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Westerners Warned of Possible Threat in Beijing; Progress against ISIS in Ramadi; British Muslim Family Banned from U.S. Flight; Christmas Celebration Despite Violence. Aired 10-11a ET

Aired December 24, 2015 - 10:00   ET




ZAIN ASHER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Welcome to the INTERNATIONAL DESK. And a Merry Christmas to you for those of you who celebrate. I'm Zain

Asher at CNN Center. I want to get you caught up on the latest.

Now several governments are warning their citizens to be extra careful at a shopping district in Beijing. The warning comes a day before the Christmas

holiday, when many people may be buying last-minute gifts. Here's our Matt Rivers with more.


MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A heightened state of the alert here in Beijing after several foreign embassies issued alerts to their citizens,

urging them to be on guard when traveling in a neighborhood here in the city very popular with Westerners.

The American, British, French and Australian embassies all sent out notifications on Thursday online and via e-mail to their citizens urging

them to be aware of specific threats to westerners in the neighborhood of Sanlitun. Now, none of those embassies would elaborate further on the

exact nature of those threats.

Now, Sanlitun is a very popular neighborhood here with westerners. As I mentioned, it is a shopping district, an entertainment district and it is

usually very safe.

Now, the Chinese government also issued what's called a yellow alert. That would be the second lowest level on the Chinese government's security alert

system. Now, the specific alerts we're referring to large and medium-sized shopping malls here in the city. The government said that there would be

added security patrols ahead of the Christmas shopping days here in Beijing.

Now, we did see armed guards outside of the mall in Sanlitun. That would be the mall right in the neighborhood referred to by those foreign

embassies in their notifications. And we have also seen an added security presence outside the diplomatic compounds here in the city. Our bureau is

actually in a diplomatic compound. And we saw some of those added security measures firsthand.

Now, all of this is relatively unusual for Beijing, although it does see its fair share of security incidents. It was back in 2013 that a car

rammed a security barricade in Beijing's famed Tiananmen Square killing five people. That attack, according to the government, was perpetrated by

separatists from the country's western province. Now, it is unclear if the yellow alert issued by the Chinese government had anything to do with the

alerts issued by the several foreign embassies on Thursday, but what is clear is that there is a heightened sense of awareness here in the city --

Matt Rivers, CNN, Beijing.


ASHER: Iraq says its battle to retake the city of Ramadi from ISIS is making progress. CNN just received these images from Iraqi security

forces, they're said to show the al- Thubat district in southeast Ramadi, an area that was reportedly taken back by Iraqi forces on Tuesday. The

provincial governor tells CNN that most of the remaining militants in Ramadi are foreign fighters.

Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is live for us in Washington.

Robyn Kriel is joining me live now from London.

So, Robyn, I want to start with you. It is day three of this offensive. Walk us through any sort of significant developments.

How much of this town has been liberated so far?

ROBYN KRIEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Zain, for the past month, the Iraqi security forces have circled the city of Ramadi, cutting off crucial supply

routes and they did breach the Humayrah district in an early morning raid on Tuesday. That's really what kicked off this main offensive.

They are going for key government buildings, where these 250 to 300 foreign fighters, we understand, from ISIS are holed up.

We do also understand, Zain, that they are close to that government compound, about 800 meters yesterday. We're not entirely sure if they have

advanced beyond that.

ASHER: And, Barbara, if I could just bring you in, because we're hearing a little bit more about the technology used in this fight, we're hearing that

U.S. special ops forces are watching this fight taking place in real time using drones.

What are their thoughts on how this offensive is progressing?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, right now they think it's going pretty well, slow, steady, methodical. As we know, ISIS

has booby-trapped virtually the entire city, whole buildings wired to blow up, barricades, obstacles IEDs, all sorts of destructive mechanisms in

place in very large, significant numbers.

The U.S. has been spending months training the Iraqi troops on how to deal with those kinds of obstacles. So they're moving through those,

dismantling them, the U.S. watching from afar. The question will be what it always is, can the Iraqis really take back the entire city and over the

long term can they hold on to it -- Zain.

ASHER: And that is a question for Robyn Kriel.

Can they, are the Iraqi army, Robyn, equipped?

