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Pakistani Teen Sacrifices Life To Save School From Suicide Bomber; Chasing the Ivory; Chris Christie Embroiled In Bridge Closing Scandal

Aired January 9, 2014 - 15:00   ET


BECKY ANDERSON, HOST: Well, tonight, hailed as a hero, a teen in Pakistan dies saving his school mates from a suicide bomber.

Amid a growing chorus of calls for the boy to be honored, we look at the difficulties of bringing peace to what some call a hub of terrorism.

Also ahead, poacher turned protector: a park ranger uses his past experience against the ivory trade as he is now hunting.



GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, (R) NEW JERSEY: I am who I am, but I am not a bully.


ANDERSON: Governor under fire: New Jersey's Chris Christie is on the defensive, but could this scandal derail any plans he has for the White House?

ANNOUNCER: Live form CNN London, this is Connect the World with Becky Anderson.

ANDERSON: A very good evening. We begin with a story of extraordinary courage that led to the ultimate sacrifice, a teenager in Pakistan who had his whole life ahead of him stepped into harm's way to save his fellow school mates from a suicide bomber.

As Saima Mohsin now reports, he's being hailed around the world as a hero.


SAIMA MOHSIN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Aitizaz Hasan Bangesh was on his way to school when he died stopping a suicide bomber to save the lives of his school friends. More than 1,000 school children are believed to have been gathered for morning assembly at the high school in Hangu in northwest Pakistan bordering Pakistan's tribal areas when the bomber, dressed in school uniform, approached Aitizaz and his friends asking for directions to the school.

Well, this raised suspicions amongst them. And it was Aitizaz who moved forward and started throwing stones, accruing to witnesses to stop the bomber.

When this didn't stop him in his tracks as he approached the main gate, Aitizaz tackled him when the bomber detonated his explosives killing himself and the 9th grader instantly.

Well, people across Pakistan have been paying tribute to the bravery of this young hero. On social media, on Twitter, people have been using the hashtags #onemillionAitizazas or simply #Aitizaz.

Many people comparing his bravery to that of Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl shot at pointblack range by the Taliban. She survived that attack.

Others are calling for this young hero to be honored and recognized with an award nationally and internationally for laying down his life to save the lives of so many more.

Saima Mohsin, CNN, Islamabad, Pakistan.


ANDERSON: Well, as Saima just mentioned, this story quickly spread around the world via social media. On the CNN Facebook page Michelle said, "he died an innocent, loving, selfless and courageous person. What an inspiration."

On Twitter Rebecca Haywood said, "deeply moved and heartbroken, such extraordinary strength and courage should be recognized." And she includes the trending hashtag #onemillionsAitzazas.

Others suggested Hasan should be officially recognized for his actions. Pakistani journalist Nasim Zehra tweets "we the citizens believe that the state of Pakistan must award Nishan-i-Haider to Pakistan's brave son." Nishan's name translates as the order of excellence. That is the highest honor conferred on Pakistanis for their service to their country.

Well, we just heard her tweet. Now journalist Nasim Zehra is joining us from Washington. She's a senior anchor at Capitol TV in Pakistan. She's also a fellow at Harvard University's Asia Center.

We thank you for joining us.

Firstly, your reaction, your response to the story that you heard. The death of this young, brave 14-year-old.

NASIM ZEHRA, JOURNALIST: Well, I think that this is for the world to see that whether it is Malala or whether it is Aitizaz, this is Pakistan's indigenous response to what has become a cancer in Pakistan, a cancer that came about as a result of an international war against terrorism. So this is in Aitizaz you see the real Pakistan, you see the courage of Pakistanis, and this is -- he's an icon of inspiration and courage. And this is the future of Pakistan.

ANDERSON: And so unnecessary, really, the loss of one 14-year-old's life, isn't it, because that talks to the wider picture here. This is an incredibly insecure region in what is an increasingly, it seems to be, incredibly insecure country. Why?

ZEHRA: Well, it's an insecure country, because this is a country where, you know, 25 years, 30 years ago an infrastructure for fighting the wars of freedom that in the United States were really eulogized as great wars. The infrastructure was laid down in a way that in the very arteries of Pakistan, you have terrorism, you have violence, you have trained militants. And the fight back is not easy. And of course while the government's own confusion contributes to the difficulty in fighting back, the drones from United States don't' help.

So have a very complicated situation where we're really looking forward to a new narrative, to a new resolve to fight terrorism. And it has to be fought at multiple levels.

So the state's capacity is not adequate. The government's confusion is apparent.

But, again, the way you see this 14-year-old boy, he walked into death really. He knew that he wasn't going to survive this. And so this bravery and courage is really what gives us hope and should give the world hope in terms of...

