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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Crisis in the Middle East; Space Shuttle Discovery Prepares for Possible Landing

Aired July 17, 2006 - 07:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back, everybody. Let's take you right to these live pictures. You can see an explosion. You're looking at pictures from Haifa in Israel. This has been the target of a series of rocket attacks coming from Hezbollah. They've been lobbing rockets, hundreds of rockets into Israel, and you can see clearly just a short while ago another attack. It's difficult to say, of course, from this vantage point what kind of damage has been struck. We've got reporters there. Paula is reporting for us this morning and we'll get back to her in a minute. Find out what exactly is happening there. Welcome back, everybody.
MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good to have you with us. I'm Miles O'Brien. We'll keep you posted on all the developments in the Middle East as well as word of an earthquake and tsunami in and around Indonesia. Lots to get to. Let's get right to it.

S. O'BRIEN: And in fact, let's get back to what's happening. Israeli jets bombed Lebanon again today and Hezbollah rockets hit a town 35 miles inside of Israel. The cease-fire plan that's been floated by Britain and the United Nations, Israeli leaders say they do not expect that Hezbollah will agree to a cease-fire. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHIMON PERES, ISRAELI DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: It's a situation where the Hezbollah won't listen to anybody, neither to the public, nor to the United States, nor to the United Nations. They are on their own. They are destroying Lebanon because they're fanatic, run by a foxy, dangerous man, and I think it will save Lebanon, too. Lebanon is not our enemy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

S. O'BRIEN: That's Shimon Peres talking to LARRY KING LIVE last night. He of course is the Israeli deputy prime minister. You can catch LARRY KING LIVE every night 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

There are some 25,000 Americans in Lebanon right now. Close to 4,000 of them say they might want to be evacuated. An American survey and assessment team is in Lebanon right now. They're trying to come up with an evacuation plan.

Maura Hardy is assistant secretary of state for consular affairs. She is in D.C. this morning. Nice seeing you, Ms. Hardy, thanks for talking with us.

MAURA HARDY, ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: Thank you. So good to be here.

S. O'BRIEN: Give me a sense of where the plan stands right now. Do you have a plan in place? Is that plan moving forward? What's going on?

HARDY: In fact we do, and I appreciate the opportunity to be on the air today. The plan always is to get American citizens out as safely and as securely and as efficiently as possible. In this case, we began implementing that plan days ago by looking at the situation on the ground. Some of the first things that we've recommended to Americans was that they not consider traveling over land because of the danger that that represented.

We have American naval assets steaming toward the region. We have commercial ships steaming toward the region. Yesterday we began to help American citizens depart the country. We will do more of that today. We will do more of that every day. What American citizens can help us do, Ms. O'Brien, is they can register with us. If they haven't done so yet, we urge them to do so. If they have moved from the place where they were when they registered, we urge them to update that information for us. We can not help people if we don't know where they are. So it is imperative that as partners in an effort to ensure their safety, they let us know where they are.

S. O'BRIEN: Got you. A couple questions for you. This has been going on as you well know for six days now, as you know, why only 21 people so far have been evacuated out? You look at some of other countries and it seems they have moved it seems more aggressively than the United States in taking out hundreds, at least in some cases, of their people.

HARDY: Well, several other countries chose to take land routes out of the country, which we frankly thought were fraught with danger. We did not want to put people in greater harm's way by doing that. Obviously that, was a gamble that some of them took, and it was not a gamble we were willing to take with American lives. We need to very clearly assess the situation on the ground and move as we will in largest number over sea. We did not want to encourage American citizens to travel over land there. There was a special question and issue for some American citizens who did make it to the border, for instance with Syria. Some were allowed to cross into Syria, others were not allowed to cross into Syria.

In addition to the fact that two of the three major roads had been bombed very, very severely and the third also bombed. We did not think that was a wise way to counsel people to leave the country.

S. O'BRIEN: How many people have said to you we want to get out and we want to get out now? How many Americans.

HARDY: In the last week to eight or nine days, we've had 3,000 additional Americans register, and so that is an indication of people who are very, very interested in our knowing where they are. As they register, if we've got a place and a data point for them, especially e-mail, we are regularly updating them. I'd also like to say that if you are in the United States and know of a family in Lebanon, you can register that American citizen, family, with us from here on our Web site. It does not have to be the family in Lebanon telling us about that. Americans in Lebanon are also, of course, free to call the embassy in Beirut. We've got plenty of people answering phone lines and gathering that information as well.

