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A Matter of Momentum; Obama on Libya; Crackdown in Syria

Aired March 28, 2011 - 23:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama says he's doing the right thing about Libya, and tries to explain why tonight. As he does, there's a crucial battle under way in the desert outside Moammar Gadhafi's hometown for Libya's future.

It's happening right now outside Sirte, where Gadhafi was born and where opposition forces hope to inflict a major blow against his regime.

The fighters you see had hoped to be inside the town of Sirte by now. But they were driven back allegedly by armed civilians in a nearby town. For the moment, at least, their westward momentum seems to have stopped.

We will talk to our correspondent who is with the opposition right now.

President Obama tried to justify his handling of the U.S. involvement in Libya tonight and explain why the U.S. intervened, military, as Gadhafi was closing in on Benghazi a little bit more than a week ago.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: At this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence, an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gadhafi's forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and, more profoundly, our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are.


COOPER: We will have a lot more on what the president said in just a moment.

We will also look tonight at an incredibly disturbing incident that happened in a Tripoli hotel full of journalists, as a woman tried to tell reporters of her alleged gang rape at the hand of Gadhafi troops. This woman was dragged away by Gadhafi officials. We have updates about what's happened since.

We will talk to Nic Robertson in Tripoli and David Kirkpatrick of "The New York Times" about it.

The Gadhafi regime has told multiple conflicting stories about that woman, not surprising. Of course, they have a record of telling lies. You can recall they first denied that opposition even existed to Gadhafi. And then they blamed it on al Qaeda and hallucinogenic drugs. Now they're claiming massive civilian deaths from airstrikes, something the U.S. flat-out denies.


ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The truth of the matter is we have trouble coming up with proof of any civilian casualties that we have been responsible for. But we do have a lot of intelligence reporting about Gadhafi taking the bodies of people he's killed and putting them at the sites where we've attacked. We have been extremely careful in this military effort.


COOPER: Of course is it not our job to just take the U.S. defense secretary at his word.

But keeping Gadhafi's government honest, we have found that whenever the Libyans take correspondents out claiming to show civilian casualties, they never seem to find them. They tried it last week, but all our camera crew ever saw at this bombed-out military warehouse was bombed-out military equipment.

And at a staged funeral, Nic Robertson discovered he couldn't find any grieving family members, and the coffins were not necessarily what they seemed.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): It was an occasion full of surprising moments.

(on camera): This is by far one of the biggest mass burials that we have seen. But when one of the coffins here was opened that we saw, it was empty and quickly whisked away.


COOPER: An empty coffin and empty rhetoric from the Gadhafi regime. You would never know it by watching Libyan state TV, however. This is what they were airing today, pro-Gadhafi crowds mobbing the vehicles said to be carrying Colonel Gadhafi, though he never actually made an appearance.

It was another bizarre scene orchestrated by a regime who now finds the opposition forces closer than ever before.


COOPER (voice-over): Opposition forces have grabbed the momentum. Saturday, they wrested control of Ajdabiya from government forces, after a battle that raged for the last week. The charred remains of a government tank a stark reminder that without coalition airstrikes, this advance west would not be possible.

In Tripoli on Saturday, a bizarre scene at a hotel filled with international journalists. This woman, Eman al-Obeidi, burst in screaming she had been beaten and gang-raped by Gadhafi's forces. "Look what Gadhafi brigade did to me," she cries. "My honor was violated by them."

Libyan officials initially claimed she was a mentally ill prostitute. Her family maintains she's a lawyer. Government minders snatched her away; at one point, they even threw a bag over her head. As she was dragged to a waiting car, she warned, "If you don't see me tomorrow, then that's it."

Despite massive attention to her plight and the government claims of her release, her family says she remains locked in a government compound, and no journalist has seen or heard from her since.

By Sunday, opposition forces continued their push west, taking Ras Lanuf and the oil-rich town of El Brega without heavy resistance. New video appeared purportedly of opposition forces captured by Gadhafi forces.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Hit him. Hit him. Slap him in the face.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Slap in the face. And hit that one too.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Hit him. Hit him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Whose telephone is this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I swear to God this is not my phone. I have never seen it before.

