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Battle in Benghazi; Japan's Nuclear Crisis

Aired March 19, 2011 - 04:50   ET



RICHARD QUEST, CNN ANCHOR: This CNN breaking news. I'm Richard Quest in London.

There are now reports that shelling and bombardment of the Libyan town, city of Benghazi, has begun.

Arwa Damon is on the line and joins me to tell me what is happening.

We understand that having mass tanks on the outskirts of Benghazi overnight, that the shelling has now started. What are you seeing? What are you hearing?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, it would seem as if Gadhafi's forces have definitely begun their assault on the opposition stronghold of Benghazi, an assault that witnesses tell us began at the early hours of the morning here. They say that the fighting on the outskirts was fairly fierce.

At around 8:45, we saw a plane overhead appearing to be heading south. And at around 9:10, one of our team witnessed a jet, a fighter jet fall out of the sky in flames. We have since then spoken to an opposition fighter who has told that that was one of their own aircraft that they were sending out to try to stop -- bring a stop to Gadhafi's military assault on this very, very critical city. This is the heart of the opposition.

Since then, we have heard and seen artillery rounds. We also had a number of our team see Gadhafi's tanks moving into the southern part of the city, witnessing them firing inside the city as well. We have seen an attack helicopter flying low overhead. That we believe belongs to the opposition.

We have also seen a vessel around five kilometers off the coast moving north. We do not know if that is a Gadhafi vessel or one that the opposition has at their disposal.

This is very, very critical development here. This is the opposition's stronghold. This is a city they have vowed to protect.

Especially disturbing for the opposition is the fact this is taking place right now in clear violations of that United Nations resolution that they have been waiting for -- a resolution that was meant to put into place a no-fly zone that states a ceasefire needs to occur immediately -- a resolution that is intended to protect the civilian population.

And now, the civilian population of Benghazi is under attack and we have yet to see any sort of foreign intervention -- Richard.

QUEST: So, Arwa, let's just -- I just want to clarify one point that I think I might have misheard. The plane that we are now looking at that was brought down -- you're saying this is believed to have been an opposition aircraft, not one of Gadhafi's forces.

DAMON: Correct. And there's no way for us to be able to independently verify that. That is what fighters have told us on the ground. Gadhafi's military appeared to be reaching at the city.

They dispatched one of their fighter jets. They do have a handful at their disposal. They are very old fighter jets. They managed to put them off the ground. They've been deploying them sporadically over the past few days.

They deployed this one fighter jet to try to bring a stop to Gadhafi's military machine.

One must remember the opposition is not much more than young men who had ordinary jobs, normal civilian, who only learn how to fight in the last few weeks. The weapons that they have at their disposal are no match for Gadhafi's arsenal. These are weapons that they've managed to pick up from various arms depots at military bases that they do now control.

But the opposition now appears to be trying its best, trying everything it can against Gadhafi's military, everybody waiting and wondering where international help is at this stage.

QUEST: Arwa Damon, who is in Benghazi, in the outskirts of Benghazi -- many thanks.

And we will have more details on what is happening in Libya.

We'll also, of course, be considering the Paris meeting of the nations following the U.N. resolution.

And on a very busy Saturday, we will bring you up-to-date with the events taking place in Japan and what's happening at the Fukushima nuclear power station.

This is CNN -- around the world, around the clock.


QUEST: Good day to you. I'm Richard Quest at CNN in London. And this is CNN WORLD REPORT.

At this hour, we are focusing on two locations where there are major developments to report.

The first is in Japan, where engineers at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are trying to attach electric cables to restart water pumps to cool hot nuclear fuel. Japan says inspectors have found radiation in milk and spinach that exceeds national health standards.

The other major story we are following, of course, in Libya. CNN journalists saw a fighter jet fall out of the sky in flames on Saturday in the city of Benghazi. That's Libya's second largest city. It is the center of the opposition. They also report explosions and tank movements in the areas.

