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American Morning

Jamaican Gunman Holds CanJet Crew Members Hostage; Update on Situation From CanJet Vice President, General Manager; Face-to-Face With Hugo Chavez; Maersk Alabama Crew Member Discusses Attack; Python Patrol Trained to Kill Giant Snakes; Iran Jails American Journalist

Aired April 20, 2009 - 06:00   ET


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning to you. Thanks very much for being with us as we start a brand new week. It's Monday, it's the 20th of April. I'm John Roberts in Atlanta this morning.

Good morning, Kiran.

KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: Hey there, John. And I'm Kiran Chetry here in New York. We have a lot to cover this morning. The big stories we're going to be breaking down for you in the next 15 minutes.

Right now, a Jamaican gunman is holding five members of a flight crew hostage on the tarmac at the airport in Montego Bay. This was a charter out of Canada, the CanJet Airlines Boeing 737 headed to Cuba. Officials say that all of the passengers were freed unharmed, but again, the crew still being held hostage. We have a live report just ahead.

President Barack Obama is back in Washington where outrage is mounting over his decision to make public secret memos detailing waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics. Some critics say that releasing the memos makes America less safe. In a moment, we're going to take you live to the White House.

Also, dramatic video as Somali pirates attempt to hijack a Norwegian tanker in the Gulf of Aden. NATO forces saw the ship under attack. Warning shots were fired. A seven-hour chase ensued. The pirates were eventually caught then later released. We're going to take you live to Nairobi, Kenya, for more details.

ROBERTS: And we begin this morning with a tense standoff on board a Boeing 737 in Montego Bay, Jamaica. A government official says a gunman slipped on the flight late last night, and he's been holding five crew members hostage now for hours. But Jamaican officials confirm that all of the passengers are free and safe this morning.

For more, let's bring in Latoya. Well, we were going to bring in Latoya Johnson, a reporter with Radio Jamaica. Do we have her at this moment?

We were trying to get in touch with her. We had her on the phone. She's at Sangster International Airport there in Montego, Bay. We're trying to reconnect with her. We hope to get her on the phone. But as far as we know, here's what happened.

10:00 last night, a gunman slipped aboard this plane when it arrived from Canada with 180-some passengers and crew members on board. All of the passengers were let go. There are still five crew members though that are being held in the aircraft at this moment.

The prime minister of Jamaica is making his way from Kingston to Montego Bay to oversee the situation there. We hope to get again back in touch with Latoya Johnson in just a couple of minutes.

Also expected in the next 15 minutes or so, a live news conference from the airline in Halifax, Nova Scotia up there in Canada in the next 10 minutes or so. You're going to see that live. There's the scene of the press conference. We're expecting that Kent Woodside, the vice president and general manager of CanJet, will be sitting down there to brief reporters on the situation.

Meantime, let's go back to New York and here's Kiran.

CHETRY: This morning, President Obama is back home now after his meeting with his Latin American counterpart. He arrived late last night to a White House facing a barrage of criticism over its soon-to- release memos detailing interrogation tactics used by the CIA under the Bush administration. Harsh techniques including waterboarding and sleep deprivation that critics say is a form of torture.

Today, the president heads to the CIA to meet with its director, Leon Panetta, who opposed releasing the memos, and he's not alone. Former CIA director Michael Hayden telling "FOX News Sunday" the president has compromised national security and has made it harder for intelligence agents to battle terrorism.


GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN, FORMER DIRECTOR, CIA: I think teaching our enemies our movements (ph) by taking techniques off the table, we have made it more difficult in a whole host of circumstances. I can imagine, more difficult for CIA officers to defend the nation.


CHETRY: CNN's Elaine Quijano is live at the White House. And what is the White House saying over all of this controversy this morning, Elaine?

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly what Rahm Emanuel, the president's chief of staff, said is, look, this is nothing that hasn't already been out there in the public domain, some of the content of these secret torture memos.

But it's really going to be remarkable later today, Kiran, because President Obama is basically going to be going into the heart of the place where critics say he has effectively undermined the work that is being done there, the very difficult work that is being done there. But White House chief of staff again, Rahm Emanuel, saying look, this information was already out in the public domain and he argued over the weekend that America actually benefits by admitting essentially its mistakes.

CHETRY: And Elaine, we...


RAHM EMANUEL, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: We've enhanced America's image abroad. These were tools used by terrorist, propaganda tools to recruit new terrorists. And the fact is having changed America's image does have an impact on our security and safety and makes us stronger.


QUIJANO: Now for his part, President Obama has said that he wants the nation basically to move past what he called the dark and painful chapter in the nation's history.

But again, this morning, "The New York Times" revealing more information. Reporting that waterboarding was used 266 times on just two al Qaeda suspects. We'll see if President Obama, Kiran, says anything about that. He'll be meeting privately with top CIA officials, and then he'll be making some public remarks to employees at the CIA, Kiran.

