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Fighting on Israeli-Lebanese Continues; Evacuating Lebanon

Aired July 19, 2006 - 09:31   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you. Wednesday, July 19th. You're watching a special edition of AMERICAN MORNING.
I'm Miles O'Brien in New York.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Soledad O'Brien. We're reporting live this morning from the Port of Larnaca in Cyprus.

And, Miles, we're getting some new information. I want to update you on the Canadian evacuation. It looks as if seven vessels have now been hired out by Canada. Their evacuation will start tomorrow. The combined capacity of those seven vessel, 2,000 people. The Canadians will taken here to Cyprus and also to Turkey. That's the latest we are hearing.

In the meanwhile, the fighting on the Israeli-Lebanese border is going on without stopping.

Christiane Amanpour is there for us this morning. Let's check in with her.

Christiane, good morning. What's happening where you are?


We have been all morning at the border area between northern Israel and Southern Lebanon, near the town of Avivim. Actually we were right there, and witnessed for several hours a fierce back and forth between Israeli forces and the Hezbollah on the other side. It was really Israeli tank fire and heavy artillery arrayed what appeared to us, and what we got concern from the Israelis, mortar and Katyusha rocket fire from the Hezbollah. We saw one Israeli tank put out of commission and being dragged back.

We are not allowed, because of censorship rules to talk about fatalities. We have been told that there are injuries, however, but we can't at this moment go into huge amounts of detail on that.

This was, according to the Israeli military, an attempt by Israeli forces to take out specific Hezbollah outposts on that border region, and it certainly has developed into a fierce firefight. And not only that, on the hills around, as we drove up and down, we could see that Hezbollah rockets are still making their mark. There was a barrage of rockets over several hours that hit many parts of that area of northern Israel. We saw some towns. We saw empty, desolate places on the Hill, and we just saw many, many plumes of smoke and flames. We saw an aerial fire plane drop sort of a red powder, trying to put out some of the flames that had started because of the rocket fire in one or two of those villages. So it is still very active up in this region here -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Christiane Amanpour watching what's happening on the Israeli/Lebanese border for us. Thanks, Christiane.

Let's get back to Miles in New York -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you very much, Soledad.

Soledad, another shipload of relieved and weary Americans now steaming their way to you from Beirut. The Americans onboard that vessel will not have to pay for their own passage, as was the case yesterday. It was a big reversal, coming right at the top of the administration. Came after an awful lot of criticism in Washington and elsewhere over the plan to charge people to leave Beirut and make their way to Cyprus.

New Hampshire Senator John Sununu, who happens to be of Lebanese descent, was right at the center of the criticism in this case, calling for the government to waive that payback fee, and waive the payback rules, joins us from Capitol Hill.

Senator Sununu, good to have you with us.


M. O'BRIEN: Well, first of all, you've got to be pleased that they reversed course.


M. O'BRIEN: It kind of -- well, it says a little something about, I don't know, some might suggest it's a bit callous, or at the very least a bit of a tin ear to charge people who are under such duress to get home safely.

SUNUNU: Well, in fairness to the administration, so many times we have here in Washington, part of the problem was the way Congress wrote the law. In 2003, we passed a law that did call for reimbursement. I think that was intended to address cases where Americans were going places where they knew they absolutely shouldn't be, putting themselves in harm's way.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, to be fair here, Lebanon is on the State Department list of places that Americans are advised not to travel to.

SUNUNU: Well, there is a travel advisory, that is true, but there are travel advisories for a lot countries around the world. And in the case of Lebanon, we have a relatively stable, strong and strengthening democracy. It's a place where there are tens of thousands of Americans that have family members there, that have traveled back and forth over the last several years to visit family for business. So I think it was known to be a place where Americans were visiting and there on a regular basis. I think it's also fair to say that our own State Department, our own intelligence services, didn't have any real indication that there would be attacks on public buildings, on public infrastructure in Beirut. That does makes this a little bit different and a little bit more unusual.

M. O'BRIEN: You know, what we're hearing from everybody, just about everybody, that comes off that ship, is not a very pretty picture. And one of the people we talked to earlier today equated it to a Katrina-type scenario. Is there some endemic problem in the U.S. government that it can't handle a decent, a large-scale evacuation?