S. O'BRIEN: How do you tell people to be safe right now, though? As you can imagine, we're getting reports of people who are now gathering outside their embassies. Not just Americans, other embassies as well, who, sounds like they're on the verge maybe of beginning to get, at least very concerned, maybe panicking, that registering and waiting for an email that's going to tell them when they get to leave the country may not be good enough. What can they do right now to stay safe?

HARDY: Well, I'm glad you asked that question that way. We do not encourage people to stand outside the embassy. We do not encourage people to come to the embassy at all, because as we do begin to help people leave the country, the staging point may not be the embassy at all. We don't want people out in an open area if they are in a safe place, if they are in a building, if they can be in a basement, if they can follow the sort of situational awareness and take a look at where they are right now. They are in a better place standing firm, staying out of the open and letting us know where they are so that we can advise them just as soon as we can help move them out of harm's way.

S. O'BRIEN: Have you had conversations with any of the leadership in Israel trying to guarantee the safety of Americans or other people who are trying to get out and get back to their countries of origin?

HARDY: You know, every American embassy, of course, has -- the number one priority of helping American citizens everywhere we are, every way we can. Every American embassy, of course, in part does that through conversations with host government authorities. I have not spoken directly with Ambassador Jones myself, but you have to know that American embassies all over the region have been working 24/7 to affect the kinds of planning we need to do to help Americans get out of there as quickly as we can. It's job one, it's the only job right now. Take care of American citizens, gets them out of harm's way.

S. O'BRIEN: We'll continue to watch to see how exactly those evacuations go. Maura Hardy is the assistant secretary of state for consular affairs. Ms. Hardy thanks for talking with us.

HARDY: Thanks so much for your help.

S. O'BRIEN: If you have a loved one who are right now trying to get out of Lebanon, as she mentioned, there is the number to call. 1- 888-407-4747. Obviously, you do not want to call the embassy directly, and if you don't have a family member or someone you're worried about, again, that is, please do not clog the lines. 1-888- 407-4747 is the number to call. Miles?

M. O'BRIEN: Well, as we continue to follow the crisis in the Middle East, we're continuing to have reports of rocket firings into Haifa as well as bombings on the part of the Israeli Defense Forces aimed at targets north of their border and into Lebanon. We get more on the story right now from Paula Hancocks, who joins us on the line from Haifa. Paula?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on phone): Hello there. Yes, a few moments ago we had another siren here in Haifa, and we know there were either two or three explosions, depending on who you talk to, really, but one of the rockets appears to have hit an area residential. We saw a plume of smoke at least near a residential areas quite close to the port, quite close to the sea. We believe one may have gone into the sea. This happened woman hour and a half ago, and there were about four or five more rockets came over. A couple of them fell into the sea with no casualties.

Now, we can hear sirens. We can hear police sirens, fire engines and ambulances, which would suggest that one of those rockets have hit an area that they thought potentially people who are injured. So that's what we can see at the moment. It was quite a quick barrage of rockets after the first course of rockets only about an hour and a half, two hours or so in between the two.

M. O'BRIEN: Paula, up until this point it was believed that the Hezbollah possessed these Katyusha rockets, which have a very short range. These rockets raining down on Haifa are a different brand of rockets and have dramatically changed, I imagine, how the people of Haifa view all of this situation.

HANCOCKS: That's right. I think the majority of people in Haifa thought they were well out of the range of these Katyusha rockets that Hezbollah has been using in the past, but the Israeli military says they believe the rockets of Hezbollah now have supplied by Iran can go further than Haifa, possibly as far as the outskirts of Tel Aviv, that's about 130 kilometers from the Lebanese border. Here we're about 25 miles south of the border and this is somewhere that has really been hit in the past, the past couple of days.

There has been an absolute barrage of these rockets, the one that hit a train depot on Sunday, killing eight. The defense minister went to see that and said it definitely had the trademarks of Syria and looked like it was a Syrian weapon.

M. OBRIEN: Let's talk about some of these rockets that are implicated in this. This Fajr 3 is also linked back to Iran as well. Are there fingerprints as well that lead people back to Iran as well?

HANCOCKS: Well certainly what we're hearing from the officials is that Iran and Syria are very deeply implicated in this. The fact that Iran is supplying Hezbollah, according to the politicians and officials and military, they say Iran is definitely supplying these rockets and Syria is also, in part helping as well.

So obviously, the Israeli politicians believe that both of them are to blame for these rockets that are coming into residential areas. We know that the heightened terror alert has gone all the way down to Tel Aviv right now, which is the most populous city here in Israel, and of course, they have the air sirens, which usually should give you one minute to get undercover and to make sure that you're not in harm's way, but the one just a couple of hours ago, there are actually two explosions before the sirens went off. Obviously those sirens are not 100 percent accurate and not able to warn the residents completely.