COOPER: The fate of the prisoners is unknown. On Monday, opposition forces took Bin Jawad and continued their march west toward Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, but on the way encountered heavy resistance. Their advance was halted at Umm el-Ghindel by residents armed by Gadhafi. Opposition forces had to pull back to the town of Bin Jawad.

In Misrata, where the battle has raged for weeks with reports of snipers on rooftops and heavy bombardment by government tanks, CNN was finally granted access and discovered a city destroyed. While Gadhafi's forces claimed they control the town, our team was stopped a few miles from the center of the city, suggesting the battle for Misrata continues as does the battle for the future of Libya.


COOPER: Later in the program, we're going to have an update on that woman dragged off by security forces in front of journalists. We have heard from her family; we will also talk to correspondents who were there. But first earlier tonight, I spoke with an opposition spokesman in that town of Misrata.


COOPER: How close is the fighting? Because I'm seeing video of Misrata of what looks like opposition forces with, you know, AK-47s in their hands, light weapons running around on the streets. How close do you get to Gadhafi forces? I mean, is it house to house? Is it street by street?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, sometimes, you get so close, you know, it's just a few meters away.

Other times, especially when there's a (INAUDIBLE) situation involved, it becomes very difficult to approach any Gadhafi forces, tanks and artillery. So we are using multiple tactics at the moment in terms of the way we tackle one of the (INAUDIBLE) situation by storming buildings, and just, you know, carrying out those sort of operations or by just trying to target particular tanks stationed in very narrow alleys and streets, and just trying to push them to a place where it becomes very difficult for them to turn.


COOPER: Well, let's check in with our Nic Robertson and Arwa Damon. Nic's been working under very tight government supervision, but "Keeping Them Honest" every chance he can. He just got back today from part of Misrata. Arwa Damon is in opposition-held Ajdabiya right now.

Nic, the opposition forces I talked to in Misrata today say they still are battling in parts of the city. The government claims they're in control of the city; what did you see when you went there today?

ROBERTSON: You know, we got within a couple of miles of the center of the city, and we were stopped at a pro-Gadhafi rally that had been completely organized for us. There was a state television satellite truck and camera set up there for these protesters to demonstrate in front.

And whenever we would try to film down the road, videotape towards where the opposition was in the city, people would come in front of us, waving their green flags, soldiers would walk in front of us, intentionally trying to stop us filming.

And you know what? When we drove out of town after about 20 minutes, all those pro-Gadhafi supporters there drove out behind us. They didn't live there. They had been driven in for this event. So we couldn't get to the area where the opposition was. The government wouldn't let us get there, so we had no idea the conditions there, but what we did see, tanks under trees, hiding.

We have heard the opposition say they have been attacked by tanks. Well, we saw those tanks. Heavy artillery that you might see on a Second War World battlefield maybe in fields close to the center of the city, indiscriminate type of weapon to use in an urban environment -- Anderson.

COOPER: Arwa Damon, there's been a lot of excitement among opposition forces and those who support them over the weekend because of coalition airstrikes. We saw opposition forces retake the city of Ajdabiya, where you are tonight, also going through Al Brega. They got close to Sirte, relatively close to them, but you say their momentum has virtually stopped. What happened?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It most certainly seems to have, Anderson.

They got to the small town of Umm el-Ghindel that you mentioned earlier; it's around 60 miles to the east of Sirte. And when they were entering there, according to one opposition fighter, they began searching homes. They say they found a number of weapons that they believe Gadhafi had handed out to residents in this neighborhood.

They then say residents began shooting at them, and the opposition saying they decided not to fire back because of concerns for civilian casualties. But they said they warned residents to leave, to evacuate this area especially because there were families there. They then said they were forced to retreat. As they were retreating, they came under a heavy barrage of gunfire. And we saw them beating quite a hasty path away from this area, firing chaotically into the air, very concerned that Gadhafi's military was also trying to outflank them.

We asked them what their next move was going to be because they said they had to go back into this area and clear it. And if those civilians have not in fact evacuated, if there are still families there, this adds an entire new dynamic and dimension to this entire conflict. If we start seeing pro- and anti-Gadhafi forces, civilians clashing in these neighborhoods, the losses, the bloodshed could just be unimaginable.

COOPER: Nic Robertson in Tripoli, what sort of reaction do you think the Gadhafi regime will have to President Obama's comments tonight? Because the President made very clear that the mission as he sees it and what the U.N. mandate is that NATO is now going to be operating under, is not to remove Gadhafi militarily. They want to try to get him out through non-military means. Is Gadhafi breathing a sigh of relief tonight?

