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Syrian Cease-fire Off to Shaky Start; The Many Years of Syria's Civil War; Obama Slaps New Sanctions on Russia; Ceasefire In Place, Backed By Russia And Turkey; Man Claims He Was Assassin For Philippine President; NYC Uber Driver Hits 240 Green Lights In A Row. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired December 30, 2016 - 00:00   ET



[00:00:10] CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR: This is CNN NEWSROOM live from Atlanta.

Coming up in the show this hour, a nationwide cease-fire has begun in Syria with Russia and Turkey's backing. Early clashes however have been reported.

Election hacking pay back, the Obama administration kicks Russian diplomats out of the country and levies sanctions. The Kremlin vowing revenge soon.

And he claims he has murdered dozens of people for President Duterte in the Philippines but now this alleged hitman is sitting down exclusively with CNN.

Hello and a very warm welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Cyril Vanier.

And your CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.

It is 7:00 a.m. in Syria where an exhausted nation is hoping that a new cease-fire will take hold after nearly six years of civil war. Russia and Turkey brokered the nationwide deal between the Syrian regime and a number of rebel groups. It's worth noting however that many of those groups were excluded.

The U.S. is also on the outside looking in as talks went on without Washington. However the Kremlin is inviting Donald Trump's administration to join in as soon as he takes office.

Our Ian Lee is monitoring the cease-fire from Istanbul in Turkey. He joins me now live. Ian -- the first thing I've got to ask you, as far as you can make out, is the cease-fire holding at the moment?

IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there have been some reports of violations in the early morning hours but by and large the cease-fire does appear to be holding. Now both sides -- the Russians, the Syrians as well as the Turks have said that it is fragile. And when you look at past cease-fires there is a lot of previous accounts of how these are fragile. You do at times have one side breaking it which leads to full-on clashes.

So right now while there are reports of some breaks in it, it does seem to be holding for the most part.

VANIER: And tell me, this cease-fire just feels different. I know in the past there have been many cease-fires, attempted cease-fires and they've broken done almost as soon as they come into effect. This one, however, feels different.

LEE: That's right. You know, it does have a different feel to it. A lot of times in the past they have been unilateral cease-fires. This one though you do have two major players. You have the Russians which under their umbrella you have the Syrian government. You also have Iran and Lebanese militias. And then on the other side, you have Turkey who has a lot -- under their umbrella a lot of the Syrian faction rebel groups.

So you do have these two main brokers who are coming together trying to hash out some sort of deal right now. They're talking of a cease- fire; then they're going to be later, next month talking about how they can bring about a final solution to this conflict.

But there are other moving parts in this as well which could upend this cease-fire. There are militias that aren't part of it. So it is incredibly fragile at this moment.

VANIER: Ian Lee reporting live from Istanbul in neighboring Turkey. Thank you very much. And of course, we'll bring you back later on in the show. We want to know a lot more about this and we'll continue to monitor the cease-fire in Syria -- thanks.

Now Syria's civil war has been going on as we were saying for nearly six devastating years. The human toll has been laid bare for the world to see and the violence has not completely ended yet.

Our Phil Black looks back at how we got here.


PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Political graffiti -- that's how it all started in the Syrian city of Daraa. Children were arrested for the crime and the street responded. Huge peaceful demonstrations demanded change.

The Syrian government's response wasn't peaceful. That crackdown began driving people from their homes, from their own country. These were among the first in what was to become a wave of refugees seeking safety beyond Syria's borders. Eventually demonstrators and activists became rebels. They picked up weapons and fought back.

Civil war has torn Syria apart for almost six years as the world watched and talked. U.N. Security Council resolutions were vetoed by Russia and China. International negotiations floundered. Cease-fires were ignored.

All while seemingly endless images have documented suffering on a scale difficult to comprehend. We have seen the faces of communities enduring bombardment and starvation like here at Darmok in Damascus.

[00:05:03] Stories of Syria's children repeatedly damned the world's impotence like those gasping for breath after a chemical weapons attack. President Obama said this would be a red line. It wasn't.

The body of Aylan Kurdia, face down on a Turkish beach after his family's failed attempt to reach Europe, and a stunned little boy dusty and bleeding after being pulled from the rubble in Aleppo.

Syria's uninterrupted chaos allowed ISIS to evolve into a powerful force. The world had a front line view as it took the might of the American air power to drive ISIS fighters away from Kobani, a city right on Turkey's border.

The group proved its brutality with violent propaganda videos including the executions of foreign hostages. And with the attacks in Paris and Brussels ISIS showed it can project terror far beyond its Syrian base.

The West's limited intervention in Syria also provided opportunity for Russia. In September 2015, its air force began striking the enemies of Syria's regime with devastating effect. That campaign recently broke the opposition's desperate resistance in the city of Aleppo while inspiring Western critics to accuse Russia of war crimes.

Now only weeks later Russia and Turkey say they've finally found a diplomatic way forward in a war that's devastated the country and destabilized the region. More than 11 million people, around half of Syria's population have been forced from their homes; 400,000 have been killed. For almost six years, intense hatreds have been deepened through blood and loss.

The heart breaking realities of Syria's war leave little space for optimism despite this latest effort at diplomacy.

Phil Black, CNN -- London.


VANIER: If you're one of the many people who looks at these pictures and wonders what you can do to help; if you want to help people in need of food, shelter, medical assistance there are several ways that you can do that. Check out our Web site, for more details on that.


VANIER: Welcome back to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Cyril Vanier. And you're watching CNN NEWSROOM.

We're following a cease-fire in Syria that was brokered by Russia and Turkey which may have the potential to change the situation on the ground. Some rebel groups and regime forces laying down their weapons after nearly six years of war. We'll be heading live to the region in just a moment.

But first, though, Russia is vowing to respond to harsh new U.S. sanctions, punishment for Russia's alleged interference in the U.S. election. The measures include the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats from the U.S. Russia foreign ministry issued a scathing response saying "It's over. The curtain is down. The bad play is over. The whole world from the first seats to the balcony is witnessing a destructive blow on America's prestige and leadership that has been dealt by Barack Obama and his hardly literate foreign policy team that revealed its main secret to the world -- that it is exceptionally masked helplessness. And no enemy could have caused more harm to the U.S."

President-Elect Donald Trump seemed anxious to get past this incident saying "It's time for our country to move on to bigger and better things. Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.

CNN's Jim Sciutto has more on how the U.S. is responding.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Tonight, President Obama ordering strong and far-reaching retaliation against Russia for its unprecedented cyber attack on the U.S. election system. The U.S. is imposing sanctions against nine Russian individuals and entities including the Russian spy agency, the FSB and the Russian military intelligence unit the GRU -- both believed to be behind the hack.

The U.S. is ordering 35 Russian intelligence operatives and their families in California and Washington, D.C. out of the country within 72 hours; and shutting down two Russian government-owned compounds, one in Maryland and another in New York.

The President also declassifying intelligence on Russian cyber activity to help networks in the U.S. and abroad quote, "identify, detect and disrupt Russian cyber attacks".

In spite of this and the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Russia ordered the election hacking, President-Elect Trump just last night continued to dismiss both Moscow's involvement and the importance of the hacking at all.

DONALD TRUMP (R), U.S. PRESIDENT ELECT: I think we ought to get on with our lives. I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole, you know, age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what's going on.

SCIUTTO: Senator John McCain traveling this week with other senators in the Baltic region, where countries are most worried about Russian aggression responding today to Trump's nonchalant remarks with a sarcastic jab. SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I agree with the President-Elect that

we need to get on with our lives without having our elections being affected by any outside influence especially Vladimir Putin who is a thug and a murder.

SCIUTTO: In a statement before the announcement Russia promised its own retaliation saying, "If Washington takes new hostile steps, it will receive an answer. Any actions against Russian diplomatic missions in the United States will immediately backfire at U.S. diplomats in Russia."

The U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russian president Vladimir Putin personally approved of the hacking, in part to hurt Hillary Clinton's campaign; this, according to intelligence, congressional and other administration sources.

Earlier this week, Senator Lindsey Graham who is traveling with McCain told CNN in an interview that congress is planning it own pay back.

[00:15:04] What are you going to do, Senator Graham and Senator McCain if he doesn't change his tune in effect on Russia?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: There are 100 United States senators. I would say that 99 of us believe the Russians did this and we're going to do something about it along with Senator McCain after this trip's over.

We're going to have the hearings and we're going to put sanctions together that hit Putin as an individual and his inner circle for interfering in our election. And they're doing it all over the world, not just in the United States.


VANIER: Jim Sciutto reporting there for us tonight.

Joining me now from Seattle, Washington CNN's former Moscow bureau chief, Jill Dougherty. Jill -- we were talking about this topic last night as we sort of knew that the announcements were going to made today. Now that we know what the sanctions are specifically, how significant do you think they really are?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think they are significant and also, you know, Cyril we don't totally know precisely the actions that the Obama administration is going to ultimately take. I mean we do know about the sanctions. We do know about diplomatic steps but there are some covert steps that the Obama administration can take that we may never know about and that's where it gets kind of complicated.

You know, I think there is one part of this, too, that hasn't really been brought up. But these are the things that Obama is talking about, declassifying technical information about the way that Russia uses the web and uses cyber in order to carry out malicious cyber activity.

And these are very interesting. I mean you could say that essentially what he is doing is he is giving the green light to, let's call them good hackers, to go after the Russian intelligence service hackers and that is very interesting, too. So there are a lot of aspects to this.

VANIER: Jill -- I'm looking at some of the other sanctions here. Potentially asset freezes or travel bans on the GRU, that's the Russian military intelligence chief. I mean symbolically that's a big deal but it strikes me that maybe that's not going to change a lot to how they actually operate.

DOUGHERTY: Yes. I don't think the head of GRU is vacationing in Miami. But I think even naming him and saying here's the man -- one of the key people who has carried out and organized this attack and these attacks is really big. I mean you just don't do that.

It's kind of like Russia targeting the head of the CIA or something. It just isn't done. So I think they are doing that for a purpose and I do think that they're trying to get as close to President Putin as they can to deliver that message.

And interestingly when you hear Lindsey Graham talking about Putin personally, McCain and Lindsey Graham talking about Putin personally, that's another step that is really almost like a nuclear option here.

So this thing is moving very quickly forward with no one really understanding where it's all going to end up.

VANIER: Getting back to a question that I was asking you yesterday, do you think this is the kind of retaliation that is going to make Moscow, the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin think twice about undertaking the kind of hacking that the U.S. accuses them of having done next time?

DOUGHERTY: Well, you know, they're going to continue hacking -- hacking in the sense of getting intelligence information and certainly the economic hacking, you know, to make money. Russian hackers, et cetera. That's probably all going to go forward.

But when you get into hacking into an election, I think that's where the Russians are going to have to decide how far they would want to push it. And that's an unknowable at this point. Because Obama finally is pushing back, pushing back pretty hard and the sign is "don't try it again".

It's also, by the way, a message not only to Russia but it's to other countries that have the potential to do what the Russians have. But again we don't know where this is all going to go and whether President Putin will take it as another step that he wants to, you know, push the boundary even further and do something that ultimately could even be destabilizing.

VANIER: All right. Jill Dougherty reporting live from Seattle, Washington. Thank you very much for your insights.

And I would point out to our viewers the importance of one of the things that you said. We only know a part of the story here because President Obama had made it clear that part of the retaliation wouldn't be made public. So we have to bear in mind we don't know the full story.

Joining me now from Los Angeles -- political strategist Mac Zilber and Republican consultant John Thomas.

[00:19:54] Tell me -- I want you to tell me about what you think about Donald Trump's reaction to all this. Because this has all been laid at his doorstep, three weeks from take office and what is he saying? He says it's time to, quote, "move on". That's a direct quote.

Now, for instance as a consultant, how does that score as an answer?

MAC ZILBER, POLITICAL STRATEGIST: Well, it's unacceptable, especially given his background. We forget, this is a man who stood up in a press conference and called on Russia to hack his opponent during the campaign and then later said that he had nothing do with it. This is an individual whose secretary of state designee is part of Putin's order of friendship.

And so when he says we need to move on and not pay attention to one of the largest attacks on our democracy's integrity and our nation's history that answer simply doesn't cut it for most Americans.


VANIER: Yes, sorry -- go ahead.

THOMAS: I was just going to say look, what's shocking here is that with 20 days to go now President Obama decides to take action. What about the last eight years? He tried to the reset, that failed. Allegedly the White House was hacked but no one really talked about that.

China is hacking -- consistently hacking the United States. But Obama doesn't take action but all of a sudden when his party might not be in power he takes action. I think the tweet that the Russian -- I think it was the Russian embassy who called him a lame duck -- underscores the larger problem that Barack Obama has had over the last eight years and that is the rest of the world doesn't take the U.S. seriously like when Barack Obama told Putin to cut it out, Putin just laughs.

VANIER: Right. And I would point out the quote by the U.S. House of Representative, John Ryan who was saying -- Paul Ryan, beg your pardon -- who was saying precisely that, that the answer was adequate. He was happy that it came.

And here it is, "While today's action by the administration is overdue, it's an appropriate way to end eight years of failed policy with Russia." The thing is, isn't this going to -- and the end of the quote, "it serves as a prime example of this administration's ineffective foreign policy that has the left America weaker in the eyes of the world." And that's speaking to your point.

But isn't this going to essentially curtail Donald Trump's action? He is giving us the impression that he was going to want to reset things with Russia but now, of course, he's going to inherit a situation where they've just attacked Russia, essentially. Cyber-attack as well as other sanctions.

THOMAS: I understand the President feeling the need to take action here but he has handed a whole bucket of troubles to -- both in Israel as well as in Russia -- to the incoming President-Elect Trump.

And I think the reason President Trump is being hesitant to make a statement on this issue is what his chief of staff Reince Priebus said in another network tonight which is until the President takes office and is fully briefed by all the intelligence agencies on what actually is happening he doesn't want to weigh in on it.

VANIER: Right --

I'd like us to listen to just Kellyanne Conway, Trump's senior adviser. This is what she has to say. This is how she interprets the sanctions levied by the Obama administration.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, SENIOR ADVISER TO DONALD TRUMP: I will tell you that even those who are sympathetic to Barack Obama on those issues are saying that part of the reason he did this today was to, quote, "box in President-Elect Trump". That would be very unfortunate if that were the motive -- if politics were the motivating factor here but we can't help but think that that's often true.


VANIER: Mac -- do you feel that President Obama is playing politics with the sanctions?

ZILBER: I don't think it's politics to box in President-Elect Trump. I think it's a foreign policy imperative. When you have a President- Elect who has been signaling as dangerous as a policy on Russia as Trump has I don't think it's the worst thing in the world to box him in to where if he really wants to pull back and say that these 35 spies can come back into the United States then that's Trump's prerogative but he's going to be the one saying it and he's going to be the one going out there.

I also want to put a point on the notion of Trump when he gets his intelligence briefings, he said today that he won't take his briefings on this issue until next week. Does he have that much important stuff to do between now and Monday that he can't take an hour out of his to get briefed on this critical issue?

VANIER: Yes, what's your take on that? You feel he is just buying time there?

ZILBER: I think it's either one, that he's buying time; or two, that he treats the presidency as something of a hobby. He doesn't want to give up his businesses. He doesn't want to give up being executive producer of "The Apprentice". And you know, he says bother me when there is something important to the intelligence agencies. Then when there is something important he pushes it off a few days.


THOMAS: I don't know where to begin. Obama has had eight years to tackle this issue -- Russia. This is not the first time and 20 days before it does smack of politics. And if this was such a big issue just handing this -- he should have consulted with President-Elect Trump as to how they want to tackle this together because it really is unfair. This is falling in President-Elect Trump's lap not Obama's.

[00:25:01] VANIER: But wait, John -- I think the serious point that's being made here is that President-Elect Donald Trump has been pushing back, you know, despite the evidence that's been overwhelmingly presented by the intelligence community, he's been pushing back against the notion that Russia had interfered in the U.S. election process. And now he's saying, well, I will actually get briefed on the facts a week from now. Doesn't that strike you as a little flippant?

THOMAS: Well, not really because we don't know to the degree what hacking went on. We know the DNC was hacked and we know John Podesta's e-mails were hacked. We don't know that anything related to the elections actually were hacked.

So I think President-Elect Trump just doesn't want to jump to conclusions here until he has all the facts and quite frankly, he is in control and can direct the agencies to do comprehensive investigation to find out actually what happened.

VANIER: All right.

ZILBER: Well, the report that the intelligence community released today had quite a bit of detail on the fact that it was likely Russia that perpetrated this hacking.

THOMAS: Ok. To the DNC and Podesta but that's not --

VANIER: Gentlemen -- we're going to have to wrap this up. This could go on and it will go on in future days. I promise, we'll continue this conversation. Thank you very much for joining us though right now from Los Angeles -- political strategist Mac Zilber and Republican consultant John Thomas. Thanks a lot -- appreciate it.

THOMAS: Thank you.

ZILBER: Thanks.

VANIER: Syria is under a nationwide cease-fire as the world hopes that this one may finally last.

Plus shocking claims by a man who says that he killed for the Philippine president. How he says crocodiles were used to get rid of bodies.

That's all coming up after the break.


[00:30:00] VANIER: And welcome back to our viewers in the United States and around the world. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM.

I'm Cyril Vanier with your headlines this hour.

U.S. President Barack Obama is ordering dozens of Russian diplomats to leave the country. It's part of a new round of sanctions for Russia's alleged meddling in the U.S. elections. Two Russian compounds in the U.S. will also be closed. Moscow says it will respond in kind.

The U.S. military says it's aware of movements of the leader of ISIS over the past few weeks. Officials wouldn't say if Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi is in Syria or in Iraq. There have been no signs of Baghdadi for months. The U.S. is offering a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture.

Today is the first full day of a nationwide ceasefire in the Syrian Civil War. Russia and Turkey helped to broker the deal with the Assad regime as well as several rebel groups. It went into effect at midnight at local time. There have been a couple of reports of clashes since, then but no word on whether those involved in that violence had signed on to the ceasefire in the first place.

Now let's bring in CNN's Ian Lee as well as CNN Military Analyst, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona for their perspective on this ceasefire. I'd like to go to you first, Lieutenant Colonel. Your gut feeling. We'll get into the why in just a moment, but just your gut feeling for now. Is this ceasefire going to hold?

LIEUTENANT COLONEL RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well it has a better chance than the ones in the past. We've tried this before, and invariably, these break down. But the situation has changed so much since the last time we tried this. We've had these rebel reverses, the loss of Aleppo, a victory by the Syrian regime, they seem to be on a roll. So I think that the rebels are look at this as maybe their last chance and they may actually want this ceasefire to work so they can get to the table in 30 days and maybe get something out of this regime. But their hand is really weak right now and I think the Bashar al-Assad regime feels that they have the upper hand.

VANIER: Ian Lee is in neighboring Turkey. Ian, is the ceasefire holding from what you're hearing?

IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well there have been reports of some clashes but by and large the ceasefire is holding. It is going to be difficult, though. Not all the parties on the rebel side in particular have signed on to this. We're waiting to see who all is going to abide by it. And that really is going to be for Turkey to put the pressure on them to live and stand by this ceasefire.

But there are some major players involved who aren't a part of it. Jabhat al-Nusra (ph), (inaudible), this is the al-Qaeda linked group, and they are not part of it. They are operating in territory where there are other rebel groups operating. So it really is a bit ambiguous right now what territories that are being held by rebels will be included in this.

VANIER: So just to be clear for our viewers, that means fighting is going to continue but it will be directed against what Russia and Turkey define as terror groups? Is that correct?

LEE: Well, it's what the United States -- sorry, the U.N. Security Council determines as terrorist groups. So you have ISIS and you have the al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra (ph), those groups are not part of this. Also, it's important to note that the YPG, that is the Kurdish fighters who are in the northeastern part of Syria who are really giving it to ISIS as well, they are not part of this, and Turkey has accused the YPG as being a terrorist organization with supporters, the PKK, operating in Turkey. So it isgoing to be a diplomatic dance, if you will, moving forward with the ceasefire.

VANIER: All right, let me turn to you again, Rick Francona. Vladimir Putin, it had been widely interpreted when Russia got involved heavily in the Syrian conflict, it had been interpreted that Vladimir Putin, for him, it was a way for him to establish and re-establish Russia's power on the international stage. Do you think he got what he wanted today? He was the one who announced that there was a ceasefire in Syria after six years.

FRANCONA: Yes, I think the Russians have established themselves as one of the new power brokers in the region, particularly in Syria. The other parties to that are Turkey and Iran. You bring up a great point about the Turks, because this was a Russian and Turkish brokered deal, that Turks are going to have to deliver the rebels. They're going to have to force them to abide by this.

And the rebels have a lot of -- I'm sorry, the Turks have a lot of cache with the rebels because the Turks have skin in the game. They have got troops on the ground in northern Syria. They have taken casualties. ISIS has burned alive two of their troops. They are conducting air strikes every day. So that means a lot to the rebels.

So the rebels might be more willing to listen to the Turks. I think this is where their relationship with the United States broke down. And I think that's -- and Vladimir Putin's ascendance to this position of power in the Middle East and the Turkish involvement on the ground has pretty much marginalized the United States. Putin's coming out of this very, very strong.

[00:35:13] VANIER: The U.S. and its allies have been repeating for years, there is no military solution to this crisis. Doesn't, given what you're saying, that the rebels are more willing to accept the ceasefire precisely because they are in a weak position, doesn't that suggest in fact that there is, to some extent, a military solution?

FRANCONA: Well there has been a military solution, and the Russians are implementing it. If the goal of the military operation was to bring people to the table, it appears that that's what we're going to have.

Part of the ceasefire calls for talks to begin in 30 days in Kazakhstan. The United States won't be there, but the rebels, the Turks, and the Russians will be. So I think the rebels believe that this might be their best opportunity because if they don't come up with some sort of ceasefire that holds, if they don't reach some sort of political agreement with the government in Damascus, I don't think that they have the strength to hold out much longer.

They have been dealt a very devastating series of defeats and there's no reason to think that the Russians are going to let up until they are sure that Bashar al-Assad remains in power.

VANIER: Ian Lee in Istanbul, for backers of the ceasefire, Turkey and Russia, this is only supposed to be a first step. What is supposed to happen next?

LEE: That's right. There is really a three-step process here. The first step is just to get a ceasefire implemented. The second step is to set up a mechanism to oversee the ceasefire to make sure if there is any violations that they can be dealt with, that the communication line is open, and there is a direct line between the Russians and the Turks to talk about any sort of violations and to try to work those out.

But the third step, and this is going to be the crucial one for them negotiations, trying to bring the sides to the table to talk about a final solution and end this roughly six-year conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. And that is going to happen next month in Kazakhstan if -- and this is a big if -- they are able to keep the ceasefire intact until then.

VANIER: Just a quick, final question for you, Lieutenant Colonel -- has the U.S. been totally sidelined? Does it have any strength it can pull in this conflict?

FRANCONA: It doesn't appear so. I think the Russians have been pretty clear that we are not invited, we are not part of this, and we're not going to be part of it until after the inauguration of the new president, and at that point we may be brought back in. So whether you agree with what Putin has done or not, you have to give him credit for actually carrying out what he wanted to do, and I think he's been very successful, to our detriment.

VANIER: All right. CNN Military Analyst, Rick Francona, thank you very much. Ian Lee reporting from Istanbul, thank you very much.

We're going to take a very short break. When we come back, this man says he was on a death squad run by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. How his alleged unit may have killed children. That's all coming up.


[00:41:29] VANIER: Now to a CNN exclusive. A man who claims that he was an assassin has come forward with explosive claims. He says Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte once ran secret death squads, and as mayor of Davao City, ordered him to commit unthinkable acts.

These claims come as Mr. Duterte continues to carry out a deadly drug war and threatens to jeopardize his country's military alliance with the U.S. Will Ripley is in Manila reporting on this. Will, the man you spoke to and that you are going to tell us about, why is he coming forward now? WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well it depends who you ask. For

those who support President Duterte who is six months into his drug war that has killed more than 6,000 people, they believe this is politically motivated. They believe that this self proclaimed hit man is being protected by high level lawmakers who want to try to take down President Duterte.

However if you talk to Edgar Matobato and those who believe him, they tell a very different story of a man who was essentially a hired hit man, a hired assassin, for 25 years, who over the years, after killing a number of people, started to have a change of heart, his conscience started to chip away, and now he's telling this story.


RIPLEY (voiceover): Edgar Matobato says he and the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte have something in common. They both have blood on their hands.

I want him to pay for what he did, for the many killings he ordered, he says. If we bring back the death penalty, I hope that Duterte is the first to hang, and then I will follow. Decades before the President took his bloody war on drugs nationwide, Matobato says he was part of a group known in the Philippines as the Davao death squad. A 2008 U.N. investigation found the shadowy band of assassins was committing hundreds of murders in Davao, targeting street children and criminals, all during Duterte's decades-long run as the southern city's gun toting, crime fighting mayor, beginning in 1988.

I personally killed around 50 people, Matobato says. He shows us a journal with names and dates of some of his victims, written by his wife because he can't read or write. Matobato also showed his Davao City ID. He says he was a ghost employee earning just $100 a month, to murder on command.

RIPLEY (on camera): Who was ordering the death squad to kill all these people?

RIPLEY (voiceover): We got the orders from Mayor Duterte, he says.

CNN cannot verify his story. Matobato's graphic testimony in September before a senate hearing on vigilante killings shocked the Philippines. The country's human rights commission is investigating. The President's office says, he changed some details in his story.

MARTIN ANDANAR, PRESS SECRETARY FOR PHILIPPINE PRESIDENT: Very inconsistent. So if you go through the transcript of the senate, you will see for yourself that Matobato is lying through his teeth.

RIPLEY: The President's communications secretary, Martin Andanar, says if the testimony was credible, police would have built a case.

ANDANAR: The Davao death squad that people are talking about, this is all legend. It's a legend. There's no death squad.

RODRIGO DUTERTE, PRESIDENT OF THE PHILIPPINES: I did kill. I was only three months mayor.

RIPLEY: Duterte told me he personally gunned down three people while mayor of Davao to set an example for his officers. But in media interviews, he says he doesn't remember Matobato, and denies ordering vigilante killings.

[00:45:06] For several years, Matobato was in official witness protection. Now that Duterte is President, he is just in hiding. We meet at a safe house several hours from Manila. He has moved at least 10 times in the last year and is currently facing charges of kidnapping and illegal firearms possession.

I was told to cut the body parts into pieces, he says. Matobato claims they dumped bodies in crocodile farms, in the streets, and even in mass graves. But those graves have never been found.

RIPLEY (on camera): Why are you the only one who has come forward?

RIPLEY (voiceover): He says, many of them are scared. If we try to change, we're killed.

RIPLEY (on camera): So you think if they find you, they'll kill you?

RIPLEY (voiceover): They will kill me, he says, because now their secrets have been revealed.

Matobato says he is eager to confess his sins, to shine a light on the dark reality behind the President's deadly drug war.


RIPLEY: But there are many people here in the Philippines who feel the drug war is making the streets of this country safer. In fact, in the last six months since the drug war was launched, overall crime is down more than 30 percent, although murders are up more than 50 percent. Cyril --

VANIER: Will Ripley reporting live from Manila, the capital of the Philippines, thank you very much indeed.

And close in life and now reunited in death. Up next, how fans are mourning the loss of two screen legends, Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher, who died just a day apart.

Plus, the New York City Uber driver who drove from one end of Manhattan to the other without once hitting a red light. How he did it after this.


[00:50:46] VANIER: Fans are mourning the loss of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. The mother and daughter acting dynamos died within a day of each other. Lights dimmed for Reynolds Thursday night at the world famous Chinese Theater. Her hand and footprints are immortalized in cement right there. And just a few feed away, you can see the flowers and candles that one of Reynolds' stars on the Hollywood walk of fame. And of course, Princess Leia will also be missed. A billboard tribute to Carrie Fisher and her iconic character went up in Wisconsin. It simply says, I love you, I know.

