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Aleppo Is A Battlefield; Protesters Attack Egyptian President's Home; Nurse Commits Suicide; McAfee Hospitalized in Guatemala

Aired December 7, 2012 - 12:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to NEWSROOM INTERNATIONAL. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. We're taking you around the world in 60 minutes. Here's what's going on right now.

A shocker on the jobs front. One hundred and forty-six thousand new jobs added. That is almost twice as many jobs created in November than expected. The unemployment rate falls even further below 8 percent. We now have the lowest unemployment rate in four years at 7.7 percent. We're following the markets to see if it has an impact as well.

CNN has now learned that Pentagon officials are reworking their plans for possible military action against Syria. That is after now confirmed reports emerging from Syria that forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad are preparing bombs with chemical weapons. Syrian soldiers fighting with rebels for control over the outskirts of Damascus.

Now, witnesses tell CNN that 30 people were killed today in street battles across Syria. We're also learning about a car bombing in the city of Homs and a horrible, horrible discovery. Dozens of bodies believed to be victims of a massacre.

At the same time rebel fighters, they are taking on Syrian forces literally house to house in the country's largest city. That is Aleppo. And that is where we find our Arwa Damon today.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For two months, the streets in (INAUDIBLE) Al-Amriya (ph) have been a war zone. Part of a bigger battle for control of Aleppo, Syria's largest city. Alkhal, a father of four, is one of the rebel fighters here. "This is our country, our homes that are being destroyed," he tells us. He used to sell thread. Now Alkhal runs logistics for his unit.

(on camera): So what Alkhal is explaining to us is that this was street to street fighting. And it took his unit quite some time to advance. And right now they have the tractor here because they're trying to clear out this road so that ambulances and vehicles can begin to move through.

(voice-over): Blankets hang across one alleyway to block government snipers' line of sight. "The shooting is coming from there, the sniper," one of the fighters points out. They take us further forward. Crawling through holes punched between buildings.

(on camera): They're just telling us that it's because of the snipers that they have to move through the various buildings like this.

(voice-over): It's an urban version of First World War trenches. They've edged forward by just one block. Going any further is back breaking work. A rebel dashes down the street carrying a makeshift rocket launcher. It's a plastic tube. He later displays the rocket.

(on camera): This is a homemade rocket that was manufactured by the fighters themselves in this very battlefield.

(voice-over): But they can't find the sand bags to stabilize the launcher. The weapons the fighters carry are spoils of war, captured from government forces. But they also make a promise. "There is a message we have," one of the older fighters vows. "When this is over, the guns will be handed over."

"I am just fighting to see my house down the road," Hasim (ph) says.

(on camera): It's hard to fully absorb the scale of the devastation here. How entire buildings seem to have folded down upon themselves. And then one continues to see traces of the lives of the civilians that called these buildings home, like the clothing that's just hanging right there, or children's books, like this one, the pages of it that we picked up from the rubble.

(voice-over): But this conflict can be surreal. Just a couple of blocks away, the local barbershop is open, as are a handful of other stores. Women crowd around us, eager to talk, but not be filmed. "Both sides have hurt us, wronged us," one says.

Basic supplies are available here, although prices have skyrocketed. "Bread, bread, we want it so badly it's like a drug," this woman tells us. "If someone has breakfast, they can't afford dinner. Please, have mercy, they beg."

On the street we meet four boys from Ahmaria (ph). They ask if we think it's safe enough for them to go back home. They talk of tanks firing and seeing other children lose limbs. They say what they've witnessed has made them all decide to be doctors to save the victims of war.


MALVEAUX: Arwa Damon on the ground in northern Syria. And she's joining us live via Skype.

And, Arwa, it is just amazing to see the slice of life, what is taking place there on the ground. It barely seems like people are able to cope in any kind of normal fashion. When you go from village to village or family to family, do you get a sense at all that there's an end game here, that they see an end in a way that they can pick up their lives and move on, or this is just the way they're going to exist for quite some time?

DAMON (via Skype): It's so difficult to put into words, Suzanne, exactly what it is that these families have been going through. Many of them are so frustrated, they're so angry.

Just earlier today, for example, we were in Aleppo once again. We met a family. And it was actually two families because one brother had to move into another brother's home because his had been destroyed in a government air strike. Seventeen children were living there and they hadn't had anything to eat, any proper food to eat in 24 hours.

