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Obama About to Touch Down in Tel Aviv; Chemical Weapons Used in Syrian Civil War?; South Korea Cyber Attack; Sanford Wins Special Election; Malala Returns to School

Aired March 20, 2013 - 05:00   ET


ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama's first visit to Israel since taking office. We are live as he begins this historic trip.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And that trip taking on a new urgency as evidence builds this morning that Syria's government is using chemical weapons on its own people.

SAMBOLIN: Redemption for Mark Sanford. New this morning, the controversial former governor of South Carolina, one step closer to winning a seat in the House.

HARLOW: And inspiring words from the young girl shot in the head by the Taliban as she returns to school for the first time.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Poppy Harlow, in for John Berman.

SAMBOLIN: Nice to have you, Poppy.

HARLOW: Good to be with you.

SAMBOLIN: I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

It is Wednesday, March 20th. It is the first day of spring, can you believe it? It is also 5:00 a.m. in the East.

And we begin with President Obama. About to touchdown in Tel Aviv for start of historic Middle East visit. His plane lands in less than 90 minutes from now and his mission is taking on a new urgency at this hour, because there is mounting evidence the Syrian government has used chemical weapons on its own people near the city of Aleppo.

Listen to Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He was in "THE SITUATION ROOM" with CNN's Wolf Blitzer.


REP. MIKE ROGERS (R), MICHIGAN: I have a high probability to believe that chemical weapons were used. We need that final verification. We need to step up in the world community to prevent a humanitarian disaster.


SAMBOLIN: We're tapping into the global resources of CNN this morning to bring you the most complete coverage of the developing story.

Sara Sidner is in Jerusalem. Ivan Watson is in Amman, Jordan. And Chris Lawrence ios standing by, he is live at the Pentagon.

Let's begin with Sara Sidner this morning.

Sara, how did these developments in Syria affect the president's agenda on this trip?

SARA SIDNER, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, not much, because this has been a major concern already for both the Obama administration and Netanyahu's administration.

We do know, according to a senior Israeli official that I spoke with on condition of anonymity, that this issue of the United States being asked to strike Syria if certain things such as some of their weapons, missiles in particular are heading over the border to Hezbollah, an organization in Lebanon that the United States and Israel both consider a terrorist organization. That is going to be something that is going to be on the agenda in the discussions.

But this chemical weapon issue is obviously one that they were going to be talking about beforehand. They also have talked about the difficulties if you speak with folks that know about how to get rid of some of the weapons, the difficulties of getting rid of chemical weapons, you cannot just do an air strike. You have to go in on the ground to pull those out. A very big concern.

We've been on the border of the Israel-Syria border and the Golan Heights, and been able to hear some of the fighting inside of Syria. Some of that fighting spilled over into Israel.

So, definitely, a very high concern, something that will be talked about between the president and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

SAMBOLIN: Probably just moves up on the agenda.

And do we expect President Obama to move forward in the movement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as well?

SIDNER: That is the issue that is causing controversy. A lot of people are not expecting. They have really given low expectations when it comes to whether or not a peace process plan will be put in place.

But we are now hearing that there is possibly going to be some movement because we're hearing that Kerry is coming back here on Saturday to sit with Netanyahu, to see how they can push forward this peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians basically looking at this saying, look, we don't think anything is going to move forward. They really hope that something will happen. But there hasn't been any very high expectations here, Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Sara Sidner, live in Jerusalem, thank you.

HARLOW: And to Syria now where the Assad regime and rebel forces are both accusing one another of using chemical weapons. Syrian state media claimed yesterday that opposition forces, those rebel forces, launched a chemical attack in Aleppo province, killing at least two dozen people, injuring more than 100 people.

Rebels deny that charge vehemently and accuse regime forces of shelling a town near Damascus with chemical rockets.

Our senior international correspondent Ivan Watson is in Amman, Jordan, this morning. He'd been watching it all.

I know there are a lot of questions as to substantiating these claims. But what do we know so far?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Most of the information is coming from Syrian state TV, and that's claiming that at least 25 people were killed, Poppy, on Tuesday in some kind of an attack in a village to the west of Aleppo called Khan Al-Gheso (ph). Scores of people wounded.

And then Syrian state TV playing interviews with some of the alleged victims who were saying that they smelled chlorine and almost all aping the same somewhat propagandistic message, is this the freedom that the Free Syrian Army rebels want? So, some of those statements do come out to be a little suspect.

Neither side has been entirely truthful when it comes to the information and media war over Syria.

Now, very quickly, the rebels came out and accused the government, in fact, of carrying out a chemical weapons attack there. Now some chemical weapons experts have already gone on record saying they're seeing very little evidence to prove that any weapons of mass destruction, any nerve toxins were used in this deadly incident -- Poppy.

HARLOW: And, Ivan, I know when you talk about the government being accused, Assad forces of using chemical weapons, it's been discussed before not long ago around Homs. But there hasn't been substantiated evidence.

It brings up the question of the Assad regime blaming rebels for this, possibly creating a front so that it can do the same.

WATSON: You know, we really don't know in this fog of war. Yes, the rebels have accused the Syrian regime of carrying out chemical weapons attacks in the past. But, again, we haven't gotten huge evidence of this.

Why this is such a big hot potato, the Obama administration said that use of chemical weapons is a red line and it would prompt a response from the U.S. government. The rebels and the Syrian opposition find this kind of ridiculous because there has been no response from the U.S. government when the Syrian government has fired Scud missiles at its own cities, used jets to bomb villages and towns in cities and artillery as well. So there have been so many atrocities in the past. Many Syrians asking, why is this a red line but the killing of some 70,000 people over the past two years doesn't really rank up there -- Poppy.

HARLOW: And skepticism on that, of course, I'm sure that the president and his team are discussing it on Air Force One overnight. I wonder if we'll hear a statement from him this morning when he lands in Israel.

Ivan Watson reporting from Amman, thank you.

SAMBOLIN: It is six minutes past the hour.

As we mentioned, the White House is keeping a close eye on the situation in Syria. Chief of staff Denis McDonough told CNN's Jake Tapper that the president takes the reports, quote, "very seriously."


DENIS MCDONOUGH, NATIONAL SECURITY STAFF CHIEF OF STAFF: We are going to be very clear to the Syrian regime, as we have been throughout, and to all the Syrian supporters throughout the world and then obviously to our partners in the region, that if this is substantiated, obviously, it does suggest as the president just said that this is a game changer and we'll act accordingly.


SAMBOLIN: So does that mean the United States would take some kind of military action?

Chris Lawrence is live at the Pentagon this morning.

Good morning, Chris.

And that's really the big question. What will the response be from the United States?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I mean, that would be the red line that the president has already established. I can tell you, though, from U.S. military officials, they are still urging everyone to proceed very slowly. In fact, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff just this week said this situation wasn't very clear six months ago. It is less clear today.

Now, General Martin Dempsey is one of those who advocated arming the Syrian rebels last year during discussions with the White House. But he still feels although there is some opportunities there to do that, he feels that would best be done through allies. He feels that some of the U.S. allies have a better idea of what is going on there on the ground.

U.S. officials are telling us that they have seen some of the movement of those chemical weapons in the past few weeks away from the fighting and that is making it a little bit more difficult to track where they are -- Zoraida. SAMBOLIN: Chris Lawrence live at the Pentagon -- thank you.

HARLOW: Well, a developing story this hour out of Seoul. South Korean officials investigating a suspected cyber attack that left computer networks at several banks and media outlets just paralyzed. Three major broadcasters and two banks reportedly been impacted by this. It's not yet clear if those cyber attacks originated in North Korea or somewhere else. But we'll have more on this developing story throughout the morning.

SAMBOLIN: And new this morning, redemption for Mark Sanford. The former South Carolina governor finishing first last night in a special election, advancing to a runoff in two weeks in his bid to win a House seat. He picked up 37 percent of the vote, well short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

Sanford is calling his victory humbling.


MARK SANFORD (R), SOUTH CAROLINA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: What the voters care about is not my personal journey, what they care about is what am I going to do if elected to watch out for their pocketbook and their wallet.


SAMBOLIN: Sanford was forced to step down as governor after lying about an extramarital affair. If Sanford wins next month's special election, he'll face off against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert-Busch in May. She is the sister of TV, that's Colbert, Stephen Colbert.


HARLOW: People love a comeback story, don't they?

SAMBOLIN: He says he is going to support his sister.

HARLOW: All right. One more story to tell you about, folks. The man whose 911 call may have prevented a campus massacre at the University of Central Florida speaking out, saying how it all went down.

Police say suspect James Seevakumaran pulled the arm at the UCF dorm when his roommate Arabo Babakhani came out to investigate the suspect, allegedly pointed an assault rifle right at him.

