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Israel Resumes Airstrikes on Beirut; Interview With Lebanese Consul General Mohamad El-Harake; Can Mel Gibson Make a Comeback?

Aired August 2, 2006 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: And thank you all for being with us tonight, and a special welcome to our international viewers.
Tonight's "Top Story": new explosions in Beirut, and the fiercest ground fighting yet in the Lebanon war. Within this last hour, at least four explosions reverberated throughout Beirut. The first one happened live right here on CNN.


MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The first thing was the complete absence of Hezbollah fighters on the streets.


WARE: Wolf, I'm not sure if you can hear that, but that sounded like an Israeli airstrike here in Beirut, certainly a large explosion.




BLITZER: Hold on one second. Michael, I just want to make sure that you're OK.


ZAHN: And Michael is safe. And we will be checking in with him in just a moment.

Now, just a few minutes ago, Israel's military did confirm it is resuming airstrikes against Hezbollah targets around the city. And that is what we just heard evidence of.

In tonight's other "War Bulletins," as the fourth week of Israel's offensive gets under way, we're seeing estimates of as many as 10,000 Israeli troops now inside Lebanon. A few hours ago, Israel's military released some dramatic video of last night's helicopter raid deep into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where, it says, commandos snatched five Hezbollah militants and killed 10 others. We're going to show you more in just a minute.

Israel's northern cities still echo with the wail of air-raid sirens. Hezbollah fired at least 230 rockets at Israel today, the most of any day so far.

Let's get straight to Beirut, under air attack once again tonight by Israel.

Correspondent Michael Ware is there.

Michael, we saw what happened when you heard those explosions just about 45 minutes ago. Have you heard anything since then?

WARE: Well, we had the resumption of the Israeli air campaign against Hezbollah targets here in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, as you say, about 45 minutes ago. Since that initial burst of four massive detonations, nothing so far has followed.

However, we have seen that, on these occasions, these attacks can roll on throughout the night. So, we will just have to wait and see, Paula, what the Israeli air force has in store this evening.

ZAHN: And do we have any idea, from the direction in which you heard these explosions, what they might have been targeting?

WARE: Yes, we have already heard from the Israeli Defense Forces. And it was fairly patently clear, from the direction of the blast, that it was in the traditional strongholds within the capital of Hezbollah, in the -- the city's southern suburbs.

I mean, clearly, we have no indication yet of what the specific targets were. And, quite frankly, in -- in -- in all eventualities, we will not learn from the Israeli Defense Forces what it was they were seeking to hit.

However, most likely, they were targets of opportunity, based on actionable intelligence, given the level of destruction within this part of this city. Given that entire blocks of high-rise apartments have been brought to their knees, reduced to rubble. There's very little infrastructure, per se, within these areas to target.

So, most likely, they have identified some kind of movement, or they have specific, actionable intelligence leading them to the personnel they're trying to eradicate or to materiel they're trying to destroy -- Paula.

ZAHN: Right now, I want you to take us further north of there, closer to the Syria border, to Baalbeck. You have some late information on that raid that took place, apparently at a hospital -- the Israelis claiming they killed five and captured -- excuse me -- killed five and captured 10.

WARE: Yes, Paula, what the Israeli Defense Force is saying is that they -- they captured five Hezbollah fighters during this lightning strike, this deep strike, into the Hezbollah heartland.

They also say that they can account for the deaths of 10 people, all of whom they say are Hezbollah fighters. Now, as is so often the case in these circumstances, in war, the stories conflict. We went out to Baalbeck, within the Hezbollah stronghold of the Bekaa Valley, today. We made the drive. We went into the Hezbollah domain. There, we saw the aftermath of this operation by Israeli commandos. And we spoke to the -- the people on the ground there.

Now, they, in fact, say that 16 people died. They disagree with the Israeli Defense Force and claim that these 16 people were all civilians. There's also 12 people who were wounded. I went and interviewed or spoke to three of these people in the hospitals in Baalbeck, two of whom were fairly serious wounded, one of whom was critically wounded.

Sadly, the local authorities are reporting that many of the deaths were children. It seems that, within the -- the fight, as it unfolded, Israeli close-air support was called in, and it may appear that there was some civilian deaths as a result -- Paula.

ZAHN: Michael Ware, thank you for clearing up some of the confusion over those numbers.

Once again, I -- I want to reconfirm what Michael just said, the Israelis saying they captured five, killed 10 -- of course, the Lebanese saying it was 16 civilians killed.

We will have a high-ranking member of the Lebanese diplomatic corps on a little bit later on to tell us his take on all this.