You heard Barbara Starr talking about the --


ASHER: -- IEDs, the booby traps, the car bombs in Ramadi.

Can the Iraqi army handle this offensive?

KRIEL: Well, yes, and all dealing with that under constant sniper fire, we also understand ISIS has entrenched itself deeply in the past seven months.

So they've really had time to prepare for this onslaught, which is why I believe they're facing such tremendous obstacles, such as IEDs.

We spoke earlier to the Iraqi task force from the United States. Here's what he had to say about those improvised explosive devices.


COL. STEVE WARREN, U.S. ARMY: This enemy has set up defensive belts. So they use IEDs, the very same IEDs that we faced here in Iraq years ago.

But now they use them in clusters, as if they were minefields.

They will rig entire houses to explode if you come near them. So the Iraqis have to very deliberately probe this defensive area and find a weak



KRIEL: Deliberately probing, as he said, and as well this is a two-pronged attack really, from the ground, defusing things like that, going for those

foreign fighters on the ground, from the Iraqi security forces as well as watching from the air as well as delivering airstrikes from the U.S.-led

coalition. They have dropped several munitions to date, we understand.

ASHER: And when you think about the IEDs and the explosive devices and the booby traps, especially problematic, given that there could be -- or there

are, rather, civilians who are still trapped in the city.

Barbara, talk us through the military strategy here. They've isolated Ramadi, they've cut off all supply routes.

What is next?

STARR: Well, if they can take Ramadi, if they can hold onto it, obviously their next goal is to try and move north towards Mosul, Iraq's second

largest city, still in the grip of ISIS. But this is going to be very tough going, ISIS is moving around a lot.

The airstrikes are picking up, because the U.S. has better intelligence about where they are on the ground to try and be able to strike them

without inadvertently striking civilians.

But a lot of talk about whether these rules of engagement should now be loosened up so there can be even more airstrikes. However, airstrikes

don't win wars all by themselves.

It's going to have to be the Iraqi forces on the ground with U.S. training, with U.S. advice, which is standard procedure now, to be able really take

back large quantities of Iraqi territory.

ASHER: And, Barbara, if they do manage to take back Ramadi in the coming hours, this certainly will boost morale to take back Mosul, which was

captured by ISIS in 2014.

STARR: Well, I think it will but Mosul, again, that's going to be a very significant challenge. It's a huge city. We'll see how the urban fighting

goes in Ramadi because they're certainly going to have to leave behind a force to hold Ramadi.

So will they have the capability to do that and, at the same time, simultaneously advance on Mosul?

ASHER: We'll wait and see what happens, at least with Ramadi, in the coming three days or so, 72 hours, that's what the Iraqi forces were

saying, the time it should take to take back this town. We'll wait and see if that happens.

OK, Robyn Kriel, live for us there; Barbara Starr, we appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Police in Afghanistan say a military operation is being planned for the Sangin district, where Taliban militants are largely in control. The

district is a key location in the country's poppy trade and parts of a southern province that traditionally been a Taliban stranglehold.

Reports quote a NATO spokesperson, saying the U.S. launched airstrikes against the insurgents there earlier. Local officials have been begging

the government in Kabul for help.

U.S. officials say that religion did not play a role in stopping a British Muslim family from entering the country. They had to put off a trip to

Disneyland after being told they could not board their flight to Los Angeles. Here's our Diana Magnay with more.


DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The owners of these little dresses had hoped to be roaming Disneyland this Christmas with their

cousins who live in the U.S.

But the Mahmoud family, Mohammed and Zahir, their two nieces and seven small and teenage children were turned away at the gate as they were about

to board the plane for Los Angeles.

Zahir's wife didn't want her children filmed. She didn't want them to feel like they did at the airport, singled out.

ZAHIR MOHAMMED, BANNED FROM U.S. FLIGHT: My 10-year-old daughter said to my husband, is it because we're Muslim?

And my husband said why would you say that?

She goes, well, because we were the only Muslim people in that line.

MAGNAY (voice-over): The family's papers, the electronic authorization they need to visit the U.S., were all in order, approved six weeks before

by the Department of Homeland Security. They were due to fly with Norwegian. But the airline said they couldn't help.

MOHAMMED: We don't know why we've been taken off the flight.