SUNUNU: Well, this is an extraordinary evacuation. This is a case where every route out of the country has been destroyed, routes into Syria. Certainly the routes south into Israel aren't usable. The airport has been rendered completely inoperable, and even the port has been attacked. The blockade has been set around the country by the Israelis. That makes this evacuation extraordinarily difficult.

The safety of these individuals comes first. Jeff Feltman, the ambassador, has done an extraordinary job in dealing with the safety issues. They're bringing people out by helicopter from the embassy. The ships, I'm sure you covered today. It's been and will continue to be done very safely. I think they'll have more than a thousand people evacuated today, and they expect to go up to 8,000.

So I think from a technical perspective, given the current situation in Beirut, the evacuation's been handled pretty well. As you point out, we had a meeting with Assistant Secretary Welch yesterday. I spoke to Secretary Rice last night, explained to them that it was not practical to try to collect this reimbursement from the thousands of people that ultimately will be evacuated, and they agreed, and I give them credit for that.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. So all's well that ends well I guess on that. Let's move on here, turn the corner.

Front page of "The Washington Post" today, a piece your quoted in, as a matter of fact, the headline is "Conservative Anger Grows Over Bush's Foreign Policy." And they quote a very influential conservative foreign policy thinker, from the American Enterprise Institute, which is a very conservative thinktank in Washington. This is a big deal inside the beltway. Her name is Danielle Pletka. She says this, "I don't have a friend in the administration on Capitol Hill or any part of the conservative foreign policy establishment who is not beside themselves with fury at the administration." They're talking about the situation in Iraq, of course, North Korea, Iran. They're upset, of course, with Russia as well, with the crackdown and decensures there, crackdowns and decensures in Egypt.

What do you -- what's your take on that? Is there this groundswell of criticism from the right wing of the GOP party aimed at the Bush White House?

SUNUNU: Well, I don't know what you mean by right wing or conservative foreign policy, and I'm not quite sure what the point is you're making. Amy I concerned about Russian and crackdown on decensures? Absolutely.

M. O'BRIEN: Would you, sir -- do you think that -- is the Bush foreign policy a disaster at this point?

SUNUNU: No, I don't think that's a fair criticism at all. I think it's important it look at each of these issues as being different foreign policy challenges. The problems with respect to North Korea are dramatically different than those that we're dealing with in the Middle East, where there's a 30, and a 40 and a 50-year history of conflict.

I think the administration's approach to North Korea has been the right one, to force multiparty engagement, to force China and Japan and require them to come to the table with us, to be part of a negotiated solution to ensure a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. That's one issue that I think the administration has handled well.

I think some criticism for not pressing the issue with regard to Democratic dissent in Russia, I think that's fair. Although, you know, it's a difficult situation, given Russia's place in the world. I think we've got a much better job of encouraging Democratic reform in former Soviet republics, building relations with the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, that are new, but very strong Democratic movements.

And look, in the Middle East, I'm not happy with the destruction of public infrastructure. I'm not happy with the fact that some of these attacks may destabilize the incipient democracy -- not incipient, but the newly formed government in Lebanon. The Senora (ph) government needs to come out of this stronger than they were before. And I -- Ray LaHood, Nick Rahall, who met with Assistant Secretary Welch yesterday, spoke about those viewpoints.

But you know, to talk about some monolithic, conservative foreign policy establishment having broad criticism on the administration I don't think advances the debate very far at all.

M. O'BRIEN: New Hampshire Senator John Sununu, thanks for your time.

SUNUNU: Great to be with you.



M. O'BRIEN: In a moment, we will go back out to Soledad, who is live in Cyprus. And we'll tell you about the fighting in the Middle East through the eyes of those in the crossfire, as well. Some startling pictures you'll want to see, just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


M. O'BRIEN: Our coverage of the crisis in the Middle East continues. Soledad is in Cyprus at the Port of Larnaca, where she's been talking with Americans and others who have evacuated from Lebanon, many of them scared and stressed out, quite received to get to Cyprus.

