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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Today: Secretary of State Blinken to Meet with Mexican President; Israel Military Official: "War Will Go On For Many Months"; Kremlin Critic Navalny in "Good Spirits" After Prison Move; Ukraine Claims Russian Navy Landing Ship Destroyed in Crimea. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired December 27, 2023 - 05:00   ET



DANNY FREEMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good day to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Danny Freeman, in for Kasie Hunt. It is Wednesday, December 27th.

And it's 5:00 a.m. in New York, 4:00 a.m. in Mexico City where Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to meet today with Mexican President Manuel Lopez Obrador to discuss ways to stem the surge of migrants at the southern U.S. border, and they will be joined by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and Homeland Security adviser Elizabeth Sherwood Randall.

Now, more than 11,000 migrants are still waiting in shelters and camps as they have four years for a chance to enter the U.S. illegally. But, in one border patrol secretary which includes Eagle Pass, Texas, migrant encounters have dropped significantly.

More now from CNN's Rosa Flores in Eagle Pass.


ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As the migrant caravan forms in southern Mexico with thousands from Central and South America, the scene on the U.S. southern border in Eagle Pass, Texas, has changed. The areas where thousands of migrants were waiting outdoors to be transported for immigration processing last week were emptied out this week. The flow this morning appearing to be down to a trickle.

A senior Customs and Border Protection official telling CNN that while the scene in Eagle Pass has improved, the agency is not out of the woods yet. CBP is still grappling with elevated numbers of migrant encounters on the U.S. southern border. More than 11,000 migrants are waiting in shelters in northern Mexico, 3,800 in Tijuana, 3,200 in Reynosa, 4,000 in Matamoros. Many hoping to enter legally but some opting to cross illegally, say community leaders.

U.S. federal authorities report of the seven-day average of more than 9,600 migrant encounters in December. That number was 6,800 at the end of November. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to meet with

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador Wednesday in Mexico City. The Biden administration is expected to put pressure on Mexico to do more to stem the flow of migrants.

To deal with the flow, CBP has temporarily suspended operations at several ports of entry in several states to reassign personnel to process migrants. This as CNN learns from a CBP official, that the surge is in part driven by pseudo-legitimate travel agencies abroad that promise trips to the U.S., but instead connect travelers to smugglers self of the border. That might explain this recent scene in Arizona.

I work for CNN. Now, I'm wondering where you're from? What country are you from?


FLORES: Senegal? Senegal? Senegal? Senegal? Everybody from Senegal?

Smugglers are dropping off 500 to 1,000 migrants in remote areas of Arizona, the officials said, creating a logistical nightmare for border patrol agents who have to find ways to transport them for immigration processing.

For the volunteers who distribute water to migrants in the desert, it's the children who get them every time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's heartbreaking when you see the little children.

FLORES: Rosa Flores, CNN, Eagle Pass, Texas.


FREEMAN: Thank you, Rosa, for that.

Moving to this now, overnight, Israeli military officials apparently pushing back against U.S. and international pressure to ramp up the high intensity phase of the war in Gaza.


HERZI HALEVI, CHIEF OF GENERAL STAFF, ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES (through translator): The war will go on for many months and we will employ different methods to maintain our achievements for a long time.

There are no magic solutions, there are no shortcuts in dismantling a terrorist organization. Only determined and persistent fighting, and we are very, very determined


FREEMAN: There right there, that was chief of the general staff of the Israel Defense Forces saying that the war will go on for many months in various ways. And just last night, a member of the Israeli war cabinet was meeting at the White House to talk about moving on to a more targeted phase of the war, with fewer civilian casualties.

Ron Dermer, close confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat down with S Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan for more than four hours. Meantime, the humanitarian situation in Gaza is worsening day-by-day. The Hamas-controlled ministry of health now reports the death toll since the war began at nearly 21,000 people.

CNN's Will Ripley is live for us in Tel Aviv.

Will, the U.N. says 85 percent of Gaza's population are now internal refugees, and the U.N.'s human rights chief says that Israel is working to expel the civilian population of Gaza. I mean, just tell me, how are the people there coping?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Danny, in addition to that 21,000 Hamas-controlled health ministry number of dead, they say the number of injured is more than double that. Nearly 55,000 people who frankly, don't have hospitals to go to because there are only a handful that are still operating. And for people who are lucky enough not to be injured not to be hit by an airstrike, life for the displaced, most of Gaza's population is basically bouncing around from shelter to shelter searching for food and water, trying to avoid bombs as they attempt more and more burials.


RIPLEY (voice-over): The terrifying sound, ongoing bombardment, Israeli shells hitting targets, closer and closer to this U.N.-run school in Central Gaza. For thousands sheltering here, it's time to move, again. Families forced to flee for their lives. And this is not the first or even second time for many.