ANDERSON: Nasim, let me stop you there. Pakistan's major cities, of course, are also witnessing terror attacks. And I want to come back to the story of this young lad shortly. But first, just today, a Taliban suicide bomber killed a top police commander in Karachi, as you're well aware. Authorities say the attacker targeted a police convoy on a city expressway killing several other officers as well.

Now Chaudhry Aslam was known as Pakistan's toughest cop for cracking down on militants and gangs that he's previously survived numerous assassination attempts, once saying, quote, I will give my life but I won't boy to terrorists. Well, sadly, he has lost his life today.

You were talking to the story of this one young 14-year-old lad, a hero to so many people in Pakistan today as Malala was, of course, in 2013. I just wonder how many more Malalas or hero 14-year-old Pakistan needs before it wakes up and realizes that this is a mess.

What is the future? What's the way forward here?

ZEHRA: The way forward is a clear cut resolve by the government, clear cut message by the government that you don't tolerate terrorism.

And I want to say a few words on this Chaudhry, a (inaudible) who has died. He was a brave man. And like him, we had senior police officers really become martyrs in the way of protecting the soul of Pakistan and the people of Pakistan. But we see confusion in certain sections of the government, in certain sections of state institutions. And that confusion leads to its works as oxygen for terrorists.

And I again want to add the policy of the United States on the drones does contribute it's not a major factor, but is a contributing factor.

So I think we need to have a comprehensive policy where just not only the government of Pakistan and the institutions of Pakistan, but we should be looking at the region and beyond. And I think that from within Pakistan there are enough voices coming. There's -- it's not as if the -- that the government is blind, it's confused and I think these incidents are pushing the government in a direction where we hope there will be more clarity in the future.

ANDERSON: Let's hope so. For the time being, we thank you.

Well, the story of this heroic young man in Pakistan has been one of our top stories all day online, it's got to be said, with hundreds of comments praising his actions. You can read more about that, leave your own thoughts. of course.

Well, still to come tonight this hour here on CNN, former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon's health takes a turn for the worst. We're going to have the latest on that from Jerusalem for you.

And angry allies: find out how the spat between India and the U.S. is getting worse a month after an Indian diplomat was arrested in New York.

Plus, Dennis Rodman profusely apologizes for an outburst this week that had human rights campaigners, well, pretty much shaking their heads in despair. All that and much more after this.


ANDERSON: Welcome back.

Now we are monitoring the health of the former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon this hour who is said to be extremely -- in an extremely critical condition this hour. He is currently in the Sheva Medical Center near Tel Aviv. He's been in a coma for the past eight years. Doctors said today that many of his vital systems are failing.

Ben Wedeman joins us from Jerusalem -- Ben.


Well, he took a turn for the worse on the 1 of January, but today, Thursday, Israeli doctors in Tel Aviv say he's taken an even worse turn now. In Israel, there are sort of three stages in a medical situation. There's moderate, serious, critical, and in Hebrew they say anoush (ph), which really means you're in your final stages.

He's suffering from renal failure, an infection, and of course he's been in a vegetative state since the fourth of January 2006.

There's a large crowd of journalists at the hospital in Tel Aviv waiting for an announcement. Hospital sources say there will be no announcement at this point, but the doctors at the hospital give the former prime minister very little time left on this earth -- Becky.

ANDERSON: What have we heard, if anything, from his family -- Ben.

WEDEMAN: Well, we know that his two sons Omri and Gilad are at the hospital. They've been at his bedside all day long. That there are others, for instance, his long-term driver, other family members who are there. There are a lot of police at the hospital just trying to keep well wishers, the curious, away from the hospital. But the family is there.

Of course, he was twice married. Both his wives are dead now, so it's really those two sons who were there waiting for that final announcement -- Becky.

ANDERSON: Ben Wedeman is in Jerusalem for you this evening. Ben, thank you.

Russian authorities are conducting a major security sweep after a series of suspicious deaths. Six bodies have been discovered over the past two days in a region bordering the province that will host next months' Winter Olympics.

Senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is following developments tonight from Moscow for you.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, Russia's investigative committee is leading the forensic examination of these murder scenes. The intelligence services are involved trying to put together the picture trying to figure out if there really is a threat to Sochi, which is about 170 miles, about 270 kilometers as the crow flies, directly to Sochi.

What they do know at the moment is that one man in his vehicle found shot dead and as police approached the vehicle explosives were detonated. About five miles, a few kilometers away, in another village, two men found in two different cars shot dead. And then about 10 miles, 15, 16 kilometers away from there in another village, three men found shot dead in a vehicle, a bucket of explosives placed near that vehicle. Police were able to make the explosives safe.

But it's giving the impression that the targeting here was to try to target the police, to get them to come on to the crime scene and detonate explosives.

But all that's being investigated.