We were stopping at a number of bread lines, and the bread lines here have really grown phenomenally as has the growing cost of the bread itself. People were so angry. The mob actually gathered around us, and a number of people within them were demanding that we leave because they reached a point where they feel as if the outside world knows exactly what's happening in Syria. They've been seeing it for months on end. And at this point in time, people were asking us not to leave because they genuinely felt as if the world knew what was happening, people were continuously filming them, and the world was quite simply mocking their misery.

MALVEAUX: Do you have any idea here whether or not they are aware of the reports that have come out that the Assad forces, the government, has possibly been preparing chemical weapons?

DAMON: Some people are aware, yes, especially when it comes to speaking with the rebels and their leadership. Some of the civilians are aware of that as well. But given the fact that there hasn't been a lot of power in large parts of Aleppo in and of itself, most civilians aren't aware of it.

Those who are aware, though, and those rebel who are aware, are very quick to point out that at this point they have absolutely no defense whatsoever against that type of weaponry. Ever since this conflict began, the civilian population has been incapable of protecting itself against bullets and bombs. And there most certainly is no defense whatsoever should the regime decide to employ chemical weapons.

MALVEAUX: Arwa, are they afraid of that possibility? Do they talk about that, the possibility of their own government turning on them like that and unleashing these type of weapons?

DAMON: They most certainly do, Suzanne, especially, obviously, the conversation be amongst those who are aware of it. They do feel that this is a regime that has absolutely no mercy whatsoever. And the greater the stranglehold on regime forces grows, the greater the likelihood that the Assad government could, in fact, choose to take this kind of drastic measure against its own population. People have no doubt in their minds about the lengths to which this government, the Assad government, will go to stay in power.

One rebel commander we were speaking to yesterday was saying, if you look at how gradually the government has increase its use of force, starting with bullets, then moving on to artillery mortar fire, then moving on to aircraft, they feel as if the next step would, yes, be the use of chemical weaponry.

MALVEAUX: This might be a very difficult question to answer, Arwa, but you're on the ground there and you see these small pockets and these slice of life here. Do you have any sense of a big picture of who's actually winning in this civil war? Are the rebels doing any better than they were weeks or months ago?

DAMON: They most definitely are gaining ground and significant ground. If we compare the situation now to, say, just a few months ago, there are areas of Aleppo province, which is where we have been moving around northern Syria, that one could not have even fathomed going into. When it comes to the city of Aleppo itself, they are able to hold certain front lines. And that most certainly is an incredible development given the fact that they have had no significant help from the outside world. We keep seeing them, you know, running around the battlefield with homemade rockets, grenades, anything they can practically get their hands on. They are driven by sheer determination.

So, yes, they are most certainly gaining ground. They do feel as if they have, at least in this part of the country, the government effectively besieged, whether it's on certain bases, certain installations that they have, or into certain neighborhoods. But it's very difficult to really determine just how long this is going to take and just who is going to end up coming out the victor. That is if anyone does, in fact, at all end up winning this, given the sheer devastating death toll that has taken place in this country.

MALVEAUX: Arwa Damon, excellent reporting, as always. We appreciate the fact that you are, indeed, risking your life at certain times just to bring these stories to us. Thank you, once again. Really a civil war taking place on the ground of Syria and still very uncertain how this is all going to turn out in the end.

Dozens of protesters attack the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi's home, throwing rocks and glass and bottles. According to reports, they've pushed down these barriers actually protecting his home.

Plus, it is never been done before. This is a journey across the Antarctic on foot and in the winter. But this great adventurer finally being attempted. We're going to hear from Sir Ranulph Fiennes about how he could become the first man to ever cross the South Pole.


SR RANULPH FIENNES: It's like a drug. It's like an addiction. Once you're bitten by polar records, you keep going for it.


MALVEAUX: Growing outrage in Egypt. For a second straight day, protesters have attacked President Mohamed Morsi's house in northeastern Egypt. Now, people there, and in Cairo, they re are furious at the president for giving himself near absolute power. And they don't like the country's proposed constitution either. It is just the latest unrest in a week of violent protests. Want to bring in Reza Sayah, who's live in Cairo overlooking Tahrir Square.