Once again, they carry the war torn pieces of their lives in pursuit of elusive safety. Just days earlier, many here vowed they would never move again, never, a vow they are now willing to break, only because they know their children's lives are at stake.

OM MOHAMED, GAZA PRESIDENT (through translator): There is no safety in the school. We are looking for a safer place. We are leaving because of the intensity of that airstrikes and the suffering.

RIPLEY: Everywhere else is crowded. There's no guarantee you will find a spot. But what else can they do?

Even if they have nowhere else to go, they can't stay here. They don't want to die here. The scene, a grim reminder of what their parents and grandparents endured in 1948, when Zionist militias forced them out of their hometowns. In the cold winter, blankets and mattresses are precious commodities.

Cars and the fuel that run them are scarce. Those who can afford it hire donkey carts. For the rest, it's a long trek on foot. It's very tough back there, he says. Bombs are falling on people

everywhere. People were injured there. We don't know where we are heading. Everywhere is under threat. We are just moving with the rest of the people.

The destination for many, relatives homes, a roof over their heads even if they are in neighborhoods already devastated by the Israeli airstrikes.

Street battles, raging across Gaza, turning areas north and south of the strip into ghost towns. The scars of battle, raw.

YOAV GALLANT, ISRAEL DEFENSE MINISTER (through translator): We are in a multi-arena war and we are being attacked from seven different sectors, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Judea, Samaria, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran.

RIPLEY: Iran's allies in the region engaging in low level hostilities in response, they say, to Israel's war in Gaza. Yemen's Houthi attacking ships, ships they claim are Israeli affiliated, turning the Red Sea into a dangerous route for world trade. Iran's vow to avenge the killing of an Iranian commander in Syria, sparking renewed concerns of expanding the conflict, especially on the Lebanese Israeli border, artillery fire with the Iran-backed Hezbollah, keeping both countries on edge since October 8th.


RIPLEY (on camera): And since the beginning of this war, the IDF has reported more than 160 of their soldiers killed in addition to the 1,200 Israelis who died in those attacks on October 7th. The Gaza death toll could rise in the coming days and weeks and months ahead, even as Israel says it will shift eventually to a lower intensity operation.

But I can tell you, Danny, over the Christmas weekend, that 48-hour period was some of the deadliest we've seen in the eye in 80 days of this war.

FREEMAN: Just incredible reporting. Will Ripley, thank you so much, and please stay safe.

All right. Still ahead, some heavy rain and possible flooding in the Northeast could create some travel chaos today. Plus, the 2024 race for president heats up as Nikki Haley pulls out all the stops.

Back in a moment.



FREEMAN: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is in good spirits despite the unexpected transfer to a prison in Russia's Arctic Region. That according to his team who had reported him missing just a few weeks ago.

CNN's Nada Bashir reports.


NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER (voice-over): One of President Putin's most famous adversaries relieved, exhausted, but most importantly, alive.

KYRA YARMYAH, NAVALNY SPOKESWOMAN: We filed a 680 request in different Russian prisons trying to locate Alexey.

BASHIR: For weeks, Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny's whereabouts were unknown. Now, his team has located him at a remote penal colony north of the Arctic Circle, after a journey Navalny says took almost three weeks.

They brought me here on Saturday night, messages posted on social media by his aides say. I didn't expect anyone to finally here, before mid-January.

Navalny's team raised the alarm weeks ago, after he failed to show for recent court hearings. At the time, the Kremlin stated it had neither the capacity nor willingness to monitor prisoners' whereabouts.

YARMYAH: According to Russian law after the prisoner is being transferred to another colony, they have to notify his relatives. But we know very well there is no law that applies to Alexei, and they will never notify anyone about his whereabouts.


BASHIR: In a statement on Monday, the director of Navalny's Anti- Corruption Foundation said the colony in northwestern Siberia, known as the Polar Wolf colony, is infamous for its remote location and harsh conditions.

Navalny was sentenced to 19 years in prison in August, after he was found guilty of extremism related charges, which he and his legal representatives have consistently denied. This in addition to a previous 11-1/2-year sentence for fraud and other crimes.

Known for organizing anti-government street protests and using his blog and social media to expose alleged corruption in the Kremlin, Navalny has posed one of the most serious threats to Putin's legitimacy during his rule.

His disappearance coming to light just days after Putin announced he would run for reelection in March 2024.

VLADIMIR MILOV, NAVALNY ADVISER: It is no coincidence that Navalny disappeared exactly at the moment when the so-called sham presidential elections were announced. And Putin announced that he's going to be running again for, sorry, I lost count, which term already.

BASHIR: And more news of his whereabouts has brought some reassurance to supporters. There is deep-seated concern over the conditions the opposition figure now faces at Polar Wolf.

Nada Bashir, CNN, London.


