems, damage to the buoys all are the excuses that officials are giving now. But for people who have been devastated -- and it is not just this tsunami; in September there was that tsunami on the island of Sulawesi, triggered by a 7.5 magnitude quake. More than 2,000 dead there; 281 killed at least in this latest one that hit over the weekend.

So the president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, is vowing that steps will be taken. Listen to what he said.

JOKO WIDODO, PRESIDENT OF INDONESIA (through translator): We can't conclude for now. Yes, it might have been caused by a quake but we don't know where is the source. It is still being checked. In the future, the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency will provide detection equipment, warning systems, that can give warning to everyone.


RIPLEY: When you have so many people affected by these devastating waves, you get 11,000 people displaced, hundreds of houses destroyed or damaged, nine hotels, 60 restaurants, more than 400 boats, these are all residential and tourist areas.

And a lot of Indonesia tourists were there for this Christmas holiday, people that have time off. No foreigners reported killed. Sadly again, this year, Indonesia is hit with a horrific disaster that the country is reeling from.

HOWELL: The other question, as the search continues for survivors, this will be a long and extended process.

What more are you hearing on that front? RIPLEY: It is a search and rescue effort that continues around the clock. I want to show you again, not to be gratuitous but just for our viewers to understand the intense power of these waves. It was captured on video when there was an Indonesian pop band, Seventeen, giving a show. And again without warning you see everyone --


RIPLEY: -- on stage. All of a sudden, the stage is lifted up by this wave. You hear people in the crowd screaming and band members later said on social media, the lead singer, that the bass player and the manager were killed; three band members missing, the lead singer's wife missing, three days before Christmas.

So when you see the damage that these waves can do, it understandable that there is a lot of debris and a lot that still needs to be and uncovered in terms of looking for potential survivors and also for the dozens of people who remain missing.

And the timing of this, it is reminiscent of the Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day on December 26th in 2004. That tsunami killed 226,000 people in 14 countries, George. And while the number of deaths, obviously, dramatically smaller in this case, it offers no consolation for hundreds of family members, who, once against, in Indonesia, are dealing with just as horrific tragedy.

HOWELL: And waiting for the possibility that something could happen again. Will Ripley, live for us in Hong Kong, Will, thank you for the updates and reporting.


HOWELL: Given what happened in Indonesia, if you're looking for ways to help the people who have been affected there by this tsunami, you can go to our website,

Reuters News Agency is calling on Myanmar to release two of its journalists who were arrested in the country last year. In a statement released ahead of an appeal hearing set for Monday, Reuters says the journalists were honestly reporting the truth, reporting the news.

The two were arrested while covering a massacre of Rohingya Muslims. They were sentenced to seven years in prison for alleged possession of classified materials. Their conviction and sentence sparked an international outcry.

The U.S. president does not like the fact that his Defense Secretary's resignation letter has been squarely in the media spotlight. So apparently he decided to kick off Jim Mattis' retirement early. We will explain ahead.

Also the budget battle over the border wall continues to keep parts of the U.S. government shut down.




HOWELL: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell.

U.S. troops are officially set to start leaving Syria after the outgoing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis signed the order to withdraw U.S. troops, according to U.S. Defense officials. Mattis is said to have signed this order even though he is resigning, partly because of the decision of President Trump to pull troops out of Syria. The order paves the way for more than 2,500 American service members to start returning home.

On Sunday, Mr. Trump discussed the withdrawal with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It's their second phone call in less than two weeks.

He tweeted that Turkey promises to wipe out what is left of ISIS in Syria and he said Erdogan is, quote, "a man who can do it."

Let's bring in CNN producer Gul Tuysuz, following this story live for us in Istanbul.

Gul, sources are telling CNN Turkey's leader was making a case for U.S. to leave Syria days before the president announced this decision.

GUL TUYSUZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The Turkish president made that case before President Trump announced that the U.S. would be pulling troops. That is really a call that the Turkish president has been making for a very long time now because the presence of U.S. troops there on the ground in Syria was a complicating factor for his country, because Turkey views the U.S.' primary allies in the battle against ISIS as an extension of a terrorist group that they have here at home.

So Turkey basically classifies the U.S.' main allies on the ground in Syria in the fight against ISIS as a terrorist group.

So it was a very complicating thing for Turkey and Turkey has said for many months now that they want to carry out an operation across the borders into Syria to expel the presence of that Kurdish fighting force away from their borders.

The U.S. troop presence there was making that very complicated and possibly turning this into this very complicated and chaotic thing into something even bigger in which two NATO allies, the U.S. and Turkey, would be facing off against each other on opposing sides.