Now, back to the Israeli side and the widening offensive -- John Roberts is on the Israeli-Lebanese border, and he joins me live, as the fighting continues to escalate -- John.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Paula -- and some news to report to you tonight out of Israel.

Israel has completed its investigation into the bombing of the Lebanese city of Qana over the weekend, the bombing that collapsed that apartment building, killed more than 60 people, 19 of them children. Israel says that the bombing was a mistake; they should not have targeted that Hezbollah launcher that they say was next door to that apartment building, because they did not have intelligence that there were people inside.

But, at the same time, they accuse Hezbollah of using civilians as human shields. They -- they're -- the -- the inference is that Hezbollah was keeping those people inside that building, keeping that rocket launcher close to that building, so that, if there were an incident, those pictures would be flashed around the world of the dead people inside that building -- that coming from the Israeli side tonight.

A couple of minutes ago, we had an attack helicopter in the air, fired a missile over the ridgeline. We heard the massive explosion from that. We have heard artillery fire very close to our position, both incoming -- or both outgoing, at least, and a hit very close to each other, so, the battle is raging tonight. And all across the border, which is where we spent all day today, from the northeast tip of the Galilee Peninsula in Metulla, all the way across to about 15 miles from the Mediterranean, we saw evidence that a major ground operation is beginning to get under way.


ROBERTS (voice-over): It was another intense day in the Lebanese town of Aita al-Shaab, just a couple of miles from where two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped back on July 12.

Israeli guns pounded Hezbollah bunkers on the western side of the town, sending columns of thick smoke pouring across the hillsides. The sounds of a fierce gun battle rolled up from the valley, while Hezbollah took aim at Israeli positions on the high ground.

(on camera): This is probably one of the most dangerous places on the Israeli side of the border right now. We're at an -- an outpost, a -- a tank bunker overlooking the town of Aita al-Shaab.


ROBERTS: As you can hear in the background, there's still artillery hits. We hear the artillery flying very close overhead.

This was the scene of a very fierce battle yesterday between the Israeli military and Hezbollah guerrillas. The Israeli army lost three soldiers, more than 20 wounded. And it's clear from what we're hearing -- hearing here today that the vicious fighting is still going on.

(voice-over): In other areas, the Israeli army is holding ground, in preparation for an international stabilization force.

In Israeli army video, obtained exclusively by CNN, an armored personnel carrier fires fuel bombs to clear a Hezbollah outpost of possible booby traps. A bulldozer knocks over another Hezbollah watchtower, while ground troops clear the remaining buildings.

Israeli soldiers show off a missile launcher next to a mosque, evidence, they say, that Hezbollah is using religious sites as cover. Another video, obtained exclusively by CNN, shows the bodies of what the Israeli military says are Hezbollah fighters. Israel claims it has killed more than 300 Hezbollah guerrillas in this three-week campaign.

Hezbollah denies that figure, but hasn't said how many fighters it has lost. Israel says 36 of its soldiers have died.

As diplomatic pressure mounts to bring an end to the hostilities, the question: How long will the combat last?

Major General Benny Gantz was the last Israeli soldier to leave Lebanon in the year 2000.

MAJOR GENERAL BENNY GANTZ, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES: It can take -- it can take a while. It can either be done within a few days. It can be done in a few weeks. As -- as -- as everybody knows, we are not about to go anywhere. So, as long as we're here, we're willing to fight. And we're not going anywhere.

ROBERTS: After a two-day lull, Hezbollah today proved it still has plenty of rockets and the capability to fire them. More than 230 Katyushas landed in northern Israel, a new record by a wide margin. And Hezbollah struck deeper than it ever has before, with one long- range rocket that made it all the way to the West Bank -- more fuel for critics here in Israel, who complain the military waited far too long to go into Lebanon with a major invasion.

GANTZ: Those criticisms will need to be talked -- will need to be talked later on. I think that, for the moment, we have a war to win. We are doing it. And we will discuss all those issues, you know, as we are saying, as -- there is a expression, 6:00 after the war; 6:00 after the war, we will have tea and then discuss those criticisms.

ROBERTS: With the ground war now expanding dramatically, many more Israeli forces will join the fight. There's a nonstop flow of tanks, troops, and armored personnel carriers toward the battlefield, and an ever-intensifying effort, day and night, to drive Hezbollah back from the border.


ZAHN: And, John, when you talk about this campaign expanding, how much of this pace is being determined by the fact that time may be running out to that period of time when a cease-fire might be enacted?

ROBERTS: Paula, there's a belief among some people in Israel that they have until Sunday, unless there's a big delay at the United Nations Security Council in forming that resolution for a cease-fire and for the formation of an international stabilization force there.

So, they're putting as much as they can in, as quickly as they can. They have had their reserves training up -- that's three divisions worth -- as many as 30,000 troops that they could put into the field. They have not yet gone to the front. I think they're going to see how the battle is going over the next 24 hours. And, if they feel that they're not proceeding with the pace they need, they will put those other troops in the field as well.

ZAHN: John Roberts, thanks so much.

We, right now, are going to talk about Beirut being under attack tonight with Lebanon's consul general right here in the U.S., Mohamad El-Harake.

Welcome back.

Michael Ware, our reporter on the ground, was on the air as he heard four, he described, massive detonations in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Do you know what was hit?

MOHAMAD EL-HARAKE, CONSUL GENERAL OF LEBANON: It's too early to know what was hit exactly.

But I -- I know that the 1,000 suburbs of Lebanon are a gathering of Lebanese who have fled the south because of the Israeli attacks in the past. And they have inhabited this area, because they couldn't allow themselves the luxury of living in other residential areas of Beirut, although this part of the city was having its own inhabitants.

ZAHN: And, of course, the Israelis would argue that they had actionable intelligence that would make them want to bomb that part of Beirut, because that's where Hezbollah is operating from.

EL-HARAKE: Israel is always behaving in the same way, the same pattern.

I -- it's similar to a neighbor who take a few meters from the backyard of his neighbor, put land mines everywhere, kidnap two of his sons for 28 years. And, then, if this neighbor wants to fight back, it accuses him of being a terrorist. It smash his house, his locality, his city.

And, afterwards, when we check all these casualties, it will say, look at this rocket launcher. But, basically, this rocket launcher was aimed at recuperating, at getting back what was stolen from the backyard.

ZAHN: But the Israelis would argue, they wouldn't be targeting these parts of Beirut if Hezbollah wasn't operating among the civilian population. You have to concede that Hezbollah is blended in to that part of life in southern Beirut.

EL-HARAKE: And you have to concede with me that we have to live in a civilized world, while we -- where we have international and humanitarian laws.

Article 50 of Protocol 1 of Geneva Conventions, the presence of individuals within the population which doesn't come within the definition of civilians doesn't deprive the population of its civilian character.

ZAHN: Does Hezbollah, in your mind, bear any responsibility for Lebanese civilian deaths? You're blaming it all on the Israelis?

EL-HARAKE: Because, if I see that the damage are on the other side, buildings smashed, civilians killed, we have, in Lebanon right now...

ZAHN: But you didn't answer the question.

EL-HARAKE: Yes, I'm answering your question, if you want to...


ZAHN: I'm going to listen. But is -- are...


ZAHN: Is Hezbollah responsible or not for any civilian deaths?

EL-HARAKE: Let me -- I'm -- I give you already the example of this neighbor who got his backyard stolen. And now you're telling me that this neighbor, who wants his -- get -- to get back his backyard is responsible of the smashing of his house, of the killing of his sons, of his brothers, of his sisters? No. I'm sorry.

ZAHN: So, Hezbollah, while blended in with the civilian population, is not responsible for...


EL-HARAKE: Hezbollah didn't take any land from Israel. Israel took the land of south Lebanon, for 30 years. And now it's coming back. And there's the same pretext.

And, in America, you have a good definition of insanity, doing the same thing, expecting different results.

ZAHN: Very quick response to this.

Israelis think they have until Sunday to at least intensify this campaign. Do you think you will see a cease-fire enacted some time next week on both sides?

EL-HARAKE: It's very difficult to judge right now when the cease-fire will occur.

But I will tell you just one thing very fast. If we judge this war by the number of civilian casualties, if we judge this war by the lives, as well as by the shells, if we judge this war by anti-Semitic words, Israel has won already the war.

ZAHN: We have to leave it there.

Mohamad El-Harake, thank you for joining us tonight.

EL-HARAKE: Thank you.


ZAHN: Our in-depth coverage of the Mideast coverage continues in just a minute.

Also ahead tonight: top stories much closer to home.


ZAHN (voice-over): What is Cuba hiding? Coming up: what U.S. officials are hearing about Fidel Castro's condition; plus, what Cubans in Miami and Havana hope will happen next.

Later: the Hollywood "Top Story" that just won't go away, the decline and fall of Mel Gibson. Is a comeback completely out of the question? -- all that and more when we continue.



ZAHN: Welcome back.

Our "Top Story" coverage of the intensifying Mideast crisis continues, with the Israeli naval blockade still in effect tonight off the Lebanese coast, still putting a stranglehold on missiles and other weapons that could get to Hezbollah guerrillas along the 150-mile shoreline.

John Vause is about to take you on an exclusive below-decks tour of one of the ships enforcing that blockade, the flagship of the Israeli navy.


JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): From here, Israel has a stranglehold on the sea, controlling Lebanon's coastline and everything that might try to come in or go out from it.

This room is the combat information center of the INS Lahav. Information flows into this room from ship-based radar. And, from the air, surveillance aircraft send back real-time information, including video.

Because of Israeli wartime censorship, it's not allowed to show the information on the computer screens. But the Israeli navy says this technology gives them a detailed picture up and down Lebanon's coast, and far beyond.

(on camera): Israel says its naval blockade serves two purposes, to stop weapons, especially missiles, coming from Iran and Syria from reaching Hezbollah, and also to prevent the two kidnapped Israeli soldiers from being smuggled out of Lebanon.

(voice-over): The Lahav is heavily armed with Harpoon missiles, anti-aircraft defenses, and torpedoes, a corvette class ship, slightly smaller than a frigate and sister ship of the Hanit, which was hit by an Iranian-made Hezbollah missile in the first few days of this conflict, an attack which Israel's navy says took them totally by surprise.

JUNIOR LIEUTENANT ZVIEL, INS LAHAV TACTICAL OFFICER: We weren't prepared then, because we didn't know they have the missile. And the moment we knew, and the moment we heard that the Hanit was hit by a missile, we turned all our defense systems on. And, from that moment on, the ship is totally defense.

VAUSE: Currently, 50 miles due west of Beirut, the Lahav sits in international waters, but it controls these waters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Motor vessel Zaharvi (ph), motor vessel Zaharvi (ph), Israeli navy warship calling to channel 16. Over.

VAUSE: All ships like this Liberian freighter are intercepted. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Israeli navy warship. Good afternoon. Sir, we would like to ask you a few questions. Over.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir. Go ahead.

VAUSE: The Israelis want to know its destination, captain and cargo.

JUNIOR LIEUTENANT YONATAN, INS LAHAV BRIDGE OFFICER: If any merchant vessel will attempt to break it, then, yes, we will have the authority to stop it.

VAUSE: The freighter is cleared, allowed to resume course. And that's how it has been out here for three weeks. No ships have been boarded, warning shots only fired once.

A flotilla of missile and smaller patrol boats enforce this maritime checkpoint. The Israelis say they will allow ships carrying humanitarian aid to pass.

For now, most commercial shipping avoid these dangerous waters, especially after a Cambodian freighter was also hit and sunk by a Hezbollah missile, leaving Lebanon further isolated and under siege.

John Vause, CNN, on board the INS Lahav.


ZAHN: And, as you can see, the Israeli military is cutting-edge, but it's also taking a lot of heat for tactical errors.

And, earlier, I asked Michael Oren, a major in the reserves who fought against Hezbollah in the 1980s, how he thinks the latest campaign against Hezbollah is going.


MAJOR MICHAEL OREN, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCE RESERVES: Well, I think things are going probably more slowly than many people in Israel would have anticipated.

Polls taken today show that 75 percent of the population thinks the government is moving too slowly in southern Lebanon, that the government should actually be exerting greater force to achieve its strategic goals there.

And there's a sense in this country that time is running out for this operation, and that the operation may conclude under circumstances that are less than advantageous for the state of Israel.

ZAHN: When you talk about the fear that time might be running out to accomplish what the Israelis think they need to accomplish, put this into perspective for us. In 1967, the Israelis, in just six days, successfully defeated three Arab armies. Here we are, almost four weeks into this, and Hezbollah is still today firing some 215 rockets into Israel. OREN: It's an excellent point.

But it's important to keep this in perspective also. In 1967 -- and in other wars as well, '56, '73, and '48 -- Israel was essentially fighting conventional Arab armies. We're not fighting a conventional war here.

We are a conventional army, of course, but we're fighting against a -- a terrorist army, one that is hiding very much behind a civilian population, one that knows the terrain. It's not coming out in the open and fighting.

And it's fighting in a terrain which is very rugged, in which -- which is largely impassable to tanks, almost impervious to airpower. And Israel really has no choice than to tactically go in to each of these villages and each of these very rugged areas with infantry and -- and slog it out.

So, I'm speaking now just -- not just as an historian, but also as a -- as a former trooper in the army who fought in Lebanon in 1972. I know how rough that fighting can be.

ZAHN: When you talk about slogging it out, and getting involved in this hand-to-hand, door-to-door combat, is it realistic to think 6,000 Israeli troops will succeed?

OREN: Well, it depends how you define success.

If you're defining success clearing a swathe of four miles from the Israeli border into Lebanon, perhaps, yes, you can get that success. But, if you want to reach the Litani River, which is 20 kilometers, about 10 miles, from the Israeli border, and to really clear all of south Lebanon of Hezbollah terrorists, then 6,000 to 8,000 Israelis is an insufficient force.

ZAHN: How many troops do you think need to be on the ground to get to the Litani River?

OREN: Well, probably about between 20,000 and 30,000 troops. We know, from Iraq and America's intervention there, what a shortage of troops -- what can be the military ramifications of not having enough troops on the ground.

ZAHN: Michael Oren, really appreciate your input tonight. Thanks so much.

OREN: Thank you, Paula.


ZAHN: And we, of course, will keep our eyes on developments in the Middle East, including the breaking news out of Beirut that four loud explosions were heard just about an hour ago.

But, right now, we're going to change our focus to another "Top Story" -- coming up, live reports on the vastly different moods in Havana and in Miami, as Cubans wait for word on Fidel Castro's condition.

Plus, our medical team is looking into exactly what may be wrong with the Cuban leader and whether it could kill him.


ZAHN: Our "Top Story" coverage moves now to Cuba.

If Cuba's government has news tonight in Fidel Castro's condition, it certainly is not saying so, only repeating last night's message, supposedly from Castro himself, that he's in good spirits after intestinal surgery.

And Castro's brother Raul, who's temporarily in charge of the communist nation, isn't talking either.

But there is plenty of talk on Havana streets tonight.

And correspondent Morgan Neill now joins us now with the latest.

So, what's the word there tonight?

MORGAN NEILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, as you say, it has been little more than a day since that statement came out, the statement purportedly from President Fidel Castro, saying his condition was stable, after surgery to stop internal bleeding.

But, here in the capital Wednesday, reaction was muted.


NEILL (voice-over): Walk through the streets of Havana, you wouldn't know that power in the Cuban government changed hands for the first time in 47 years -- Cubans going about their business, like any other day. But if you listen to what people are saying: we want Fidel to get better as fast as possible says this housewife.

Fidel is Fidel. He's the man who fought the revolution. Long live Fidel said this peanut vendor.

Defense Minister Raul Castro remains in control of the country tonight, two days after president Fidel Castro, facing surgery, temporarily ceded power to his younger brother. Cubans aren't expecting much change from Raul, but if he stays in position much longer.

HAROLD KLEPAK, ROYAL MILITARY COLLEGE: This is a man who has shown he's quite keen on reform when it's needed in the past and that he's willing to take risks with that reform and the rest of the team as well.

NEILL: So far Raul Castro has not yet appeared in public.

(on camera): Nevertheless here in the streets of Havana, there's an unmistakable sense of calm. This hot summer day people are lined up not to protest or to march, but to buy ice cream. While the walls outside Cuba swirl with the speculation that Fidel Castro may never again lead this country, here, as one man put it, the peace and quiet is deafening.


NEILL: Paula, when we ask people on the street about the possibility that President Fidel Castro could actually die, we heard defiant answers about how the revolution would continue, but when you catch Cubans in their unguarded moments many will confide that the uncertainty that that would bring really scares them. Paula.

ZAHN: Morgan Neill, thanks so much. Now a bit earlier on I spoke with Republican Senator Mel Martinez of Florida who met with President Bush today to discuss the situation. Martinez is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and he himself is a Cuban exile who left when he was just 15 years old, and I started off be asking him if he thinks Castro is dead.


REP. MEL MARTINEZ (R), FLORIDA: I would not be surprised if he were dead. I think it's impossible for us to know. He's clearly incapacitated, clearly not governing and whatever problems he's had are serious enough that they felt the need to transfer power and not for a few days, but they indicated it was for a long period of time. So I just don't think we'll see him back on the scene running Cuba.

ZAHN: What is it that you are the most worried about in this transition?

MARTINEZ: Well, to me it would be the opportunity or the possibility of blood shed after 47 years of a very repressive regime, that there be a conflict that would develop within Cuba, that factions of the military would fire upon innocent people seeking freedom. A repeat of a Tiananmen type event. I do hope that the armed forces of Cuba would behave in a professional way, that they would understand people's desire for change, if that would manifest itself. And so my hope is that there could be the kind of soft change, that it could happen in a way that would spare the Cuban people blood shed at a time like this.