It still isn't clear the motive, it still isn't clear who was behind it. But what investigators are saying so far is it was the same type of pistol used to shoot all six people. They're not saying it was precisely the same pistol, but the same type of pistol was used. They're saying that two of the people killed were taxi drivers. One was a furniture maker. And they've clarified some information about the vehicles. They're saying that these vehicles were sort of cheap, low cost vehicles.

But again, the proximity to Sochi right now so close to the Winter Olympics causing concern.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Moscow.


ANDERSON: Well, American comedian imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates is expected to arrive back in the United States later today. Shezanne Cassim spent nine months in prison after posting this video online poking fun at teen culture in Dubai.

Now the 29-year-old was sentenced to a year in prison and was fined $2,700 for defaming the UAE's image abroad.

Germany has agreed to help destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. It'll work with weapons watchdog the OPCW, which has been overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons since last autumn.

Some chemical materials could be taken back to Germany for dismantling.

Venezuelan authorities have made arrests in the shooting deaths of actress Monica Spear and her ex-husband. That word comes as Spear is said to be laid to rest possibly tomorrow.

Venezuela's interior minister says Spear's killers are among seven suspects now in custody. She and her former husband were gunned down after their car broke down while on holiday. Their daughter was also shot, but did survive.

Well, a diplomatic spat between India and the U.S. is ratcheting up. And nearly a month after an Indian diplomat was arrested and strip searched in New York. Sumnima Udas has the very latest from New Delhi.


SUMNIMA UDAS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The fallout over a diplomatic clash between Washington and New Delhi continues. Behind those white walls is the American Club right next to the American embassy and the American School over here. It's really quite a hub for the expat community here. It's where a lot of Americans, a lot of American-Indians and their friends come for their hamburger. They've got a very popular restaurant, a bar, a swimming pool, a gym and even a bowling alley.

But now sources here tell us that the Indian government has asked the U.S. embassy to stop all commercial activities inside that wall there from January 16 onwards. That's because it's against Indian law to extend diplomatic privileges to non-diplomats.

This is basically a signal to the Americans that if the U.S. is going to be strict about following the rulebook so far as the Indian diplomat who was arrested for alleged visa fraud in the U.S. last month is concerned, India too will go by its own rulebook.

This comes just a day after the U.S. energy secretary Ernest Moniz postponed his visit to India, which was scheduled for next week.

U.S. officials say this is not linked to the diplomatic spat, but it does come against the backdrop of this controversy that just doesn't seem to be going away.

Sumnima Udas, CNN, New Delhi.


ANDERSON: Well, to Cuba now where former president Fidel Castro has made a rare public appearance n Havana. According to the state news agency, the 87-year-old Castro turned out for the opening of an art studio in one of the communities there.

Castro has made few public appearances in recent years since illness forced him to step down, as you'll remember, in 2006.

Well, this is Connect the World live from London. It's 18 minutes past 8:00. Coming up from poaching ivory to helping lead the fight against it, we meet the park rangers taking a stand against the illegal ivory trade. That's next.

Plus, a major bridge is still standing as a political crisis collapses around it.

And are the presidential hopes of this U.S. governor dashed before they have even begun? That up next.


ANDERSON: Deep in Odzala National Park in the Republic of Congo, park rangers engage in guerrilla warfare. Their enemy not milita, not terrorists, but poachers fueling the multibillion illegal ivory trade. Ofttimes the face of that enemy is familiar. Nearly half the rangers these days are former poachers themselves.

Well, in CNN's exclusive series this week Tracking the Ivory Trade, CNN's Arwa Damon and photographer Peter Rudan (ph) and producer Brent Swales (ph) follow the rangers as they hunt down poachers.

So far this week, we've seen the rangers flush out a gang, we've followed their investigation as they tracked ivory to a Chinese construction camp. And we've witnessed some of the rangers reaching near emotional breaking point.

Well, tonight, the story of a poacher turned protector from the persecuted Pygmy people native to the rainforest.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Gunfire rings out. We just try to keep up as the ecoguard unit charges after elephant poachers. (inaudible) returns and described how he wrestled a gun away from the suspected poacher.

Today, he's a hero. Growing up, he was anything but.

Mapuler (ph) was a poacher. He used his knowledge of the forest to kill elephants for their tusks. As a Pygmy, he had grown up in the forest and knew its ways, but he also knew that he was born into a long suffering minority, smaller in stature because of centuries of adaptation to life in the forests.

When they were forced to emerge, Pygmies found themselves routinely abused by the Bantu majority.

"Yes, they used to hit me a lot. The Bantu's even kicked people violently," Mapuler (ph) tells us.

He learned to hunt with his father who was dispatched into the forest by his Bantu masters. "He was never paid. He wasn't even able to show anything for his job. My father died not even leaving us with anything."

Mapuler (ph) says he had no choice but to follow his father's footsteps.

"I had to go to the forest and kill the elephants. There was no work," he explains.

