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Powerful Blasts Rip Through Tripoli; President Obama One-on- One; Hundreds Killed in Syria; American Held Hostage in Syria Tells His Story; Hasan Jury Deliberates; Pussy Riot Seeks Community Service; Bo Xilai Trial Continues

Aired August 23, 2013 - 12:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: I want her on my speed dial, tool. You can watch that entire interview between Anderson and Antoinette Tuff tonight, an "A.C. 360" special version of it at 11:00 eastern.

Thanks for watching, everyone. Have a great weekend.

AROUND THE WORLD starts now.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What I think the American people expect me to do as president is to think through what we do from the perspective of what is in our long-term national interests.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Egypt, Syria and Afghanistan, President Obama sitting down with our own Chris Cuomo for a one-on-one interview to discuss all of it.

IVAN WATSON, CNN ANCHOR: Chaos on the streets. Cars on fire. Explosions ripped through Tumas (ph) to northern Lebanon. We'll get a live report from Tripoli.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you're being tortured by a maniac, you're going to say what they want you to say sooner or later. So I just chose sooner rather than later because it was a lot less painful.


MALVEAUX: An American kidnapped and tortured by al Qaeda tells us the story of a harrowing escape.

Welcome to AROUND THE WORLD. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

WATSON: And I'm Ivan Watson, filling in for Michael Holmes.

MALVEAUX: Good to have you here now. Tensions are rising in the Middle East have two huge explosions. This is out of Tripoli, Lebanon. An Israeli military strike as well inside of Lebanese territory. But first, the Israeli attack.

WATSON: Here's where it happened. It's in an area between the capital of Beirut and the city of Sidon. Israel says it was a terror site and ordered the strike in direct response to yesterday's rocket attack on Israel, launched from inside Lebanon.

MALVEAUX: Arwa Damon, she is joining us from Lebanon.

And, Arwa, we're going to get to the Israeli strike in a moment here, but first, you're in Tripoli, so we want to talk about this. These are these two massive explosions that happened earlier today. And you can actually see the moment of impact in the video that we're - we're going to play this for you right there. And what have we learned actually about those two attacks and who's behind them. There's that shot.

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's some pretty dramatic video there. And we're actually standing in front of the mosque where that took place. It's the Alsolom (ph) mosque. You can see the men right behind me. They actually just put out a call to residents in the area, whoever has a broom, to come in and help them sweep out the mosque because they want to hold prayers there later in solidarity.

Now, these two explosions happened simultaneously here in Tripoli. Both of them occurring outside of mosques and both of them happening just as people should have been finishing prayers, heading out the door. We heard from some eyewitnesses that the only reason why more people weren't outside, why the death toll and the toll of the wounded wasn't even higher, was because prayers happen to start a few moments late.

Both of these locations perceived to be very pro-Sunni. This particular mossing is located in an area that houses the former intelligence chiefs here in Lebanon, known for his anti-Syrian, anti- Assad regime positions. The other location is where a very well-known (INAUDIBLE) imam preaches. And he's had some pretty fiery rhetoric when it comes to the conflict in Syria, going so far as to call on the Sunni population here to rise and go to jihad.

There's a lot of blaming going on here. A lot of finger pointing. A lot of people here on the ground blaming the Lebanese militant political group Hezbollah. They have also been sending their fighters into neighboring Syria. That being said, though, Hezbollah itself and other key players here on all sides of the spectrum trying to put out messages to calm down their followers. No one wants to see the situation here escalate any further.

MALVEAUX: All right, Arwa, thank you.

And now to the Israeli strike. This is south of Beirut, Lebanon. Israel's apparent target was a Palestinian militant base there. There were no casualties. Now, it was in response to a rocket attack on northern Israel yesterday. Now the Israeli defense forces says that four rockets were fired from southern Lebanon, two of them landing in populated areas. Now, the rockets, they did cause some damage, but we are told that no one was hurt. And another conflict in the Middle East, this one a potential game changer. We're talking about reports that chemical weapons were used to kill perhaps as many as 1,300 people, if you can believe that, in Syria. President Obama being pushed to act after these horrific images of alleged victims were posted online.

WATSON: And many of them, sadly, tragically, were children. They're bodies were lined up forcing the world to face the possibility that a nerve gas had been used. Syrian rebels say government forces launched a chemical attack. The government denies it. President Obama is now responding to the potential chemical weapons massacre in an exclusive interview with our Chris Cuomo.


CHRIS CUOMO, ANCHOR, CNN'S "NEW DAY": Let me ask you about some of the emerging situations, most recently, Syria. You've seen the images. You know the situation very well. Do you believe at this point you need to investigate in order to say what seems obvious, which is that the U.S. needs to do more?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, we are, right now, gathering information about this particular event, but I can say that unlike some of the evidence that we were trying to get earlier, that led to a U.N. investigator going into Syria, what we've seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern. And, you know, we are already in communications with the entire international community. We're moving through the U.N. to try to prompt better action from them. And we've called on the Syrian government to allow investigation of the site because U.N. inspectors are on the ground now.