We got two issues on the table here, Reza, the constitution, which they're not happy with. They believe the Islamists basically took it over and put their stamp on it and nobody else is represented. And then you've got this power grab by the president. What do the protests think they can do by assembling there? We know people have died this those protests. What do they want?

REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now the protesters don't seem to have a political mechanism to take on the president, but certainly they have the power to protest, and that's what we're seeing again today. Of course, last night, the president addressed the nation. A lot of people anxious to see what he would say. Could he end this conflict? Would he make some concessions? Would he back down from his position?

Here's what he did. He called for calm and peace. He called for all political factions and their leaders to meet tomorrow at the presidential palace for a national dialogue. And he also issued a warning to protesters not to resort to violence. But when it comes to those two core positions, he didn't back down. He said the nationwide referendum on the constitution will still take place on December 15th. And he didn't rescind those controversial decrees that he made last month that gave him additional powers. He said that that's only going to happen after the referendum on December 15th.

Of course, those were the demands of the opposition. They didn't get it. That's why they're back here protesting, Suzanne, and for good measure the leaders of the opposition have rejected the president's call for national dialogue. They're saying they're not going to go to palace tomorrow to talk to him.

MALVEAUX: All right, so, Reza, what we're seeing, we're seeing pictures here of people beating drums, jumping up and down, that type of thing.

But they also understand that they have gotten outside the palace wall, the presidential palace wall. Have they knocked down this wall? Are they getting close to the president? What's the situation?

SAYAH: There's two separate demonstrations happening, one here, in Tahrir Square and a bigger one outside the presidential palace.

You'll recall a couple of days ago that was the scene of some ugly violence between the two sides.

Yesterday, the Republican guard came in and they set up a barricade a block away from the palace. For the most part demonstrators had stayed behind that barricade. Now we're getting some reports that some demonstrators have penetrated that barricade, but no indication that they've attacked the palace, big numbers out there. We're going to keep a close eye on things at the palace to see what happens.

MALVEAUX: And very quickly here, we understand there was a phone call that took place. President Obama called President Morsi yesterday. What have you learned about that phone call?

SAYAH: Washington is obviously concerned. The president calling Mr. Morsi, expressing his concern about the violence and especially the people who have died in the protests, but beyond that, it doesn't look like Washington is getting any more involved.

But they're going to watch this situation. Obviously, Egypt is an important country for Washington, especially when it comes to their stated priority of keeping Israel safe. Egypt is going to play a key role on that and you can be sure that Washington will assess President Morsi, assess this government based on how they handle this political crisis, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right, Reza Sayah, thank you very much.

It was meant as a prank. Two DJs called the hospital where Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, was being treated for morning sickness. Well, now, someone is dead and the hospital is now speaking out. We've got a live report from London.


MALVEAUX: It started as prank pulled by a couple radio DJs in Australia. They called the British hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge was being treated for morning sickness.

Well, the DJs managed to trick a nurse into giving them details on her condition and put the whole thing on the air, so now the joke has taken a tragic turn.

The nurse who originally took the call has apparently killed herself. The head of the hospital spoke just a short time ago.


JOHN LOFTHOUSE, KING EDWARD VII HOSPITAL CHIEF EXECUTIVE: We can confirm that Jacintha was recently the victim of a hoax call to the hospital. The hospital had been supporting her through this very difficult time.

Jacintha was a first-class nurse who cared diligently for hundreds of patients during her time with us.


MALVEAUX: Joined by Matthew Chance in London. Matthew, really just a tragic story all around.

This woman, she was one of two people who spoke to these DJs. What was her role in all of that?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was relatively minor, of course. The whole incident was meant as a light- hearted gag, however ill-judged that was in retrospect.

But it seems that this individual who is suspected to have committed suicide is the nurse who first answered the prank call from the Australian radio station. She was -- I've got the actual transcript right here.

She was asked by one of the impersonators, somebody impersonating the Queen, "Oh, hello, there. Could I please speak to Kate, my granddaughter?" Thinking she was speaking to the Queen, she said, "Oh, yes, just hold on, mom," and transferred her to the ward.

And so it seems that this was the nurse that made that transfer and the nurse that has now been found dead a short distance from the front doors of the private hospital.