He began exploiting the very forest that gave birth to the Pygmy culture, of harmonious existence with nature. He isn't alone.

PAUL TELFER, WILDLIFE CONSERVATION SOCIETY: They're being abused. They're the only ones that really know the forest well enough to go into these remote areas and stand up to an elephant and pull the trigger. And they're -- you know, they come out with the ivory and they give the ivory to somebody else. And they're either not compensated so they just got a little bit of meat, or maybe they're just given $100 at the most and that's it.

DAMON: The majority of indigenous people here still don't have access to education, medical care, or even proper birth certificates.

Would you call it a form of modern-day slavery?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Definitely. Definitely.

DAMON: UNICEF says while the government has taken notice, the initiatives in the capital have been slow to reach the remote forests that still cover most of this country.

At stake, a culture that is fast disappearing and along with it, the elephants and an unrivaled knowledge of the forest that both poachers and protectors want to exploit.

TELFER: They need education. They have the right to education. They have the right to everything that everyone does. But they learn that PhD in forestology from the age that they're starting to crawl and (inaudible) the forest every day. And that's how they learn it. And when you take these kids out of the forest and put them in school, they lose their culture. They lose their capacity to live in the forest. They lose their cultural identity.

DAMON: Mapuler (ph) is still using the skills learned as a young boy, but his choice now is to protect the forest as an ecoguard. Mapuler (ph) takes us to meet his mother.

"I am proud. My son stopped poaching," she tells us. "I am now proud of him."

In a community pushed to the edge, his is a story of redemption.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Odzala National Park, Republic of Congo.


ANDERSON: Well, just 76 guards are tasked with protecting the national park, a forest spanning 13,500 square kilometers. That is the size, for example, of the U.S. state of Connecticut. And that is one guard to every 178 square kilometers. No mean feat.

Join us tomorrow as our team discovers its not just elephants in the park that are at risk, it's the whole park itself.


DAMON: This is a training exercise, but the war out here against elephant poachers and bush meat traders is very real.


ANDERSON: And for more on Arwa's exclusive investigation into the ivory trade, check out our website

All right, the latest world news headlines are just ahead at the bottom of the hour of course.

Plus, he's the man many say will run to be the next U.S. president, but could a bridging linking New Jersey and New York throw this man off course? Much more on the scandal enveloping Chris Christie.

Then a big turnaround from Dennis Rodman. He apologizes for controversial remarks he made during his visit to North Korea. What he said and how it's playing out coming up.


ANDERSON: The former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is said to be in extremely critical condition. These are your headlines this hour. He is currently in the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv. He has been in a coma for the past eight years, and doctors said today that many of his vital systems are now failing.

A Pakistani teenager is being held as a hero for sacrificing his own life to save others. The ninth grader tackled a suicide bomber who was trying to enter his school in a northern province. Both the boy and the attacker died. Hundreds of children were inside the school at the time.

The US State Department says the -- that it's concerned by the planned release of 72 detainees in Afghanistan it considers dangerous. The Afghan government has ordered the release of the men despite Washington's insistence they are linked to attacks on US troops and terror-related crimes.

And seven people, including two teenagers, have been detained in Venezuela for the murder of former Miss Venezuela Monica Spear and her ex- husband. The 29-year-old was killed by a single bullet. Her death has shocked the country and shed light on its growing crime problem.

Now, the man thought to be a top contender in the next US presidential elections, 2016 of course, has found himself at the center of what is an unfolding political scandal.

Now, Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, was forced to answer questions earlier about the conduct of some of his employees who apparently engineered this major traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge back in September. It caused major chaos and is thought to have been politically motivated. Well, Christie said it was humiliating.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey. I apologize to the people of Fort Lee, and I apologize to the members of the state legislature. I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team.


ANDERSON: Well, Christie also fired one of his senior staffers after e-mails linked her to the lane closures on the bridge.


CHRISTE: This morning, I've terminated the employment of Bridget Kelly effective immediately. I've terminated her employment because she lied to me.


ANDERSON: Well, the US Justice Department says that federal prosecutors are now looking into this matter. It's hardly a position the governor will be happy about, especially if he has his eyes on that 2016 presidential election. Joe Johns has more on where this all started.


JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The scandal involving closed lanes at the nation's busiest crossing has exploded and ensnared Governor Christie just as he takes a prominent role on the national stage as a leading potential candidate for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

It started in September, when several lanes of the George Washington Bridge were shut down for four days without warning, including on the first day of school in nearby Fort Lee, New Jersey, resulting in an hours-long traffic nightmare for the town.

And now, a letter from an EMS official suggests even emergency first responders were delayed, one case involving paramedics responding to a woman suffering a heart attack.