So Turkey has been saying this for a very long time now. But the fact that the Turkish president was able to, in this phone call, talk to the U.S. president and make the case for the U.S. to pull out just goes to show you what kind of relationship these two leaders now have with each other. But it wasn't a one-sided thing. President Donald Trump also got

something out of Turkey and that was a promise by the Turkish leader that Turkey would go in, if they did, go into Syria, that they would be in charge of eliminating the remnants of ISIS because, as we know, even though ISIS has been defeated -- or so the U.S. president has said -- we know that there still remains thousands of ISIS fighters along the Syria-Iraqi border.

Now if Turkey goes in and carries out --


TUYSUZ: -- the operation, what will it look like?

When will it happen?

We don't know. The Turkish president has said that he is putting the operation on hold as a result of the conversation he had with Mr. Trump as well as discussion between the defense and diplomatic officials of both countries.

But when that does happen, will Turkey be able to effectively fight against ISIS while they're also fighting that Kurdish fighting force?

That's something we don't know at this point.

HOWELL: A lot of unknowns here. Gul Tuysuz, live for us in Istanbul, thank you.

President Trump said he will replace the Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, at the new year. That's two months earlier than Mattis had planned to leave. The president is reportedly angry, furious over news coverage of the resignation. And on Twitter Mr. Trump revealed who will be Mattis' replacement for now.

CNN's Barbara Starr has the details for you.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: The search for a new Secretary of Defense goes on. But for now, Deputy Secretary Of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, number two at the Pentagon, has been named by the president to become acting Secretary of Defense as of January 1st.

James Mattis had wanted to stay until February 28th. But he got a phone call from Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, saying, you need to go by January 1st. That is the president's decision.

There was a feeling inside the White House officially that they needed to get a new person in that they didn't want Mattis in a lame duck position. But administration officials will tell you that, behind the scenes, the president was not happy with the extensive news coverage of Mattis' departure, of his resignation letter, saying basically that he was resigning in protest over the president's decision to withdraw troops from Syria. So Shanahan now has the leading role here at the Pentagon. He's been

involved mainly in things like acquisition reform and innovation. Now with no foreign policy experience, he will take on a national security role on the international stage, dealing with America's military allies and America's military adversaries -- Barbara Starr, CNN, the Pentagon.


HOWELL: The partial U.S. government shutdown carries on and is expected to last into the new year, leaving hundreds of thousands of federal workers in limbo, unsure of when they will be paid next. Very little progress is reported in the budget talks.

And Democrats are rejecting Trump's demands for a border wall for funding. Neither side is budging. CNN's Sarah Westwood has the story.


SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: President Trump and his administration are bracing for what could be a lengthy shutdown that lasts beyond the holidays as Trump continues his demands for funding for a border wall and Democrats continue their refusal to fund it.

Recall that the president initially demanded $5 billion in funding for the border wall and he said that money had to be for the construction of a physical barrier along the southern border; it couldn't just be for border security in general.

Sources say vice president Mike Pence offered support for a border security package worth $2.5 billion if it included funding for a wall. That offer came during a meeting Saturday on Capitol Hill with Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer.

But Schumer, according to those sources, rejected the offer so the talks still appear to be deadlocked. Budget director Mick Mulvaney predicted the shutdown could last into the next Congress, beginning on January 3rd when House Democrats take over. And Mulvaney suggested that House minority leader Nancy Pelosi may be limited in her ability to make a deal with this administration that reopens the government because of her looming Speaker's race. Take a listen.


MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Here is the problem, of course, is that as recently as two weeks ago, they offered us $1.6 billion for that same thing so they are moving in the wrong direction.

I think it's a really good question here as to whether or not this deal can be cut before the new Congress comes in. I think there is an implication here for Nancy Pelosi's election for the speakership. I think she's now in that unfortunate position of being beholden to her left wing, to where she cannot be seen as agreeing with the president on anything until after she's Speaker.

If that's the case, I think there is a chance we go into the next Congress.


WESTWOOD: Now that was Mulvaney, the incoming White House chief of staff, speaking on FOX News Sunday. The president has been all over the map when it comes to this funding fight, at first claiming that he would be proud to accept responsibility for the shutdown if it was in pursuit of funding for his border wall before shifting to blame Democrats for the shutdown.

But it's still unclear how much less than that 5 billion-dollar number the president would ultimately be willing to accept. It's also unclear what, if anything, the Democrats would be willing to approve in terms of funding for his wall.