M. O'BRIEN: They're not very accurate. Thus far, not a single rocket has gone as far as Tel Aviv, correct?

HANCOCKS: Well, Haifa is pretty much the furthest one of these rockets has been. The small town just slightly south, hit this morning, but there were no casualties reported there. At this point, this is the furthest that these rockets have reached, but we've heard from the Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah saying I have more surprises for the Israeli people and the Israeli military and the Israeli military do believe that he is in possession - Hezbollah is in possession of these long-range missiles, and that's why they've heightened this alert all the way down to Tel Aviv. They do believe that Iran has supplied Hezbollah with rockets that could actually reach that most populous city.

M. O'BRIEN: The rockets thus far that have rained down on Haifa have a range of about 25 miles, I'm told. So these particular rockets would not be the threat to Tel Aviv, but the suggestion is that there is something else in the arsenal?

HANCOCKS: That's right, and it's not really a suggestion from the Israeli military. They say they do believe that they have these weapons and Nasrallah is saying there are more surprises that he has. And so the Israeli people, the Israeli politicians are most worried about the fact that there could be something they have not come up against yet, the type of rocket that can go 70 miles, maybe even further. Now, that wouldn't quite reach Tel Aviv, but it would certainly reach the populous areas around that city itself. Of course as soon as one rocket hit Haifa, which is the third largest Israeli town politicians upped the ante, they upped the rhetoric, they said this is unacceptable. This is an escalation of violence, so one can only imagine what the escalation would be if one of the rockets did reach somewhere like Tel Aviv.

M. OBRIEN: I guess one of the big questions on everybody's mind here is how big is the Hezbollah cache, whatever, short, medium or long-range missiles, how big is that cache and how long would it take for Israel to neutralize all of those potential rockets pointed in their direction?

HANCOCKS: Well, what we're hearing from Dan Halutz, the chief of staff, is that Israel believes Hezbollah has between 10,000 and 12,000 rockets. Now, if you imagine that every time there is a barrage of rockets, every time there is one siren, they're probably launching about two to five rockets at one particular time. So that 10 to 12,000 rockets could last an enormous amount of time.

Now what Israel is trying to do obviously on the southern Lebanese border, where Hezbollah has its real stronghold, is trying to destroy the ammunition warehouses that they can find and also trying to make sure that as soon as a rocket is launched into Israel, they can try and track the rocket launches down and destroy them, but of course Hezbollah launch is about two to five rockets and then runs away with these rocket launchers so they can't actually be tracked by Israeli intelligence.

M. O'BRIEN: Paula Hancocks in Haifa, as further bombardment is seen there today. We'll keep you posted, of course, every step of the way as we continue to watch the fighting in the Middle East. Thank you. Soledad?

S O'BRIEN: Let's take you to the skies over Beirut now. We've got some videotape to show you, and it's kind of unclear exactly what we're seeing. As you can see, something falling out of the sky, on fire, leaving a big trail of smoke right behind it. Impossible, because we can't really gauge the scale, to know exactly what we're seeing there, and what it is. We're working several sources on this as we determine what you're seeing.

But a reminder now. We told you just a little while ago that Arab networks and Israeli networks are reporting that a military aircraft, an F-16 has gone down in east Beirut. Of course, Israeli forces have been trying to take out the Hezbollah militants who have lobbed, as you just heard from Paula Hancocks a few moment ago, hundreds of rockets into Nahaniyah and to Haifa including some, as she reported just a few minutes ago.

As you well know, the Associated Press is also reporting that ground troops have entered southern Lebanon in the efforts to fight the Hezbollah militia on the ground there. That word coming from a government spokesman from Israel and reported by the Associated Press this morning. So obviously lots happening on the ground today in the Middle East as we continue to follow this crisis. Miles?

M. O'BRIEN: We just got word that CNN's Anderson Cooper is very near the location where this latest rocket firing occurred in Haifa. He joins us on the line right now. Anderson, what are you seeing?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST (on phone): Miles, the blast occurred probably about 10 minutes ago (inaudible) they're very much (inaudible) the missile or rocket, whatever it was, hit the top of a court building in the downtown Haifa area, very close to the port of Haifa, which is obviously a prime target for rockets. The official word right now on the scene is that there were no reports of fatalities, no reports of injuries, but we don't have official confirmation on that yet. But there are no ambulances here at the scene. We can see some shattered glass on this courthouse building, but it appears that the projectile landed on the roof of (inaudible) not on the street itself. There's just some broken glass on the street. As you know, the Israelis, I've had a lot of experience with these kind of scenes, they've cordoned off the area very quickly and are already investigate it and get the scene cleaned it up. There have been air raid sirens all morning, throughout the morning, starting in the dawn hours here in Haifa, but this is the loudest and most direct hit Haifa has taken today.