There were questions whether the gridlock was politically-motivated payback for the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who had declined to endorse Christie's last re-election bid. CNN obtained texts and e-mails that seemed to be the closest thing to a smoking gun.

"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." It was sent August 13th, a message from the e-mail account of Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor's deputy chief of staff, to David Wildstein, one of the governor's top appointees at the agency that controls the bridge.

"Got it," he replied.

When the mayor of Fort Lee called about the gridlock, Kelly then e- mailed Wildstein to find out if anyone had called him back. "Radio silence" was the response. The official excuse for the bridge snarl, a traffic study reviewing safety patterns for toll lanes. Christie later denied his office was involved in the bridge problem.

CHRISTE: I actually was the guy working the cones out there. You really are not serious with that question.

JOHNS: Late Wednesday, the governor issued a statement responding to the revelation. The question now is whether any state or federal laws were broken.

MARK SOXOLICH, MAYOR, FORT LEE, NEW JERSEY: For those that are responsible are responsible for this most heinous act, they can non longer be in positions of power in government.

JOHNS: But now, residents of New Jersey are angered by the scandal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the story is beyond belief.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The whole concept that it is politically motivated is wrong. You don't hold people hostage for whatever political reason.

JOHNS: Joe Johns, CNN, Washington.


ANDERSON: Well, before we discuss this further, a little background on Chris Christie. He has served as governor of New Jersey since 2009, won re-election last year easily. He's also seen as a potential front-runner, as I first suggested, amongst Republican presidential candidates.

Although Christie himself hasn't said if he plans to run in 2016, he's become a national figure in the US, especially after his state was hit by the hurricane, it was hit hard by the Hurricane Sandy in 2012. His weight has often been commented on by the media and mocked by politicians -- oh, sorry, comedians.

Well, Christie's former appointee to the Bridge Authority appeared at a legislative hearing earlier. David Wildstein refused to answer questions and said -- invoking his fifth amendment right to remain silent. The panel has now held him in contempt.

Well, CNN's John King joins us from Trenton, New Jersey. I want to keep this broad, John, because for our international viewers, the sort of micro-machinations of New Jersey politics aren't something that we need to get into.

But this is a fascinating story, not least because this is a man who we all know is in a position of power come 2016, potentially, who says today "I am not a bully." I thought the governor of New Jersey was supposed to be a bully, to all intents and purposes. He's a hard, fast- talking, "Sopranos"-type character, and now he's defending himself. Damage limitation?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF US CORRESPONDENT: That's about right, Becky. What he's trying to say is, sometimes I'm tough, sometimes I'm blunt, sometimes I push, but I'm not a jerk and I'm not petty. That's the point he's trying to make.

And you make an excellent point: why should any of our viewers around the world care about the political shenanigans in the state of New Jersey and whether or not you can tie them back to the newly-re-elected governor.

Well, let me say this and say it clearly: Chris Christie is one of the most important Republicans in the country right now, critical to the Republican chances in 2014, this year.

And right now, the only Republican, if you ask voters in the United States, if you give them a list of 10 or 12 leading Republicans, Chris Christie is the only one who runs even -- he actually runs a point or two ahead of the likely Democratic candidate or at least the early Democratic favorite, Hillary Clinton.

So, the Republican Party has a lot invested in Chris Christie, and so nationally, he has a big burden to get over here to convince people I had nothing to do with this and I'm not the kind of petty, vindictive, Nixonian politician.

Because if he did do this, or if he had any role in this, not exactly presidential temperament. So today was a big first step in the governor trying to put this behind him. We'll wait, now, Becky. There are state legislative investigations, there's likely to be a federal criminal investigation.

The governor says you will never find his fingerprints on this. If that turns out to be true, he probably served himself well today. But we're going to watch him. He's going to be traveling the country in 2014, and by all accounts, he's laying the groundwork to run for the big job, president, in 2016.

ANDERSON: There is no sex involved in this, nor is there any blood. No tsunami sort of -- pretty good at destabilizing politicians when it comes to sort of gossip and conjecture. But this, obviously, is something, as you rightly point out, could go a lot further. We could be looking at criminal convictions going forward.

At this point, how much damage has this saga done to a man, as you rightly point out, is sort of front and center for the Republican campaign going forward?

KING: It's a question we can't answer completely because it's early and because there are investigations going on and because both the 2014 and 2016 elections are months, and in one case, almost three years away.

But look, he just won a huge re-election campaign, right? He won a huge landslide victory. He got a lot of Democratic votes. He won the Latino vote. He got decent African-American support.

He was trying to tell the Republican Party, I can do what John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 could not do. I can win states that Barack Obama carried, I can win the states that George W. Bush carried when Republicans last won the White House.

And so now, his credibility, his integrity, who he is as a person is being questioned. And so how he performs and how he handles this is absolutely critical.