Here's what he told CNN's Anderson Cooper.


ARABO "BK" BAKHANINI, ROOMMATE OF UCF GUNMAN: I was not going to let him shoot me. I just slammed the door, locked it and I moved away from the door in case he fired at the door. I took some cover in my room so he wouldn't, like, be able to -- the bullets wouldn't be able to penetrate anything and I just called 911.


HARLOW: Completely calm for someone who has just gone through that.

Well, by the time officers arrived, Seevakumaran was dead from a self- inflicted gunshot in the head. Investigators say he had detailed plans for a campus massacre, four homemade bombs, a handgun, an assault weapon, and about 1,000 rounds of ammunition.

SAMBOLIN: A bizarre and offensive scene in an Ohio courtroom as a judge handed T.J. Lane three life sentences for last year's shootings at Chardon High School. Three students were killed, three others were wounded.

Take a look at this. First he unbuttoned his shirt revealing a word killer written on it. When given the chance to address the court, Lane made an obscene gesture at the victim's families and spoke to them briefly using explicit language.

Lane smirked throughout the entire hearing and laughed when the prosecutor referred to him as an evil person.

HARLOW: Well, a brave girl, the Pakistani teen shot in the head by the Taliban is now back in school. Malala Yousafzai was shot five months ago for demanding the girls in her country be educated. The 15-year-old talked about her first day back in class.


MALALA YOUSAFZAI, SHOT BY TALIBAN: I think it is the happiest moment that I'm going back to my school. And today I will have my books, my bag and I will talk to my friends. I'll talk to my teacher.


HARLOW: Wonderful outlook.

Well, Malala has been getting medical treatment in Birmingham, England.

SAMBOLIN: It's so nice o see her going back to school, exactly what she wants to do, right?

HARLOW: Absolutely.

SAMBOLIN: All right. It is first day of spring, believe it or not, but not for big part of the country. Next, we go live where winter weather is still causing major problems this morning.


SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to EARLY START.

Today is the vernal equinox. You know what that is? The first day of spring.

But for much of the country, you would not know it. This was a scene in New Hampshire Tuesday after a late season snowstorm. Boston apparently wasn't much better. Seven inches of now there.

And it's not over. More snow is expected to fall in parts of New England and the upper Midwest where below freezing temps make the first day of spring feel like the dead winter.

CNN's Chris Welch is live in Minneapolis this morning.

Oh, my goodness. Happy spring to you.

CHRIS WELCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Happy spring, Zoraida, yes. You said it. It feels like the dead of winter.

I'm actually standing on a snow bank right now here in downtown Minneapolis. I guess it's probably 15 feet tall in certain parts. This is a parking lot here that's basically been used as a dumping ground for a lot of this snow here in Minneapolis.

They cleared it off the streets. They bring it here. You can see how dirty some of the snow is. That's because it's been here for so long. It's been so cold. None of this stuff has really had a chance do melt. You know, we've seen just about everyone from the Midwest to New England dealing with this kind of stuff. And almost everyone, I'm sure, is saying enough.


WELCH (voice-over): When Punxsutawney Phil showed up last month, he told us to prep for an early spring. Well, Punxsutawney Phil might be full of you-know-what.

Today is the official first day of spring, but winter's grip appears far from over. From the Midwest to New England, late season winter storms bringing as much as 15 inches of snow in some areas, leading to another round of school closures and travel nightmares.

In Maine, this was the scene on the roads earlier this week. Worcester, Massachusetts, saw one of the snowiest winters on record with totals of more than 100 inches. Six of those fell this week.

To add insult to injury, all you have to do is think back to exactly one year ago. We were in a heat wave. Sneakers replaced snow shoes in Boston and this was the scene in Manchester, New Hampshire. No snow, maybe just a snow cone. It was so warm in Fargo, North Dakota, this man could ice fish without bundling up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Seventy degrees up here. Down here, you're sitting on an ice cube.

WELCH: This year, that's not the case.

So why the contrast?

CNN meteorologist Chad Myers.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: You know the old saying, sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug. Well, here, sometimes you're under the ridge like we were last year, Fargo, North Dakota, 80 degrees. And sometimes you're under the ridge here, cold weather across the same area. Fargo this morning, 10 below zero.


WELCH: Now, as much as I hate to think about this, Zoraida, last year, St. Patrick's Day it was 80 degrees. Right now, the wind chill is minus seven. And tonight, we might -- we might see 23 degrees.