MALVEAUX: Matthew, do we have any idea whether or not her apparent suicide is linked to this prank?

CHANCE: Well, it's not been linked directly by the police or the hospital. Although, clearly, you know, they are linked. In fact, the hospital in its statement says that this nurse was the subject of a hoax call in its statement confirming her death. And, so, they, of course, are linking it.

I just want to say to you there's been some reaction to this from the royal family, a statement from the royal family, a statement from St. James' Palace, saying the duke and duchess of Cambridge were deeply saddened to learn about the death of Jacintha Saldanha.

It says their royal highnesses were looked after so wonderfully well at the King Edward the VIIth Hospital here in Central London and their thoughts and prayers are with her colleagues, friends, and family at this very sad time.

There had been some suggestion that the royal family made an official complaint to the hospital about the fact that this call was put through to the ward, but the royal sources tell CNN that that was not the case, and, in fact, the royal family have, in their words, been very supportive of the nurses involved in this at all times.

MALVEAUX: All right. Matthew Chance, thank you.

American software giant John McAfee now running from the law. Belize police want to question him about a murder there, right?

Well, he was hoping for asylum in Guatemala, but now he has been denied, so he is in custody, but there's more drama, why he was taken away in a stretcher. CNN is in Guatemala with this bizarre twist.


MALVEAUX: John McAfee wants asylum in that country. He has been trying to avoid being sent back to Belize to face questions about the murder of his neighbor there. So far the Guatemalan government says, no, he can't stay.

Martin Savidge is in Guatemala city, and, martin, first of all, why the back and forth here? Why is the government saying no to his first request? MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think simply because the government has realized that there's no real political basis for John McAfee to claim that he needs asylum.

In other words, police have only said in Belize that they want to question him regarding the death of his neighbor, so that's not a political issue. It's a legal issue. Seeking asylum just simply is not the correct path to take, and the government here said no.

Then it was just shortly after that turn-down that we had the next drama. That was, of course, the health emergency. It caused a great deal of commotion. There was the excitement outside of the detention center where he is.

There's John McAfee being laid out on a stretcher, and he is suffering from something. He has taken on to a police hospital, and he is evaluated there for several hours.

Later, when I talked to the police there, they said it was simply a matter of what appeared to be stress. His attorney says it was a mild heart attack. Either way he was let go from that hospital, and he is now sitting, once again, in the detainment center.

MALVEAUX: So, Martin, what happens next?

SAVIDGE: I'm sorry to smile because this is actually serious, but having been on this story now for a month, you never know what is really going to happen next.

We just had a conversation moments ago before coming to air with the attorney, a very powerful attorney here in Guatemala city, that represents John McAfee, and he says that everything that can be done is being done to come up with some sort of stay, perhaps appealing all the way to the supreme court of Guatemala to keep McAfee in the country. Right now he says at least for the moment they don't see him leaving.

Now, we have not heard back from the authorities here that are actually detaining, so we can't see whether the lawyer is right on that, but you clearly have to follow this one day by day.

MALVEAUX: You certainly do. You can't make this stuff up.

Do we have any idea if he actually went back to Belize, whether or not he would face charges in this murder of his neighbor?

SAVIDGE: I did have a conversation with the authorities there on that particular issue, and they said the way it would work is that McAfee in the -- would be flown back to Belize city, and the police would be waiting to greet that airplane, immigration police, and they would not take him into custody.

But they would take him downtown for questioning, which is what they said they've always wanted to do. Depending on how he answered those questions would determine whether he was charged or whether he would simply be let go. We don't know, but that's supposedly the one thing I've learned about this one, Suzanne, is nothing is ever as simple as it seems with John McAfee.

MALVEAUX: Not at all. OK. Martin, thank you. Good following that story.

Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, back in Caracas. He hasn't been seen publicly for three weeks, but he was al smiles when he returned to Venezuela today.

Venezuelan officials say he received hyperbaric oxygen treatment in Cuba. It is meant to heal bone damage from radiation therapy. Chavez received radiation and surgery for a cancerous tumor last year.

And, now, where villages once stood, there are now piles of debris. Tens of thousands of people now homeless after a typhoon hits the Philippines. Challenges people are facing as they are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives.