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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Israeli Forces Strike Deep Into Lebanon; Fidel Castro Out of Surgery, Out of Power; Heat Wave Scorches Country

Aired August 1, 2006 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone at home, and to our viewers around the world watching on CNN International.
The ground war here is growing, growing larger, growing fiercer, and moving deeper into Lebanon than ever before.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: Grinding north on the ground, new pounding from the air, daring raids, reports of commando drops deep into Lebanon -- Israeli forces writing a new and dangerous chapter to the war.

He's a cold warrior and an old warrior -- Cuba's dictator for nearly half-a-century out of surgery and out of power for now. Mother of mercy. Is this the end of Castro? And what happens if it is?

Also, our frying times, new research says, better get used to it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Brutal, you know? But what are you going to do, though? You got to work.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: This is a special edition of ANDERSON COOPER 360, "Crisis in the Middle East: Day 21."

Reporting tonight from northern Israel, here's Anderson Cooper.

COOPER: And thanks very much for joining us.

We are right along the -- the border with Lebanon, with an Israeli artillery unit. The guns behind me are silent right now, but the action continues in south Lebanon and points beyond -- a lot to talk about tonight in this fast-moving conflict. It is moving faster at this hour than we have seen in -- in recent -- in recent days -- major action going on in south Lebanon and points further north. We have it all covered.

CNN's John Roberts is elsewhere along the -- the Israel-Lebanese border, covering the action in the south. CNN's Michael Ware is in Beirut, covering what seems to be an Israeli commando operation near the Syrian border. We also have retired Brigadier General James "Spider" Marks giving us some perspective from the -- from the map in Washington.

First, let's go to John Roberts, close by me on the border. John, what do we know about what is happening on the ground right now in south Lebanon?

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you said, Anderson, the artillery battery silent right now, but we can hear, above a hilltop not far from us, the sound of machine gun fire. Earlier, we heard some single-shot fire, and then what sounded like a grenade.

So, they're still fighting very close in. What we also know is that they're bringing more and more armor, troops, and tanks to the border for what looks to be like a -- a growing ground operation. There's an emerging belief here in Israel that they may have as little as five days left to complete the major combat here, before they have to sit into a holding position, and wait for that international force to get in.

We spent all of today from the northeast, traveling the border, to about only 15 miles away from the Mediterranean. We saw a lot of heavy fighting and evidence that perhaps a -- a larger operation, much larger operation, than has been on the ground thus far, is about set to go over the border and join the fight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS (voice-over): From a hilltop right on the Lebanese border, we watch the Israeli military pound positions in a town they say is a Hezbollah base.

It's just two miles from where two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped on July 12, the incident that touched off this war.

(on camera): This is where the heaviest of the fighting is right now. This is Aita al-Shaab. You can see that the Israeli air force dropped what appears to be a 500-pound bomb on this village. It has been shelled all day, and there's heavy fighting in the city streets.

The Israeli army is in there with a lot of ground forces. They're in close-quarters fighting, very, very heavy combat.

(voice-over): The battle has been costly for the Israeli military, three soldiers killed so far, 25 wounded. Israel claims, it killed at least 20 Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon in the past 48 hours.

We stay on the hilltop, watching the battle, until soldiers arrive and tell us there are snipers in the village, and it is far too dangerous to be here.

We move to another location along a border route pockmarked with Katyusha rocket hits and evidence that Hezbollah mortar rounds found vehicles they were looking for.

On the road to an Israeli military outpost, we see a powerful Merkava tank being towed back from the battle in Aita al-Shaab, still smoking from a direct hit by a high-explosive Hezbollah round. - And the fighting is only expected to intensify. As diplomats seek a way to end the hostilities, Israel is expanding its ground campaign, now intent on pushing Hezbollah 14 miles north to Lebanon's Litani River, determined to hold on to a broad safe zone until an international force can arrive.

EHUD OLMERT, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): We are at the beginning of a diplomat process, which, I believe, ultimately, will lead to a cease-fire with totally different conditions and circumstances from those which existed on our northern border.

ROBERTS: To ensure those conditions are different, the Israeli army is moving more heavy armor up to the front.

(on camera): This is just one many areas in northern Israel where the Israeli army is staging for what increasingly appears to be a major ground operation. And sources tell us that, all the way along the border, from Metulla, almost all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, there are scenes similar to this, as tanks and armor are brought to the front line, in preparation to go over the border into southern Lebanon.

(voice-over): Despite the deaths in Aita al-Shaab, among the troops, morale is high.

(SINGING)

ROBERTS: As dusk settles in, a young tank commander gives a salute of bravado, preparing to head into battle. Farther up the border, infantry forces put on black camouflage makeup and gear up for what will be an intense fight on the battlefield -- the end of this day only just the beginning of a long night ahead.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: John, we know that, in the last 24 hours, three Israeli troops were killed in south Lebanon, 25 wounded in -- in one battle in one town. What are they trying to accomplish right now? Are they trying to push all the way up to the Litani River?

ROBERTS: With time running short, Anderson, they're trying to get and hold as much territory as possible. We see troops moving in from the tip of the Galilee Panhandle.

They appear to be moving west in what may be an operation to sort of cut off Hezbollah's area of retreat, or at least keep them bottled up, so that they don't disappear into the countryside, as we saw with the Iraqi forces during the American invasion there.

From the south, what they're trying to do is hold on to an area which is known in Israel as the steppe. It's very high ground. Everything gets -- gets higher in altitude as you head north and northeast, with the exception of a large valley that runs down to the sea of Galilee. They're trying to hold on to that steppe. It's a strip about two-and-a-half to three miles wide along the border, get in there, try to flush out Hezbollah, degrade their capabilities, to the best of their abilities, and -- and then stay there until that international force can be brought in.

And that's an occupation, temporary occupation, that will probably be measured in terms of weeks, if not a couple of months -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right, John Roberts, along the border -- John, thanks very much.

We -- we now move our attention further north in Lebanon, much further north, north and northeast, close to the border with Syria, within less than 20 miles of the border with Syria, what seems to be a commando operation by Israeli forces on the ground in the Bekaa Valley.

Working his sources, CNN's Michael Ware from Beirut.

Michael, what do you know?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, what we have seen is, approximately six hours ago, Israeli airborne troops, probably commandos or special forces, or a combination thereof, punched straight into the heart of the Hezbollah domain.

We're talking more than 60 miles from the Israeli border. This very much was a deep-strike operation, troops moving far from home, looking to jump in on a target. What we know from Lebanese security sources is that, when they arrived at Baalbeck, right up against the Syrian border, a known Hezbollah stronghold, one of the things they targeted was a Hezbollah-run hospital.

The Israeli troops entered the facility and checked the identity cards and papers of all the staff, the doctors, and the patients. What they were really after, no one knows at this stage, whether it was to disrupt command-and-control centers, pursue an arsenal, or whether they were chasing a high-value target.

There is speculation in the local media here that they're after a member of Hezbollah's Shura, or its consultative council, essentially its governing body -- Anderson.

COOPER: How far from the Syrian border are we talking about, Michael?

WARE: We're talking about 12 miles, Anderson. Where this town sits, in the northeast pocket of Lebanon, it rests against the lip of a mountain range.

Now, that mountain range is full of what the military would call rat lines. These are smuggling routes. These are creek beds and crevices. It's traditionally been an entree in and out of Syria for drugs, for goods, for all manner of things, and, of course, weapons. It's riddled with -- with caves and holes. It's perfect (AUDIO GAP) to be moving materiel back and forth and secreting it in secret places.

COOPER: And, Michael, as far as we know, this would be the -- the farthest north that Israeli forces have actually been operating on the ground; is that correct?

WARE: Absolutely. I mean, this is bold. This is daring. I mean, this is what the Israelis have -- have made their signature.

I mean, they're -- they're driving straight into the heart of Hezbollah's center of being. So, this really is a new facet to their operations.

COOPER: Michael Ware, appreciate your reporting from Beirut. We will check in with you over the course of this next two hours.

Again, this is a fast-moving operation. We are trying to track it as closely as we can. We can now hear some shelling just echoing throughout these hills. That's the first shelling we have heard probably in the last hour or hour-and-a-half or so.

Let's check in with former -- with retired Brigadier General James "Spider" Marks, who's at that -- the Google map in Washington.

General Marks, first of all, this commando operation, or what seems to be a commando operation, close to the Syrian border, what do you make of it?

