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NEWS STREAM

Syrian Schools Attempt To Educate In War Zones; Palestinian Refugees Flee Damascus Camp; Europe's Top Six Football Clubs Drawn Together in Champion's League Knockout Stage

Aired December 20, 2012 - 08:00:00   ET

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


MONITA RAJPAL, HOST: Hello, I'm Monita Rajpal in Hong Kong. Welcome to News Stream where news and technology meet.

Going to school in a war zone, the impact of the Syrian civil war on children.

Four U.S. State Department officials are disciplined as the fallout from the Benghazi attack continues to be felt in Washington.

And two of world football's most successful managers will go head to head in the Champion's League. We'll tell you who Europe's top teams will play in the knockout round.

The Syrian people are suffering on a massive scale with the UN now saying a quarter of the population is in desperate need of food, shelter, and other assistance. The world body is launching humanitarian plans worth some $1.5 billion. It will help those in need inside Syria as well as hundreds of thousands of refugees outside the country who are also at risk.

Well, for those who remain life goes on as much as it can in a war zone. And for the children of Syria that means going to school. Outside, bullets and shelling are continuing -- are a continuing threat, but inside the classroom teachers are trying to keep the peace as best they can.

Alex Thompson of Channel 4 News reports now from Damascus.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEX THOMSON, CHANNEL 4 NEWS: Yes, they yell, "We're ready for lessons," and in they come. And it's 1,600 peoples at this Damascus school, two shifts across the day. Under the ever-watchful eye of President Assad, reading lessons for children in a city, a country at war with itself. What kind of things are these little girls seeing beyond the school gates?

ABDUL KADER AMOURI, head teacher (through translator): We as educators don't support one side or the other.

Our concern is for the child to learn. So we keep the school open and help with their fears. We can't do as much as before, but the key thing is to try and deal with their anxiety. THOMSON: Up down, left, right, two, three, four. Out in the playground, it's a P.E. lesson, exercises, including run to the wall, touch it, and running back. Here, the running is for fun, but beyond the school walls, a shell or a mortar can land anywhere any time. Running can be a matter of life and death.

For obvious reasons, the killing of small children and teachers in and around school buildings is pretty near the top of the news agenda at the moment. So, it is that in this educational district and the one next door alone, in the past two weeks, 35 small children and two teachers have been killed.

The security building next to the school was car-bombed recently, leaving a staff candid about the problems they face here.

ABDUL KADER AMOURI (through translator): Lot of children had to leave their areas, friends, teachers, and move, which is very difficult.

Also, we get students pushed out from places, so the school is new to them. We do our best to help, but it is beyond us. It is way too big.

THOMSON: And then little Zera Asadi said she wanted to sing us a patriotic song, but she was soon overwhelmed by the general chant, "God, Syria, Bashar al-Assad."

Asked to draw a picture, these little artists come up with tanks, guns in the colors of the government flag. This is one of several shelters across Damascus for people displaced by the fighting.

FILAS TABOUSH, SYRIA (through translator): The reason we're doing this is because we have seen what happens to Syrians who have to leave the country for refugee camps. They're treated very badly. We don't want that to happen again.

THOMSON: They may wear anoraks, which are in fact the flag of Assad's Syria, but they claim anyone here is welcome, whatever their political affiliation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RAJPAL: As we're seeing there from Alex Thomson's report, the Syrian conflict is, of course, having an impact far beyond the country's borders as well. Last month, the Syrian-Arab Red Crescent estimated that two-and- a-half million people have been displaced inside the country. And the worsening violence is also fueling a mass exodus to Syria's neighbors. The UN refugee agency estimates Turkey has taken in the highest number of refugees, more than 140,000.

Well, farther south, Lebanon has nearly as many refugees. The UNHCR says more than 120,000 have fled there.

110,000 are thought to have crossed the southern border into Jordan.

And 66,000 have taken refuge in a country where until recently it would have seemed unthinkable -- Iraq.

A camp for Palestinian refugees in Damascus has become a flashpoint in the civil war. About 100,000 residents have fled the Yarmouk camp, many of them are crossing the border into Lebanon.