KING: If nothing else, remember he just won this election. He was hoping to have a track record of accomplishments in his home state over the next year or two to take out to the country and say, see what I have done?

Now, if Democrats in this state feel emboldened, thinking they can forget about the election results and challenge him more and more, it will affect his political dynamic. It will be a test of his personal leadership and his political leadership.

ANDERSON: John, you've been around the block a number of times and have covered more US elections at this stage than I've had hot dinners, I think. So you know more about the US electoral process than our viewers around the world will know.

So I put this to you: what will it take to win the 2016 election? Because it isn't going to be "The economy," to coin a phrase, "stupid," as Clinton once said, is it? Because that's on the rebound at this point. What will it take and what sort of character will it take to win it?

KING: You can answer this question a number of ways. Let me come at it a couple of ways. One is history. History in the United States says after a two-term presidency, the other party almost always wins. So that would mean the Republicans are likely to win in 2016.

That's why so many Democrats want Hillary Clinton to run, because they think by far she is the strongest, toughest, most credible candidate for the Democrats to try to defy history and hold the White House.

Why is Chris Christie appealing? Well, Becky, just look at the demographics of the United States. Look what has happened with the rise of the Latino population, relative stability of the African-American population. Still a tiny but a growing Asian population. The Democrats have dominated that vote.

Chris Christie is the kind of Republican who says I can cut into that. The Republicans need somebody like that to win in 2016, which is why what happens to him now is so important.

ANDERSON: Fascinating. John, always a pleasure. Thank you very much, indeed. John King out of the States for you this evening.

Live from London, you're watching CONNECT THE WORLD. Up next, basketball's bad boy tries to make amends. Let me bring you the apology from Dennis Rodman to an American jailed in North Korea and, indeed, an apology to CNN. That is up next.

And how some gay professional athletes are taking steps to change perceptions about homosexuality in sport.


ANDERSON: Well, after facing a barrage of criticism for saying an American imprisoned in North Korea deserved to be there, Dennis Rodman has done a complete 180.

On Tuesday, in what was an explosive interview with one of my colleagues on CNN, the eccentric basketball star suggested that one Kenneth Bae must have done something wrong to be sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea.


DENNIS RODMAN, FORMER NBA PLAYER: If you understand what Kenneth Bae did --


RODMAN: -- you understand what he did --

CUOMO: What did he do? You tell me.

RODMAN: -- in this country -- you guy behind the mic right now! We are the guys here doing one thing! We have to go back to America and take the abuse!


ANDERSON: Well, today, Rodman apologized, blaming stress and saying that he had been drinking before the interview.

In a statement released by his publicist, Rodman said, and I quote, "I want to apologize first to Kenneth Bae's family. I want to apologize to my teammates and my management. I also want to apologize to Chris Cuomo," who, by the way, conducted that interview. "I embarrassed a lot of people. I'm very sorry. At this point, I should know better than to make political statements."

And we received this statement from the Bae family just moments ago. "Our family accepts Dennis's apology for his outrageous outburst about my brother Kenneth Bae."

It goes on to say, "Being drunk and stressed is not an excuse for what he said, but we acknowledge he is human and we do all make mistakes. We hope and pray that Rodman's comments and ongoing antics have not further endangered my brother."

Well, Rodman and his other former NBA stars played a friendly game of basketball Wednesday for the leader of the North Korea's birthday. The spectacle was watched by packed crowds of North Koreans and a handful of Western tourists. CNN's Karl Penhaul caught up with some of them after the match at Beijing Airport.


KARL PENHAUL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Pyongyang flight is now on the arrivals board, but it's not clear how many members of Team Rodman will actually be coming back from North Korea Thursday. It could be that some members, including Dennis Rodman himself, stay over and start to filter back over the coming days.

ERIC FLOYD, FORMER NBA PLAYER: Well, it was fun. It was a lot of fun.

UNIDENTIFIED CORRESPONDENT: Yes? Did you get to see -- meet with Mr. President?

FLOYD: I'm not commenting right now.

UNIDENTIFIED CORRESPONDENT: We just want to know about the game, man!

PENHAUL: What a weird scene was that, Eric "Sleepy" Floyd coming through arrivals. They've got his blue hoodie on, just pulls it down. And as you saw, a security guard just leading him away. He couldn't see a thing.

PENHAUL (on camera): Just really wanted to avoid the press pack, said absolutely nothing. Let's see if he talks later.

And no Rodman, rest of the team apart from Eric Floyd. We don't know why he came ahead of the rest of the group, but it's certainly been quite interesting to talk to some of the North American tourists that came off that flight as well. They had a front seat, practically, at last night's basketball game.

SEAN AGNEW, TOURIST: When Kim Jong-un came into the stadium, and then it was about 15 minutes of applause, yelling, people jumping up and down, screaming. No crying.