BRIGADIER GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Anderson, first of all, as -- as we have discussed, these are all speculations as to what's going on. And it's -- it's good reporting, but we clearly won't know, and we won't hear from Israel on what really took place, until those soldiers, those special-ops soldiers, are out of harm's way and this mission's over.

Let's go to the map. The Bekaa Valley is indicated here in green, 60 miles from the northern border with Israel, seven miles-plus into the city of Baalbeck. Let's get into the city of Baalbeck and just kind of walk into that terrain a little bit. And, as Michael reported, it is very tough terrain from the Syrian border into the town of Baalbeck. We will let this digital map build for us here.

We're looking into Syria. And you can see the rat lines that Michael talked about. Those are historic -- historical trade routes. And this is where Syria, for years, has been pumping arms, weapons, and to assist Hezbollah in their command-and-control facilities that clearly exist within Baalbeck.

We also have heard that the commandos went into a hospital and did a check. What probably happened is, they were looking very specifically for a high-value target, someone who was targeted that they wanted to get their hands on. They didn't want to strike and kill. They wanted to have the opportunity to bring this guy back and do some interrogations.

Also, in the city of Baalbeck, they would be able to get after some command-and-control facilities and other Hezbollah-type capabilities that exist within that -- within the town. This, we think, is the hospital facility, very isolated, north of the town, about 10 kilometers, about six miles, north of the town, which is where the Israeli commandos are probably conducting that operation, and have departed.

So, that's where we are right now.

COOPER: General Marks, what do you know about the fighting going on in south Lebanon? It seems like they want to push forces north of the Litani River, but, then, we also heard from Israeli officials maybe they just want to create a buffer, about a mile-and-a-quarter.

Operationally, in terms of -- of strategy, how big a buffer zone do they need to stop those rockets from coming into northern Israel?

MARKS: Anderson, two things.

One, Israel has indicated that they want to try to maintain the foothold that they have at Maroun al-Ras, and then conduct operations from there.

Let's get down into the -- the border area. The second thing is, a buffer zone up to the Litani River takes the Katyusha rockets out of harm's way, in terms of Israel's perspective, because those rockets would be north of that. And, if they fire, they would land in Lebanese territory.

This is the range of the Katyusha rocket, as you can see. And it would -- it would render itself irrelevant, if they were north of the Litani River.

If we can, if we can get back down into Maroun al-Ras, what I would like to do, Anderson, is kind of walk you through the terrain that really gives the perspective of how difficult armored formations will have in that type of terrain, as they try to move forward, if, in fact, that's what Israel wants to do.

This is Maroun al-Ras, a nice, dominating piece of terrain, a hilltop. Flying down into Bint Jbail, going to the north, this is a very complex piece of terrain, urban area, very tough to fight in, and the Israelis are having a tough time.

But you can see where the defender, Hezbollah, will have a really good time containing and making Israel strike where Hezbollah wants them to strike.

Now we're going to move toward the Mediterranean, very tough terrain, a few open areas. But, for the most part, you could have a formation in one location. And it is completely out of contact or a supporting position with the other formation that's there.

So, the terrain in southern Lebanon doesn't lend itself to a very quick strike coming across, but it's something that Israel clearly should be considering and probably will take on.

COOPER: And it seems as if there is some sort of an -- an operation pending, at least Israeli officials saying that -- well, some Israeli officials of the military saying they would like as much as -- as four weeks for this operation, others saying that, probably diplomatically, will not be allowed that amount of time. General Marks, we appreciate your perspective. We will check in with you, as this battle continues over the course of this next two hours.

When we come back, though, the diplomatic efforts under way, those being seen, those that we can see, and those that we can't see -- when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Some of the demonstrations being seen around the world, this one in -- in Gaza, in support of -- of Lebanon, in support of -- of Hezbollah, also, most notably -- seeing a lot of those kind of demonstrations over the last two days or so, in particular after the killings in Qana, killings which -- the televised images of which were -- were beamed across the Arab world over and over again.

Diplomatic efforts are certainly under way in Washington, and also in this region. Let's take a quick look at what happened in this day in diplomacy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER (voice-over): Nearly three weeks of fighting, nearly 600 dead, and no clear sign of a diplomatic solution, but not for lack of trying.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I take with me an emerging consensus on what is necessary for both an urgent cease-fire and a lasting settlement. I am convinced we can achieve both this week.

