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Berlin Investigators Comb Through Truck; Who's Behind the Assassination?; Trump Looking to Fill Remaining Posts; 29 People Killed in Mexico Fireworks Blast. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired December 21, 2016 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:17] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: A manhunt for the Berlin truck attacker. ISIS claims one of its soldiers carried out that assault.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN ANCHOR: And who's behind the assassination of a Russian ambassador? Turkey points the finger at the U.S.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Miguel Marquez.

ROMANS: Very nice to see you again this morning, Miguel.

MARQUEZ: Good to see you.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. It is Wednesday, December 21st. It is 4:00 a.m. in the East.

Good morning, everyone.

German authorities scrambling this morning for new leads in that truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market that killed 12 people and injured 48 more. Now, police released the man they had earlier described as a suspect. Police saying forensic analysis inside that truck failed to tie the man to the vehicle.

Now, whoever committed the deadly attack, ISIS is now claiming that it was the inspiration.

For the very latest on the investigation, the manhunt, we turn to CNN's Max Foster live this morning in Berlin.

Bring us up to speed, Max?

MAX FOSTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they've had more than 500 leads, and the public, we're told, and they're investigating them. They're also (INAUDIBLE) for any sort of video or any sort of stills of the attack, which have happened just behind me so they can follow them up, the security services. They thought they had their man yesterday. The Pakistani, asylum seeker, but they had to release him without charge because he was the wrong man.

So, what happened to the actual perpetrator of this attack, we just don't know. We're not being told anything. ISIS might be claiming this one, but they could be being opportunistic. They're not giving any sort of information about him or whether there were others involved in this as well. Was it a team of people, a cell?

The security services aren't saying anything either. They have reasons for that, of course, operational reasons. Certainly, interviews on the German media here suggest that they are on to something. They do feel they will catch a suspect. So that will explain why they're not giving out too much information on this one.

But they're desperately trying to get back to normal here in Berlin. They want to get the market open soon as possible, Christine. There's a sign of defiance against what ISIS represents, which is attacking and destroying Western culture and trying to people not to go about their ordinary lives.

ROMANS: All right. Max Foster, thank you so much for that indeed. Keep us up to speed if you get any development either in the manhunt or the ISIS claim. ISIS piggybacking on this event, I guess not a surprise there on that. But, Max, thank you so much.

MARQUEZ: Now, the crucial evidence in the Berlin truck attack, the biggest lead in every sense is the semi truck itself abandoned by its driver after mowing down dozens of victims and still carrying 25 tons of steel. Breaking down what they're learning about the crime about a time line of the attack, our Tom Foreman in the CNN virtual studio.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is the truck used in the attack owned by a Polish shipping company. It was on what should have been a routine run delivering steel from Italy up into Germany when authorities believe it was hijacked in the outskirts of Berlin between 3:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon. The driver killed. His body later found inside that cab.

How did they know it was this period of time? The shipping company back in Poland says its truck was outfitted with a sophisticated GPS system. They told "The Mirror" newspaper that, basically, they saw odd behavior in this period of time, someone trying to start the truck twice and failing. And then when it got rolling again, erratic driving up toward Berlin, as if somebody else was behind the wheel, not the regular driver.

By 5:00, they say, nonetheless, it had reached the Christmas market up here near Berlin. They tried to call the driver numerous times, no answer. What happens next is also a mystery. For a few hours, it simply goes missing as it gets darker here, the foot traffic gets bigger.

And then the truck reappears down in here. Holiday markets highlighted here in red. And according to eyewitnesses, it begins accelerating, up to 40 less an hour, jumping the curb. This is where all of those stalls and people would have been, and plowing through people for about 250 feet before finally coming to a stop down there.

Why did it stop? We don't know. It didn't hit any kind of major barrier we don't think. The police don't seem to have challenged or to have rammed it. And there were no witnesses saying that they saw somebody get out and ran away, as far as we know at this point, only the murder victim found inside the cab and an awful lot of questions for the investigators.


ROMANS: All right. Tom Foreman, thank you for that, in the virtual studio.

Now, tension rising between the United States and Turkey over claims the U.S. bears some of the blame for the assassination of Russia's ambassador to Turkey. Secretary of State John Kerry calling Turkey's foreign minister following the murder to offer his condolences.

[04:05:05] The foreign minister telling Kerry that his country believes his country U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen was behind the attack by a Turkish police officer. Turkey claims this cleric, Gulen, was also behind the failed coup in July and has been trying without success to get the U.S. to extradite him.