We know now that a ship filled with about 1,000 Americans just left Beirut, should be there six or seven hours from now. Soledad, it's interesting to me, when I saw some of those people you were talking with today, and they all sort of told the same story. They talked about, you know, all the confusion and so forth. And the flip side of that is, you know, in a conflict like this, it's very difficult to stage an organized event instantly for so many people.

What's your sense of it? Are people angry at the government? Or do they sort of understand that it's difficult to help them out in a situation like this?

S. O'BRIEN: I think honestly, a little of both. I think that everyone will tell you that, clearly, this is a crisis situation, and so everybody's doing their best. And people will consistently remind you how grateful they are for all the help they're getting. At the same time -- and it's got to be very hard to have someone register you by email and then you're supposed to sit around and wait to get word when you're going it leave when bombs are falling around you.

So I think it's a combination of both things. And I think the American evacuation is slower than other nations. I mean we are -- our nation moves slower, frankly. The first Americans brought out by boat were brought out by Norwegians, and that is not sitting well with a lot of people. On the other hand, it looks like if they can really do a massive operation, start bringing some of those folks out, they might be able to catch up pretty quickly.

M. O'BRIEN: You know, it was interesting when you talked to the student, and -- you know, because I was thinking the same thing. I didn't know if it was a good analogy. But she was the one who said, well, you know, in the wake of Katrina, I didn't expect our government to be very good at doing evacuations. Not fair to equate this with Katrina, but having said that, we do have a lot of forces, huge flotilla all around the world, and I can see why she might think that.

S. O'BRIEN: Then we have a lot of issues. I mean, when you hear the State Department warning Americans should not be driving on the roads to Damascus, it's not just because the roads to Damascus are being bombed, it's also because of the U.S. relationship with Syria. Other nations have been bringing some of their people out through Syria. The U.S. not doing that.

So I think it's a lot of issues. She honestly is the first person here who I've spoken to who's compared the situation to Hurricane Katrina. A lot of Americans actually assumed their embassy would do a better job, frankly. Didn't think that a matter of well, what can you expect? You saw what they did in Katrina -- at all. She was the very first and only person who's given that analogy, to be perfectly frank.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, and then, on top of that, to have that report that they'd have to pay. Finally, though, security. Do you have the sense that this passage and these passages, which I had -- every measure is being taken to make sure everybody gets out of there safely?

S. O'BRIEN: Hard to say. It's really hard to say. Although they -- most seem to be escorted by some kind of gunship or something so that, you know, in that sense, yes. We haven't heard any reports of any problems along the way, outside of delays, and who knows exactly what's causing those delays.

Back to the paying -- Ashley (ph), who we spoke to earlier today, said when they brought her the documents about a loan where she'd have to pay back if she was going to be taken out of the country, et cetera, et cetera -- she said, oh, by then she was just going to get out. She would have signed anything, you know, any document whatsoever.

M. O'BRIEN: Sure, sign your life away, right?

S. O'BRIEN: Exactly. She's like, are they take me out of Beirut? Fine. Where do I sign? She didn't really seem to care.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Soledad, good job and keep up the good work there. And we will see you back there tomorrow.

CNN LIVE TODAY is coming up next. Daryn, what have you got going this morning?

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you, Miles. We are all over the region with Beirut in the bull's eye or some people saying perhaps off target.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are now the most dangerous place, in the most dangerous moment.


KAGAN: We'll have an exclusive tour of bombing damage with a member of Hezbollah, plus the latest developments on the fighting.

And, you know, with everything going on in the world, we're going to take a moment to have a lighter note. A 95-year-old taking a walk, not once, but twice. Buck O'Neill (ph) not just staying active, he is making history.

Join us at the top of the hour. We'll keep you fully informed on all the developments, but also we'll give you a moment to just kind of breathe and take a break from it all as well -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: It almost looks like they were throwing the 95-year- old a little chin (ph) music there, and that doesn't seem fair, does it?

KAGAN: He could take it. Everything he's been through. Like, what else you got?

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, all right. Well, we look forward to that. Thank you, Daryn.