ZAHN: You met with the president to talk about Castro's status. How concerned is he that once Fidel Castro leaves that you could see blood shed?

MARTINEZ: He, like the rest of us, is watchfully waiting, looking at developments, and many of us have discussed over years different scenarios, how it could happen. I know he's concerned about the potential for a mass migration. That's something that would be intolerable. Our government in the past has indicated it would be considered a hostile act. We cannot allow people to just all of the sudden come, as they have in other times when Cuba has had problems, across the Florida straights. This is not to be tolerated and our armed forces, our coast guard, they have contingencies to avoid this from occurring, and I know he's concerned about that and hoping that that will not take place and that the people in Cuba will remain in Cuba, the people in south Florida, that have great excitement about what may be taking place there, will also remain in south Florida.

ZAHN: Do you think Raul Castro will be the same kind of dictator his brother was?

MARTINEZ: I have no reason to any differently. He was a devout communist even before Castro perhaps, as a youth. He was an enforcer for the system, for the regime in the early days of the revolution. My hope is that he would be a very transitional figure and that we'll see voices of change, voices of a different Cuba that will emerge and those are the people that we need to look for, people that are untainted by a long, brutal dictatorship as Raul Castro is. He's is not the voice of Cuba's future, he belongs to Cuba's sad past.

ZAHN: And if the radio lines weren't jammed tonight and you could address the Cuban public during these times of great uncertainty, what would you say to them?

MARTINEZ: Their future can be much brighter, that in fact where they've lived is a sad, sad nightmare that should be over, that's been much too long, and we're with them, that we care about them.

ZAHN: Senator Mel Martinez, thank you so much for joining us tonight.


ZAHN: Meanwhile in Miami's little Havana neighborhood, the celebrating started as soon as word flashed that Fidel Castro was having health problems. It has become a top story in its own right. Coming up next, what does Fidel Castro's sister think about all of the partying?

A little bit later on tonight's Vital Signs, we look at what may be wrong with the Cuban leader. Please stay with us.


ZAHN: We continue our Top Story coverage of the condition of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The only official word from Havana is that he's still stable tonight after intestinal surgery, but with all the mystery surrounding his condition Cuban exiles in Miami are still celebrating what they hope is the beginning of the end of communism in their homeland. One woman in Miami has mixed feelings. She happens to be Castro's sister who hasn't seen him in more than 40 years. Ed Lavandera spoke with her today. He just filed this report.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Fidel Castro is the headline of every conversation around Miami, but inside this modest pharmacy that conversation is personal. It's about family. Juanita Castro has owned this business 34 years. She's Fidel Castro's estranged sister living in exile. She talks about her brother with me while customers shopped around us and the frenzy of speculation swirled outside.

(on camera): Is it difficult living here among so many people who are happy to see that's what happening to your brother?

JUANITA CASTRO, SISTER OF FIDEL CASTRO: First of all, we are blood. He's very strong, and he's my brother. I am his sister, and really I feel worried about the situation that he has now.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Juanita Castro left Cuba for Mexico in 1964. A year later she moved to Miami. She says when she first arrived here some labelled her a communist who could not be trusted. Juanita says that's changed over the years. She says she left Cuba because she disagreed with her brother's politics, but to her, blood is thicker than ideology.

(on camera): You see Fidel as two different people to you, right.

CASTRO: Two different people, one as Cuban dictator and the other side, my brother Fidel and it's the same blood, it's very strong feelings. I can't...

LAVANDERA: ... She can't deny it, she says. But to south Florida's Cuban exile community Fidel Castro is an evil thug, his failing health something to be celebrated.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The man who hurt my family is now getting what he deserves.

LAVANDERA: That is hard for Juanita Castro to hear. She says she understands how much Cuban exiles have suffered, but that it's still hard to watch people celebrate.

CASTRO: I am very upset about this, the show that they had the last night, two days ago, and I don't think it's necessary. He's not dead. He's very sick, but he's not dead.

LAVANDERA: Juanita Castro's family, like so many others, has been bitterly divided by the Cuban revolution. She's feeling the pain of realizing that her brother, who she hasn't spoken to since 1963 could die any time and she's wondering why it had to be this way.


LAVANDERA: And Juanita Castro has also been making calls back home to Cuba to people she still remains in touch with about her brother's health. She tells me that this morning she was told by a circle of friends that she still has there that she says has access to information that Fidel Castro was taken out of an intensive care unit in Havana earlier this morning and he's doing fine. But of course the people who are gathered here again in Little Havana, here in Miami, don't believe that to be the case, Paula.