COOPER: That was the ambitious deadline set by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday, even as she leaves Israel with little to show for her efforts.

Today, the bloody toll only mounting, Secretary Rice met in Washington with Israel's vice prime minister, Shimon Peres, who believes the fighting will end eventually.

SHIMON PERES, ISRAELI VICE PREMIER: In my judgment, it's not far away. We can count it in matters of weeks, not month.

COOPER: At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan met with diplomats on the Security Council. And, after emergency talks in Brussels, the European Security Council issued a statement.

JAVIER SOLANA, SECRETARY GENERAL, EUROPEAN UNION COUNCIL: What we have done today is to say clearly that we want an immediate cease -- cessation of hostilities that should lead to a permanent cease- fire.

COOPER: Back in the U.S., the crisis consumed visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: We will continue to do all we can to halt the hostilities. But, once that has happened, we must commit ourselves to a complete renaissance of our strategy to defeat those that threaten us.

COOPER: The crisis that has dominated the world's top diplomats is as daunting as they come. On the surface, these two men are its faces and voices, one elected, the other a leader of a state within a state, a group labeled terrorist by the United States and Israel.

And how do you negotiate with such a group? In the end, a permanent solution, if such a thing exists, may hinge on these two men, the leaders of Syria and Iran, the influential main supporters of Hezbollah.

The goals are far smaller: how to reach a comprehensive solution, and when to send in multinational forces to try and keep the peace.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, to talk about diplomatic efforts under way and military efforts under way at this hour, we're joined now by John Roberts, who's along the border, CNN's Michael Ware, who's in Beirut, and CNN's Ed Henry, who is in Washington.

Thanks, all, for being with us.

John, first of all, it seems like -- we have just been looking at -- at the diplomatic efforts under way -- certainly, what is happening on the ground, militarily, does seem to be driven by those diplomatic efforts, an effort to kind of wrap this up on -- before diplomatic efforts overtake events on the ground.

ROBERTS: Yes, I think it's a reflection of how quickly the diplomatic efforts are moving -- Condoleezza Rice saying earlier this week that she believed that she could have the framework of a cease- fire and the makings of an international force in place by the end of this week.

I think Israel knows that time is very limited. That's why we're seeing this rapid expansion in the ground campaign. But, also, the air campaign is supposed to start up again today -- the justice minister saying that, at the expiration of the 48-hour pause, that they would get going on it again.

But, Anderson, the one thing that the Israeli air force and the Israeli Defense Forces cannot afford is another incidental like Qana. So, if they do re-engage with those airstrikes, they have to be much more surgical. They have to make sure that they have really good intelligence on the ground before they attack targets there, or the court of public opinion in the international arena is going to turn soundly against them.

COOPER: Ed Henry, Israeli officials had said we're -- they're talking about weeks, not months. And Condoleezza Rice says she's talking about days, not weeks. How fast does she really believe she can get some sort of international force deployed on the ground in south Lebanon? ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, she still thinks she can get a U.N. resolution before the Security Council by the end of this week, but that's looking very optimistic, because, after meeting with Secretary Rice, Shimon Peres came out. And, as you saw, he said, it won't be days -- it's likely to be weeks -- contrary to what Secretary Rice was saying, in terms of a cease-fire.

He also was quite defiant when he came out of a separate meeting at the White House with the national security adviser, and Shimon Peres was saying and -- and boasting that, contrary to various news reports, he believes the Israeli army is doing much better than people think, and he claimed that they have wiped out up to 80 percent of Hezbollah's long-range missiles.

They have destroyed Hezbollah's headquarters, that they have wiped out some of the leaders, and that the -- the casualties on the Hezbollah side have been much stronger. And when I asked Shimon Peres whether he's getting pressure from the White House to stop the bombing, he said no. And he said that standing right outside the White House. So, it's quite interesting -- Anderson.

COOPER: Michael Ware, in Beirut, I mean, the wild card in -- in all of this, of course, is Hezbollah.

Lebanon will basically be negotiating on their behalf. Hezbollah said they gave them permission to do so. But what would be the motivation for Hezbollah to actually disarm?