Kerry's spokesman says the secretary raised concerns on this call with the Turkish foreign minister about rhetoric blaming the U.S. for the Russian ambassador's assassination. Those claims called absolutely ridiculous.


JOHN KIRBY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: With respect to American involvement/support, tacit or otherwise, for this unspeakable assassination yesterday, because of the presence of Mr. Gulen here in the United States, and it is -- it's a ludicrous claim. Absolutely false.


ROMANS: For latest in the investigation into the assassination, let's bring in CNN's Clarissa Ward.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The Kremlin is taking a very measured tone in dealing with the assassination of its Russian ambassador. We've seen really what appears to be almost a coordinated response from the Turkish President Erdogan, also from Russia's president, Putin. Both of them saying that this should be viewed solely really as a provocation and an attempt to thwart the warming of relations between Russia and Turkey, attempt to derail cooperation between the two countries on the subject of Syria. Both leaders making it clear that they do not view this as a protracted dispute, that they do not want to escalate the situation.

The mood here in Moscow today has been somber. It's one of mourning. People have been gathering outside the foreign ministry to light candles and pay their respects. The body of the ambassador who was killed has been brought back to

Moscow. And those investigators from Russia, 16 of them are now in Ankara, in Turkey. They, of course, will be looking very closely at whether or not the attacker had any kind of a larger network supporting him.

Turkish state television is reporting that he had some kind of al Qaeda literature in his home. Whether or not that was just an inspiration to him or whether he may have been part of a larger jihadist cell, that is something that Russian investigators will want to get to the bottom of. There is still a lot of questions as well as to how he was able to gain access to this event. This event would have been visited by all sorts of diplomatic elites in Ankara. And yet, you can see in that video, the attacker standing coolly behind the ambassador for sometime before opening fire.

The summit here in Moscow did go ahead as scheduled. The focus was Syria. In attendance, of course, Turkey's foreign minister and the Iranian foreign minister and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, saying the focus must be united, it must be in dealing with Syria, and viewing terrorism as the biggest obstacle to peace in Syria, and not the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Clarissa Ward, CNN, Moscow.


MARQUEZ: So, how often is Donald Trump getting briefed on security situations? The frequency of those high-level briefings back in the spotlight following attacks around the world. The president-elect also working to fill remaining top jobs in his administration.

CNN senior Washington reporter Jeff Zeleny is at Trump's estate in Palm Beach.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Miguel, Donald Trump is beginning another day of vacation here in Palm Beach, Florida. It is a working vacation, though. He's meeting with business leaders and others as he puts together his cabinets, gets ready for his administration which now starts 30 days from today.

He still has two members of his cabinet yet to fill. The Veterans Administration secretary, as well as agricultural secretary. Other key post in the White House as well, White House press secretary, some other advisers could come this week.

Now, Donald Trump is hosting a series of meetings here in Mar-a-Lago, his resort here in Palm Beach, including Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire that Donald Trump railed against during the campaign. He invited him to dinner over the weekend.

Now, Donald Trump confirmed that in a tweet yesterday, calling him a great man, clearly a sign that things will be different in some respects when Donald Trump becomes president, taking a softer tone in some areas, not in others.

One key question, though, is Donald Trump receiving his daily intelligence briefing? He has said before that he does not need to receive it every day. He does not need to see the same information every day. Mike Pence, the vice president-elect is receiving one.

But in the wake of these attacks in Germany, his advisers would not answer our questions whether he received one directly yesterday or simply receive information from his transition team. That's something we'll be asking again today, as Donald Trump begins another day here in Palm Beach -- Miguel and Christine.


[04:10:01] ROMANS: All right. Jeff Zeleny, thank you, Jeff.

All right. Twenty-six little itty-bitty tiny points, that's all that stands between the Dow and 20,000. The Dow came within 13 points of it during yesterday's session, but it couldn't quite get there, closed 26 points below it.

Now, futures are pointing higher this morning, so maybe make something history at the opening, Miguel.

MARQUEZ: Stay calm.

ROMANS: Stay calm.

That's this year. But what about next year? There are several factors lurking in 2017 that could derail the Trump rally, the Trump bump, the Trump honeymoon, whatever they're calling it, the headline writers.

