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Kidnapped American Pleads for Release; Christmas Ice Storm; North Korea: Ready For Combat

Aired December 26, 2013 - 05:00   ET


MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news overnight. New video of an American kidnapped by al Qaeda pleading for help.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: And waking up cold and in the dark. That doesn't sound like very much fun. Hundreds of thousands without power, days after a deadly snowstorm slammed the Northeast, with cool temperatures plaguing the area through Christmas.

So, is there any relief in sight? Chad Myers is tracking the forecast.

MARQUEZ: And ready for war? North Korea's leader promising violence. It's a familiar threat. But just weeks after the country's second in command was executed, could this threat become reality? We are live.

BROWN: Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Pamela Brown.

MARQUEZ: And I'm Miguel Marquez with coal in my stocking.

BROWN: With coal in your stocking. At least you got something.

MARQUEZ: Yes. Well, hey, I love it.

It is Thursday, December 26th, 5:00 a.m. out here in the East.

We begin with breaking news overnight. American government contractor kidnapped with militants pleading to the U.S. in a video message, to negotiate with his captors. Warren Weinstein was abducted in Pakistan in 2011. In the video made in captivity, Weinstein urges President Obama to step up his efforts to get him released.


WARREN WEINSTEIN, KIDNAPPED AMERICAN CONTRACTOR: It has been more than two years since I was taken prisoner by al Qaeda while I was working as a consultant on U.S. government programs in Pakistan. Now, over 72 years of age, I'm not in good health. I have a heart condition. I suffer from acute asthma and the years have taken their toll.


MARQUEZ: This is the third video release of Weinstein since he was kidnapped. The latest recording showing a dramatic change of appearance. He seems to have aged considerably -- you can see it, too, there. Weinstein said he feels totally abandoned and forgotten and wants the Obama administration to consider releasing al Qaeda militants in U.S. custody.

BROWN: It was cold and dark Christmas night from Michigan to Maine, and all the way up into Canada. That's because a massive ice storm left hundreds of thousands of people in the dark. It could be days before they see the light. Michigan was hardest hit. Officials there say it's been more than a century since they experienced a deep freeze.

It is the latest chapter in a string of violent winter weather that's been blamed for 25 deaths so far. It's left more than 210,000 people without power. And cold, freezing temperatures are expected to continue. Utility crews from a dozen surrounding states are helping out in Michigan and it hasn't gone unnoticed.


RANDY HARLESS: The more you get upset about it and argue with somebody, it's not going to help. Just wait, let it happen. If you see a crew out here working, you know, treat them ice, bring them coffee. You know, see what you can do for them because it's cold out there. They're stuck out here. So, be nice to them.


BROWN: That's good advice there.

MARQUEZ: Yes, yes, yes. Don't be mean to the people in the call center.

BROWN: Seriously, they are helping you.


BROWN: All right. Now, let's get the latest on the winter weather. We want to know if things are going to calm down on the weather front for those people.

MARQUEZ: And our Chad Myers in the hot seat or the cold seat, as the case may be.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: And I wish I could bring good news, but when your power is out, you can't run the furnace. Now, when you don't run the furnace, you want to turn on the stove. But that's the worse you can do because all the carbon monoxide gets in your office. So, find a friend that has some power and camp out a little bit.

Look at the morning lows Detroit's had in the last three days, 23, 12, and 11 degrees. That's the area that has been so hard hit with this lack of power. Hundreds of thousands up through into Toronto as well. From seven inches of snow in Shelby, Michigan, to Silver City, at over a foot, just in the past 24 hours. Now, snowing in the Poconos, snowing back out here almost to the Catskills, a little bit of snow into Detroit. We're going to get some pictures out of there, my old home town there. Temperatures for today going to be cold. I mean, this is just cold all the way down even to the south, 45 New Orleans as you wake up this morning. It does warm up with some sunshine, a little bit of sunshine today. Burlington gets to 33, tomorrow to 29.

But New York City, 40 degrees by the time I have to go home. Finally, now that I'm leaving, it's going to warm up because we just suffered in this cold in the past couple of days. And by Saturday, almost 50 in the city, certainly 50 in D.C. and almost 60 in Charlotte.

If you are heading down to Florida today, it's going to be a little bit wet, there'd be some showers here. But this is the only place I see liquid precip at all. And, by the way, when I was 6, I did get coal in my stocking. I was very excited because now I could make a snowman, because my snowman could have eyes. True story.

MARQUEZ: Oh, that's sweet. Well, I'm so naughty, I have so much cold that I could power a small city for several days. So, there you go.

BROWN: A few cities could use that right now actually.

MARQUEZ: And they could.


MARQUEZ: Thanks, Chad.

BROWN: All right. Thank you so much.

MARQUEZ: Well, that ice storm didn't do any favors for UPS or FedEx. The delivery giants citing the weather as a reason many people failed to get their guaranteed by Christmas packages on Christmas Day. They both conceived they were swamped with deliveries, which was cold comfort for those waiting for deliveries that never came.


JULIE STRACHAN, UPS CUSTOMER: I was expecting my husband's big Christmas gift at my office. And, you know, today is the last day before Christmas. So, I waited around for hours and hours for it to show up and it never did.


MARQUEZ: Now, UPS for its part isn't saying exactly how many packages absolutely, positively didn't get there. They issued a statement saying "UPS understands the importance of your holiday shipments. However, the volume of packages in our system exceeded the capacity of our network immediately proceeding Christmas. So, some shipments were delayed." Bummer.

BROWN: Well, ready, set, return, the after Christmas shopping frenzy is about to begin. Is this the time to find the real holiday bargains? That's a good question.

MARQUEZ: I should hope so. And who is better to know that -- BROWN: Yes.

MARQUEZ: -- than Alison Kosik.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: It could be a great time if you bring a lot of patience and go for the Zen mentality.

MARQUEZ: No forget that. No Zen there.

BROWN: No, I don't know.

KOSIK: Find the bargains. You know, if you thought the book was closed on holiday shopping, think again. Just like Black Friday, many stores are opening their doors early today. In fact, some of the biggest retailers like Walmart and Kohl's, they're open right now.

And the deals, they can really be good. According to Deal News, Some of the biggest bargains will be on clothing, brand name HD TVs, along with holiday treats and decor.


KATHY GRANNIS, NATIONAL RETAIL FEDERATION: The discounts will definitely be deep this week. But what you're getting are leftovers. You are getting the clearance items. Retailers have not yet brought in fresh, spring merchandise. We'll start to see that spring merchandise come in towards January as people with gift cards want that new, fresh, you know, the fresh apparel and fresh electronic items. But you can guarantee that you'll see some 70 percent, 75 percent off.


KOSIK: We are laughing about the fresh. She said fresh how many times?

MARQUEZ: Fresh, it's got to be fresh.

KOSIK: Got to be fresh.

All right. Now, the post-Christmas sales are just in stores. They're online as well., Old Navy, Saks Fifth Avenue, I was greeted with one of their emails today. Just to name a few, are sure to have some dandy little offers you may not want to refuse.

The National Retail Federation says week after Christmas sales can account for as much as 15 percent of what retailers make during the holiday shopping season. As for those looking to return items? There's going to be plenty of that.

"Consumer Reports" had this advice. Read the fine print on your receipts for the exact return window and to see if you can get an extension on holiday gifts. Beware of restocking fees. I know this can be annoying, but they exist, especially on some electronics products.

And remember that some items like video games and movies, they can't be returned once you open them. So, you're stuck with them.

MARQUEZ: Restocking fees sound like a scam.

KOSIK: I hate the restocking fees. I really do. But, it's only a little bit, though.

MARQUEZ: Words of the wise, as always.

BROWN: All right. Thank you so much, Alison.

Well, saw record traffic as tens of thousands of Americans flock the state and federal Obamacare exchanges to beat the Christmas Eve deadline for health insurance coverage starting January 1st. Now, the White House says it will work with people who tried to enroll before the deadline but were unable to finish the process due to technical glitches.

MARQUEZ: And overseas, a deadly Christmas in Iraq. At least 42 people killed. More than 80 wounded in a series of violent attacks in mainly Christian areas.

The deadliest attack, a car bomb exploding near a church in southern Baghdad just as worshippers were following out, killing 26. Three roadside bombs followed at a busy marketplace in the same Baghdad district, killing 11 and wounding more than a dozen others. Iraq is experiencing some of the worst violence in recent years.

BROWN: It appears there's no let-up in the fighting between government forces and rebel troops in South Sudan as the country is closer to an all-out civil war. In a Christmas Day address, South Sudan's president condemned motivated killings there. U.N. officials say tens of thousands of people sought refuge at peace-keeping camps across the country. It's believed the fighting in South Sudan has claimed thousands of lives.

MARQUEZ: And the leader of an al Qaeda group fighting in Syria reportedly targeting United Nation's workers. According to "The Associated Press", the head of Nusra Front has tried to kidnap U.N. workers inside Syria. "The A.P." says the information comes from Iraqi intelligence officials who captured members of another al Qaeda group. The U.N. worker was released back in October after being held for eight months in Syria. Two dozen U.N. peacekeepers were briefly held earlier this year.

BROWN: Egypt's interim government officially declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. They are blaming the group for a bombing this week at a police building that killed 16 people. The Egyptian cabinet ruled anyone that is a member of that group or provide financial support will be punished. The Muslim Brotherhood claimed Egypt's military-backed government is the real terror group.

MARQUEZ: In Turkey, violent clashes between police and protesters in the streets of Istanbul. Demonstrators are demanding the resignation of Turkey's prime minister. Government is racked by a corruption scandal. Police used tear gas to disperse the protesters. At least four people were arrested. Iran's state television reporting parliament has introduced a bill that would force the government to increase uranium enrichment to 60 percent if Iran is hit with sanctions by the West. It's likely a response to a U.S. Senate measure authorizing new sanctions if Iran breaches the interim nuclear deal, reached in Geneva last month. Iran agreed to limit its uranium enrichment to 5 percent and neutralize its existing stockpile in return for easy sanctions and a pledge not to impose new ones.

MARQUEZ: Tensions are rising again on the Korean peninsula, with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un telling his military troops to be ready for combat or for war, he says. It could breakout without any prior notice.

CNN's Karl Penhaul is monitoring the developments there. He is live in South Korea -- Karl.

KARL PENHAUL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Miguel, well, certainly those comments do sound alarming, don't they? Kim Jong-un made the comments, in fact, Christmas Eve, during a visit to unit 526. That's a combined unit of the Army, Navy and Air Force. He said, you know, be ready, be on high alert because war could break out anytime soon.

In a sense, though, we have heard this kind of bellicose statements before, because remember, North Korea's Army is about 1 million men strong, and around 70 percent of that armed force is very close to the DMZ, poised to strike South Korea attack anytime. And so, they are bellicose statements. And with a country as unpredictable as North Korea, people are certainly listening, Miguel.

MARQUEZ: Has there any indication from the South Koreans or from U.S. military there that there are any changes along the DMZ, any sort of changes to the North Korean stance along that very heavily fortified area?

PENHAUL: None of the intelligence services are telling us they're actually seeing anything either physically or by satellite imagery to suggest that the North Koreans are moving forces around. A lot of the force has to be set in North Korea is stationed in underground bunkers so we might not see movement ahead of time anyway.

But what they do suggest is that during the first quarter of 2014, there maybe some kind of provocative act from North Korea. Why? Well, on January the 8th, Kim Jong-un turns 31. That's his birthday. He's a young guy. So, he's really got to show his own country that he's tough enough for this job.

And also during the first quarter of 2014, the U.S. and South Korea planned joint military maneuvers. And that is something that North Korea sees as a provocations, so it might want to respond in some way.

And, of course, don't forget that only this month, Kim Jong-un ordered the execution of his own uncle. And so, really, he has to stamp his mark on this regime and show that there is no sign of dissent. But, right now, experts say that these latest comments may be more showmanship rather than substance -- Miguel.

MARQUEZ: Yes, some worrying developments, and it's a country that does take a long time for its leaders to establish themselves, but let's hope that this is just talk for the moment.

Karl Penhaul in South Korea for us -- thank you very much.

BROWN: Well, the first family continuing their vacation in Hawaii. The president and First Lady Michelle Obama spent Christmas day visiting with military service members and their families at a Marine Corps base in Hawaii. The Obamas thanked them for their service to the country.

MARQUEZ: And coming up, it was the pope's first Christmas as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church delivering a message of peace for people around the world. But how is it received?

We are live at the Vatican with the latest.

BROWN: And a daring rescue. Driver pulled from a burning wreckage all caught on camera.

MARQUEZ: And a surprise for a Vegas cab driver. What one passenger left inside his car. Well, there it is. Cash. Coming up.


BROWN: Welcome back to EARLY START.

Really, an incredible rescue we're going to show you here. An LAPD bomb squad officer was at the right place at the right time on Christmas Day, saving a driver who lost control of his car. And a center divider (ph) burst into flames and was fully engulfed within seconds.


OFFICER DON THOMPSON, LAPD: It was a matter of seconds. Another 10, 15 seconds, it would have been too much fire for anybody to just go in and just deal with that.


BROWN: Wow. The driver went to the hospital complaining of neck and back pain. Pretty lucky.

MARQUEZ: Amazing.

BROWN: Meantime, the officer in this case, he suffered burns to his hand and arm. What a hero.

MARQUEZ: Incredible.

A court date today for suspected LAX shooter for Paul Ciancia. He'll be arraigned and likely asked to enter a plea to 11 felony counts, including first degree murder charges. Ciancia is accused of storming into terminal 3 in LAX last month, killing a TSA agent and wounding three other people.

BROWN: Police are looking for the person who opened fire after being refused entry into a New Jersey strip club. Three people were killed, including the bouncer and the club owner's son. It's unclear if the third person killed was shot by club security or the suspect who opened fire after the bouncer patted him down and found the weapon. Two others were also wounded.

MARQUEZ: And a man was killed in a Christmas morning house fire in Massachusetts. Authorities say crews had trouble putting the fire out because there was no hydrant system in the area. They later used the backhoe to sift through the debris. That's when they found the body. No word yet on how the fire started.

BROWN: The Pennsylvania girl whose battle with leukemia who inspired the community has died. Eight-year-old Delaney Brown of West Reading passed away with her family by her side Christmas morning, seven months after her diagnosis. Known best as Laney, her family had been told last week she only had days to live. And they took that time to make some of her dreams come true.

Thousands gathered right outside of her home Saturday night to sing holiday carols as you can see here. Laney also got the chance to pet an alligator, to be a babysitter, and speak with singer, Taylor Swift.

MARQUEZ: Very sad.

The family of Jahi McMath, a California teenager declared brain dead after a botched tonsillectomy is considering having her moved to another hospital where she can remain on a breathing machine. Officials at Oakland's Children's Hospital declared Jahi brain dead earlier this month, but her family insists she is still alive and will recover. The case has drawn national attention. A legal order for the hospital to continue care expires Monday.

BROWN: We are hearing from the Washington, D.C. Santa who was shot on Christmas Eve while handing out toys to needy children. Xavier Hawkins was hit in the back by a pellet gun. Hawkins was taken to the hospital, but he's doing OK and he says he's relieved.


XAVIER HAWKINS, SHOT WHILE DRESSED AS SANTA: Just thank God that I'm alive. I'm very grateful no one else got hit, especially the kids.


BROWN: The shooting took place in an area of southeast Washington that's been plagued by crime. You know, I've actually been there, where he is. It's frightening.

MARQUEZ: Poor guy. I'm going to go out on a limb here. It is not cool to shoot Santa.

BROWN: No, not cool to shoot anyone, but Santa? Come on. MARQUEZ: And it could have been a very sour Christmas for a professional poker player. He caught a cab between Las Vegas casinos, but left something in the backseat. That something, 300 grand in cash.

The guy's winning streak could have ended right there. But he was even luckier that Geraldo Gamboa was his cabby. Gamboa turned the money in and the player got it back.


BILL SHRANKO: He's on a poker circuit and very, very famous worldwide poker player.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Even if it's called a Sin City, but it's not. It's an angel city.


MARQUEZ: Gamboa was named driver of the year, of course. The cab company gave him $1,000 for reward money for his honesty and a steak dinner for two. Very nice in Vegas.

The player didn't want his name revealed, but he's thinking of giving Gamboa a big reward as well. As well he should. Hello?

BROWN: As well he should. I hope it's a big one.

MARQUEZ: Yes, more than a steak dinner. Maybe lobster.

BROWN: Or surf and turf, something like that.