ROBERTSON: You can believe that he is to a degree. But he's also incredibly cautious and won't take anything at face value, and will very likely continue to believe as we have heard that the objective ultimately is to have him removed from power.

So I think while he may feel he's dodged a bullet and the mission hasn't been broadened to regime change, it gives him an opportunity to recalibrate. But what's he going to do in that recalibration? Decide that he can push a little harder and take Misrata and firm up his forces in Sirte or is he going to sort of allow people within the government to use this breathing space for some kind of diplomacy?

There are certainly people in and around the government here who recognize the need for change in the country, but it's probably not going to fall to them to make those key decisions. It's going to come back to Moammar Gadhafi. And that's quite an unpredictable, I think probably is the best thing to say, Anderson.

COOPER: Arwa Damon, stay safe, be careful.

Nic, stick around, because I want to talk to you and to David Kirkpatrick about that incident of the woman who alleged gang rape by Gadhafi forces, went into the hotel where you all were staying. CNN had a camera smashed, a videotape taken away. The Gadhafi government does not want you to see this video of what happened to this woman. And they have told conflicting stories now of what they have done to her. We're going to try to figure out what is real and what is not.

Up next, we will dig deeper also into what the President said. Did he send the right message abroad? And did he satisfy critics at home; some early reviews and analysis from David Gergen, Ari Fleischer, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Fouad Ajami.

We will be right back.


COOPER: President Obama tonight laid out both the defense of the Libyan mission and the conditions under which America might intervene elsewhere down the road. His audience as always was overseas and here in the United States.

At home, he went into the evening with 47 percent approval of the Libya mission, according to late polling, far less than other presidents have enjoyed at the outset of other military operations. He's under fire certainly from the left and the right and tonight tried to rebut some of the criticism by citing results.


OBAMA: For those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear. The United States of America has done what we said we would do.


COOPER: The President also pointed to what he sees as especially fast action, compared the month it took to get to this point to the year it took for actions to stop the atrocities in Bosnia.

As you would imagine, many believe he should have acted even faster, among them his 2008 rival, Arizona Senator John McCain, who spoke with Wolf Blitzer after the President's address.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: He laid out the reasons why it was important to intervene and what would have happened in Benghazi. There are many of us that are convinced that if we had taken that action three weeks earlier, just declaring a no-fly zone, it would have had a similar effect. It's clear that we're acting on the battlefield on the side of the rebels, and that we can, by keeping up the sustained pressure and movement, that Gadhafi can be removed.

If we tell Gadhafi, don't worry, you're not going to be removed by force, I think that that's very encouraging to Gadhafi. And so I believe that the rebels, as I predicted, are succeeding because we negated the airpower and the armor capabilities of Gadhafi, and we're rapidly on the road to success.

The President's remarks that what he really doesn't emphasize, that the United States leads. And there are times when we have to act alone. There are many other times where we have the time and the luxury of assembling coalitions and acting together, and we always want to act in partnership.

When President Reagan attacked Tripoli, he didn't ask anybody. He didn't assemble a coalition.

When we went into Panama to remove Noriega, we didn't assemble a coalition. And there are times when the United States has to have a coalition of people who are willing to join us. But America leads and America remains the leader of the world. And that means we're the greatest force for good.


COOPER: John McCain and President Obama.

Tonight, House Speaker John Boehner also weighing in, saying the speech did not in his words provide Americans much clarity.

With us now: senior political analyst David Gergen; also Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University and until last month the State Department, where she served as director of policy planning; also with us, Professor Fouad Ajami of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and the Hoover Institution; and former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer.

Fouad, what do you think about what the President said?


I'm not a fan of President Obama. I didn't vote for him. I think he should have done this much earlier. But this is second guessing. He finally did it. And I think he answered the great questions about this intervention.

And he laid out, if you will, if you want to call it the Obama doctrine of intervention, fine. If you want something less ambitious, fine. He did it.

And he told us the truth, this was always about Benghazi. It was about a rescue operation that he was forced to do. And I think it's the right thing.

COOPER: Anne-Marie Slaughter, what did you make? Some of the big questions out there about the mission in Libya are what's the goal of the U.S.? What's the exit strategy? How long will the U.S. military be involved? Are these all questions that you think the President sufficiently answered?

ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER, DEAN, WOODROW WILSON SCHOOL OF PUBLIC AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS AT PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: I think he did. You might say if he's getting criticized that heavily from both left and right, he really is striking a good balance.

I think he again made clear that we went in to avoid what he described as violence on a horrific scale in Benghazi, that again the mandate of the U.N. coalition that NATO is now leading is to protect Libyan civilians. I think that makes very clear what success looks like there. It means that Libyan civilians are safe, safe in their houses, safe in their cities.

At the same time, he made very clear that it is U.S. policy, and the policy of many of our allies that Libya needs to have a new government that responds to the demands of the Libyan people and that we will pursue every diplomatic and economic means to that end, and leveling the playing field militarily will certainly help.

COOPER: David Gergen, if Gadhafi simply removes his military forces from around Misrata, stops shelling that city, pulls back troops to Tripoli, and just has all these armed civilians in Sirte and other places, can the U.S., can NATO continue using air support to then try to rout his forces from Tripoli? It doesn't seem like it.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Anderson, the very fact that neither you nor I have the answer to that question, I think underscores the weakness of the Obama speech.

I thought, in general, he made a compelling case, a very strong case for intervention itself on humanitarian grounds. He made a compelling case that the United States has helped to organize the international coalition much more rapidly than has happened in the past, as in Bosnia.

And furthermore, I thought he made a compelling case that these early U.S. actions really have accomplished what the U.S. promised to do. And that was to stop Gadhafi from killing other people.

But that's where the speech -- the success of the speech ended there because he left open all these questions about where we go from here if there's a stalemate, and there were signs today that there may be a stalemate. What are we going to do? What is NATO going to do? Who knows? I don't think anybody knows that.

What is going happen if Gadhafi hangs in there for six months? What do we do then? Nobody knows. What happens if Gadhafi gets forced out? What happens if the regime cracks and they turn on him and even assassinate him? What's the United States' role going to be in building a new Libya? I thought that was left cloudy, and it is going to continue the debate.

But give President Obama his due. On the most important issue that he had to face tonight, why he went in, I thought he made a very, very strong case. I agree with Fouad and with Anne-Marie on that.

COOPER: Ari, do you believe he left too many things unsaid, or would that be too broad a speech to make at this point, Ari?

ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER GEORGE W. BUSH WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, I think it's not necessarily the things unsaid; it's just the problems on the ground are tremendous still. Because I think the likelihood is, we are going to end up in a stalemate.

So the tricky thing here is, when you have a president who does the right thing, but who does it four weeks too late, can you really say it is the right thing?

This is something that should have been done four weeks ago, when it was really likely that the rebels by virtue of America's action in what would have been a multilateral action could have tipped the scales, and made Gadhafi think the time is up, he needs to get out of there.

I have a hard time seeing that happen now. I think it's a fight to the finish and this finish ends up in stalemate, where Gadhafi knows he's safe on one side. The rebels will make what limited progress they can make on the other.

And the other reason I think that we're going to end up in stalemate here, and this is a very difficult fact of international relations and military affairs, the tip of NATO's sword is nowhere near as sharp as the tip of America's sword.

And it's good that NATO is leading. I'm glad to see that. But it also makes it more likely we will have a stalemate. This is the difficulty that we face now and why I wish we had acted four weeks ago.

I'm glad he went in. It was the right thing to do. It should have been done much earlier.

COOPER: Fouad Ajami, thank you. David Gergen, Ari Fleischer, as well, Professor Slaughter, thank you very much.

We're going to go from the political to the very personal next, the deeply personal. The Gadhafi regime called this woman a prostitute, said she was mentally ill after she stood up and said that government troops raped her. What happened? We'll show you what happened as cameras rolled and what happened after and what we've tried to learn about her whereabouts now, and also some really interesting reaction from her family and folks in opposition-held territories.

And as Syria's dictator cracks down, we'll talk to an ordinary Syrian taking an extraordinary risk to get the message out. He's speaking out under his own name, even though it may target him for arrest or worse. Be right back.


COOPER: Update on a story that's really shocked the world. We know the Gadhafi regime is brutal. We know they've killed many, tortured prisoners.