Democrats don't have a lot of incentive --


WESTWOOD: -- to negotiate on the president's terms right now, given that they will soon be a majority in the House -- Sarah Westwood, CNN, the White House.


HOWELL: Another victim of the U.S. government shut down, the national Christmas tree near the White House.

Look here. It has been dark since Friday, when a man climbed the top there and damaged it.

Initially, there wasn't enough money to repair it, due to the ongoing shutdown. But the Park Service now says that is because of a donation -- that because of the donation, they will hopefully be able to do the necessary repairs.

Abandoned churches near what is believed to be the baptismal site of Jesus (INAUDIBLE). Mines in the area have been finally cleared decades after the war there. We will take a look inside.

Also getting the best present for the holidays are surprise reunions some service members are having with their families.




HOWELL: Welcome back. You are looking at live images of Manger Square in Bethlehem, where Christmas Eve celebrations are now underway. Thousands of tourists and pilgrims will attend a midnight Christmas mass there. We will have a live report next hour with our Ian Lee from that location.

Decades after the 1967 Six-Day War, land mines have finally than removed from several churches near what is believed to be the baptismal site of Jesus. CNN was recently granted access to those sanctuaries in the West Bank. My colleague, Ian Lee, picks up this story.


IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Stepping into this church is to step back in time. The sanctuary abandoned over 50 years ago. But step here last year and it could be on a land mine.

Israel laid thousands along the border with Jordan after the 1967 war, including seven churches.

LEE: These bullet holes are just a reminder of the fighting that took place. And while this area has been cleared of land mines, you don't have to go far. Maybe 200, 300 meters and you're in another mine field.

LEE (voice-over): Over the past year, the Israeli government and British NGO Halo have cleared the land around three churches, a testament to the peace with Jordan that now prevails.

But what makes these churches particularly important lies just upstream, what is believed to be the baptismal site of Jesus, one of the holiest places in Christianity, nearly 800,000 pilgrims visit every year.

LEE: How certain are you that you got all the land mines?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Almost 100 percent, though I cannot say 100 percent. But if I can walk here, my children can walk there, that's all (INAUDIBLE) after we have finished the job here.

LEE (voice-over): Roughly 5,000 land mines remained and an unknown amount of unexploded grenades, mortars and other explosives. The work is slow and painstaking, as demonstrated here. They aim to finish by the end of next year.

Another problem, frankly put, land mines move.

LEE: A recent rainstorm came through here and you can see where the water flowed from the hillside. The only problem is that this is a Land mine field and that water can carry land mines and deposited them in --


LEE: -- recently cleared areas.

LEE (voice-over): Once completed, these churches hope to turn this moonscape of death back into a garden of life -- Ian Lee, CNN, in the West Bank.


HOWELL: Fascinating report, Ian, thank you.

As the song goes, there is no place like home for the holidays. That is absolutely true for some U.S. service members at Christmas. CNN's Polo Sandoval has more now on heartwarming reunions that are going viral.


POLO SANDOVAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A visit to Santa Claus...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So what would you like for Christmas?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: For my dad to come home.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): -- turned into a special delivery for these two Minnesota sisters.


SANDOVAL (voice-over): Their father, a soldier stationed in Kuwait, surprised his daughters just in time for Christmas.

It's among the many emotional reunions caught on camera between military members and their families this holiday season.

A Wisconsin boy's older brother, serving in the Army, surprised him at school with a big hug after five months apart. The soldier then marched down the hall to his other sister and brother.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It made me feel warm inside.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): In this viral video, a little boy presented with a large Christmas gift.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What do you think it is?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know. I don't even have an idea yet.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think you're going to like it.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): Inside the box, a loved one in military fatigues.

The personal who posted this wrote, "My nephew got to unwrap the only Christmas gift he asked for a few days early."

A small army of family members kept this airman from even getting through the door in Sacramento.



SANDOVAL (voice-over): And finally, a Christmas choir concert in Indianapolis, an unexpected interruption.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ms. Avarie Hinton, you have a present under the tree.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): It led to a mother serving in the Navy, embracing her daughter just in time for Christmas.

AVARIE HINTON, DAUGHTER: It's been a really long year. And so many things have happened. And I just missed her so much. It just makes this Christmas extra special for surprising me.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): For some of these service members another deployment could be next. But for now, the current marching orders include being home for the holidays -- Polo Sandoval, CNN, New York.


HOWELL: You just can't beat that.

Thank you so much for being with us for CNN NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell at the CNN Center in Atlanta. "Street Life Hanoi" is up next. First, your world headlines right after the break.