MAGNAY (voice-over): Just the message from U.S. Immigration that they could go no further.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If they felt that, they should have received this six weeks ago so we would not have taken them out of school, booked their

holidays, and got their hopes up.

MAGNAY (voice-over): The family wants answers and they feel the fact they're Muslim has something to do with it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I definitely think Donald Trump's theory did --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- have a play -- a part to play in it because otherwise why wasn't anyone else flagged up on that flight?

Just the one Muslim family.

DONALD TRUMP, ENTREPRENEUR: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown.

MAGNAY (voice-over): Earlier this month, the presidential candidate called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. A U.S. official

tells CNN that not all of Mohammed's family members were prevented from traveling. Besides, that the U.S. won't comment on this particular case

for privacy reasons.

They say religion, faith, or religious beliefs play no role in matters of immigration. But there are a myriad of other factors which might mean an

individual's turned down, health issues, criminal records, security to name just a few.

MAGNAY: The family says that this Facebook page may have sparked a red flag. It's written by a man who says he lives in Birmingham and calls

himself a supervisor at Taliban and leader at Al Qaeda. But the e-mail address connected to this account appears on an electoral register against

the Mahmoods' residential address in London.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It may be someone has had in, it's got the same address as us but a different name and a different e-mail address.

MAGNAY (voice-over): The family spent $15,000 on this trip, and Norwegian say they're not entitled to a refund.

Sa Dav Mahmood who doesn't want to show her face has been ill all year. She was going to stay home. But she wanted the best for her children.

SA DAV MAHMOOD, BANNED FROM U.S. FLIGHT: It was either for me to go private and have private health care or for my children to have two weeks

of pure bliss and I decided that's what I wanted to do with the money, is to send my children away so they could have a very nice holiday and come

back and feel fresh and start a new year fresh.

MAGNAY (voice-over): She's keeping the dresses till next time. She still wants her children to see Disneyland. She's sure one day that they will --

Diana Magnay, CNN, London.


ASHER: You're at the INTERNATIONAL DESK. Still ahead, deadly tornadoes tear through the Southern United States, the destruction left by severe

weather and where the storm system is headed next.

Plus: the celebration of Christmas in Bethlehem, the crowd is much smaller this year than usual. We'll tell you why, after the break.





ASHER: In Saudi Arabia, at least 25 people were killed in a hospital fire in the southern coastal city of Jazan. The fire broke out on the first

floor, where a nursery, critical care unit and maternity ward are housed; 123 people were injured, the cause of the fire is under investigation.

Four days after a massive landslide in Shenzhen, China, we're now hearing from one of the survivors; 19-year-old Tian Zeming was buried for more than

60 hours before he was rescued from the debris on Wednesday. He told China state media about the collapse and how his dramatic rescue unfolded.


TIAN ZEMING, LANDSLIDE SURVIVOR (through translator): The five-story building collapsed suddenly when the landslide rushed down. And I was

trapped in an office room. As one of my hands could move, I found a bottle of water and some snacks and melon seeds around me. When I was in the

trap, I heard someone drilling above me. I knocked the board and shouted loudly. They finally found me when they drilled through the board. They

encouraged me. And I stretched one of my hands out. I finally felt I would likely be saved, as I was found.


ASHER: Pretty much a miracle there but hopes of finding at least 70 people who are still missing are fading fast. About 5,000 people are keeping up

the rescue effort but they're now past that critical 72-hour, three-day window when chances of survival are at their highest.

In the meantime, people across the U.S. state of Mississippi are sorting through what's left of their homes after more than a dozen tornadoes blew

through. Eight people were killed in Wednesday's storms throughout the United States. The severe weather hit just as many were getting ready for

Christmas. Here's our Chad Myers with more.


CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST (voice-over): This Christmas Eve morning, hundreds of people are waking up to utter devastation.


MYERS (voice-over): The destruction caused by a deadly tornado outbreak, cutting across the South and Midwest.

The tornado claiming multiple lives, including a 7-year-old boy as residents desperately tried to hide in their cars and homes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: By the time I got out of my car, I had a tree that was in my windshield.

MYERS (voice-over): In Northern Mississippi, this tornado tore through a busy highway.

Watch as the massive twister tosses this tractor trailer as it barrels through traffic.