Now if driving bliss is an unbroken chain of green traffic lights, just imagine that, wherever you live, an unbroken chain of green traffic lights. Then, this Uber driver, his name is Noah Forman , is the Zen master of New York City, of all places. I was in New York over the holiday and I got stuck at absolutely every red light there was. But, early on December 6, a veteran cabbie who set out to do the seemingly impossible, drive from Harlem right there to lower Manhattan without stopping. It took him 26 minutes and he clocked 240 green lights in a row before he finally hit a red. The total distance, we calculated it, was about 20 kilometers. That's almost 12.5 miles, no interruption. Here's a time lapse of his epic drive, which if confirmed, may be a city record.


All right. And now for the man who accomplished this incredible feat, Noah Forman. Noah, glad to have you with us.

NOAH FORMAN, UBER DRIVER: Thank you, glad to be here.

VANIER: So I want to ask you, when we look at your video, I think it's 240 green lights, give or take a few. How did you do that? Is that just instinct or is that something that you have been studying a long time?

FORMAN: It's mostly experience. I've had 11 years behind the wheel of a yellow cab, and after that --

VANIER: That's 11 years in New York, then?

FORMAN: That's right. That's right. Eleven years in a yellow cab and then just started about early spring with ride share, whatnot. So --

VANIER: How long have you been practicing this, I mean getting the green lights? Because I used to live in Paris. The most green lights consecutive that I got was seven or eight, and I used to brag about that.

FORMAN: Yes, yes, and some people are saying that about New York City as well. All the streets, you know, all the streets in New York, they're timed for safe speeds to just try to get from -- if we can, we can get from the beginning of the avenue all the way to the end of the avenue. But they slow things down quite a bit and then the traffic gets in the way. So I have to find the perfect time to do it. And I have to be extremely patient with people. I have got to give myself a lot of space so I can see what people are doing and anticipate where they are.

VANIER: Hey look, it looks like it's something you took really seriously, you've really studied.

FORMAN: Yes, I mean, seriously. But it's also a hobby. You know, it's just for fun. I don't do it all the time because I have to get my income. But -- maybe once a year, I give it a shot.

VANIER: Noah, what's the hardest part? We can hear you in the video saying you're afraid that there might be security around Trump tower that might block you.

FORMAN: Oh yes, yes, no, I was amazed that it went through so smoothly over there. That's the bottleneck situation. They have the barriers -- barricades on the left and the right. But there's just -- there was no traffic. It was just one of those days, everything went my way, right.

VANIER: And you had not planned out your map. Because when you look at the video, it just looks like it's this Jedi mind trick and you just choose to go left or right and you end up having all the green lights with you.

[00:54:58] FORMAN: Yes. Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue is from experience. I did Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue two years ago. So I knew all I had to do was adjust my speed accordingly to make it, no red lights.

VANIER: Is this actually helping you to get more customers? Are you getting something out of this skill, or is it just for fun?

FORMAN: Right now it's just for fun, but especially back when I was driving the yellow cab, if I was in a hard time and I couldn't find anybody, I'd say to heck with it, let's stay on duty, let's try this run, and the next thing you know you are going to get a passenger.

VANIER: All right. Noah Forman, the man who got 240 or thereabouts green lights in Manhattan, if you need an Uber driver. Thank you very much.

FORMAN: Thank you so much.

VANIER: And by the way, he thinks that if he times it right, next time he could break 500 consecutive red lights. So if you need a cabbie in Manhattan, hit him up.

Now tennis star Serena Williams is getting married. She's engaged to Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of the social news site Reddit. His spokesman says he popped the question while the two were vacationing in Rome. Williams posted her answer on Reddit with this cartoon proclaiming, I said yes. The former world number one champ has dated Ohanian since the fall of 2015, however there's no word on a wedding date yet. Stay posted for that.

All right, that's it for us for now. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Atlanta. I'm Cyril Vanier. I will be back with more news right after this.