The most immediate events, of course, are happening right now in Libya, and they are moving fast in that rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

(INAUDIBLE) what do we know? And what do we not yet really fully appreciate of what's happening?

First, the explosions were heard around the time that that fighter jet was shot down. And our CNN team tells us in Benghazi they've seen tanks and artillery rounds in several locations in and around the city. These latest events come just seven or eight hours after the Libyan government told CNN it was observing U.N.-ordered ceasefire, which do not know if opposition or government forces -- you can see (ph) tanks or the downed plane.

Arwa Damon is our correspondent who is in Benghazi.

Arwa, we have much ground to cover. So, let's begin first of all with the current situation -- the bombardment or the shelling that is taking place. Is it still under way?

DAMON: As far as we are aware, Richard, yes, it is still under way. Gadhafi forces appear to have begun their assault on the southern portion of the city. We saw large plumes of dark smoke rising from that area. We heard a number of explosions. We saw appeared to be several artillery rounds landing well within the city, as the center of the city itself.

We saw a plane -- one member of our crew saw that fighter jet you mentioned there, pummeling down from the sky in flames. But opposition fighter later telling us that that was, in fact, one of their aircraft. No way for us to independently confirm that information. But he did say that that was an aircraft that the opposition dispatched to try to bring about a stop to Gadhafi's military machine -- that now appears to be well on its way in terms of the fight of it trying to take back over Benghazi from the opposition.

This despite the fact that the government is saying, the Libyan government is saying that there is no assault on Benghazi at all, that these facts on the ground do appear to tell us otherwise.

We also saw a Hind gunship flying low over the city. That we believe belongs to the opposition. There's a vessel from five kilometers off the coast. One opposition fighter is telling us that that vessel is firing on to the city as well. But, again, no way for us to independently confirm that information.

Of course, the question on everyone's mind here is where is this international help that the U.N. resolution was supposed to bring about? There's supposed to be a no-fly zone. There's supposed to be an immediate ceasefire.

In fact, the Libyan government itself announced it would be imposing an immediate ceasefire yesterday. And there's supposed to be international help physically to protect the civilian population. And now, we are clearly seeing the civilian population in Benghazi under attack, Richard.

QUEST: To be clear on this -- if this is an all-out assault, or a major assault at the very least, the overwhelming disparity of forces in Gadhafi's favor means the outcome is pretty certain.

DAMON: Exactly, Richard. The outcome is certain, as it has been certain all along. And that is exactly why the opposition was so desperate to see this U.N. resolution passed.

They are outgunned and they do not have the military expertise in their favor. They do not have the aircraft. They do not have the arsenal that Gadhafi has at his disposal.

The opposition has taken this fight as far as they can. And this, for them, is a fight for freedom and democracy. These are demonstrations that began peacefully, they keep telling us, and then it was Gadhafi's forces that turned their guns on them, forcing them, they say, to take up arms or be massacred.

Up until that U.N. resolution passed, people were telling us that they believed that a massacre at the hands of Gadhafi forces was imminent, simply because they do not have the force, the military force, to be able to stand up against him. There was much exhilaration after that resolution was passed.

But now, everyone is wondering, when is it going to be implemented? We were talking to a number of members of the opposition overnight yesterday, who were wondering what it was that the international community was waiting for. They were asking if the international community was waiting for Gadhafi forces to arrive at Benghazi's doorstep.

And now, it appears that Gadhafi forces are, in fact, here, and yet we have seen no sign of international assistance at all. There is absolutely no telling how long the opposition is going to be able to hold off, fend off Gadhafi's forces if that international help does not come soon.

QUEST: Arwa Damon, who is in Benghazi -- and, Arwa, of course, we will be back with you the moment that you tell us there is more to report. So, come back as soon as there is, please.

The Libyan capital is Tripoli, and that is where we have our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson.