SAMBOLIN: OK, Chris, I've got to tell you, there are hearty folks in Minneapolis.

HARLOW: I mean, my hometown. I know you can handle it, Chris.

WELCH: Poppy knows. Poppy knows. She's from here.

HARLOW: I feel your pain.

SAMBOLIN: Thank you.

WELCH: I know you do. Thank you.

HARLOW: Well, it is 18 minutes after the hour.

Let's get you up to date. Christine Romans has the top stories.


President Obama touches down in Tel Aviv in just over an hour. His Middle East visit growing more complicated now by the minute, with growing concerns the Syrian government has used chemical weapons on its own people near the city of Aleppo. The president is scheduled to sit down for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that is just before Noon Eastern Time.

White House officials say, of course, it's a game changer if the Assad regime has deployed chemical weapons and the U.S. would act accordingly. The regime claims the rebels have launched a chemical attack. Rebels deny that charge and U.S. officials say Assad's opponents, they don't have any chemical weapons.

The Carnival cruise ship Triumph won't sail any time soon, you guys. Carnival has cancelled 10 schedule cruises while repairs are made to the fire damaged ship. The Triumph spent several days stranded in the Gulf of Mexico last month with passengers subjected to overflowing toilets, food shortages. The ship is expected to return to service in early June.

The U.S. is sending a message to North Korea, a message in the form of B-52 bombers. A Pentagon spokesman confirms that B-52s are making flights over South Korea. It's part of military exercise this is month. The bombers are flying out of Anderson Air Force Base on the Pacific island of Guam. North Korea calls the flights an unpardonable provocation.

HARLOW: Christine, thank you.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

HARLOW: Well, coming up, bailout rejected in the tiny country of Cyprus now facing a banking collapse. It could have an impact across the world.


HARLOW: Minding your business this morning.

For Wall Street, it is all about Europe once again this week. We've been talking about this possible bailout for the tiny but right now very important country of Cyprus.

Well, last night a big part of the $13 billion plan to try to get it back in shape was rejected.

Christine Romans has been following it very closely.

Greece and now, Cyprus?

ROMANS: I know. And here it is, it's a little tiny -- a tiny little island economy that it really -- I mean, the Dow was whipsawed yesterday in this country because we're watching what happens there. All of these cracks in Europe very important to the U.S.

Stock futures right now are up. Dow futures are up 30 points. But this tiny country bears watching this morning, it's Cyprus.

The problem is going to sound familiar to you. If Cyprus doesn't get a bailout, it could go bankrupt, exit the euro-zone, and lead to financial instability at exactly the wrong time for the world economy.

Now, the plan to fix the problems there include slapping a fee on bank deposits in the country. You know, we complain about bank fees here. This is one major bank fee.

Cypriot parliament voted this bank fee down and now, a bailout of the country is in jeopardy. Here's what they were thinking of. Think of this way. If you get a bank account with $129,000, you would have been taxed $8,700, gone. Taken right out of your account just like that.

The people in Cyprus protested. They rushed to withdraw their money. Look at the protest lines at the banks.

The euro group president says any bailout needs to come with strings attached and the Russians, guess what? Why are the Russians not happy about this tax? Because about $30 billion, a third of money in Cyprus belongs to Russian business and people, basically a tax haven. Russians are parking their money in Cyprus because the taxes are so much lower.

So, this would be a tax on Russian money, too. For now the banks remain closed until Thursday. The Cyprus stock exchange remains closed. The U.K. is flying one million euros in cash to Cyprus for British soldiers who might run short of money.

This is a really interesting situation to watch here in Cyprus.

HARLOW: Imagine your bank being closed.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. You have no access for three days.

ROMANS: It's a reminder of how fragile and interconnected some of the pieces are in the European story. We're watching a recession deepen in Europe. This is just one tiny little part of the story. Big banks there, though, and big banking ties, bears watching.

SAMBOLIN: Also when you think you have awe tax haven.

ROMANS: That's right.

SAMBOLIN: Christine, thank you.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

SAMBOLIN: Twenty-six minutes past the hour.

New information this morning that just a few restless nights could pack on the pounds immediately. We're going to have the details, coming up.


SAMBOLIN: President Obama touching down shortly in Israel. The historic trip comes with a new urgency, as claims of Syria is using chemical weapons on its own people grow louder.