CHETRY: And we also understand he's going to be meeting with his cabinet secretaries asking them to tighten their belts a little bit during these tough economic times.

QUIJANO: That's right. Two senior administration officials told my colleague, Suzanne Malveaux, this. That President Obama, for the first time, is going to be gathering his full cabinet together.

This will be the first time they've all been together since President Obama took office, and he's basically going to tell them that over the next 90 days he wants them to cut a total of $100 million. The agencies are basically, Kiran, going to have to report after that 90-day period on how they cut those expenses back. And a senior official says look, this is really part of the president's commitment that he made to cutting back spending, to be going line by line, basically, to try and save money - Kiran.

CHETRY: All right, Elaine Quijano for us at the White House this morning, thanks.

ROBERTS: OK, we've reestablished contact with Latoya Johnson. She's at Sangster International Airport there in Montego Bay, Jamaica. She is with Radio Jamaica. She's been monitoring the situation with that aircraft all night long.

This is a CanJet charter jet that came in from Halifax, Nova Scotia about 10:00 last night. A gunman slipped onboard when everybody was onboard the aircraft. The passengers were let go but the crew still being held.

Latoya, can you hear us this morning and can you update us on the situation there.

LATOYA JOHNSON, RADIO JAMAICA CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Yes. I can hear you quite clearly.

And at this point in time, the Sangster International Airport remains on lockdown with the father of the hijacker still trying to dissuade him. He has been joined by two of the hijacker's closest friends and they're busily trying to negotiate with him.

Five crew members remain on the flight. This is what, close to seven hours now since he hijacked the flight, which was the CanJet Airline, and it was heading to Cuba, then Halifax, Canada as its final destination.

The airport remains, as I said, on lockdown. The entire airport is cordoned by the police.

Our prime minister, Bruce Golding, is there at the command post, and he is joined by some of his ministers, including the national security minister. And they're busily trying to negotiate with the hijacker who has since been identified as Kevon Free (ph). And he's the son of a Montego Bay businessman. And we're hearing now that he's suffering from a mental illness.

ROBERTS: I see. Now, Latoya, you said that this man's father, the hijacker's father is involved in the negotiations. I've read some reports that suggest that the hijacker may suffer from some mental problems.

JOHNSON: Yes, we were told by a government official earlier that he has - we're not sure what kind of mental illness, but we were told that he is ill.


JOHNSON: And his father and two of his friends are trying to negotiate with him as we speak.

ROBERTS: All right. Now as far as you know at this point, is it just in the stage where they've contacted the hijacker and they're trying to negotiate with him? Is there any plan to launch any sort of police or military action against the aircraft at this point?

JOHNSON: Up to a few minutes ago, when we spoke to an official, we did not hear of any plan to take action. It is still - they're still at the negotiation stage.

ROBERTS: Latoya Johnson, from Radio Jamaica for us this morning from Sangster International Airport there in Montego Bay. Latoya, thanks very much for that. If we can get back to you a little bit later as the situation unfolds, we would appreciate it as well.

There's a live picture from Halifax, Nova Scotia which was the origination of this Boeing 737 flight to Montego, Bay. We're expecting Kent Woodside, who's the vice president and general manager of CanJet, to address the media on the situation unfolding there in Montego Bay this morning.

Meantime, back to President Obama and the Summit of the Americas, the end of his summit meeting with Latin American leaders could mark a new beginning in relations with some of America's fiercest critics. The president used the summit to make overtures to Cuba and Venezuela.

He dismissed criticism of his handshake and friendly interaction with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez saying he's not concerned with how it's playing politically back home.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interest in the United States. I don't think anybody can find any evidence that that would do so.


ROBERTS: As for Cuba, the president suggested some specific steps that the Castro regime must take to move relations with the United States forward. CNN's Jim Acosta has got that part of the story for us. He's in Washington this morning.

What a difference a weekend makes, Jim. My goodness, diplomacy all over and the promise of perhaps renewed relations with Venezuela and the potential to even open up relations with Cuba? It's extraordinary.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, John. It is extraordinary. And President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro are speaking the language of diplomacy on a whole host of issues.

First, came the White House change on Cuban-American travel. Then came Castro's surprising offer to talk about human rights in Cuba. Now the president has said what he has in mind.


OBAMA: The test for all of us is not simply words but also deeds.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Frozen in cold war politics for decades, U.S.-Cuban relations could be moving faster than a Havana hurricane. Just days after Cuban President Raul Castro seized the world's attention offering to talk about human rights, freedom of the press and political prisoners -

RAUL CASTRO, PRESIDENT OF CUBA (through translator): We could be wrong. We admit it. We're human beings.

OBAMA: That's a sign for progress. ACOSTA: President Obama cautiously laid out some steps for the island to take.