We're joined now by CNN's Ivan Watson in Istanbul, Turkey with more on that -- Ivan.

IVAN WATSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Monita, the battle for Damascus has sucked in yet another community from Syria's diverse mosaic of different ethnic and sectarian groups, this time Palestinian refugees. More than 100,000 uprooted from their community when a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus became an urban battleground.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WATSON: Families fleeing Syria's newest urban battleground, a Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital. Since fighting erupted here last Sunday, the United Nations estimates more than 100,000 Palestinians have been forced to flee their homes.

SAMI MSHASHA U.N. RELIEF AND WORLD AGENCY FOR PALESTINIAN REFUGEES: Some 150,000 to 160,000 Palestine refugees that call Yarmouk camp their home. We know that more than two-thirds of them had left the camp and fled when the clashes between the opposition forces and the government forces ensued.

WATSON: Syrian authorities established the Yarmouk refugee camp more than 50 years ago in the heart of Damascus. UN officials say Yarmouk is a densely populated ghetto, inhabited largely by Palestinian refugees from previous Middle Eastern conflicts.

Last Sunday, rebels from the Free Syrian Army stormed the neighborhood turning its narrow alleyways into a war zone.

The Syrian government responded with massive firepower.

MSHASHA: On at least two separate occasions, six airplanes flew over the camp and they did drop their bombs on the camp in addition to heavy artillery fire and also they use all kinds of light and medium sized weapons.

WATSON: The attacks have been devastating. But regime forces failed to stop rebels from achieving one main goal -- overrunning the headquarter of Ahmed Jabril (ph), leader of a Palestinian group widely believed to be allied with the Syrian regime. A short-term victory for the rebels, but look at the cost.

We spoke to one of the tens of thousands of people uprooted by the battle in Yarmouk.

KHALID ALHAM, PALESTINIAN-SYRIAN: The Yarmouk camp is completely destroyed. So many people don't know what to do now.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WATSON: So now that's a question that more than 100,000 Palestinians are asking. And it's important to note, Monita, that these Palestinians are stateless. These are refugee families that fled decades of war in other parts of the Middle East that have now been sucked into, that have become victims of the region's newest bloody conflict.

And a new United Nations report indicates that the situation on the ground, the political landscape, is just getting more and more complicated inside Syria. This UN report says, quote, "as battles between government forces and anti-government armed groups approach the end of their second year, the conflict has become overtly sectarian in nature." For the most part, the UN report concludes that this is the Sunni Muslim majority rebels fighting against the minority group Alawites of the same group as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They are fighting each other.

But the report also concludes that other minorities such as Christians, Drues (ph), and Kurds, and Turkomans that they are all having to form their own armed militias to protect themselves. And in some cases these different communities are aligning themselves either with the pro or anti-government factions which just complicates dramatically the conflict on the ground.

In addition to this, Monita, the UN report concludes that not only the government, but also the rebels are committing summary executions as well as torturing their captives -- Monita.

RAJPAL: Ivan, it certainly makes for a very difficult and complicated, as you're saying, situation for those on the outside, whether it's the west or the United Nations hoping to help the opposition in terms of trying to gain an upper hand in this conflict against the regime of Bashar al-Assad who they would actually be helping?

WATSON: Well, that's been a big question for more than a year now, and one of the concerns that western governments have consistently raised as they have tried to push opposition groups to unify around various councils and coalitions. The problem is that the conflict inside Syria has evolved as western and foreign governments have dithered and they have -- the conflict has taken on a form that nobody really expected a year ago. So now you have armed groups on the ground.

The UN report also points to increasing numbers of foreign fighters coming in, not only Sunni Muslim fighters brought from the Middle East and North Africa, but also apparently fighters from the Shiiite movement Hezbollah in Lebanon, so raising the risk of a broader sectarian conflict that could further tear apart the Middle East. So these are very serious concerns. And the signs are that this is just going to get worse the longer the killing continues.

RAJPAL: Ivan, thank you. Ivan Watson there in Istanbul.

Well, speculation has been rife as to whether one of Bashar al-Assad's traditional backers, Russia, is toughening its stance on the Syrian government. And this Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that change is necessary in Syria. Mr. Putin stressed that Russia's main goal is to end the conflict, not to help President al-Assad cling to power. He called for negotiations between both sides.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): We do not have special economic relations and Bashar Assad hasn't visited Moscow a lot during his tenure. He visited European capitals more often. We are advocating the solution which would prevent the collapse of the region and the continuous civil war.

What is our proposal about, what is our position about? Not to retain Bashar al-Assad's regime continue price, but first people should negotiate and agree on how they would live further how their participation would be guaranteed in their ruling and not by (inaudible) do everything and then try to negotiate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJPAL: You're watching News Stream. Coming up, a school massacre leads to urgent new calls to end gun violence. We'll tell you what U.S. President Obama is proposing.

Also a scathing report on the Benghazi consulate attack has left the U.S. State Department in turmoil.

And South Korea's incoming president speaks up about peace on the Korean peninsula.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RAJPAL: Welcome back. You are catching News Stream. And this is a visual rundown of all the stories we're covering on the show today. We have looked at the situation in Syria. Later on we'll take a look at the continuing fallout from the Benghazi attack. But now, let's take a look at President Obama's reaction to the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

The U.S. president is demanding concrete proposals to deal with gun violence and he wants them by January. Mr. Obama says Vice President Joe Biden will spearhead the effort which has taken on new urgency after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Brianna Keilar brings us the latest.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The president said this time Washington won't just talk about tackling gun violence.

OBAMA: This is not some Washington commission. This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issues for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside. This is a team that has a very specific task, to pull together real reforms right now.

KEILAR: He urged Congress to vote early next year on an assault weapons ban, a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips and close the gun show loopholes, so all gun purchasers are subject to background checks.

The president's task force will recommend policies beyond gun control.

OBAMA: We're going to need to work on making access to mental health care at least as easy as access to a gun. We're going to need to look more closely at a culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence. And any actions we must take must begin inside the home and inside our hearts.

KEILAR: The president is hoping to seize this moment of heightened public awareness to push Washington to change.

OBAMA: But, goodness, if this past week has done anything, it should just give us some perspective. If there's one thing we should have after this week, it should be a sense of perspective about what's important.

KEILAR: The announcement is quieting criticism from within the president's own ranks. Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, who lost her husband in a mass shooting, now feels the president is showing leadership.

REP. CAROLYN MCCARTHY (D), NEW YORK: We will follow the president's commission on education, mental health, and all of the other things that need to be done to keep us safe.

KEILAR: But far-reaching gun regulations will no doubt be met with resistance from the National Rifle Association, which has yet to weigh in on the debate, but will hold a press conference Friday. Senior administration officials say they are ready.

OBAMA: The NRA is an organization that has members who are mothers and fathers. And I would expect that they have been impacted by this as well. And hopefully they will do some self-reflection.

KEILAR: It's still to be seen if there's a clash between the White House and the NRA on how to deal with the issue of gun violence. A number of pro-gun rights lawmakers have changed their tune on whether to consider gun control measures, but the influence of the NRA is still very much a concern for a number of other politically vulnerable pro-gun rights lawmakers who have remained silent on the issue.

Brianna Keilar, CNN, The White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RAJPAL: And at that news conference on gun violence, President Obama also faced questions on the fiscal cliff. That's the term coined for a combination of automatic tax increases and deep spending cuts. They total $7 trillion over a decade. And it all hits by January 2, 2013 if lawmakers fail to reach a deal. Economists say that failure could spark another recession.

Now both Democrats and Republicans have made concessions in a broad deficit reduction plan, but with the clock ticking they are still butting heads. President Obama says politics must be put asid.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: They keep on finding ways to say no as opposed to finding ways to say yes. And I don't know how much of that just has to do with -- it is very hard for them to yes to me. But, you know, at some point they've got to take me out of it and think about their voters. And think about what's best for the country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJPAL: House Speaker John Boehner is leading negotiations for the Republicans. He has put forward a plan b that lets taxes go up on millionaires. Now remember, Boehner originally vowed to oppose any tax rate increase. Here is his response to the president's remarks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, (R) OHIO: Good afternoon, everyone. Republicans continue to work toward avoiding the fiscal cliff. The president's offer of $1.3 trillion in revenues and $850 billion in spending reductions fails to meet the test that the president promised the American people -- a balanced approach. And I hope the president will get serious soon about providing and working with us on a balanced approach.

Tomorrow, the house will pass legislation to make permanent tax relief for nearly every American, 99.81 percent of the American people. And then the president will have a decision to make. He can call on Senate Democrats to pass that bill, or he can be responsible for the largest tax increase in American history.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJPAL: Well, as you saw there, Boehner did not take any questions. His entire statement lasted less than a minute, 52 seconds to be precise. The Republican controlled House is set to vote on Boehner's plan later Thursday. The White House calls it a waste of time.

One of the world's most famous football players will face the club where he made his name. Real Madrid Christiano Ronaldo will play Manchester United in the knockout round of the Champion's League. Alex Thomas will bring us the rest of the draw next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RAJPAL: Welcome back.

Arguably the biggest names left in the Champion's League have all been drawn against each other for the first knockout stage. Let's join Alex Thomas now in London with the details on that. Should be very exciting, Alex.

ALEX THOMAS, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Monita, at least three of the biggest clubs in the Champion's League will be missing from the quarterfinals after the round of 16 draw threw six famous sides together. AC Milan versus Barcelona and Real Madrid against Manchester United, were the ties that caused the biggest stir when the balls were picked out at UEFA's headquarters in Switzerland earlier. Between them, the four teams have won the competition 23 times. The other standout match will be Arsenal against last seasons runners up and four time winners Bayern Munich.

The draw certainly giving encouragement to outsiders for the title like Juventus, Paris Saint Germain and Borussia Dortmund, those games will be played in February.

At least Barca's tie against Milan gives coach Tito Villanova an enticing target to aim for as he begins his latest fight against a cancerous tumor. He's undergoing another operation after the problem reappeared despite surgery on it last year. It's a major blow for the 44 year old and for Barcelona who are enjoying their best ever start to a Primera Liga season in Spain.

After his operation on Thursday, Villanova will undergo six weeks of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but he's expected to return to work before then. In the meantime, his assistant Jordi Roura will be in charge.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANDRO ROSELL, BARCELONA PRESIDENT (through translator): The first and most important thing for us is Tito and his recovery. When talking about having normal status, we will try to, but we won't have normal status, because our coach is Tito, our leader is Tito, the person who is here every morning is Tito. And he won't be here for a few weeks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

THOMAS: Now if were trying to pick the toughest athlete on the planet, the man we're about to hear from would certainly be a contender, although he's far too modest to say it himself. He is New Zealand's Captain Fantastic and led the famous All Blacks to victory at last year's rugby World Cup.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICHIE MCCAW, NEW ZEALAND RUGBY TEAM CAPTAIN: I'm Richie McCaw. I'm 31 years old from New Zealand. I'm captain of the New Zealand All Blacks and I play (inaudible).

I was in a little school of 24 kids, and all they did at lunch time was play rugby so after the fifth day of school I went home to tell my folks I wanted to be -- you know, play rugby.

The first time I remember watching the All Blacks at the 87 World Cup, so I was about age six and watching on TV. And John Cohen (ph), I remember the one image I have is him scoring one of the tries in the final against France and so it would be pretty cool to be like him.

I made the New Zealand under 19 team that went to the world champs. And we (inaudible) coach who was a former All Black. And when he gave us that jersey for the first time (inaudible) there's no reason why you guys can't be an All Black. And I was just like, wow. So I guess from there it sort of became the goal.

We toured over the northern hemisphere, until you actually get out on the field you can't really call yourself an All Black.

The reason we're early risers, so I'm usually up by 7:00. If' it's after 10:30, that's super late. (inaudible) I'd say, because we've usually (inaudible). I don't know the figures, but it will be quite a few.

After a game, it's obviously pretty light, so it's recovery based, but on a Tuesday, Thursday it's probably three hours on Tuesday, three hours on a Thursday, one hour on a Friday.

I like to fly, so I got my pilot's license for helicopter and airplane.

I love competition and I hate being late.

I was at (inaudible) we was (inaudible) the Hakas. And watching opposition do one got me fired right up. A lot people get really pissed and excited about the outcomes and stuff, you know. I think we're the same, but the Hakas alongside that, you know, it's sort of who we are. And we (inaudible) sort of what the symbol is, it's -- you know, we're from a little island way down south of -- a long way from anywhere and this is who we are.

I think up until the World Cup everyone, you know, acknowledge all the All Blacks great (inaudible) in the world, but there was always a but I suppose. You know, you hadn't won the World Cup, to not have that sort of but there any more is pretty satisfying.

You readjust the challenges to -- you know, you got the tag of world champions for four years. You try and live up to that every time.

People say, oh, you know, you've been around the world physically, you know, you start to get wear and tear. Well, actually physically it's not too bad, it's just the -- probably the physically along with mentally of just doing it every day, you know, without a decent break just slowly starts to wear you down. And I'm in a pretty good space at the moment, but I know the goal was to get through the 2015, there's going to be -- it's going to get to a point where you wish you'd had a break. So I'm taking it sort of before I desperately need it with the hope that I'll come back fresh mentally and physically and you know with the goal of playing some of the best rugby hopefully of the last couple years.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

THOMAS: Richie McCaw, what a player.

That's all for now. More in World Sport in just over three-and-a-half hours time, especially on that Champion's League draw. And you know Monita, when they had the rehearsal the day before they drew out all those 16 teams in exactly the same order as today. We got famous statistics company Opta onto the case. And they say the chances of that are one in two million would you believe.

RAJPAL: Wow, so then it was meant to be, some would say.

Alex, thank you very much for that.

Well, when News Stream continues we'll bring you the very latest on the fallout from the U.S. consulate attack on Benghazi. Well, two more State Department officials are gearing up to testify on Capitol Hill. Stay with us for that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RAJPAL: I'm Monita Rajpal in Hong Kong and you're watching News Stream. These are your world headlines. We begin with news just into us. The New York Stock Exchange is being bought by Intercontinental Exchange. The company says it will buy the NYSE EuroNext for about $8.2 billion. World Business Today will of course have more details on this story in just about a half hour from now.

The UN has announced a massive humanitarian effort totaling $1.5 billion to help Syrians inside and outside the country. It estimates more than half a million people are now refugees in neighboring countries. It also says about one in four Syrians in the country need basic supplies such as food, water and medicine.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is clarifying his position on Syria. He says Russia's aim is not to preserve President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Speaking at a news conference, Mr. Putin says his main goal is to end the conflict. He called for negotiations between both sides.

U.S. President Barack Obama has named Vice President Joe Biden to head a panel to make proposals for dealing with gun violence. The task force will include figures from government and private individuals. It comes in the wake of the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. The panel has until January to deliver new ideas on gun control laws and mental health issues.

A U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians could face the death penalty. Staff Sergeant Robert Bales allegedly went on a shooting rampage near a small U.S. base in Kandahar province last March. On Wednesday, the Pentagon said Bales' case is being referred to a panel that's authorized to consider capital punishment.

One U.S. State Department official has resigned, three others are on administrative leave -- it's fallout from a scathing new report on the U.S. consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans were killed, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. The 39 page report called the Benghazi security plan, quote, grossly inadequate. Chris Lawrence reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Protests erupted across the Middle East on September 11. But despite the Obama administration claiming Benghazi began as a protest...

SUSAN RICE, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UN: What happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo. This was not a preplanned, premeditated attack.

LAWRENCE: A new report definitively says that's not true. Quote, "the board concluded that there was no protest prior to the attacks."

Investigators laid the blame for Benghazi on bureaucracy, missed warning signs, and grossly inadequate security. They interviewed more than 100 people and read through thousands of documents detailing the desperate attempts to save the U.S. ambassador.

As smoke engulfed their safe area, ambassador Chris Stevens and two others crawled to a bathroom. One of them was a security officer and he opened a window trying desperately to get some air. Instead, more smoke poured in. They couldn't see, couldn't breath. So the officer crawled out blindly, yelling for the others to follow. He slipped through another window and collapsed outside, only then realizing he was alone.

Within a week of the attack, CNN's Arwa Damon walked through that compound.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The bathroom when we saw it was covered in black soot and there were what appeared to be blood stains.

LAWRENCE: The shocking deaths prompted a rush to the microphones. Members of Congress claiming officials ignored red flags.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) ARIZONA: Why was the security at the consulate so inadequate despite two previous attacks on that facility in April and June of this year, an assassination attempt on the British ambassador in Benghazi.

LAWRENCE: But the report says consulate workers became desensitized to the threat. The longer a post is exposed to continuing high levels of violence, the more it comes to consider security incidents which might otherwise provoke a reaction as normal.

Some suggested a quicker reaction could have helped save the ambassador.

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE, (R) NEW HAMPSHIRE: Why wasn't the greatest military in the world respond...

LAWRENCE: The short answer, they just weren't close enough. Investigators acknowledged that the Pentagon rerouted a surveillance drone over Benghazi and dispatched a quick reaction force from Europe, but bottom line found there wasn't enough time to make a difference.

Chris Lawrence, CNN, the Pentagon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RAJPAL: Well, just in about a half hour, two U.S. State Department officials are due to testify at the Benghazi hearings on Capitol Hill. Elise Labott joins us now live from the State Department in Washington with more on that.

Elise, what are we expecting to hear. What do lawmakers want to hear in their testimony.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, actually, Monita, that hearing started a little bit early. It just started moments ago. Deputy Secretary Tom Nides and Bill Burns testifying, as you know. Secretary Clinton still suffering from a concussion and won't be able to testify.

I think what the committees are going to be looking for and they're going to be hearing from the Senate foreign relations -- they're going to be talking to the Senate Foreign Relations committee and the House foreign affairs committee. Not only a defense of what the department is doing now in terms of implementing some of the recommendations, but I think there's also going to be a healthy dose of discussion about, a, what you do to secure these types of posts that are in a high threat environment, you don't have a lot of personnel, you don't have a lot of facilities, yet you still need to have a presence and you need to be safe.

Also I think there's going to be a good questioning about whether some other officials should be held responsible. We saw four people out of their jobs yesterday, the top assistant secretary for diplomatic security Eric Boswell resigned and also his deputy, a few other officials in the department who were involved in decisions about security, Benghazi, were placed on administrative leave after this scathing report that the accountability review board found, a serious lack of leadership, Monita.

RAJPAL: What was interesting is that when this report had come out and Secretary Clinton was responding to it and she's saying that they were implementing some of the recommendations that the findings had recommended, there was one of the things that she said about in terms of what Congress needs to do to help the State Department implement them as well, which is granting the funds that the State Department requests.

A lot of times we hear that there are enough resources, not enough personnel, to man these missions oversees. What's congress going to do about this?

LABOTT: I think that's a very good question. It's going to be a big topic of discussion today. Interesting enough, who is chairing the hearing this morning for the Senate foreign relations committee this morning, Senator John Kerry, who we believe tapped to be the next secretary of state, that's what we're hearing.

So take a listen to what Senator Kerry is saying. He's really walking a delicate balance here, a fine line, between needing to have some tough questioning of the State Department officials today, but also showing support for the department he's going to lead and making sure that they get the resources they need. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY, (D) MASSACHUSETTES: I think the Department of State has taken a huge step forward to address the lessons learned from Benghazi, which were important to everybody. You know, there's 70,000 employees over there. There are 275 different posts. People are at risk. It's a dangerous world we're in. And I think this report is going to significantly advance the security interests and those personnel and of our country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LABOTT: And Senator Kerry just opened up the hearing moments ago talking about the fact that they are going to need to be more resources for the State Department. And when he has his confirmation hearing in just a few weeks he's going to be before congress asking for money -- Monita.

RAJPAL: Elise, thank you very much. Elise Labott there in Washington.

We take you now to South Korea. And just a day after winning presidential elections there, Park Guen-hye is pledging to work for greater economic prosperity and peace in the region.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PARK GUEN-HYE, PRESIDENT OF SOUTH KOREA (through translator): I will definitely keep my promise to open a new era of the Korean peninsula through strong security and diplomacy on the basis of mutual trust. I will try to work for greater reconciliation, cooperation and peace in northeast Asia based on correct perception of history.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJPAL: Park will assume office in February as the first female president of South Korea.

Well, you may have heard somewhere that the world might end tomorrow. Well, not to spoil the fun, but folks, it's not gonna. We'll take a look at the science behind one doomsday theory and explain why it's wrong.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RAJPAL: Whether they believe in it or not, people are talking about the apocalypse. Some are worried the world with end December 21. It has something to do with, some say, as a key date in the Mayan calendar. Well, on Wednesday, we brought you a NASA scientist who says there is no need to fear a planetary collision. Now we want to debunk another doomsday scenario, the polar shift.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANDREW FRANKNOI, ASTRONOMER: So they say, my goodness, on December 21 in one day there's going to be a flip of the Earth's rotation so that we're either going to rotate the other way or the whole planet is going to turn upside down. This is absolutely ridiculous. The force required to do that, to change the way our planet rotates would require an enormous other body to come here and affect us and we just heard that such a body would be immediately visible to all of us. And without that, there's no way to change the rotation of a huge planet like the Earth.

So people get mixed up between the long geological trend in changes in our magnetic field and our rotation. And as a result of this comes this doomsday rumor that on the winter solstice we're going to be rotating wrong. There's just nothing to it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RAJPAL: So rest assured, December 21 will not be the end of the world, but Mari Ramos at the world weather center, it certainly will be the shortest day of the year.

MARI RAMOS, CNN WEATHER CORRESPONDENT: Oh yeah, for the northern hemisphere, that's right.

You know what, part of this whole situation that's happening is because the Mayan calendar, the Mayans were great sky watchers, so they -- when they have these things that they plane the (inaudible) their time line, their calendars, they timed it with the movement of the sun and the stars. And it happens to coincide with the solstice, which is happening tomorrow also on the 21st, of course, and that is why all of these things are so mysterious and so many things are going on.

In the northern hemisphere, like you said, is the shortest day of the year. In the southern hemisphere it will be the longest day of the year as far as sunshine. The exact time when the sun rays will be in line with the Tropic of Capricorn here in the southern hemisphere is at December 21 at 11:12 GMT, that's about 6:00 in the morning here, 6:12 in the morning here in Atlanta. So figure out what time it would be for you.

There's no change except that. And of course it marks the start of the winter for the northern hemisphere and the start of the summer for you in the southern hemisphere. So there you have it, that's what is happening tomorrow astronomically speaking.

Let's go ahead and move on. We do have some other stuff to talk about as far as the weather is concerned. And you know what, I want to go ahead and start you off, first of all, with what's happening in China. If I can go ahead and move this graphic, we have some pictures -- and let's go ahead and roll the pictures that we have from the storm in Sri Lanka. This is a concern because even though it has stopped raining in the last 24, 48 hours, there is so much water still on the ground that authorities are having a really hard time trying to get the aid to the people that need it.

According to the Sri Lanka Red Cross there are approximately 18,700 people in shelters across this area. This is going to continue to be a concern over the next few days, because there is more rain on the way, not so much tonight and tomorrow, but as we head into the later part of the weekend there is another area of low pressure that could bring more rain into this region. So that does look pretty apocalyptic there for people that are suffering from that.

The other thing I wanted to tell you about is across East Asia. We do have some rain and snow that has been moving in. Even in Beijing we see a little bit of snow on the ground, less than a centimeter, though, but that is sometimes enough to cause some serious problems travel wise there. And we're definitely seeing it today. Very cold temperatures, indeed, start of winter. There you have it.

We'll take a look at your city by city forecast now.

You're looking at pictures right now that just came in to CNN just in the last hour or so. These are pictures from a tornado reported -- reported tornado, not confirmed yet, that hit in Mobile, Alabama area. You can see there the damage with the bricks stripped off the walls just structures that are mangled in the area. This is all part of the larger weather system that has been affecting this -- the southeastern U.S. There's also blizzard conditions. And we have pictures to show you from that as well.