Nic, we have much ground to cover, too. So let us begin. In the last hour or two, the deputy foreign minister of Libya has said that the ceasefire is happening, there's no -- there's no attacks. They've grounded the aircraft. And yet, Arwa Damon there, you heard Arwa reporting what's happening in Benghazi.

Can you square that circle for us?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Richard, that's a circle we keep asking the Libyan government here if they can square for us, because it's very difficult from our vantage point, as well, to make sense of the contradictory reports that we're hearing.

The Libyan government, for its part puts it this way. They say that there is incorrect reports coming, that there are fabricated reports coming from, for example, Misratah, the town about 100 or so miles to the east of here, where they were claims by the opposition that the city was under attack, claims we can't substantiate because the government won't allow us to go there to witness it for ourselves.

So, the government on the one hand says that a lot of what we're being told is not true, that these are fabricated reports. They say that they're observing the ceasefire. They say that the rebels are not.

In fact, we worked late last night, late overnight by the deputy foreign minister to be told that the government had an example they said where they knew for a fact that the rebels, in fact, were using their weapons and attacking small town outside of Benghazi. Again, no way for us to substantiate that, we don't have access there.

But what the government is doing, and this sort of goes to the heart of the government plan to square this round hole, if you will, they say, and again, we were -- we were told this last night, that the government is appealing, again, for international monitors to come here, and specifically they're asking for those monitors to come from China, Turkey, Malta, and Germany. And when we asked why from those countries, they say because they believe those countries are most favorable to us. Of course, it would be noted that China and Germany abstained from U.N. -- vote on the U.N. resolution.

So, the government here feels that those countries would be favorable, and it says they should get here immediately because they can then go to the front lines and have free, unfettered access unlike the journalists who we're told are not able to provide reliable reporting, Richard.

QUEST: Nic, just pause one second. We have video -- new video in from the "Reuters" news agency, which I need to bring to your attention. It is the video of the plane that we've been talking about this morning.


QUEST: That's the video of the aircraft, and we also do see there, the ejection, I believe, of one of the pilots. But we don't know any more details than that.

And Nic Robertson still with me, one trusts.

Nic, the dynamics of what Gadhafi's now trying to do, trying to gain any tactical advantage in the short time, perhaps, before the international community does actually respond. How concerned are they in Tripoli that the international community gets its act together and does something sooner rather than later?

ROBERTSON: They're very concerned. They're very concerned, indeed, for a number of reasons, for the tactical advantage on the ground. They've been concerned since the beginning and it appeared to be one of the reasons why they actually launched the offensive as quickly as they launched this offensive a couple of weeks ago.

I was told that the government couldn't afford to wait and se what the international community was doing. It wanted to recapture this territory from the rebels. The government has laid out their battle plans this way.

They've said that they will reunite the country, that they can defeat the rebels, that this is an armed opposition that they have every right as a sovereign government to put down -- an armed insurrection, as they see it, inside their country. They say it's incited by foreign fighters, incited by al Qaeda, and they feel that they have every right to do it. Their position, of course, and what they're also saying on top of that is this is a conspiracy by the international community to divide the country, and re-enter it as part of -- as sort of a colonial move, if you will, a throwback to the days before Moammar Gadhafi.

And Moammar Gadhafi is using this to try and build support. And he -- if there were any international air strikes here, or whatever action is taken, he will use that to try and build support for him, say this is an attack on the sovereignty of the country, and people here tell us, well, the tribes will come out in support of us and there will be a bloodbath because if there's tribal fighting, this will pitch people against each other, bloodlines will be broken, or rather, you know, blood feuds will be begun, this will escalate the fighting.

So, the government is going to use whatever happens to try to put it to their advantage. The one thing that the government here, and the officials we talked to, don't seem to understand about the international community's position is that it is dead set against Moammar Gadhafi himself, and the government. And that is -- that is a fixed position for them. That is something that's not going to change. They don't understand why the international community is going against them in this way. And that's what we hear all the time.

So I can -- one can see, as the international community does organize itself to follow through on the resolution, that events are going to become much darker on the ground here, much more confused, as confusing as the reporting appears to be at this stage. I think we can anticipate that there's going to be more claims and counterclaims that are difficult to put into perspective and square the round hole, if you will, Richard.

QUEST: Nic Robertson, who is in Tripoli. And as I said to Arwa a moment ago -- Nic, the moment you have more from where you are, please come back and we will speak to you immediately.

Now, world leaders meeting in Paris, where they are trying to work through the difficult task of coordinating efforts to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, and also, to try and put, if you like, flesh on the bones of U.N. resolution 1973, which authorized the use of force in the protection of civilian people in Libya.

Joining me to talk about the political and military difficulties, Shashank Joshi, the associate fellow at the U.K.'s Royal United Services Institute, the RUSI.

Good morning to you.


QUEST: We have much ground to cover. Let us begin -- with the developments in the last few moments. You have just been listening, Arwa Damon says that the attack appears -- the Gadhafi attack appears to have now begun against Benghazi.

JOSHI: The ceasefire was a very canny move by Gadhafi because it put the ball straight back in the court of the international community. And in Paris, there were certain divisions between say, France and Britain and the Gulf states who may have been more cautious. Now, he has given them the perfect pretext to degrade his forces.

QUEST: But did anybody believe the ceasefire? Bearing in mind, no matter what the deputy foreign minister may say, almost as soon as he said it, we were hearing that it simply didn't exist.

JOSHI: No. He may have made some notional moves towards paying some lip service to the ceasefire. But no, I think it's perfectly reasonable to assume he was intending to break it straightaway.

QUEST: So, what's happening in Paris? What are they there for? What's the purpose of Paris today?

JOSHI: It's a couple of things. First of all, what's the design end state? Does Gadhafi have to go or can he be pushed back to Tripoli?

Second, when does military action begin and how expansive is it? Can those tanks on the edge of Benghazi be bombed as early as today or tomorrow?

QUEST: OK. But if, if they're talking about does Gadhafi go, what will they do? If he's already in Benghazi and he does have overwhelming force compared to them, correct?

JOSHI: Correct, yes.

QUEST: So, it could all be moot if they don't get a move on.

JOSHI: It could. Although bear in mind, he's not been at the gates of Benghazi as we've been suggesting. There's a propaganda battle on both sides. So, we're seeing some misleading information over the past week.

At the same time, let's remember how difficult it was for Benghazi to penetrate into Zawiya into the west. Urban fighting is hard. There's a defensive advantage even with the inferiority in forces. So, there is still time.

QUEST: So, unless he sort of basically, to put it crudely, carpet bombs.

JOSHI: Well, he may well do that. He's just certainly indiscriminately shelled urban areas. But even so, it still takes time and he will come up against grave resistance. And in that time --

QUEST: You say grave resistance. Where's this resistance? Where's the arms coming from this resistance? We saw one picture there, and we can see it again, of the plane being downed, Arwa Damon tells us is actually from the rebels, or from the opposition.

JOSHI: A rebel plane, yes.

QUEST: Where does it come from?

JOSHI: Well, let's remember, there have been large-scale defections early on. Now, admittedly, they were units defecting that Gadhafi always thought would defect and therefore they were weakened. But the rebels did get some tanks, some aircraft, and certainly small arms.

Now they are lacking in all of those in numbers but they certainly have some. There's also every indication they're being supplied by Egypt. Egypt formally abstained from the resolution and said no intervention. But it will be subtly intervening at a different level.

QUEST: In Paris, talk me through the politics of Paris, if you like. We have Condoleezza Rice -- not, Condoleezza Rice -- Hillary Clinton, forgive me, a Freudian slip. We're harking back to 2003.

JOSHI: 2003, yes.

QUEST: And we have Hillary Clinton arriving, secretary of state, from the United States.


QUEST: We have the U.K. We have the French.

JOSHI: Well, the political development here is the United States wishes to see a European face on this, and a Gulf or Arab hand. Pushing that all together is going to be tough. Because let's remember --

QUEST: You say that. But they have got the two leaders there that are most likely to be able to do it, France and the U.K.

JOSHI: They have. But can you persuade the UAE and Qatar to play more than a notional, superficial role in all of this? Western and Arab militaries haven't fought together since 1991, 20 years. So, it's very difficult military terms, but also diplomatic terms, to get the Arab states on board with, say ground strikes early on.

QUEST: Do they need more than a fig leaf from the Arab states? JOSHI: I think they do. If this gets into a prolonged campaign, like Kosovo, weeks and weeks and weeks, you don't want the anger, the frustration directed straight at the Americans and the British and the French.

QUEST: Tell me, why France? France has -- the meeting is in Paris. France has led the way. France has been amongst the most bellicose.

JOSHI: Well, the charitable approach is Sarkozy's humanitarian impulse.

QUEST: You don't believe that.

JOSHI: No, I think there's certainly an element to that, there and Britain for Cameron as well.

QUEST: Right.

JOSHI: But there's a more cynical interpretation. There are, of course, French elections coming up. And also, they have been burned heavily by their action in Tunisia, where their foreign minister offered support to President Ben Ali and subsequently resigned. So, we've seen element of repentance and remorse, I think, driving some French policy here.

QUEST: OK, before we finish here, just briefly, what do you expect, then, from Paris today?

JOSHI: I think they will be pushing their allies, pulling in the United States from one side, pulling in Qatar and UAE from the other side and saying, let's hit these ground targets early on before he can play us for many more days.

QUEST: Shashank, many thanks. We'll talk to you again. Many thanks.

Now, there is new unrest in the Arab world. It goes beyond Libya. The U.N. and the U.S. are condemning the use of force against protesters in Syria. Witnesses report rioting in five cities, including the capital Damascus, after anti-government activists proclaimed Friday dignity day on Facebook and called for demonstrations. There are unconfirmed reports of deaths and injuries.

In Yemen, a state of emergency amid deadly clashes. Medical officials said at least 40 people were killed when tens of thousands of anti- government protesters clashed with security forces in the capital. State television showed the chaos. And there are reports, one that 100 people hurt, interior minister says there are casualties on both sides.

Egyptians are heading to the polls right now for their first fully free election in decades. They'll vote on the constitutional amendments that are supposed to assist the military in the transition to democratic rule after President Hosni Mubarak. Thousands gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday. Many said the amendments don't go far enough. CNN's WORLD REPORT -- I'm Richard Quest in London. And in just a moment, we'll be live. We're going to Japan, where we'll hear the latest on the attempts to avoid a nuclear crisis to get even worse.

We'll be back in a moment.


QUEST: The death toll is now almost 7,200. Japanese police on Saturday have raised the number of people who have been killed from the March 11th earthquake and the tsunami. The police now say 7,197 people are confirmed dead. But that really doesn't tell the full story, because almost 11,000 more are reported missing.

Japan also says inspectors have detected abnormal radiation levels in milk and spinach in northeastern Japan. At the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, Japan raised the nuclear threat level to five on a scale of seven.

Engineers are trying to reconnect electricity to water pumps that cool the fuel. They've also brought in an automated super water pumper, and they're using it continuously to pump water for up to seven hours on volatile nuclear fuel rods. The strategy is to try to keep spraying water until they can get electricity flowing to restart the reactor's own pumps. Engineers say they hope to have electricity flowing to some reactors by the end of Saturday, and the rest by Sunday evening.

Anna is following developments. She joins us now at CNN Tokyo.

Anna, we begin on this one with the reactor itself. So, we have this continuous pumping system now under way, which is -- which is, of course, they're still trying to establish full-time power. Have I -- have I understood that correctly?

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that is exactly right, Richard. Although we have heard from the government this afternoon that they have managed to stabilize reactors one, two, and three, as far as water levels go, which is -- which is quite a surprise. But then, an official later came out and said yes, well water levels are stable, this is a very unpredictable situation.

Their priority has been reactor three. That is where they've been focusing their attention, pumping all that water, using water tanks and water cannons. And this afternoon they began an operation in which they are using, as you mentioned, that super pumper. They are sucking water from the ocean, directly and continuously spraying that through a tanker which has an extendable arm some 22 meters high directly into reactor three. And it's hoped that that will continue to cool the situation until they can get those power lines connected, which is what they've been working towards doing.

You know, they need those external water sources, like those water cannons, like that super pump, to keep those reactors cool, Richard.

QUEST: This is all in relation to the actual fuel rods, the spent fuel rods. Is there still an issue -- and I do understand, Anna, you're not sort of a nuclear specialist, so feel free to throw this one back at me -- but is there any issue with the reactors themselves, and the containment in terms of the ongoing structures?

COREN: No, I'm not a nuclear scientist, Richard. But I can tell you that they raised the alert level for Japan because of damage to the core structures, to two of those reactors. So, that is what we know.

As far as radioactive material, we know that the workers at the site can only be there for a limited amount of time. So there are some 300 workers. They are working in shifts to limit their exposure to radiation. And the super pumper that we mentioned just beforehand, that will be operating for some seven hours unmanned. So, therefore, they won't have any issues with staff being exposed to radiation.

So, of course, it is an ongoing concern. And I think you mentioned earlier in your intro that radiation levels are above normal, and there's been detected in certain food items such as spinach and milk. As far as the milk goes, that source was some 30 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Now, before people become alarmed, it is worth noting that you'd have to drink a year's worth of this milk for it to be the equivalent of having a CT scan.

So, people are aware. People are concerned. But until more information comes from the government, and they are working at this, they say that, you know, these reports are only preliminary. They're going to launch a thorough investigation.

You know, we can't really jump to any conclusions, Richard.

QUEST: And, the -- away from the nuclear reactor, the rest of, if you like, Sendai and the cleanup operation, the relief operation, and there are -- there are these two, if you like, completely opposite but at the same time interlinked stories, aren't they? There are still hundreds of thousands, millions of people without power, and who are still dealing with the earthquake and the tsunami's aftereffects.

COREN: Yes, that's exactly right. This is quite sad, because this nuclear issue is sort of overshadowing what is happening to the northeast, you know, in the country.

As you mentioned, some 380,000 people are homeless. You know, these are the people whose homes have been completely wiped out by the tsunami. That 10 meter wave that just roared through and completely annihilated, you know, these towns, these villages, these suburbs.

So, a massive relief operation is underway. We understand that there are some 100,000 Japanese military personnel involved in this relief operation. We had a Red Cross official come in to the bureau a little while ago and he was talking about this experience. They have done a number of food drops, and also of medical supplies -- you know there's basic necessities. They're in desperate need of food, water, clothing. These people left with just the clothes on their backs. So, they're in desperate need of basic, you know, necessities. But he said he went to hell and back and, you know, he's a fortunate one. But what he witnessed was just horrific.

So, we cannot forget that this is unfolding -- as you say, more than 10,000 people are still missing. The death toll is well over 7,000. But officials say, Richard, that that could well and truly rise.

QUEST: Anna Coren, who is in Tokyo this evening for us.

Now, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency says Japan is doing the right thing in deciding how much area around the plant needs to be evacuated. The 20-kilometer radius, he says, the zone has been ordered by Tokyo corresponds to IAEA standards for that level of a nuclear crisis. It's now a level three. Amano also made it clear Japan is not dealing with another Chernobyl.


YUKIYA AMANO, IAEA CHIEF: At certain moment, at certain sites, the nuclear radioactivity was dangerous, harmful for human health. The other cities, like in Tokyo, it is not the case.


QUEST: When we return in just a moment, we will continue our coverage, whether it's Japan or with Libya. We'll be back in a moment.