OBAMA: There are some things that the Cuban government could do. They could release political prisoners.

ACOSTA: Mr. Obama said he's nowhere near calling for an end to the embargo on Cuba, a move that will require congressional approval and something that he supported in his run for the Senate in 2004.

OBAMA: I think it's time for us to end the embargo in Cuba.

ACOSTA: Still analysts who have followed U.S.-Cuban tension sense a breakthrough?

Do you think we're heading towards a U.S.-Cuba summit of some sort?

MARCO VINCENZINO, GLOBAL STRATEGY PROJECT: There has to be concrete moves I would say first in the part of the Cuban government, and maybe releasing of all political prisoners would be a major positive first step.

ACOSTA: Easing restrictions on Cuba could also gain Mr. Obama allies in Latin America, a region where leftist leaders condemn the embargo as Yankee imperialism. Even some conservatives back in Washington are considering the upside of embracing Cuba.

HAYDEN: I think we ought to go about this step by step. We shouldn't jump into the deep end of the pool right away. But it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

PEGGY NOONAN, FORMER REAGAN SPEECHWRITER: Conservatives are thinking, these liberals are thinking this. Go for it.

ACOSTA: Washington has considered the inconsistencies before, China and Vietnam, but not Cuba. At the Summit of the Americas, President Obama shook hands with Hugo Chavez and even received a book from the Venezuelan leader.

OBAMA: President Chavez is better at positioning the cameras.

ACOSTA: The question remains, why not the Castros?


ACOSTA: And President Obama acknowledges he's getting plenty of pressure from across the western hemisphere. At the summit, Latin American leaders all but said Mr. Obama, tear down that embargo. But for now the president's response is not yet, John.

ROBERTS: It will be interesting to see where this all goes. Jim Acosta this morning.

By the way, we're going to be talking in the next few minutes with Jennifer McCoy. She is the director of the Americas Program at the Carter Center about all of this. She was at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and has got some on-the-ground firsthand information to share with us - Kiran.

CHETRY: All right.

Well, here's some of the other stories we're following for you right now.

Senator John McCain's daughter, Meghan, taking a swipe at the Republican Party. Meghan McCain speaking this weekend at an event hosted by the Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative gay rights group.

Take a listen.


MEGHAN MCCAIN, DAUGHTER OF JOHN MCCAIN: Number one, most of our nation wants our nation to succeed.

Number two, most people are ready to move on to the future, not live in the past.

And number three, most of the old school Republicans are scared (EXPLETIVE DELETED BY NETWORK) of that future.


CHETRY: McCain also went on to say that she was proud of challenging the mold and the notions of what being a Republican means.

Exxon Mobil shoving Wal-Mart aside retaking the top spot on the Fortune 500 list of largest U.S. companies. The oil giant raking in nearly $443 billion in revenue last year, and that's despite a huge drop in oil prices. Wal-Mart has held that top spot for six of the last seven years.

And a dramatic new battle with the pirates off the coast of Somalia. This time NATO forces swooped in to defend the tanker and chase down the pirates. We're live in Nairobi, Kenya, with breaking details.

It's 13 minutes after the hour.


ROBERTS: Breaking news this morning here on CNN.

There you see a picture from Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada. That's a CanJet press conference that's expected to take place in the next little while.

CanJet has got one of its aircraft on the ground in Montego Bay, Jamaica. The crew and the captain and the co-pilot of the aircraft are being held right now by a hijacker who we believe is 20 years old. And according to the Jamaican government, has some mental challenges. So the vice president and chief executive officer or operating officer, rather, of CanJet is expected to address the media in the next couple of minutes here, give us a little bit of a readout of the situation on the ground there in Montego Bay as it continues to unfold.

Down here in the south, we're checking on some really, really bad weather. Stories of terror and survival this morning after a number of funnel cloud sightings in the southeast.

Last night in Alabama, a woman was killed and her husband seriously injured after their mobile home was destroyed. And as we speak, that powerful line of storms is hammering parts of Georgia and the Carolinas.


ROBERTS: All right. It's good to see you too, Rob - Kiran.

CHETRY: All right. Let's check out a live picture right now of the Hilton Garden Inn in Halifax, Nova Scotia. That's where we're going to be expecting a press conference any moment now from the officials of CanJet Airlines. They're going to be updating us on a situation in Jamaica where a gunman described as mentally challenged hijacked a Canadian charter plane.

It was on the tarmac at the time in Montego Bay near the resort city of Montego Bay. Apparently, it was full of passengers but those passengers were released. Right now, though, the crew is still being held hostage.

As we understand it, we were getting some live reports from reporters there in Jamaica, saying that it was the father of the gunman who is trying to help secure the release of the crew being held, trying to talk to his own son. They say that he was assisting with those negotiations.