MARQUEZ: All right. Well, he is the leader of more than a billion Catholics around the world and Pope Francis was ready for his Christmas close up, the first as pontiff. So, what's the reaction the morning after?

CNN's Erin McLaughlin live for us in Rome this morning.

Good to see you, Erin.


Well, today is another holiday here in Italy, St. Stevens Day. Many treat it as an extension of Christmas and what a Christmas it was. Tens of thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's Square to hear the pope's first Christmas message to the world. I was there as well. Women, men and children of all ages, atheists and people of different religions gathering to here what he had to say. Not everyone spoke Italian, but they were there to see him and experience history.

Take a listen to what he had to say.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was an amazing. It's an amazing feeling. Yes, even if I'm not Catholic or religious.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He mentioned peace many times. You could tell from the response around us. People are hopeful about him.


MCLAUGHLIN: Now, traditionally on Christmas Day, the pope's message is one of peace. Pope Francis was no different. He talked about the need for peace and conflict zones around the world, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, the Central African Republic.

He talked about -- he highlighted -- it's really raining here. He highlighted global problems around the world including human trafficking and he also talked about, prayed for the victims of natural disasters including the typhoon in the Philippines.

So, very moving moments for the people that were gathered and for people who watched it around the world, Pamela.

BROWN: Yes, really. And what a gathering, 150,000 people, reflection of his popularity as pontiff.

Erin McLaughlin, go take cover right now, please? I can't believe you were able to hold it together all that time. Thank you so much.

MARQUEZ: Boy, raining in Rome.

BROWN: Yes. All right. Well, coming up right here on EARLY START, the Heat blasting the Lakers in a Christmas day showdown. Joe Carter shows us LeBron's epic dunk, next in the "Bleacher Report".


BROWN: Welcome back, everyone.

The NBA's, arguably, biggest star, LeBron James, put on quite a show in the win over the L.A. Lakers.

Joe Carter is here with "The Bleacher Report".

Hey there, Joe. We want to see this epic dunk.

MARQUEZ: Hey, Joe.

JOE CARTER, BLEACHER REPORT: There's two actually guys. I have two for you.

You know, Christmas Day is the one day a year that the NBA really is front and center to the whole sports world. You've got the best teams. You've got the biggest stars all playing all day long, the national television. Fortunately, this year, we did not get the LeBron/Kobe match up because obviously Kobe hurt his knee last week.

So, this highlight belongs to all LeBron. That's one of two signature dunks. Awesome, right? Awesome dunk. I love the reaction afterwards. But this second dunk is epic. Watch Dwyane Wade. He passes it off the glass and LeBron with the finish. Even Lakers legend Magic Johnson called it one of the greatest plays he's ever seen.

You know, since LeBron arrived in Miami, the Heat always win on Christmas Day. That streak continues. They beat the Lakers yesterday, 101-95.

Well, the new CNN/ORC poll was released today. It basically has to do with how college football fans feel about the BCS. Sixty-two percent of those polled say the current BCS should be replaced.

Well, good news, change is coming next year when they institute a four-team playoff system. Now, on the other side, 61 percent say the BCS got it right this year. Those polled believe the two best teams are playing in the national championship game. Of course, that's Florida State and Auburn.

Now, speaking of the national championship game, this is really cute. Check out this fan's reaction when he opens his Christmas gift and finds out he's going to the national championship game.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My God! Oh, my God! Yes!



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tickets to what?



CARTER: Awesome. That's 11-year-old R.J. Myers. Mom and dad got him tickets to see his favorite team, which is Auburn. Auburn/Florida State will play early January in Pasadena. We checked online guys. Basically, bad tickets are going for about $400. Good tickets already going for about 10 grand.


CARTER: So, who knows where R.J. falls in that line.

BROWN: I was going to say, I wonder what caliber.

MARQUEZ: Well, whatever R.J. got, I think, my sense is, he's pretty excited about.

CARTER: He's happy just to be inside the stadium.

BROWN: That's a good guess.

CARTER: Thanks, guys. BROWN: Joe, thanks.

MARQUEZ: Good seeing you, Joe.

The top headlines and everything you need to know, coming up.

BROWN: We've got it covered.

MARQUEZ: Yes, everything.