Watch from this angle, from what appears to be the same semi, this driver just feet away.

The winds in southwestern Tennessee roared up to 75 miles per hour, as officials declared a state of emergency.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The houses just exploded and they were buried in the rubble.

MYERS (voice-over): Two people were killed east of Memphis, their bodies found under debris.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were in the house, we heard the wind picking up; we had 45 seconds and it just hit. We walked out of the storm shelter,

everything was gone.

MYERS (voice-over): And in Arkansas, an 18-year-old woman died when a tree fell through her house, toppled by the high winds and heavy rain.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Christmas is all about love and we're going to love through this.

MYERS (voice-over): Some residents in Mississippi clinging on to what they say matters most, after losing nearly everything this holiday season.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It wasn't about the house. It was about my family and that was the most important thing to me.


ASHER: Some really remarkable frightening images there.

CNN's Chad Myers joins us live now.

So, Chad, I'm in Atlanta, as are you. I saw the lightning, the thunder, the torrential rain yesterday on my way home.

Doesn't seem quite as bad as what was happening in Mississippi but is there more still to come over the Christmas week?



You're in the CNN newsroom. Still to come, we'll find out how Christians are marking Christmas in the biblical birthplace of Jesus. We'll have a

live report from Bethlehem, coming up next.




ASHER: Police in Israel say a Palestinian man was shot dead after stabbing two security guards in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, north of

Jerusalem. One of the victims is in critical condition, the latest stabbing follows Wednesday's terror attack at the Jaffa Gate in Old


An Israeli and Argentine rabbi died in that incident. The violence is making for a cautious mood as Christians celebrate Christmas Eve in

Bethlehem. Oren Liebermann is live for us there with the latest.

So, Oren, we're seeing fewer crowds this year in Bethlehem.

How has the violence affected business and tourism there?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've seen a fairly stunning drop, not only in the crowds but also in speaking anecdotally to some of

the tour guides here, some of the stores, who say they've seen as much as an --


LIEBERMANN: -- 80 percent drop in business. Take a look at Manger Square here behind me. There is still a festive atmosphere here. There are

Christmas carols, there are songs, there are, perhaps most importantly, songs of peace here. But the square, compared to what it is normal years,

is relatively empty.

It is beautiful here tonight. The Christmas tree is beautiful. A couple of hours ago the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem walked past that tree into

the Church of the Nativity. There will be performances here. There will be shows here and then, of course, there will be midnight mass.

What's missing here is the people. There was a State Department warning, saying that -- warning Americans not to travel or be careful when traveling

to this region. That, tour guides and vendors say, has scared away a lot of not only the Americans but also the Europeans as well.

So even if there is that festive atmosphere here and that celebratory atmosphere here on Christmas Eve at such an important place to

Christianity, what's missing here are many of those people that would normally otherwise be here.

Still, the crowds that are here trying to enjoy this evening for what it is and, of course, where it is here in Bethlehem -- Zain.

ASHER: Oren, you mentioned 80 percent drop in business for some people. It must be very hard for the business owners. But since late September, we

have really seen continuous stabbings and attacks in and around Jerusalem. It doesn't seem to be slowing down.

LIEBERMANN: Well, Jerusalem has -- Jerusalem itself, as a city, has quieted down a bit. We did see that attack yesterday. But that has been

one of the quieter regions, a lot of the attacks, violence and clashes that we have seen have focused on the Southern West Bank -- that is the reason

for all this caution.

We're seeing a number of security forces here in Bethlehem. We've seen Israeli security forces in Jerusalem and that has led to an air of fear, I

would say, on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian because of what's going on here.

And it doesn't seem like, at least from our perspective, that it's going to end anytime soon. The numbers as they stand now, more than 25 Israelis

have been killed since October 1st, more than 130 Palestinians have been killed. Israeli authorities say some 70 of those were killed while

carrying out attacks. But that has led to this atmosphere here, this atmosphere perhaps of sorrow on Christmas in Bethlehem.

ASHER: A quiet Christmas there in Bethlehem. OK. Oren Liebermann live for us there. Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

That does it for us here at the INTERNATIONAL DESK. I'm Zain Asher. "AMANPOUR" is up next. But first, I'll be back with a quick look at your