Again, the gunman said to be a Jamaican, 20 years old. Not many details on the man's mental condition, just that he is described as mentally challenged. And as it's being reported right now, he was asking the flight crew to take him to Cuba. Now, Cuba was a planned stop until they decided to return to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

So again, we're supposed to get more details on just whether or not they're making any progress trying to get this man to give up. And there you see the plane still on the tarmac there in Montego Bay.

So, again, we are awaiting this news conference. We want to take a quick break and when we come back, hopefully we'll be able to bring that to you live.

It's 19 1/2 minutes after the hour.


CHETRY: All right. Good morning. Welcome back to AMERICAN MORNING.

A live look right now in Halifax, Nova Scotia where we are expecting a news conference at any moment from officials at CanJet Airlines to update us on this hijacking situation of a charter plane that was from Canada at a Jamaican airport. Officials now saying it was a local man who asked to be flown to Cuba.

They say that it was a mentally challenged 20-year-old. They believe that right now the situation is still very fluid. They're hoping to be able to get him to give up. They have his father and apparently the prime minister as well who flew in by helicopter trying to convince this 20-year-old who is armed to release the crew of this CanJet Airlines.

John also following this with us. We expect to hear, I guess, what they - how they believe this happened and also how they think this situation is going to be resolved right now. At least the passengers were let go.

ROBERTS: Yes. It seems that as the plane landed last night from Halifax with 182 people on board total that includes passengers and crew. This man with a gun snuck on board the aircraft.

As you said, Kiran, he was initially holding everyone and let the passengers go. They're now staying at local hotels.

The prime minister there on the ground. He's helping to oversee the negotiations. And according to Latoya Johnson who is a reporter with Radio Jamaica whom we spoke with about ten minutes ago, at this point, it's just a negotiation that's involved there. There don't appear to be any plans being made to either use police or the military to potentially storm the aircraft.

I think what they're trying to do is get this fellow's father to try to talk him into letting everyone go. But in the next few minutes, Kent Woodside, who's the vice president and general manager of CanJet, you can see that empty table there, he's expected to sit down and brief us on what the latest of the situation is.

According to the airline, the moment a full security operation under way there in Montego Bay. They're letting Jamaican authorities take the lead on all of this, of course, and hoping for a peaceful resolution, Kiran, sometime in the next few hours. This has gone on since 10:00 last night, so we're into a little more than eight hours of this whole operation.

CHETRY: Right. And as we understand, that the passengers were taken to a nearby hotel. As we said, 182 passengers and crew.

A couple of them are speaking about just what was happening. Apparently, one of them said that they wanted - the guy wanted to have all their money. They took out all their money and put their passport and credit card back in their pockets. A lot of them described themselves as being quite shaken up by the experience, but according to the information minister of Jamaica, nobody, thank goodness, was harmed or has been harmed yet. Let's listen to what else he said.


DARYL VAZ, JAMAICAN INFORMATION MINISTER (via telephone): I can say that the hijacker is a young Jamaican, estimated at about 20 years of age, who seems to have mental challenges. And his father has actually come to assist with the negotiators to get the hostages freed.


CHETRY: All right. So again, as you said, his father has come to assist. Also, as we understand it, the prime minister coming to assist. It looks like they're ready to speak now.

So let's listen to Kent Woodside, the vice president and general manager of CanJet Airlines.

KENT WOODSIDE, VICE PRESIDENT & GENERAL MANAGER, CANJET AIRLINES: At approximately 23:30 Atlantic Standard Time, an armed man boarded CanJet Flight 918 which had landed at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay.

Flight 918 had departed from Halifax at 7:15 last evening. The flight was due to travel from Montego Bay to Santa Clara, Cuba. The flight was operated on behalf of Transat Tours of Canada. There were 174 passengers and eight crew scheduled to leave Montego Bay on Flight 918.

All those passengers and two of our crew members have safely left the aircraft. Six crew are still on board. The gunman also remains on board.

The security and safety of passengers and crew on all CanJet flights is paramount. We are relieved that all the passengers involved in this incident are safe as well as two crew members and our top priority is the safe release of the remaining crew members. We are providing full cooperation to security officials and the local authorities are doing everything possible to bring this matter to a peaceful end.

As you will appreciate, this an ongoing incident and so we don't have all the details at this stage. What we can tell you, the Jamaican authorities have secured the area and the aircraft. Efforts are continuing to secure the release of the remaining crew. None of the passengers or crew have been injured, and there has been no damage to the aircraft.

All passengers under the direction - all passengers are under the direction of the Jamaican authorities at the airport and once the security and investigation is complete, those passengers will be moved to hotel accommodations.

Another CanJet aircraft is being made available to return any passengers to Canada as required later today. All the passengers involved in this incident are Canadian. The aircraft itself is a Boeing 737-800 which seats 189 passengers.