First, the Trump stimulus fails to stimulate. Investors are giddy about tax cuts and infrastructure spending, but what if that does not trickle down and boost economic growth?

Second, possible trade war. Trump's tough campaign talk about imposing tariff seems to have faded to just a negotiating tactic. But as president, he'll have the power to act on trade.

Third, global tensions and terrorism. We saw it this week. Markets weren't spooked too much but how will that change under a Trump presidency? He will likely be tested early and often.

But I will say --

MARQUEZ: Say it.

ROMANS: -- the contrarians have been looking at the market since the day he was elected and saying, here's what the things that could derail the Trump rally, and stuff like 8 percent. You know, they've been wrong.

MARQUEZ: I want you to stay calm during the day. When it hits 20,000, I don't want screaming in the office. ROMANS: I actually never -- I remember, I'm old enough to remember

when it hit Dow 10,000, and I thought the hats were silly. So, look, now it's at 20,000 --

MARQUEZ: Of course, you were wearing one of those hats.

Now, the last chance in Aleppo. Evacuations from the war-torn Syrian city could end today. A live report just ahead.

ROMANS: And later, deadly explosions in Mexico, just unbelievable. These blasts that rocked the same spot just a few years ago. We've got that for you.


MARQUEZ: Russia has come up with a road map which it claims will lead to a peace deal in Syria. The deal does not include the U.S.

[04:15:01] But Russia's defense minister has convinced Iran and Turkey to sign on. This as Turkish officials say the dramatic evacuation of Aleppo could end today. Turkey's foreign minister says nearly 40,000 people have pled the war-torn city.

For more on that, let's go live to CNN's Muhammad Lila on the Turkish/Syrian border.

Muhammad, how is all of this news being received there? And what is the status of the evacuations?

MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting, Miguel, because we were actually expecting the evacuations to be completed overnight. Now, we understand there are some delays and depends on who you talk to about why there are delays. The Syrian government says there was infighting among the rebels that delayed the evacuation. The rebel fighters say, well, no, there was some intimidation and people were getting stopped and out the buses as they were trying to leave the city.

But leaving aside the he said and she said, it was an important develop that we're starting to see play out. The United Nations is now been endorsed to send 20 more independent monitors to Eastern Aleppo, to make sure the evacuations take place. Now, 20 people doesn't sound like a whole lot, but the United Nations says that's going to triple the amount of observers that are on the ground right now.

So, there's hope that with those observers there, the evacuations will continue and will get confirmation at some point today that the people that have been trapped inside of eastern Aleppo has been sent to freedom on the countryside. Now, as far as this political plan goes, you mentioned Russia and the plan signed on to by Turkey and Iran, they are now talking about guaranteeing those three countries saying they would guarantee that their proxies on the ground won't violate an upcoming cease-fire. And that's important, because, you know, as America sort of had been hands off when it comes to Syria, it created a vacuum, and that vacuum was filled by Turkey and Russia. Those are the key groups on the ground right now and they're the ones

with the most influence over at the various militant groups and militias that are fighting. So, based on that they say, look, we're going to hold back our guys from fighting in Syria, it could lead to some sort of semi-permanent if not permanent cease-fire.

MARQUEZ: Muhammad, how big is a concern that if those U.N. peacekeepers are put on the ground, that they themselves become targets and could further the troubles in Syria?

LILA: You know, that's a very good question. And the reality is, nothing is ever certain in this conflict. We've seen evacuations deals that seem to be going ahead. It seemed to have buy-in from all of the groups on the ground.

And then you had one rogue jihadi militant group that decided to take matters into its own hand and set a bunch of buses on fire. So, obviously, the U.N. staff know that there are risks going into this. There are also Red Cross staff on the ground, they know the risks going into it.

But, in many ways, those are really the unsung heroes of this conflict. They're going in and risking their lives and their entire purpose in doing this is to save innocent civilians on both sides, the government side, the pro-regime side, and the opposition side as well.

MARQUEZ: It is such a fragile situation. Muhammad Lila for us on the Syrian/Turkish border -- thank you very much for keeping up with it.

ROMANS: All right. Eighteen minutes past the hour.

President Obama planning to downsize Guantanamo Bay before Donald Trump takes office. A congressional official telling CNN, lawmakers received notice Monday of the White House intention to transfer some additional detainees. "The New York Times" reports Mr. Obama plans to release and transfer 17 or 18 of the remaining 59 prisoners. President-elect Trump vowed during the campaign to keep the prison open and, quote, "load it up".