In the northern portion of the U.S. There's also blizzard conditions and we have pictures to show you from that as well. In the northern portion of the U.S. this is in Omaha, Nebraska where there are actually eight states that have blizzard warnings right now. That's pretty significant. And there's a lot of ice and snow on the roads. In some cases visibility near zero. If you're traveling to the U.S. -- see, that's the danger right now because of the conditions there.

Come back over to the weather map very quickly. This is in the southeastern U.S. Very strong winds, very heavy rain, and the tornado that I mentioned. And this is the big picture, the snow to the north, big travel delays in the northeastern -- in the central and then in the northeastern U.S. for tomorrow. Of course, Monita, this is a big travel weekend here in the U.S. and everywhere, because it's the weekend right before Christmas. So we will be monitoring this nasty weather as well. Back to you.

RAJPAL: All right, Mari, thank you very much for that.

Still to come here on News Stream, a Christmas tree breakthrough. How one homeowner reached for new heights when it came to keeping up with the neighbors.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RAJPAL: OK. Let's go over and out there by bringing you up to date on a sticky issue we first dipped our fingers into back in August. I am of course referring to the great Quebec maple syrup mystery. You may recall that lots of the lip smacking liquid were snatched from a storehouse northeast of Montreal. Well, investigators in the province are enjoying the sweet smell of success after a syrupy trail lead them to three people they've since arrested in connection with the crime. Two-thirds of the syrup's stash have also been recovered. Officers are still looking for five more maple menaces. No doubt that when they're caught their French toast folks, French toast.

Now, as you celebrate it, Christmas is often referred to as the most wonderful time of year, but for many it can also be the most stressful -- finding the perfect tree for example is often something of a mission.

Jeanne Moos, of course, found a man who took the holiday spirit to new heights.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Maybe if this homeowner had measured better his Christmas Tree wouldn't have burst through the roof.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's crazy, right.

MOOS: What's crazy is how crazy everyone is about this Christmas tree stunt that really doesn't stunt anyone from more than a few seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So we bought a 14 foot tree and I cut the top six feet of it off.

MOOS: Then plunked it onto a plywood platform on the roof and artfully arranged shingles around it.

It's funny, you're house is sort of proof that the price of trees has gone through the roof.

(LAUGHTER)

MOOS: Seattle architect Patrick Kruger (ph) has always been a huge fan of the movie Christmas Vacation in which the main character Clark Griswald is obsessed with a perfect tree.

CHEVY CHASE, ACTOR: There it is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dad, that thing wouldn't fit in our yard.

CHASE: It's not going in our yard, Russ, it's going in our living room.

MOOS: That's kind of what Patrick did. His license plate even pays homage to the Christmas fixated Griswalds.

Actually, the first tree Patrick put up on the roof had a problem your average living room tree doesn't, it blew off.

The plywood platform it's on had to be bolted down.

True, this is not a new concept. In England and in Lincolnwood, Illinois, there have been grander versions of the same visual joke with the tree cut in three.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're saying it's better than this one?

MOOS: Yours has a Charlie Brown aspect to it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it needs me.

MOOS: What Patrick needs and has is a kinky Christmas tree as well as a nice plump regular one with a start that grazes the ceiling rather than pierces it.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RAJPAL: Christmas Vacation is my favorite Christmas film, just so you know.

Well, Barack Obama's Twitter feed calls it the picture of the day. And we've got to agree with that. It shows the president pretending to be caught in a Spider-Man's web with the son of a White House staff member playing the part of a very small, but very cute Spider-Man. If you look carefully, behind the president you can see it's all happening just outside the Oval Office.

The photo was part of a profile for Time magazine, which as you know just named Obama its person of the year. And it's not the first time we've seen the president and Spider-Man together. Four years ago, he actually appeared in an issue of the comic where the superhero foiled a plot to ruin the Obama's inauguration. The comic was produced because Marvel says Obama is a fan of Spider-Man.

And that is News Stream for this Thursday, but the news continues here on CNN. I'm Monita Rajpal. World Business Today is next.

END