We are working with the security authorities in Jamaica and Canada. Our CNP (ph) officers in Canada and Jamaica are involved. The Department of Foreign Affairs is also providing valuable support and the prime minister's office has offered assistance.

Once again, the sole focus of our efforts is the safe release of everyone involved and a peaceful end to this situation. We have an information line available to anyone with question about family or relatives who may be - who may have been on board CanJet Flight 918. That number is 1-888-777-6429. That's 1-888-777-6429. And this information is also available on the CanJet Web site at

We will be providing new information as it becomes available, and we plan to provide another briefing later today. As you can appreciate, I will be needed back at the office shortly but I can take a few questions at this time.

QUESTION: Any chance, you know, where the crew is from and is there any chance that you've been in touch with them at all and if you know anything about their condition whatsoever?

WOODSIDE: At this point, we do understand that all the crew members are say. And as I stated, two of the crew members were released off of the aircraft with all the passengers.

QUESTION: What does the gunman want?

WOODSIDE: I'll just take one question.

QUESTION: Do you know where the crew members on board, where they're from?

WOODSIDE: Obviously, they're all Canadian and they're across our network of stations here in Halifax and we have crew bases in Montreal and Toronto as well.

QUESTION: What does the gunman want?

WOODSIDE: At this point, I have to - I should decline, but all that is with the care of the authorities that are on the ground in - at the Montego Bay airport. We're coordinated with the RNCP (ph) both here and in Jamaica and the authorities at the Jamaican airport are dealing directly with it. And we don't have that direct contact.

QUESTION: Can you confirm that a shot was fired?

WOODSIDE: The information that's unconfirmed is that, that there was indeed one shot fired inside (ph) the aircraft and again, the unconfirmed information is that was on the boarding bridge or the jet way to the aircraft.

QUESTION: We're told that the...

ROBERTS: That's Kent Woodside. He's the vice president and general manager of CanJet speaking from Halifax, Nova Scotia, giving us some of the latest information on this hijacking situation, this hostage situation that's underway at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

That's not a live picture. That's a still photograph of CanJet Flight 918, which arrived last night from Halifax about 10:00.

The gunman got onboard the aircraft as Kent Woodside was saying there. Unconfirmed reports of one shot fired outside the aircraft. Perhaps on the - either the jet or the stairs.

I've flown into Mo Bay a number of times and typically they just bring stairs up to the aircraft. There's no actual jet way like you see at many American airports.

Updating information - six crew members still on board. We had initially heard that there were five, now that number now increased by one to six.

Two crew members were let go, along with all of the passengers. And as he said, another jet is coming to take the passengers back to Canada, they're all Canadian, later on today.

We have a lot of viewers up there in Canada. So if you're looking for information, if you have a loved one or you know somebody who's on board this aircraft, - can give you all of the information on how to contact folks to find out what the status of your loved one or friend might be.

So we'll keep an eye on this situation as it continues to unfold there in Montego Bay. Right now, let's go back up to New York and here's Kiran.

CHETRY: Yes. We also through the 187 - 888 number up there as well, 888-777-6429. And this again is for relatives and loved ones to call to find out information. We'll be following it.

Meantime, President Obama's weekend encounter with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez is giving Republican critics a new line of attack. One U.S. senator even calling the president's exchange with Chavez, quote, "irresponsible."

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux has a closer look at the smile and the handshake seen around the world.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, Kiran, it was the summit of 34 leaders, but two stole the show. The big question was what was President Obama going to do when he ran into America's arch nemesis, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Now some were asking, have they become the new BFFs.


MALVEAUX (voice-over): Not exactly best friends forever, but not enemies either. On day one, when Obama first saw Chavez, he reached out his hand to shake off the past. Chavez beamed and said, "With this same hand I greeted Bush eight years ago, I want to be your friend." This from the man who once called President Bush the devil.

Day two, it's Chavez' move. As cameras jockeyed for position, Chavez got up and gave Obama a book, "The Open Veins of Latin America," which documents centuries of American abuse in the region. The book immediately rocketed to one of Amazon's best sellers.

OBAMA: You know, I thought it was one of Chavez's books. I was going to give him one of mine.

MALVEAUX: But he didn't. Instead, at the class photo, it was the president of Saint Lucia who got Obama's book personally signed. At his closing press conference, Mr. Obama was asked why Chavez got so much of the attention.

OBAMA: President Chavez is better at positioning the cameras. It was a nice gesture to give me a book. I'm a reader.

MALVEAUX: But that might be hard.

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think it's in Spanish. So that might be a tad on the difficult side.

MALVEAUX: U.S. officials tried to downplay the exchange.

AMB. JEFFREY DAVIDOW, WHITE HOUSE ADVISER, SUMMIT OF THE AMERICAS: A shake and a smile does not constitute a new relationship.

MALVEAUX: But Mr. Obama said there's no harm in trying.

OBAMA: It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States.


MALVEAUX: For now, they are both trying. They have offered to start the process of bringing their ambassadors back to both countries - John, Kiran.

ROBERTS: All right. Suzanne Malveaux for us this morning from Trinidad.

We're digging deeper now into the face-to-face encounter between President Obama and Venezuelan President Chavez at the Latin American summit or the Summit of the Americas this past weekend. Jennifer McCoy is the director of the Americas Program at the Carter Center. She's done extensive field work in Venezuela. She was actually at the summit. She's here now with us at the CNN Center in Atlanta.

So, there has been a lot of Republican criticism as Suzanne was saying over the presidents a handshake and engagement with Hugo Chavez. What do you think Chavez is up to here? Because his favorite game was to poke a finger in the eye of President Bush for the last few years. Is he looking at the current economy and depressed oil revenues and saying, maybe I need to try to engage this new American president? JENNIFER MCCOY, DIRECTOR, CARTER CENTER'S AMERICAS PROGRAM: Well, I think that's definitely part of it, but the message of this summit was, from President Obama is, I want to start a new beginning with Latin America, and he was very positively received. And so I think President Chavez is also responding to this new atmosphere, this new era, this new style and attitude that Obama is presenting and needed to respond in kind.

ROBERTS: You also spoke with - you spoke with Chavez himself, although it was brief.

MCCOY: Briefly, yes.

ROBERTS: What did he tell you?

MCCOY: Well, that he is ready to start to give Obama a chance, basically, and see if they can have a more cooperative relationship. Though, I don't expect it's going to be smooth sailing. I mean, President Chavez's whole foreign policy is predicated on challenging U.S. leadership.

ROBERTS: Yes. I mean, a lot of people might be watching this right now saying, Chavez giving our president a chance? Shouldn't it be our president who's considering whether or not to give Chavez a chance?

MCCOY: Well, definitely it's a two-way street and the U.S. will be looking at Venezuelan actions to see if they do open a bit in terms of cooperation on drugs, on security issues.

ROBERTS: Yes. You know, one of the big problems, of course, is direct flights between Tehran and Caracas, and whether or not Hezbollah fighters are actually being trained in Venezuela and then being sent back to the Middle East. I mean, they do have a lot of contentious issues that they would have to work out before things warm up, would they not?

MCCOY: Definitely. But I think that starting with - starting with communication first of all. And if we can get a new exchange of ambassadors, that's the very first step. We have to have communication and dialogue to make any progress.

ROBERTS: And that seems to be in the works, right?

MCCOY: Yes, it looks to be.

ROBERTS: So what about on Cuba? Now, the president was saying we're a long way away from lifting the embargo. But are we taking the very first baby steps here to thawing the freeze between these two countries for more than 50 years?

MCCOY: I certainly hope so. I think this first step, of course, President Obama was just complying with his campaign promise to allow Cuban-Americans to have more ties, more access to the island. But his call for talks and willingness to talk, if the Cubans reciprocate and also show some action, is a very positive. And of course, this was the major message that Latin American and Caribbean leaders were giving to President Obama during this summit.


MCCOY: It's time to reengage.

ROBERTS: So if you were a betting person, how would you say this will go?

MCCOY: I think it will be slow. There are a lot of domestic politics in the U.S. involved with our Cuban foreign policy, unfortunately...

ROBERTS: Yes, of course.

MCCOY: ...which complicates things. But the message from the South is it's time to change.

ROBERTS: Well, it's going to be fascinating to watch. Jennifer McCoy, it's great to see you this morning. Thanks for coming in.

MCCOY: Thank you.


CHETRY: Well, still ahead, a survivor story. One of the U.S. crew members from the Maersk Alabama, attacked by Somali pirates, returns to his home church and he speaks out about the terrifying scene aboard that cargo ship.

Thirty-seven minutes past the hour.


CHETRY: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning on this Monday morning. It's 40 minutes past the hour. Time to fast forward through some of the stories that will be making news today.

Congress gets back to business after a two-week spring recess. The Senate will convene at 2:00 Eastern time. Before leaving town, both the House and the Senate passed versions of the president's proposed budget, and now the lawmakers have to work together on a final version.

Well, throughout the day in Colorado vigils are going to be held for the victims of the Columbine shootings. It was 10 years ago today that 13 young people were killed when two students went on a shooting rampage before killing themselves.

And at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time, the suit brought by Hurricane Katrina flooding victims will finally go to trial. A four-week trial will not have jury. A federal court judge will decide whether the Army Corps of Engineers should be held liable for failed levees that caused catastrophic flooding in New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish. Millions of dollars in damages are at stake - John.

ROBERTS: All Right, Kiran. Thanks so much. Also this morning, the reaction continues to pour in in a story that we first brought you on Friday about charging overweight fliers for a second seat. United is the latest airline that's planning to do that. The company is saying the rule would apply to anyone unable to fit into a single seat, close the arm rest or buckle the seat belt without an extender. The idea sparking all kinds of comments on our hotline at 877-MY-AMFIX.


CALLER: First, the government gets to discriminate against smokers by hiking taxes only on them. Now big corporate America gets to discriminate by charging an extra seat for overweight people? Where is it going to stop?

CALLER: What's next? Are they going to pick what races are allowed to ride on planes? It's totally, totally, discriminatory.

CALLER: Heck, yes. If their body overflows their seat space and causes other people to be uncomfortable who paid for their ticket, they should have to pay for two tickets. It doesn't really matter how they got obese, they're obese. So they have to make a plan if they want to fly, buy two seats. Sit in your own seat, don't sit in mine.


ROBERTS: As you can see, pretty strong opinion on both sides of the issue.

Keep those calls coming. The phone number is 877-my-amfix. The line is open 24 hours a day.

And coming up in our 8:00 hour, one woman who says the real answer is retrofitting airplanes with bigger seats - Kiran.

CHETRY: All right. Well, we're following a big breaking news story right now.

Canadian plane hijacked by a gunman in Jamaica. Six people still being held hostage right now, members of the crew. We are live on the ground.

Also, one of the 20 crew members onboard the Maersk Alabama when it was hijacked by Somali pirates is sharing new details about the ordeal. We're going to hear from him in his own words.


ROBERTS: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning.

This morning, the U.S. crew members of the Maersk Alabama who braved the high-seas battle with pirates are back at home with loved ones.

On Friday, it was an emotional homecoming as Captain Richard Phillips was reunited with his family. And on Sunday, it was a hero's welcome from William Rios who returned to his home church in Harlem, New York. He later spoke to reporters about his harrowing high-seas ordeal.


WILLIAM RIOS, SURVIVOR, MAERSK ALABAMA: We went through a lot. Piracy is nothing to play with. I mean, nothing to play with really. It's out there. It's going out there a lot. I've been doing this job for over 20 years, my first time it happened. I thought I would never see my family again.

QUESTION: How hard is it going to be to get back to work?

RIOS: I'm ready to go back. I'm ready to go back. I'm ready to go back.

QUESTION: And why are you ready to go back?

RIOS: My whole youth I've been at sea. I love it to death. I love that ocean to death. I'm not going to give it up.

We should be armed. We should be armed.

QUESTION: Tell us why. What would that do if you guys were armed? Would that deter them from coming, in making an attempt? What does that mean if they know you guys are armed?

RIOS: They won't bother us.

QUESTION: What do you want to say to Captain Phillips?

RIOS: Very brave man. That's my partner there. I can't wait to see him. Very brave man.

QUESTION: He says he's not a hero.

RIOS: He's a hero. All of us are heroes. We all play a big part on this. Every one of us.

QUESTION: What do you want to say to the Navy?

RIOS: Thank you very much. Navy was very brave and was there for us. Even though they got late, but they came, they came. They came.

QUESTION: Are you willing to go back on a ship?

RIOS: Yes, I'm willing. Yes.

QUESTION: How will you feel getting back on a ship?

RIOS: I'm a sailor. I'm a sailor. Like any other time. I've been doing this over 27 years. I'm a sailor.

QUESTION: How do you feel about the fact that your husband wants to go back on a ship?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, you know, he can go back on a ship, but he's not going back into those waters.

QUESTION: More like a cruise?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm trying to get him to get on a cruise ship, and that we can go on as a family. Cruise ships will be better for William Rios right about now.


ROBERTS: There you have it. William Rios outside his Harlem church yesterday. And the wife or girlfriend, fiancee or whatever, saying if he goes back, he's not going to go back into those waters. And he also weighing in to the controversial waters, Kiran, about whether or not crew members should carry guns to try to fend off hijackers.

CHETRY: That's right. He said, we should be armed.

An very, very interesting. She said that maybe they'll go on a cruise. He certainly deserves it after that whole ordeal.

ROBERTS: As long as they stay in safe waters.

CHETRY: Yes, exactly.

Well, we continue to follow breaking news in Jamaica. A gunman hijacking a Canadian plane. The passengers are now safe, but six crew members are still onboard. We're hoping to speak live to Jamaica's minister of information and get the very latest for you.

Also, police say they may have another case involving a victim of the Craigslist killer. The latest developments on another woman who was lured by an attacker online.

It's 48 minutes after the hour.


CHETRY: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning.

What could be more nerve-wracking than having your town invaded by snakes? Well, one Florida community has a serious python problem and they're tackling it by training people to round up the snakes one by one.

CNN's John Zarrella got an up close look at what it takes to be on python patrol.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, Kiran, there's a snake in the grass, literally, in the Florida Everglades. The problem is it's a species that isn't supposed to be there. And there are so many of them now that they are moving out, and the only way to stop them and contain them is to catch them. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZARRELLA (voice-over): Juan Lopez reads water meters in the city of Marathon in the Florida Keys. It's not his only job. Lopez is a first line of defense against a potential predator.