ZAHN: Sure and certainly more than anybody has confirmed to the press tonight as we search for answers. Ed Lavandera, we'll stay with the celebration all night long and I'm sure some of the other shows throughout the night will be going back to him. Ed, thanks so much.

Now as part of our top story coverage of Fidel Castro's health crisis, our own medical experts are comparing what Cuba is saying to what we actually know about intestinal problems. Next, what may have gone wrong.

Another top story tonight, charges have just been filed against actor/director Mel Gibson. Will he ever put this behind him? Will the public boycott his next projects? More on that when we come back.


ZAHN: Our top story coverage of Fidel Castro continues with our "Vital Signs" segment and the growing uncertainty about Castro's condition. Now despite the lack of information from Havana, there are some clues to what could be wrong with the Cuban leader. Here's our own medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There are a few things we do know about Fidel Castro's health. We know that for years he was a regular smoker of cigars, Cuban, of course, but he quit that habit 20 years ago.

And Castro is elderly. He turns 80 later this month, and he has had some very public health issues. A CIA report obtained by the media last year said the Cuban leader had Parkinson's Disease and that his mental functions could soon start deteriorating.

Five years ago, he fainted, blaming the heat and exhaustion. Two years ago, he fell after giving a speech, breaking his left knee and right arm.

But all through the years he's denied foreign press reports of failing health, joking they're always trying to kill me off. And now this vague announcement Monday of surgery. A Cuban journalist read a statement from Castro saying he'd had "an acute intestinal crisis with sustained hemorrhaging which forces me to confront a complicated operation."

Adding that he'd had "days and nights of continuous work without any sleep and been subjected to extreme stress."

So what does that mean? We asked Emory University gastroenterologist John Affronti to help us try to decipher.

JOHN AFFRONTI, GASTROENTEROLOGIST: There are several different reasons for G.I. bleeding in this age group, and there are a variety of causes of G.I. bleeding, so it's difficult to pinpoint one cause.

COHEN: But one possibility.

AFFRONTI: Diverticular disease or diverticulosis is very common, and it's essentially outpocketings of the colon.

COHEN: That's where pockets form in the colon that can become infected, sometimes requiring surgery. Dr. Affronti said it also could be a peptic ulcer, a sore in the lining of the stomach or the first part of the small intestine, although most of the time those are treated with medication, not surgery. The mere fact that Castro was operated on signals that his doctors didn't take his condition lightly.

AFFRONTI: As we get up in our years, any surgery is serious and any intervention that involves surgery of the G.I. tract can be potentially serious.

COHEN: Wednesday, Ricardo Alercon, the speaker of Cuba's National Assembly said Castro is recovering from the surgery and is "very alive and alert. I don't want to diminish the seriousness of the situation," he added. "He needs a lot of care and attention."

But exactly how much care, how much attention, and how sick Castro really is remains a secret, a state secret. Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, reporting.


ZAHN: Another top story tonight for you, Mel Gibson's legal problems. Do they come anywhere close to his potentially career killing image problems? We'll go in depth next.


ZAHN: Tonight's hot story in entertainment, Mel Gibson, he is now officially charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. But the bigger story may be Gibson's multiple takes when it comes to apologies, and not only for last week's anti-semitic rant. Here's entertainment correspondent Brooke Anderson.


BROOKE ANDERSON, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: Mel Gibson' recent anti-semitic tirade is not the first time he's been accused of attacking a minority group.

NEIL GIULIANO, GLAAD PRESIDENT: Mr. Gibson made some disparaging comments about the lesbian and gay community.

ANDERSON: The president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Neil Giuliano is referring to a 1992 interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais in which Gibson was asked what he thought of gay people. He responded with a crude reference to anal sex.

The remarks were so offensive the gay community labeled the star homophobic. Some of Gibson's film projects also have come under attack for their negative portrayal of gay people. GLAAD called the portrayal of the gay hair stylist in "Bird On a Wire" demeaning. And was so offended by his Oscar winning film Braveheart, they organized a boycott for what they call typical homophobic caricature.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Braveheart, which we call no hear, contains some of the most bigoted and offensive portrayals of gay men ever to come out of Hollywood. ANDERSON: The gay community was outraged and organized protests of the film in nine different cities. Two years later in a move that now sounds familiar Gibson made amends with the gay community. He asked for guidance from the group he offended and ultimately hosted an on-set seminar for gay and lesbian filmmakers.

(on camera): Flash forward to Gibson's current crisis and many people are scratching their heads, asking is Gibson's apology to the Jewish community is sincere or is it just a good PR move to repair his reputation?

DR. EBELYN KOHAN, PSYCHOLOGIST: The primary issue here is trust. With every misbehavior, with every betrayal of trust, trust diminishes, and trust is very hard to rebuild. And so with repeated offenses, again, the issue is not so much is he sincere, but is he trustworthy.

ANDERSON (voice-over): While some people wonder whether to trust Mel Gibson, others, like the Catholic League's Dr. William Donohue are ready to forgive.

DR WILLIAM DONOHUE, CATHOLIC LEAGUE PRESIDENT: If that person is sincere in his remorse, then you only have one thing you can do as a Catholic, you must embrace him. Look, quite frankly, I'm somewhat disappointed. People have fallen. They need their friends at that moment. Not when he's apologized successfully to the Jewish community, not two months out. They need it now.

ANDERSON: On October 1st Mel Gibson will have an opportunity to demonstrate the sincerity of his most recent apology. One Jewish congregation has invited him to speak on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Brooke Anderson, CNN, Los Angeles.


ZAHN: And now I want to get our top story panel's take on Mel Gibson. Joining me from Seattle, nationally syndicated talk show radio host Michael Metved. Here in New York with me, image consultant Marvet Britto and in Dallas Phil Cooke a consultant and producer at Cook Pictures, based in Santa Monica. Glad to have all of you with us.

So Michael, you've got a top Jewish Hollywood agent, Ari Emanual (ph) saying to folks in the entertainment business they should boycott his projects even if it costs them money. Is he right?

MICHAEL MEDVED, SYNDICATED TALK RADIO HOST: No, he's ridiculous. This happens to be Michael Moore's agent and Michael Moore has done far more damage to the Jewish community, particularly regarding the issue of Israel, than anything Mel Gibson has ever done.

ZAHN: You're not happy, Michael, about what Mel Gibson spewed, are you?

MEDVED: No, but it was a private incident. He never made the statement publicly and no one has ever come forward and said, you know, Mel Gibson is right, Jews really do start all the world wars. The guy was drunk. He was being arrested. He acted like a boor. It probably shows that he has inner hatred. I do believe that the interest of my community, of the Jewish community is very strongly in not getting him to be more public with that hatred, but getting him to control it and tamp it down and maybe to change it. I think this whole issue, Paula, that the people are talking about trust, we're talking about a movie star, about a film director, not a rabbi, not a politician, not a statesman, somebody who makes movies. And if he makes good movies everything will be fine.

ZAHN: I know, but we're also living in a country where movie stars become role models for people. Phil, I want to read to you a quote from Mel Gibson's latest apology. Quote, I am in the process of understanding where those vicious words came from during that drunken display and I'm asking the Jewish community, who I have personally offended, to help me on my journey through recovery. Is there any doubt in your mind that he's an anti-semite?

PHIL COOKE, FILM PRODUCER: You know what, I think that along with forgiveness, you have to think about accountability. It is an interesting thing in the trust element, that this has been something that he's struggled with for a long time. So I do think you have to be accountable for your actions.

ZAHN: But being accountable is one thing. Are you saying he's a bigot?

COOKE: I don't know. You know what, the bible says out of the heart a man speaks. Whatever's inside of you is going to come out when you're under pressure. So I think there's some real issue there that I think he needs to deal with.

ZAHN: Phil' just talking about these real issues, and we heard Michael talking about this inner hatred he obviously has inside of him. But in his first apology he didn't even directly address Jews. Was that a mistake and did the second apology go far enough?

MARVET BRITTO, IMAGE CONSULTANT: I think he said more as more was being revealed, and I think Mel Gibson is clever because he knows that the American public is very forgiving, so his second statement went deeper because he knew that more had been disclosed. And he was genius and it was clever in addressing everything that he said and he knows that the American public can appreciate and support people who show remorse. And he showed remorse through his second statement.

ZAHN: Michael, you get the last word, 20 seconds, what do you think the consequences should be?

MEDVED: I think the consequences should be reconciliation with the Jewish community. I think a lot of people are attacking him because it's a way of going back and saying again, well, we were right, "The Passion of The Christ" was anti-semitic. I don't believe the film was anti-semitic. I honestly believe that the people who felt inspired and uplifted by that film have no reason to feel guilty because Mel drank too much and got into trouble with the law and said some horrible things. ZAHN: All right. We have got to leave it there. Phil Cooke, Marvet Britto, Michael Medved, thank you all, and that is it for all of us here tonight. Appreciate your joining us. Have a great night. See you tomorrow.



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