Rodman played the whole first quarter, then sat away and got dressed in a traditional Korean suit and then sat next to him. And then they just smoked cigars and cigarettes the whole entire -- not stopping for a second. But laughing, having a good time, pointing at things, talking.

RODMAN (singing): Happy birthday to you --

PENHAUL: I understand Dennis sang "Happy Birthday."


PENHAUL: Tell me about that.

SOKMENSUER: It was a little Marilyn Monroe to JFK.


SOKMENSUER: The tone of it. But it was -- everyone was clapping and it was nice and it was funny, but it was good.

HAKAN SOKMENSUER, TOURIST: He'd wave and say hello to everyone. This is the marshal, not Mr. Rodman. And then the game started and it went very nicely.

AGNEW: Before the game and during the game, there's no applause, just silence. And then, the North Korean fans had a cheerleader that would literally be like, "OK, applaud now. Stop."

S. SOKMENSUER: Obviously, it's Dennis Rodman, so he might not be the best representative for America, but someone has to do it, and I'm glad that he did.

PENHAUL: Meanwhile, from Pyongyang, Rodman issued a statement apologizing for an outburst during an interview on CNN earlier in the week. He said he'd been stressed and had been drinking.

Karl Penhaul, CNN, Beijing.


ANDERSON: What draws Westerners to one of the world's most reclusive states? A North Korean travel company says 6,000 Western tourists actually visited North Korea in 2013, last year. But visiting North Korea as a performer, one would imagine, is a whole different experience.

British opera singer Suzannah Clarke has given five concerts in North Korea, in fact, and now joins me in the studio. What was your experience in the country?

SUZANNAH CLARKE, OPERA SINGER: Well, it was quite amazing, because of course it's a culture which is very alien from our own. You can't travel freely, you don't carry mobile phones, you don't have easy access to the outside world.

However, the -- Pyongyang as a city was extremely beautiful, and I was very fortunate that I got some very unusual access, and I went out into the countryside and across North Korea.

ANDERSON: Why did you go? What was the deal?


ANDERSON: And what happened when you got there? Was there any sort of pressure on you to say positive things? Because in the end, you were there as much, one assumes, as a cultural diplomat, as you were for your own experience.


ANDERSON: Let's face it.

CLARKE: Well, it originally came from the fact that I was an ambassador, with a small "A," for my town of Middlesbrough, and the old players from 1966, the football players of North Korea, came back to visit the town where they'd played.


CLARKE: And I welcomed them in Korean and I learned a Korean friendship song, and the government heard about this and I was invited back out. But from that visit, I gained quite a close rapport with the people there, and I met many of the government ministers.

And then I got invited back five times, and each time, I saw something different in North Korea, and I learned something different about their culture and their people.

ANDERSON: So, we must discuss Rodman's antics, his behavior, and the way he has conducted himself. There is a certain sense, whether he's being paid or not, and there are allegations doing the rounds, he is kowtowing to the leadership there. What sort of pressure were you under, if at all, to sort of say positive things and bring back a positive message?

CLARKE: Of course, you're under a lot of pressure when you're there to say positive things. They like the outside world to think well of them. Whether we understand that or not out here, the North Koreans are very keen that we think well of them.

But I would not praise the leadership, I would not praise the government. That was not the reason I was there. I was there as a cultural ambassador, and I think it's very, very important that we keep contact with North Korea.

And I won't condemn, certainly, the whole baseball (sic) team and Dennis Rodman for going out there. I think keeping those doors open is absolutely vital. And in fact, at the moment, I think there should be more doors opening. The harder it gets with North Korea, the more we should try.

ANDERSON: I'm going to switch codes and remind you it's basketball, not baseball.

CLARKE: Sorry.


ANDERSON: To us in Britain, neither of those are particularly top drawer, but they're --


CLARKE: It's football here.

ANDERSON: -- yes, let's remember. It's basketball, not baseball, otherwise he might, I don't know, just come here and whoop us.

CLARKE: Probably Dennis.


ANDERSON: Exactly.

CLARKE: Sorry.

ANDERSON: Sorry, Dennis. Suzannah, this sort of below-the-line diplomacy, ping pong diplomacy in China, ala sort of 30 years ago, the Bing Bang in Pyongyang diplomacy that Dennis Rodman said he was trying to indulge or conduct, do you buy it?

You say that you think it's important to keep the channels of communication open, but are the Dennis Rodmans of the world the people to do it?

CLARKE: Look, as far as I'm concerned, they're getting in there, and that's fine. I do think you have to be careful about what you do and what you say and how you say it when you're out there. But obviously, he is a sports person and he is not a politician, and you can say certain things.

And I do feel that it is my role, if I go out there, to say things that politicians possibly couldn't or wouldn't say. But you still have to be very careful. You have to remember you're in that culture.