MARQUEZ: President Obama taking new action barring offshore drilling in areas of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans indefinitely. The White House said the president made the move to protect marine mammals, ecological resources and native populations. President-elect Trump promised a policy allowing more U.S. energy production. He would almost certainly face legal challenges if he attempted to reverse Obama's order.

ROMANS: This morning, North Carolina lawmakers meet in a special session to debate repealing the state's so-called bathroom bill. The session comes after the Charlotte City Council voted to get rid of an ordinance of protecting transgender people, which prompted the state legislation. The controversial HB2 law passed in March restricts people to use only the bathrooms associated with the sex, the gender listed on their birth certificate. Repeal of the law could end legal challenges by the federal Justice Department and transgender residents. MARQUEZ: The dramatic moments just before the deadly crash of a cargo

plane caught on video.


MARQUEZ: My goodness. That story ahead, in just a moment.


[04:23:05] ROMANS: A deadly plane crash caught on video in eastern Colombia. This cargo plane could be seen tilting to one side, veering off the runway just three minutes after it attempted to take off. Five crew members were killed.

Another angle here of the jet spinning the road.

MARQUEZ: Oh my God!


A flight technician sent to the hospital with unknown injuries at this point. It's unclear what caused that crash.

MARQUEZ: Now, at least 29 people are dead and 72 people are injured after explosions ripped through a fireworks market north of Mexico City. This video -- unbelievable. Otherworldly.

You can see thick smoke and explosions tearing through the market. Now, investigators are trying to determine what went wrong.

We get more from CNN's Ed Lavandera.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Miguel, the video images emerging from the town of Tultepec, Mexico, which is just north of Mexico City, are simply staggering and horrifying to watch. The explosions went on and on as thousands of people gathered inside this open market.

In this town that is basically known as the fireworks capital of Mexico, it was a horrifying scene. More than 70 people injured. Nearly three dozen people killed. That death toll could continue to rise. We do know, we've been told by officials in Mexico that three young victims will be brought to a hospital in Texas to be treated for their extreme burns. So you can imagine just the horrifying scene that rescue teams, as well as just bystanders who were rushing into the scene to help whoever they could.

This is a scene that unfolded Tuesday afternoon. The images from the ground revealed the scorched fireworks stands. This is a place where elaborate fireworks displays are sold. Very popular, especially this time of the year as we head into the holiday season and the New Year's festivities.

This isn't the first time that this has actually happened in this open air market. It happened again in 2005.

[04:25:01] There were no deaths in those series of explosions, but it did cost a great deal of damage and injuries to many people as well. So, once again, the small town basically known as the fireworks capital of Mexico rocked by his horrifying incident -- Christine and Miguel.


ROMANS: All right. Ed Lavandera, just unbelievable, thanks for that.

A manhunt underway right now for thieves who targeted a FedEx driver in Chicago. Police say the victim was making deliveries when he was held up at gunpoint by four masked men. He said the robbers took his personal items and his truck which was found empty hours later. No arrests have been made.

MARQUEZ: Four more people charged in connection with the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan. To former Michigan state emergency managers face multiple charges for failing to protect Flint citizens. Two former Flint city officials are also facing felony charges.

All four suspects face penalties up to 20 years in prison. And some of the charges in 2014, officials switched the city's water supply to a system which pulls from the corrosive Flint River. That move triggered widespread lead poisoning.

ROMANS: And, you know, they've been treating this almost like a mafia investigation, moving higher and higher up the chain. I mean, two of those people charged yesterday are people who report directly to the governor, so they're moving right up the chain here. So, it's interesting to watch that investigation.

MARQUEZ: It was ordered from such a high level. I mean, so many people in --

ROMANS: All right. To China now, issuing a red alert as Beijing enters its fifth straight day of dangerous smog levels. Officials say the smog has grounded 181 flights. Most highways are closed.

Hospitals are gearing for a surge in patients since the smog is known to cause breathing problems. You know, occasionally, we'll have a live shot from Beijing, you can just see in the background like a mist, you know, the smoggy mist. But it is particularly dangerous.

MARQUEZ: That's proper fog. I don't think L.A. in the '70s ever had anything like that.

ROMANS: This is smog, industrial --

MARQUEZ: Industrial strength smog.

Frantic search for a new suspect in the Berlin truck attack after a huge setback for the investigation. We're live, just ahead.