We don't expect cooperation given their past history. And, you know, what I do believe is that, although the situation in Syria is very difficult and the notion that the U.S. can somehow solve what is a sectarian, complex problem inside of Syria, sometimes is over stated.

CUOMO: But delay can be deadly, right, Mr. President?

OBAMA: There's no - there is no doubt that when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale, and, again, we're still gathering information about this particular event, but it is very troublesome. And --

CUOMO: There's strong proof they've used them already, though, in the past.

OBAMA: Then that starts getting to some core national interest that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region. This is something that is going to require America's attention and hopefully the entire international community's attention.

CUOMO: Senator McCain came on "NEW DAY" very strong on this. He believes that the U.S.'s credibility in the region has been hurt. That a situation like Syria that he believe there's been delay and it has led to a boldness by the regime there, that in Egypt that what many believe was a coup wasn't called a coup that led to the problems that we're seeing there now. Do you think that's fair criticism?

OBAMA: Well, I - you know, I am sympathetic to Senator McCain's passion for helping people work through what is an extraordinarily difficult and heartbreaking situation. But what I think the American people also expect me to do as president is to think through what we do from the perspective of, what is in our long term national interest. You know, sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn in to very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region. We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long term national interest, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians.


MALVEAUX: All right, we want to stop it right there. We're going to bring you more of that interview with the president in just a couple of minutes.

But right now, want to take a closer look at what is happening in Syria. And we've got to warn you here because these images, they're very graphic, they're very disturbing. And if you have to turn away, please do. But, listen - at least listen to the story. This is Britain's ITV News. It's obtained video from what they say is a credible, independent Syrian filmmaker and a journalist who provided this forum. They are very graphic images. But, again, important to see. And they showed these --

WATSON: Could be evidence possibly (INAUDIBLE).

MALVEAUX: Could possibly be evidence. That's absolutely right. These are what look like victims lying simply where they fell. These are children beside their mothers. This is in, this is around their homes. You can see the babies in their arms. They - it is clear that they died an agonizing death, just struggling to breathe.

This - this is -

WATSON: This video was reportedly taken shortly after this week's suspected poison gas attack, which rebels blame on Syrian government forces. And some of these images are reminiscent of pictures that came out of northern Iraq after Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds there in the late 1980s. Very, very disturbing.

Now, our Fred Pleitgen, he's joining us on the phone from the Syrian capital, Damascus, and Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economies as well.

Now, Fred, first to you. There's an international debate underway whether we have witnessed the deadliest chemical weapons attack basically since Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in Iraq in the '80s. now, you've traveled to a neighborhood close to where this week's alleged chemical weapons attack occurred. Did you see any conclusive evidence there?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): No, there was definitely no conclusive evidence there to be seen. What we did was, we traveled to the outskirts of Ota (ph), which is, of course, one of the areas, as you said, that was allegedly hit by these chemical weapons and we actually talked to some people who were going in and out of that neighborhood. There -

WATSON: I'm afraid we've lost Fred Pleitgen there, of course, on the phone from Syria, from Damascus. And you'd be surprised at how close the locations are between the center of Damascus and these areas that are believed to have been hit.

MALVEAUX: I want to bring in Professor Gerges to talk about this a little bit because we did hear from the president and he says that there are three things that need to happen before the United States takes further action. That they've got to verify, first of all, this chemical strike. They've got to have a U.N. mandate and a coalition to work with before they do more. What -- how much time would you give the president? And tell us what his options are, you know, that would be effective in this case.

FAWAZ GERGES, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS: Well, I don't think the president is in a hurry to plunge into Syria's killing field. And I think he's absolutely correct to try to find if chemical weapons were use and who used chemical weapons in the eastern suburb of Damascus. We have no independent evidence. We have reports, very credible reports, very moving reports, as we have seen the images in the last few days.

But regardless - regardless of whether gas was used or not, this was the largest casualty figure in the history of the Syrian conflict in the last two (ph) years and a half. Given and take, between 1,500 say and 500 civilians killed. And if proven, this would be a game changer, not just for the United States, for the international community as well.

But let me say one point. I make it very clear. Even though we do not have independent information about whether chemical weapons were used or not, the burden of proof morally and legally lies squarely on Assad's shoulders. He can basically convince the Syrian people and all of us here by allowing U.N. inspectors, who are already in Damascus, you have a strong U.N. team with 20 members, to visit, he grants them access at least to his part of the eastern part of Damascus in order to verify whether chemical weapons or gas were used a few days ago.

WATSON: Now, I'm going to interrupt. We have Fred Pleitgen back on the phone from Syria.

Fred, the Russian government, which is perhaps the strongest patron of the Assad regime, has called on Bashar al Assad to allow the inspectors to go and see these sites. Do you have any indication that the U.N. inspectors will be allowed to go into those areas from the Syrian government officials you're talking to? PLEITGEN: Well, there certainly is a lot of pressure on the Syrian government officials. But at this point in time, it doesn't seem as though yet we're very close to them being allowed into the area. And part, of course, that has to do with the fact that you're dealing with a very sick bureaucracy here that doesn't move very quickly. It's very difficult for the U.N. inspectors to actually work with the Syrian authorities.

But on the other hand, of course, there are these safety concerns that people always talk about, the fact that they would obviously be crossing a front line to get to these places and they have to negotiate with both sides to be able to get in. So what we're hearing so far from Syrian officials is that they are obviously sympathetic to the mission they say of these weapon inspectors, but it's not clear whether the weapons inspectors will, in the near future, be allowed in there as we're hearing artillery shells going off right next to us. Unclear how quick they'll be able to go in there.

Of course, also today, Ivan, it's Friday here and therefore public life has pretty much come to a - to a standstill. But there are many Syrians who we've also been talking to who say that, yes, they believe that this team has to go down there very quickly.

And by far, not all these people actually believe it was the government that did it. There's people that I talked to here in the government controlled areas who place the blame on the opposition. Of course, the people that we're talking to very sympathetic to the government. So, it is a very difficult situation. It's a very sensitive mission that the inspectors have and really very hard for them to navigate between the fact that they have a regime here in Damascus that's very distrustful of what the inspectors want to do. And on the other hand, of course, they have the international community that's pounding their door to get to those areas as fast as possible, Ivan.

WATSON: Wow. And do take care. And that just gives you a sense of how - just how complicated the situation is. Our own Fred Pleitgen there hearing artillery thundering in the distance. And do take care of yourself there, Fred.

MALVEAUX: And, Professor Gerges, very quickly here, what are the options here? You've got the cruise missile strike, perhaps an air strike. Are there any good options for the United States in getting involved in this and protecting the Syrian people?

GERGES: Suzanne, I know many in the United States, particularly Senator McCain, have been calling for military strikes. I would argue that once American bombs fall in Damascus, the dynamics of the conflicts will change. This would complicate and exacerbate an already highly complex situation. It would basically change the dynamics from the anti-Assad into the American situation. And that's why, I think, President Barack Obama is absolutely correct -

MALVEAUX: All right.

GERGES: Not only to take his time, but even to create an international coalition to deal with the situation (INAUDIBLE).

MALVEAUX: All right.

WATSON: We're going to have to cut you off. I'm sorry. We're just running out of time here.

And we're going to have more of that one-on-one interview with President Obama ahead in the program.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, my sense is with Egypt is that the aid itself may not reverse what the interim government does.


WATSON: The president tells us how he feels the U.S. should move forward with Egypt.

And -


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The only two things that scare me are time and the torture. I was just - because it got to -- it gets to the point where you just say, you know what, just shoot me.


MALVEAUX: Still to come, an American held hostage by al Qaeda in Syria for seven months. Our conversation with him, next.


MALVEAUX: So one of these photographers who was shooting these images coming out of Syria, suddenly, he became the story.

We're talking about Matthew Schrier. He's an American, and he was captured by al Qaeda. He was beaten and he was starved.

WATSON: After seven months in captivity, he's found the will and the courage to escape that kidnapping, but it forced him to make an agonizing last second choice.

Nick Paton Walsh has his harrowing story.


SCHRIER: He just took my hat and pulled it over my face and put my head down between my legs and put the barrel of the gun to my temple.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is how 35- year-old photographer says al Qaeda first grabbed him in Syria, kidnapped as he tried to travel home to Long Island, New York, a home he left to tell the story of Syrian rebels through pictures. He knew he wouldn't be freed after he was thrown into a dark concrete cell with another American who was covered in grime.

As an American you guys can talk.

SCHRIER: I realized it was an American. That was when I realized they weren't letting me go. This guy looked like he been there for a hundred years.

WALSH: Al Qaeda linked militants in Aleppo. He took these photos.

SCHRIER: The only two things that scare me are time and the torture. I was just -- because you got -- you get to the point where you're just like, you know what? Just shoot me.

WALSH: His captors became brutal.

SCHRIER: They put a tire over your knees and put a stick through it and flip you over and take a cable like this thick and they take turns whacking the bottom of your feet. They've got little kids in there. They have to carry you back to the cell.

WALSH: Tortured for his credit card and bank passwords, his captors using nearly all his money to buy iPads and sunglasses on eBay.

They didn't want a ransom, just a confession.

SCHRIER: They wanted me to say I'm a CIA agent.

WALSH: Eventually he broke.

SCHRIER: Say you're an agent or we'll hit you very hard. I sat there and I was like, they're just going to torture me until I say it.

You're going to say what they want you to say. I chose sooner than later.

SCHRIER: Locked up together in six different prisons, he says he and the other American didn't get along but had to plan their escape.

One cell had a window up high with a flimsy wire grill which they could fit through, but if caught they could be killed.

Matt says the other American who we haven't been able to speak to was hard to convince.

SCHRIER: He's like, you're endangering my life. I'm like I'm trying to save your life.

WALSH: Eventually he was persuaded. They needed each other to push up and squeeze through.

SCHRIER: Third day, we went. I took apart the screen, pushed sandbags aside and I got stuck around my waist, so I had to reach in. I unbuckled my pants. As soon as I unbuckled my pants, I shot right out.

WALSH: But it wasn't as easy for the other American who we're not naming for his safety.

SCHRIER: He wasn't fitting. I was like take off your shirt. Get in there. And I'm pulling him and I'm pulling him as hard as I could.

I couldn't run away and leave him there. You know what I mean? We were both Americans. We're in this together.

We weren't making any headway and we were making too much noise. And the windows were open and the lights were above me. And the sun was coming up.

WALSH: And you must have known then that you had to leave him?

SCHRIER: Yeah. Yeah, it was one of the hardest things I eve had to do.

And I didn't just leave him. I said -- I was like, you're not fitting.

WALSH: What's his face look like to you when he was talking?

SCHRIER: He was scared. I was like I got to go. He only said once, he was like, come back. And I was like I can't come back. And I was like I'll get help. I'll get help.

And he was just like, all right. Go.

WALSH: Is there a part of you which is worried about where he might be alive now?

SCHRIER: I think he's alive. There's always the possibility that he's not.

WALSH: What would you say to him?

SCHRIER: I'm sorry that it worked out like this. You know, it's hard to move on because he's still there. It hasn't ended yet, 100 percent. And, you know, I'm not going to have closure until he's home.

WALSH: Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, New York.


MALVEAUX: It's just a powerful story.

If you wonder why nobody actually missed Schrier, it was because his captors actually used his e-mail and they sent these messages to his mother and to one of his friends saying he was fine and that he was there extending his trip to take more pictures. So they weren't really worried about him. And so that's why people didn't ask questions for a while.

WATSON: No closure after this ordeal. He still has no idea what happened to his cellmate in Syria.

MALVEAUX: And, Ivan, you and I discussed this. You know those places. You've been on the ground. You've seen those place. You've been up close. And this is the kind of thing that can happen in those places now where you've covered this.

WALSH: I've been in those places, but I would not go today because the armed opposition of a year and a half ago, which was largely village civil defense units, people protecting their communities from the Syrian government forces which were bombing them, have largely been eclipsed, very sadly, by al Qaeda linked groups that it's just not safe to work with.

MALVEAUX: It's too dangerous.


MALVEAUX: All right, thank you, Ivan.

Here is more of what we're working on for AROUND THE WORLD.

This Russian punk group used a song in a cathedral to criticize then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

It landed some of them in prison. Now they're trying again to get out of jail.



The fate of Major Nidal Hasan is now in the hands of a military jury deliberating right now. This is in Fort Hood, Texas.

Now Hasan is the Army psychiatrist charged with killing 13 people, wounding 32 others, at Fort Hood in 2009. And prosecutors say that Hasan targeted soldiers deployed to Afghanistan because he had what he called a, quote, "jihad duty" to kill as many of them as possible.

Now Hasan admits to the shooting, but under military law, defendants are not allowed to plead guilty in death penalty cases.

WATSON: You guys may remember this video. It's of the Russian punk band, Pussy Riot. They performed a song critical of the Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at an orthodox cathedral in Moscow last year.

Now since that infamous performance, three members were tried and sentenced. And now the lawyers for two band members still in prison are asking for them to serve their remaining time in community service. The women are due to be released next March.

MALVEAUX: And to China which is riveted by the high-profile trial of a disgraced politician. We're talking about Bo Xilai.

He faces charges of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power. Now it's all a spectacular fall from grace here. This is man who was part of the communist party royalty who some thought would become president.

A lot of twists and turns to the saga. His wife was convicted of murdering a British businessman and that might have sealed his fate.

She testified in a video about complex tax shelters and murky real estate deals in Europe saying Bo knew all about it.

Bo called his imprisoned wife's allegations "insane."

WATSON: Coming up on AROUND THE WORLD, we have more of Chris Cuomo's one-on-one with President Obama.