FREEMAN: Nada, thank you for that.

All right. Still ahead, rain from the Carolinas into the Northeast today could hamper your travel plans. Derek Van Dam with your weather report coming up next.



FREEMAN: Now for some quick hits across America.

Police are now offering $10,000 as a reward is the hunt for the suspect in that deadly Ocala, Florida, mall shooting over the weekend that killed one man and injured a woman. Officials say Albert Shell Jr. is wanted on murder charges.

And an appeals court has thrown out the 2022 conviction of former Representative Jeff Fortenberry, saying he was charged in the wrong jurisdiction. The Nebraska Republican was convicted of lying to federal authorities about illegal campaign contributions. There is no word yet on whether he will be retried.

And police say they've located the human remains of a Missouri veteran, Donny Erwin, missing since 2013, with the help of a YouTuber who spotted a vehicle in a pond with his drone earlier this month. They say that discovery led to the discovery of remains believed to be Erwin's.

All right. Now, let's turn to weather. The storm that hit the Midwestern plains with snow and ice is now moving east, bringing periodic heavy rain to the northeast today, likely causing some travel delays.

Rain and mountain snow are expected on the West Coast as well.

For more on all of this, we have meteorologist Derek Van Dam.

Good morning, Derek.

DEREK VAN DAM, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hey, great to see you, Danny. I'm sure people across the upper plains are happy to say goodbye to the system because this is what it looked like yesterday. I mean, that is just a vicious, raw, very unpleasant conditions, and downright dangerous, especially on the roadways. You can see some of the shrapnel that was looking like a metal bar and taken apart by the strong winds that gusted across the plains. That is in South Dakota. That storm is wrapping up. This is all part of a larger storm system we've been talking about for several days.

There is a couple of different areas of low pressure, one located cross the central interior that is going to be dislodged from the main storm system that is going to bring some rain to the East Coast. That is going to bring our wet weather. The snow starts to wind down. We will focus in on the east coast. Because today, it is going to be a wet morning for many of the major east coast cities, from Washington, to Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, all the way to Boston.

This is where we have our rainfall forecast. It could be some flash flooding as well. Minor flooding anticipated with this because weather prediction center has these marginal risk that is a level one of four. But some of the aware of if you are traveling today because the rain will move over the same areas for several hours. That could bring some of the heavier precipitation.

Look at Thursday morning. We stopped in at five a.m., so as you get an early start to your day, you think you will have a dry day in Philadelphia, New York, think again. More rain in the forecast. And that low that was part of a larger storm system has dislodged itself. That is going to wrap around slowly, and bring in some snow showers to the lower great lakes.

So, you can see the rainfall and snow accumulation forecast. Heaviest long the East Coast, maybe 1 to 3 inches locally with just an inch or two of snow with the back side of the storm system.

Now, in terms of airport delays, we've put this projection map appear, because we could see some of the cumulative delays because of the rainfall for LaGuardia, perhaps into JFK, Boston, as well as Logan Airport. You can see the airport forecast for that area not looking too pleasant. Danny mentioned some west coast rain.

Another storm system moving in, and not a major storm system but nonetheless will bring rainfall to central northern California. The coastline of Oregon as well, and Washington.

Here is a look at your temperatures for Wednesday, 44 degrees for the Windy City, 49 for New York City, Atlanta where I'm located, 60 degrees.

I mean, it's December. It should be much colder than that. What is going on here?

FREEMAN: That is why -- I mean, you know better than I, but I will say that I will not be on I-95 today. That is the one thing I know.

VAN DAM: Not advised.

FREEMAN: Derek Van Dam, thank you very much, appreciate it.

VAN DAM: OK, Danny.

FREEMAN: President Biden under mounting pressure as migrant crossings soar at the southern border.

Plus, coming up as well, pop icon Taylor Swift, we know her. She had a bombshell year from a record tour. To helping boost NFL tickets, and also finding love. We will cover it all, next.


FREEMAN: Good morning. Thanks for getting up early with us. I'm Danny Freeman, in for Kasie Hunt.

We turn now to the city of Kherson, in southern Ukraine, where officials say more than 100 civilians who were packed into a train station waiting to be evacuated came under constant Russian shelling. At least one person was killed and several were injured.

In the meantime, Ukraine's military says it destroyed a Russian naval tank landing ship in the Crimea region on Tuesday, claiming a significant win. CNN, though, cannot independently verify the claims, but videos showed large explosions at the port.

For more on this, let's go to CNN's Portugal reporter, Helena Lins, live Kyiv.

Helena, if confirmed, this latest Ukrainian air strike, it would be the third major loss of Russian military hardware in a week. So it's also strategically vital region for Ukraine. What more can you tell us?


This is indeed -- this is indeed an achievement for Ukrainians, although, you know, Russians say that.