As you know that on Sunday there were some 20 rockets which landed in the Haifa area, some of them landing in the ocean, in the sea. The most deadly landing in a train depot yesterday, killing eight people, wounding more than 10 others. That is the grisly scene so far in Haifa. This is the third largest city here in Israel, the third most populous. It is largely empty in many ways, people spending the nights in bomb shelters or already having left the city, miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Anderson, you say this is perhaps the most devastating attack so far. Fortunately, no casualties to report just yet, but do you get the sense that the people who are launching these rockets are sort of learning with each time they fire and sort of homing in on their target?

I think we've lost Anderson there. Anderson Cooper in Haifa, where 10 minutes ago, as he put it, it was probably the most significant attack so far on Haifa. Nevertheless, there have been at least four deaths reported in Haifa, at least in northern Israel, in the wake of all these rockets firings from Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon. Back with more in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: At mission control in Houston, the experts there are really poring over their weather data very carefully right now. They have to make a decision in just a few minutes as to whether discovery will fire its breaking rockets, beginning its precipitous dissent from space to the Kennedy Space Center just about an hour after those rockets are fired. Take a look at the live pictures now from NASA television. There you see the scene there at the Kennedy Space Center, the shuttle landing facility. There it is.

Lots of clouds in the area. That not necessarily a no go situation, but we do have reports of so-called anvil clouds, about 25 miles from the shuttle landing facility. Anvil clouds are essentially sheared-off thunderheads. Space shuttle orbiters don't fly through those things, and I believe the flight rule is within 25 nautical miles within the landing facility. If there are anvil clouds you get a wave off and try again. The next opportunity would be around 10:50 a.m. Eastern Time. So it's going to be touch and go on the weather.

Joining us now is someone who knows an awful lot more about this than I do, former shuttle commander Eileen Collins, from us Houston. Eileen, you've been listening to them go through the weather. First of all, what's your sense? Do you think this might be a go or not?

EILEEN COLLINS, FORMER SHUTTLE COMMANDER: Well, I'm always positive about it, but as you know, last year we had two wave-offs trying to go into Kennedy Space Center and my mission landed in Edwards. So NASA -- which is in California. So NASA's going to be pretty conservative. We don't want the shuttle to go through any rain showers. The tiles are pretty fragile, the rain could hurt them. And also the possibility of generating lightning. So I know they'll be pretty conservative calling the weather this morning. And if it looks like it's even marginal, they'll wait.

Yes, they will. I know they will do that. And you know, people ask me all the time, Eileen. Here you have this vehicle that travels mach 25 and can withstand 23,000 degrees and it really can't fly through a rain shower. Explain why.

COLLINS: Well, it's really the speed that you're going at. Now, the rain drops really wouldn't hurt the tiles if you were sitting on the launch pad, but at the speed you're going at, the tiles, although heat-resistant, they're very, very fragile. If you took a pencil to the tiles, you could put a hole right through them, so you don't want to harm the shuttle. And the rain is not a safety issue to the astronauts, it's really of a maintenance issue to the shuttle.

M. OBRIEN: Yeah, it's just sort of like pressure washing those very, very fragile tiles. And they almost -- well, it's like a -- coating an airplane with your grandmother's fine china. It's fragile. Let's talk about what the crew is going trough now. They've told them to begin the fluid loading, where they drink kind of a salty kind of thing, right? Which helps you adapt to gravity after a couple of weeks without it, right?

COLLINS: Well, returning back to earth is very difficult on the human body. You've been floating in space, zero gravity, and your body hasn't been working all that hard. Now you come back to one unit of gravity and you're very, very heavy and you have a fluid shift onto your feet. And the way to prevent becoming lightheaded is to load up on salt water.

And you can do that by drinking chicken soup, you can drink a Gatorade type of fluid with salt added, or take salt tablets, and none of those is very tasty because of all the salt that's been added to it, but we do it because it helps us feel better, and the astronauts need to be able to be healthy enough to get up and escape from the orbiter in case there's some kind of emergency develops. You want to be able to be in your best health so you can stand up in I would say egress from the space shuttle as quickly as possible. So this is actually a safety thing we do.