Coming up, the Middle East crisis online. We'll show you that chilling video we've been telling you about of an Israeli teenager literally running for his life -- listen to the sirens , just haunting -- as the rockets are falling.

Stay with us. Daniel Sieberg has that.


M. O'BRIEN: Some of the most powerful and compelling images of the crisis in the Middle East starting to surface on the Internet. Technology correspondent Daniel Sieberg live from CNN Center.

And it's almost like a whole virtual network out there, isn't it?

DANIEL SIEBERG, CNN TECHNOLOGY CORRESPONDENT: It really is, and it's very organic, constantly being updated. And you know, these cyber-storytellers are increasingly using video on sites like YouTube to tell their story.

We do need to preface everything by saying we can't verify the authenticity of any of the video or the blogs we're going to talk about.

But let's start with the video from a site called YouTube, where can you post your video and share it with anybody online. This first, according to the profile page where it's been posted, is from a 14- year-old. He gives you an idea what it's like to run outside to his shelter, to his bunker.

Now I'll let it play for just a few seconds, and you can see what this is like. So you can obviously hear the air-raid sirens in the background. This is from somewhere in Israel.

He says, look what we have to go to just to get out to our shelter. So some pretty amazing video there.

The next one we're going to go to. This is also on the YouTube page, this from a 25-year-old. This is a rooftop view in Haifa. And again, there are some air-raid sirens in the background, and you can see that this is a slightly different video than what we just saw. The quality not quite as good. And partly because the person who posted it said they used a cell phone camera. And these are everywhere these days. It speaks to how this video is everywhere and able to get up onto the Web sites so quickly.

The next one we're going to show you -- you have to catch this very quickly. In the lower-right part of the screen on the video, this is a night sky you're going to see. There's an explosion in the right corner. You can just see it there. And I'll pause for just a second, and you'll hear the shockwave of this explosion. This apparently in a southern suburb of Beirut. This was posted a short time ago. These Web sites in terms of the video, they're getting in the hundreds of hits, not necessarily the thousands. But the interest is certainly there -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Daniel Sieberg, thank you very much. I have to cut it short unfortunately.

Let's to get to Soledad in Larnaca.

Tell you what, let's get to Barbara Starr, who is on top of the amphibious transport, the USS Nashville, also in Larnaca.

Barbara, this vessel is about to make its way in the help in the evacuation effort. Tell us about it.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Miles, we are onboard the USS Nashville. We are in Cyprus. Marines onboard this ship have just completed their final series of preparation exercises. They hope to get underway shortly, and they will sail to Beirut, where the anticipation is they will pick up several hundred Americans in Beirut and bring them back here to Cyprus so they can make their way home.

This is a very emotional mission, Miles, for the Marines, the 400 Marines onboard this ship, as well as the Navy crew.

Let me just tell you a couple of details. The USS Nashville was in Beirut 24 years ago and participated in an evacuation of Americans and other civilians from Beirut during the civil war. They will return to Beirut tomorrow when the final orders do finally come to them.

Some of the Marines onboard, they are very emotional about returning to Beirut, because of course it was 23 years ago when 240 marines lost their lives in the bombing attack at Beirut International Airport.

Now they will return to Beirut tomorrow, and they will help rescue Americans. That will be their mission when they go, help rescue Americans from the violence there.

There will be, make no mistake, a series of extraordinary security measures for the Marines when they go to Beirut. We have been asked not to be specific about those measures, but at the moment, they are anticipating a very safe, secure mission, they tell us -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Let's hope they're right. Barbara Starr, onboard the USS Nashville, currently in Larnaca, soon to make its way toward Lebanon. She'll be with them every step of the way there.

Coming up at the top of the hour, a Lebanese baby boy with a bright future in America, if he and his adoptive mom can just make it out of the war zone.

Also, a former star from the old black leagues makes a comeback of sorts, walking right into history. More AMERICAN MORNING, right after this.


M. O'BRIEN: That's all the time we have for this special edition of AMERICAN MORNING.

On behalf of Soledad O'Brien, who is in Larnaca, Cyprus, I'm Miles O'Brien. Thanks for being with us.

Daryn Kagan at CNN Center to take you through the next couple of hours, CNN LIVE TODAY.


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