But yes, there is a role. I think it will open doors. And you can get a connection. You know it, if you talk to somebody about something that they love and you love at the same time --

ANDERSON: Sure. Sure.

CLARKE: -- you can actually open doors at any --

ANDERSON: Baseball, for example.


CLARKE: Yes. In any country.


CLARKE: I do think it has a role and plays an important role. It can change things.

ANDRESON: You make a very good point.

CLARKE: And as an opera singer, I got to see an awful lot in North Korea. I got to speak to the prime minister and the foreign minister about many difficult things, but because I was an opera singer --


CLARKE: -- and I was there.

ANDERSON: Fascinating. Thank you very much, indeed, for joining us. Great insight.

CLARKE: Thank you.

ANDERSON: Coming up after this short break, racing against intolerance. How openly gay athletes like speed skater Blake Sjkellerup are challenging the taboo of homosexuality in sports. That next.


ANDERSON: There is now less than a month to go before the 2014 Winter Olympics kick off in the Russian resort town of Sochi, and with Russia's new anti-gay laws dominating headlines, there's been focus on homophobia in sport across the world.

Well, earlier this week, retired German football player Thomas Hitzlsperger revealed that he is gay. The 31-year-old says he wants to further the debate about homosexuality in sports, especially since there aren't any openly-gay football players of his caliber.


THOMAS HITZLSPERGER, OPENLY GAY FORMER FOOTBALLER: I don't know a single gay football player personally. And hopefully, by talking about it the way I do now, it encourages some others, because they see they can still be professional football players, they can play at the highest level and be gay.

It's not a contradiction, as I proved. And therefore, hopefully, it gives some encouragement to young players.

So far, there isn't an openly-gay football player in a European league, and it's probably easier if you compare it to racism. And racism, you know who people dislike when they shout things at them. It's clearly visible. But gay football players so far don't exist, officially.

I've heard homophobic comments when I was playing, but I think it's always a different matter once people know who is gay, and then we can judge it afterwards.

I know that my family and my closest friends, to them it's not important that I talk about my experiences as a homosexual football player, but it's really more important for those people who discriminate others because of their sexuality, and those people now know they have a pronounced opponent.


ANDERSON: Well, another openly-gay athlete is the speed skater, Blake Sjkellerup. He has said that he's been teased for being gay ever since he was a teenager growing up in New Zealand. Right now, he's trying to earn a ticket to the Sochi Games next month, and he talked with CNN as part of what is our special series, Journey of the Gay Athlete.


BLAKE SJKELLERUP, NEW ZEALAND SPEED SKATER: My name is Blake Sjkellerup, and I'm an Olympic short track speed skater and I represent New Zealand.

I started speed skating at the age of 10 after I had broken my arm rollerblading down a hill with some friends on a school holiday. And I was also swimming at the same time and doing athletics at the same time, and I couldn't really do those with a broke arm, and I couldn't play rugby, obviously.

So, my brother suggested that I try speed skating because he had a friend that was a speed skater in Christchurch, and I sort of tried it and loved it and just kept doing it.

When it came to those macho sports, I was considered by my peers to not be as macho as they were through the sport that I did, and that in turn led to them implying to me that I was gay. I was being called gay before I even figured out and even knew what it was myself.

And that's not what made me gay. Yes, I have always been gay. But somehow, my peers knew it before I did. And I don't think they really did. It's just that they, I guess, imposed the fact that I did a non-masculine sport, speed skating, which let me tell you, is very masculine and very dangerous.

I don't see many people losing four liters of blood playing rugby or breaking their ankle straight through the tib.

Growing up in high school, being singled out as somebody who's different is never easy, and it's quite a sad situation for a lot of kids across the world in today's society. And for me, when I was that age, I was called "faggot," "homo," "gay boy," on a daily occurrence.

And I was, I guess, in some ways lucky that I was never physically bullied, but more mentally bullied. But in my opinion, that is something that is a lot worse. Scars on the outside can heal, but scars on the inside definitely take a lot longer to overcome.

It's quite a hard thing, if you're young and you're in sports and you don't have anybody that you can relate to on any level, because you just isolated and alone. And that's definitely how I felt.

It was around the age of 16 when I started to realize that I was gay, and at the same time, I was also heavily involved in my sport. And one thing for me that I found very hard is that I didn't have any role models, anybody that I could look up to who were out and openly participating in sport.

And I guess what I -- the conclusion I came to in my own head is that you couldn't be an athlete, you couldn't make it to the Olympics, and you couldn't be gay.


ANDERSON: And you can learn about other inspiring athletes like Blake fighting for greater tolerance in CNN's "World Sport's" original documentary coming up at 8:00 PM in London, 9:00 PM in Berlin on Saturday.

I'm Becky Anderson, that was CONNECT THE WORLD. We thank you for watching. From the team here, it's a very good evening.