O'BRIEN: So one of the key things is if there's a wave-off, you have all the fluids. One of the first things you want to do is get the water closet back in activity, right?

COLLINS: Well, if you wave off, you have to do it again the next time around.

O'BRIEN: So we'll wait and see. It's kind of touch-and-go. Let's bring in Chad Myers. Chad, you've been looking at radar down there. We have a report of an anvil cloud from the shuttle training aircraft, which is that Gulfstream business jet rigged up to fly like a shuttle. What are you seeing?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: If you noticed overnight, this is about a six hour old radar here. There was a big blowup of thunderstorm activity, kind of traveling south. Getting to Jacksonville, then dying. Well, we have still what we call the debris. Yes, it isn't raining anymore from that storm, but just the cloud debris is still with it. It's traveling down to the south. There is one little shower just to the north of Daytona. That's probably not big enough to worry about at this point because as you know the shuttle's going to be coming across and landing in this way. You showed that landing map, how you lose, you lose the altitude, you lose the speed. It comes down, goes across basically Cancun and then over Fort Myers and then into -- there it is, right there, that's the first opportunity. Obviously, the next opportunity will not take that exact path, because the shuttle will be in a different place in orbit at that time.

Miles, it looks like -- it's interesting on that map, it looks like the shuttle actually makes a little right-hand turn as it gets down past Cancun, but in fact, that's just because the jet is slowing down, the shuttle is slowing down and the earth continues to move on by it. So it looks like it's making a little right-hand turn, when in fact it's going straight.

M. O'BRIEN: Eileen Collins, take us into the mind of a commander right now. What are you thinking right now? A long mission in space, you've got one shot to land this billion-dollar glider. A little bit of pressure, huh?

COLLINS Well, the commander is always thinking ahead. First of all, you're making sure your crew's doing the right thing and you're in the right place in the checklist, but you're thinking of what's next. The de-orbit burn is next. If they decide to go for weather, and to attempt the first landing, that will be in about 15 minutes. So you want to get the orbit burned, you burn the engines for about three minutes, flip the shuttle back around, and now the commander is going to be thinking about landing. You've got about an hour to go until you get back to Florida, but that one hour goes very fast and you're thinking about the landing. You've got -- actually, the shuttle is irreplaceable now. It was $2 billion when it was built. You've got this $2 billion-plus machine, space craft in your hands and you want to make a good landing, especially since the world is watching.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes. You always want to end up on the center line, don't you, Eileen Collins?

COLLINS: At the center line and right at 2500 feet down the runway.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Eileen Collins. Keep us posted. Stay with us. I know you're listening to NASA in your other ear and the minute your hear anything . Let us know when you hear anything and we'll get you back on. Thank you very much. Hopefully, we'll see the shuttle by 9:14 a.m. Eastern Time, but it's got to be weather- permitting. Soledad?

S. O'BRIEN: Let's take you back to Israel now where we have a camera. Can we get a live shot and show what's going on? We're getting a look at Haifa, where we heard just minutes ago we heard sirens going off. No, it doesn't look like we can get the shot. Haifa of course is the target of rocket attacks by Hezbollah forces.

Some information to update you on before we head to a short break. We told you earlier about Arab TV reports that an Israeli military aircraft had gone down near Beirut in east Beirut especially. No confirmation from Lebanese officials at this point and now Israeli officials are saying there was no such thing.

We showed also some pictures of some falling debris out of the skies over Beirut. No word, though, or any confirmation, that any aircraft has been downed. And Lebanese security forces saying in fact they can't confirm that that debris was a plane and they suggested in fact it might have been a fuel tank. Those reports coming from Reuters and Associated Press. Also, we've been telling you about some of the ground troops that were inside of southern Lebanon. The Israeli army now saying that in fact those ground troops are out, that they have been pulled out of Lebanon, that there was a small incursion there, saying to destroy a couple of Hezbollah positions immediately on the other side of the border. That's been done, they say, this coming from Reuters. And now those ground troops, those Israeli ground troops, are now out of Lebanon.

We've got to take a short break, we're back in just a moment as we continue to monitor several stories on lots of fronts for you here on AMERICAN MORNING. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: Escalating violence in the Middle East. New attacks in Beirut now and fresh rocket attacks on northern Israel. Many westerners being evacuated from the danger zone.

S. O'BRIEN: Firefighters are closer to surrounding a devastating wildfire in southern California. The worst, though, could be yet to come.

And you want to crank up the A.C. It is just getting hotter out here and thermometers expecting to hit 100 degrees for some places cost to cost. Got a nice warm forecast for your straight ahead.

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