But it's rare you see the brutality captured up close. We're about to show you what happened to a woman this weekend who said she'd been gang raped by Gadhafi's militia.


COOPER (voice-over): Saturday morning, Eman al-Obeidi risks her life by storming into a Tripoli hotel to tell journalists her story of government brutality.

"They say we're all Libyans," she screams, "but look what Gadhafi brigades did to me."

Plainclothes government officials immediately intervene. This man tries to grab her and shut her up. Journalists jump in to try and help her.

Her face bruised, she says she's from Benghazi and was abducted at a government checkpoint, bound, beaten and raped by 15 members of Gadhafi's militia. She shows journalists blood on her inner thigh and rope burns on her hands and feet.

"My honor was violated," she cries out.

Here officials, including some who've previously appeared to be hotel staff, try to separate al-Obeidi from the journalists, dragging her away. One hotel staffer shouts "Traitor," as he draws a knife. This man here appears to be going for a weapon.

Gadhafi's men kick and punch journalists, wrestling some of them to the ground, breaking their cameras for their footage. As al-Obeidi continues to cry out her story, watch as this woman throws a dark bag over her head to silence her. A little while later, al-Obeidi surfaces as government officials drag her out of the hotel.

"If you don't see me tomorrow, then that's it," she screams.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where are you taking her to now?

COOPER: Journalists try to come to her aid one last time, but al- Obeidi is shoved into a car and taken away.


COOPER: It's incredibly upsetting. Nic Robertson and David Kirkpatrick of "The New York Times" have been on the story from the very beginning. They join us now.

David, if her story is true, it's hard to overstate just how much courage it took for this woman to speak up like this. You consider the wounds she displayed, how she was treated -- she was taken out of the hotel. I mean it's really a reminder of the kind of brutality the Gadhafi regime seems capable of. What do we know about what's happened to her?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK, "NEW YORK TIMES": We don't know anything. My understanding is that her family -- and this is my understanding from Nic's reporting -- my understanding is that her family is standing by her.

We've had a series of contradictory characterizations of her case from the Libyan government. The initial responsible from a spokesman was, "She seems drunk, probably insane, we're going to investigate her claims, this may be fantasy, the usual fantasies."

Later that day, the spokesman said, "OK, she seems sane, she seems sober, she has a criminal case not a political case, and we're investigating it. Hopefully, she'll be able to talk to you soon."

The next morning, the word was character assassination. They said that she was a prostitute with a long record as a thief. Again, they said, she and her family would be offered an opportunity to speak with us, but we haven't heard from her. I don't believe her family has heard from her. And certainly, the shift in tactics to character assassination is not promising.

COOPER: Nic, I want to play some video of you confronting one of the government spokesmen about her.


MUSA IBRAHIM, SPOKESMAN FOR LIBYA GOVERNMENT: UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nic, please, could we just to respect her, her daughter, her family, to respect -- this is a very conservative society. Could we not expose her in public, please?

If I said something, I said what I knew, OK? I don't want to repeat anything I said. I'm not withdrawing from what I said. I'm saying is I don't want to make it even more known, even more public. This is a criminal case.


COOPER: So the guy who called her a prostitute is now suddenly saying, "Oh, out of respect for her, we shouldn't say any more." We've seen demonstrations in two opposition-held towns in support of her, people not shying away from what she said had happened to her, but in fact, coming out and demonstrating in support of her. What have you learned, what have you heard about either her whereabouts or about how her family's reacting?

ROBERTSON: We really don't know of her whereabouts right now. And it's going to be very, very difficult to find out because, essentially, the government's pushed the onus onto us by saying they've released her. But we don't know exactly -- we don't know exactly where that would be and we're not free to travel around. And there's a good chance that wherever she is, there'll be security outside of there, so we won't get in.

But what we are hearing from the east of the country is that her family have rallied around her. There is video on YouTube this evening that purports to be her father and her groom at an engagement party in her absence.

What this means is that the family is saying they support her, that her honor is still intact, which is so hugely important here in this part of the world, that her honor is intact and she can be respected. Indeed, in some cultures, people would say, if she'd been through that, then she should be killed.

But it goes beyond that because her future husband is from her tribe, as well. And that's a statement from the tribe saying that they still honor and respect her, which really throws it back in the face of the Gadhafi regime. So we're seeing her family and her tribe rally behind her, which will be hugely important for her but, of course, we still don't know where she is and what state she's in, Anderson.

COOPER: And David, she had said that she was being held captive with other women; that there were other people who had also been held captive. Do we know anything about them?

KIRKPATRICK: Reuters reached someone here in Tripoli who appeared to be a cousin and listed the names of three female lawyers who they said had also been taken with her. She is said to have been stopped at a checkpoint by Gadhafi militia here near Tripoli. She's from Benghazi originally. I don't know anything more about those women.

COOPER: Nic, how frustrating is it, just as a reporter and a human being, to be in this situation where, you know, one wants to defend this person and yet one is sort of powerless to ultimately do anything about it?

ROBERTSON: Well, I think you hit the nail on the head. I mean, we're powerless in many ways. Yet we do collectively, as reporters, have some power and also some moral responsibility to do what we can for another human. And I think that's what we're trying to do.

But look, in all of this, in trying to sort of follow up on her case, the other people, these other three lawyers who she reports being with her -- we've sort of almost lost sight of them, and that's just the handful of people that we know about.

I mean, our taxi driver from a couple of weeks ago taken into custody. Is he really released, as people have told us? There are -- the frustrating thing is that there are so many people you want to follow up on. And you don't get a straight answer, as we've seen. It's sort of one half-truth that leads to another half-truth that you can't really prove or disprove, people discredited.

It adds up to -- it adds up to frustration, but it adds up to determination. We will do what we can. I think, collectively, the journalists here witnessed something at the weekend that will be with us for many, many years. And it's a stark reminder for us of everything that's kept hidden from us, from everything that people fear about from this regime, wanting to speak out, wanting to have a free voice, but being closed down.

That will stay with us, I think.

COOPER: And David, I think it might have been in a story that you had written about this, and correct me if I'm wrong, but suddenly, it seemed like hotel staff, people who were waiters, all of a sudden turned out to be, you know, government agents or be involved in this.

KIRKPATRICK: Yes, you know, it's true. I sort of assumed, Libya being Libya, that a good number of the hotel staff were actually paid government informants or worked for the government in some way, but it was breathtaking to see a sweet young woman from a coffee bar throw a coat over Eman al-Obeidi's head, just like a bag, wrapping it around her head and trying to pull her away. That young woman has been redeployed. We haven't seen her at the coffee bar since then.

COOPER: It's just stunning. It's so disturbing. And we should all not forget what has happened to Eman al-Obeidi. And we'll continue to follow up on it.

David Kirkpatrick, as always thank you. Stay safe. Nic Robertson, as well.

Coming up: new protests, new violence in Syria, and a familiar refrain from the government, the deadly violence is the work of foreigners or gangs of thugs. Eyewitnesses tell a much different story: government forces firing at peaceful protesters.

We'll have the latest. We're going to talk to a human rights activist in Syria literally risking his life, and he wants us to use his name. Tonight you'll hear from him.

And later, take a look at this, new images showing the force of the tsunami that hit Japan as a wall of water rolls through the city of Kesennuma, a wave of destruction. You got to see this to believe it.

We'll be right back.


COOPER: Security forces in Syria flooded the city of Daraa today, ripping down anti-government signs, according to one eyewitness, turning water cannons on protesters, firing shots in the air. This is new video from YouTube, reportedly shot on Friday in Daraa.

The Syrian government is blaming deadly violence on everything from an unnamed foreign group to armed gangs of thugs. But multiple witnesses say government forces are behind the attacks.

In a possible move to appease protesters, the Syrian government announced over the weekend that it'll lift a state of emergency law that's been in effect for 48 years. The law gives the government sweeping authority. They can make arrests whenever they want. It prevents detainees from having a lawyer present during interrogations.

There's no timetable for that emergency law being lifted, and many see it as a trick, saying other laws give power to the secret police and that something even more draconian could replace it.

A U.N. spokesman says at least 37 people have died in clashes between protesters and security forces since last week.

Earlier today, I spoke on the phone with Wissam Tarif, a human rights activist in Syria who not only has agreed to speak with us but also insists again that we use his name. Once again, we can't independently confirm what he's telling us, as Syria has repeatedly denied CNN entrance into the country.

Here's what he said today.


COOPER: So the army has been deployed on the streets. How scared are people? I mean, are people still willing to come out and protest?

WISSAM TARIF, EXEC. DIR. INSAN (via telephone): Well, what's happening is much worse because two nights ago, the security forces in civilian clothes invaded the city. They targeted specific neighborhoods, tried to incite unsecure feeling and fear between neighborhoods in Latakia and in other areas.

COOPER: And you've seen videos of security forces changing clothes and attacking people, yes?

TARIF: Oh, yes, of course, everywhere. It's very -- in particular, this happened in Damascus and in Latakia. And there are videos of the security forces changing their clothes and just beating people to death in Damascus. They send security forces acting as thugs, and they have been beating people to death -- beating people to death.

This has happened in Duma. Four people were beaten to death in Duma. If they are talking about reform and the change in the country, why don't they allow us -- why don't they allow Syria human rights groups, international human rights groups with credibility and long history of doing the job, to access these cities and to do some serious work? I think, if they are serious about this, they would allow us to work locally.

Instead, they detained five human rights lawyers in the last 48 hours -- five. It's getting worse here, it's not getting better, Anderson.

COOPER: I have to ask you this again. I asked you the first time you spoke to us. You want us to use your name. You tell us five people you know, five human rights activists have been arrested just in the last 48 hours. Why are you so insistent on talking and getting the word out?

TARIF: All of those are human rights defenders. I owe them. I owe them the minimum at this time. Where they are not able to do their job, others have to do it. It's myself and it's a lot of people are doing it. It's normal.

I mean, there is an element of risk. It's a calculated risk, but we have to do it. We're uprising. We're changing. We're witnessing history. History is happening in our region. History is happening in Syria.

We want to free them. We want to build a democratic country. We want to express ourselves. We want dignity. We want to be able to say what we think. This is the minimum. This is the minimum. We are in the 21st century, and they are running the country as if we are in the 18th century or even in the Middle Ages.

This has to change, and it is my job and my colleagues' job and people who can and who have the opportunity to study, to travel, to see the world to do this. Otherwise, who will do it?

COOPER: Well, I'm stunned by your courage, and I thank you for talking to us. And please be careful.

TARIF: Thank you, Anderson.


COOPER: Incredible bravery.

One note about covering the story: we've been mentioning that CNN has been applying for visas to go to Syria for more than a week now. Those requests have been repeatedly denied. And now the Syrian embassy isn't even responding to our requests.

You've got your side of the story. Show us the evidence that armed thugs are responsible for the violence. Let us in the country. Let us see for ourselves.

Coming up, more ominous news from the damaged nuclear power plant in Japan, words like "possible leak", "damaged containment structure" -- not necessarily what the people of Japan want to hear. We'll tell you what it all means next.

And a really incredible new look at the day the devastation began: dramatic video of the tsunami washing away virtually the entire city of Kesennuma, video we have not seen until now.

We'll be right back.


COOPER: We had planned to bring you up to date on the latest in Yemen. We ran out of time. We'll do that tomorrow.

I want to show you some remarkable new video out of Japan, though, some of the most arresting images we've seen of the tsunami that struck the island's northeast coast back on March 11th. It's the city of Kesennuma, Japan, as it's basically washed off the map.



(END VIDEO CLIP) COOPER: Roughly 73,000 people lived in Kesennuma before the disaster. Tonight the death toll from the quake and tsunami still climbing, nearly 11,000 people confirmed dead, with about 17,000 still unaccounted for.

Isha Sesay is here with the "360 News and Business Bulletin" -- Isha.

ISHA SESAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, in Japan, a government official said contaminated water overflow is a threat as workers try to cool damaged reactors at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Traces of plutonium have turned up in the soil on the ground of the plant. The government has admitted the containment structure surrounding Reactor Two is damaged and may be leaking radioactive material.

In Cuba, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited a Jewish center and met with the archbishop of Havana. He's there with his wife on what's described as a private three-day visit, but there are hopes he may lobby for the release of an American contractor sentenced to prison this month in Cuba.

Stocks fell reacting to ongoing global turmoil from Japan's nuclear crisis to unrest in the Middle East. The Dow lost 23 points. Anderson -- a lot going on.

COOPER: Sure is.

Isha, thanks very much. We'll be right back.


COOPER: Hey, that's it for 360. Thanks for watching.

Piers Morgan starts now.