JUAN LOPEZ, PYTHON PATROL: I think I'm prepared for this. Yes, I'm actually excited. I would like to find them, you know, and get rid of them.

ZARRELLA: "Them" are Burmese pythons - up to 20-plus feet long and weighing 200 pounds. Lopez is a member of the Python Patrol, teams of utility workers, wildlife officers, police and park rangers, especially trained to catch these serpents.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's not fun when he's facing me.

ZARRELLA: The pythons used for class are brought in by Miami- Dade County's Anti-Venom Unit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have a big python hook.

ZARRELLA: Pythons are non-venomous, but as I found out during my training, they have no problem coming after you.

The idea is to get behind them, grab their tail, tire them out, but don't take your eyes off them. Finally, work your way to the business end, grab it.

The first two were eight footers. I handled them alone, but needed help with the 12 footer. And as soon as I had him, he coiled.

(on camera): Oh, look at that. Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's pretty powerful. Let him do it as long as he doesn't around your neck.

ZARRELLA: I've got a question for you. Now how do I get him off of me?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Very carefully.

ZARRELLA: Thank you.

(voice-over): These patrols were created by The Nature Conservancy to stop the snakes from getting a foothold in the Florida Keys.

ALISON HIGGINS, THE NATURE CONSERVANCY: If we can keep them from spreading and breeding, then we're that much more ahead of the problem.

ZARRELLA: This mess got started wildlife expert say when python owners realized their pets had suddenly grown too big to handle and dumped them in the Everglades, just to the north of here. The python population exploded. An estimated 30,000 live in the Glades. Last year, more than 300 were captured and there's nothing biologists haven't found in their stomachs like this python that literally exploded after eating an alligator.

HIGGINS: We have found five sets of alligators. We have found a full grown deer.

ZARRELLA: They grow so quickly, six feet in a year. They are the predators, not the prey.


ZARRELLA: Ultimately, the Nature Conservancy wants python patrols ringing the Everglades because catching them and killing them is the only way to stop the pythons from spreading - John, Kiran.

ROBERTS: John Zarrella with a rather slippery story for us this morning.

Six crew members still on a plane in Jamaica, being held by an armed gunman. A tense hostage situation unfolding right now as authorities try to convince the hijacker to stand down. We'll have a live report for you just ahead.

And new developments in the search for the Craigslist killer, another woman attacked.

You're watching the Most News in the Morning.


ROBERTS: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning.

Iran's foreign minister is urging President Obama not to comment on Tehran's case against a U.S. journalist this morning. An Iranian court gave Roxana Saberi eight years for espionage in a closed-door trial. The president calls the charges bogus and Saberi's father says the trial itself was a sham.

And just moments ago, Iran's state media says the country's judiciary is launching a full investigation into the case. Our Kate Bolduan is breaking it all down for us this morning from the White House.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, Kiran, she worked as a freelance reporter for national public radio and other news organizations. She's now sentenced to eight years in an Iranian prison, a fight for her life that's getting the attention of the White House.


BOLDUAN (voice-over): Wrapping up a trip centered on the U.S. and its regional neighbors, President Obama turned his focus a world away, saying he's gravely concerned for Roxana Saberi's safety and well-being in Iran.

OBAMA: I have complete confidence that she was not engaging in any sort of espionage. She's an Iranian-American who was interested in the country which her family came from.

BOLDUAN: The 31-year-old journalist's father says he's visited her in prison, says she's very frail and is begging for his daughter's freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She is completely innocent and she should be freed. If there has been any suspicion, if there has been an misunderstanding, we will forgive them.

BOLDUAN: Iranian officials initially said Saberi was detained in January for buying a bottle of wine and later held for reporting without proper press credentials. Then Saturday, Saberi was convicted of espionage, the charge announced on state-run TV.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): She collected classified information through some connections she had with the personnel of some of these centers and submitted to the American intelligence agencies.

BOLDUAN: This case is unfolding as at a critical time for U.S.- Iranian relations. The Obama administration is working to repair ties with the country leaders, even signaling the possibility of direct diplomatic engagement. It's unclear what political fallout might result from Saberi's case. At least right now, the president and his administration are staying focused first on securing her release.

OBAMA: We are going to be in contact with, through our Swiss intermediaries with the Iranian government, and I want to ensure that we end up seeing a proper disposition to this case.


BOLDUAN: Saberi's family is appealing the conviction. Iran's state-run news agency reports President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a letter Sunday to the prosecutor saying Saberi should be allowed to offer a full defense in her appeal - John, Kiran.

ROBERTS: Kate Bolduan for us at the White House this morning. Kate, thanks so much.