WARE: Well, quite frankly, Anderson, I don't see any motivation for Hezbollah to disarm.

And, certainly, within this -- this struggling state, which is Lebanon, they have essentially contracted out the defense of the country, particularly to the south, to Hezbollah. I mean, the Lebanese army official Web site refers to them as the national resistance. So, to some degree, the government itself doesn't have much incentive to disarm Hezbollah, given the parlor state of its own armed forces.

And, if the Israelis do intend to drive into Lebanon over coming days to cash in their chips before the diplomacy clock ticks out, (AUDIO GAP) have to seize and hold terrain. Now, they may grab it quickly, but holding it will almost certainly come at some cost -- Anderson.

COOPER: John Roberts, what do you make of the fact that, in the last two days, the number of incoming Hezbollah rockets and mortars has dropped dramatically? I mean, we were looking -- there were days -- on Sunday, there were more than 100 in -- in the area in and around Kiryat Shmona, more than 140 in northern Israel.

Today, I think there were a total of ten. Yesterday, I think there were a total of three.

ROBERTS: Yes. It -- it -- we will find out today, I think, whether or not Shimon Peres' statement is true, that they have degraded Hezbollah's capability by up to 80 percent.

It could be that Hezbollah has held its fire in conjunction with that 48-hour pause, partial pause, at least, in the bombing campaign, because Israel still was engaging in close air support, with the Israeli Air Force helping out the troops on the ground.

But, if we don't get the number of missiles today that we saw in recent days, before that 48-hour pause was declared, that could be an indication that, in fact, they have degraded Hezbollah's capabilities.

What we see here these days is a lot of mortar fire. A lot of those little towns are very, very close to the Israeli side of the border. And it's very easy for somebody just to set up a mortar very quickly and pop off a couple of shots into places like Kiryat Shmona or Metulla.

COOPER: And -- and disappear just as quickly, unfortunately for Israeli forces.

John Roberts, thanks for the reporting along the border, Michael Ware in Beirut, and Ed Henry in Washington.

We will check in with our correspondents really throughout the course of this two-hour program.

A lot more from this region when we come back, but, first let's check in with Randi Kaye for the day's other top stories and a 360 bulletin -- Randi.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Anderson.

While the Middle East violence continues, the death toll mounts in Iraq, following three car bomb attacks. The deadliest attack came when a roadside bomb hit a bus carrying members of Iraq's military. Authorities say 23 soldiers were killed. At least 10 other people were killed when a suicide bomber blew up a car in central Baghdad. Another blast left six people dead.

In a letter obtained by CNN, 12 House and Senate Democratic leaders wrote President Bush and urged him to start bringing U.S. troops home this year. The Democrats say they were trying to show a unified position on the Iraq war, after debates earlier this summer exposed differences inside the party.

Tropical storm warnings are in effect for Puerto Rico and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands. Tropical Storm Chris is packing winds up to 60 miles an hour. The National Hurricane Center says it could become a hurricane later this week.

The heat wave in the U.S. is not letting up, with temperatures hitting 100 degrees across much of the Midwest and the Northeast. Electric companies in New York and Chicago are asking customers to cut their power use to help ease the strain on the electrical grid. Experts say, the heat wave in the Midwest should begin breaking by tomorrow. The Northeast should get some relief by Friday -- Anderson, back to you. COOPER: Randi, thanks very much.

Check out the shot of the day, a different kind of battling, far away from what's going on here in the Middle East -- firefighters in El Paso, Texas -- take a look at that -- up to their knees in floodwaters. They're using a fire engine to try to block the water, as they walk a man to safety.

Authorities say several hundred people have been forced to leave their homes, go to shelters, because of the heavy rains and floods. It has been raining in El Paso since Sunday, six inches so far. For the first six months of this year, El Paso got a total of less than one inch of rain, so, a dramatic couple of days there in El Paso, Texas.

When we come back: taking a look inside Hezbollah -- exactly what do they believe in? And, also, what are their tactics? And, also, what role does Syria play behind the scenes with Hezbollah?

Stay tuned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Preparations are being made for a mass grave in Tyre in South Lebanon. Some children clearing stones from those graves not yet filled up. But there are plenty of people, plenty of bodies being prepared right now to be put into those graves.

Britain's prime minister today, Tony Blair, warned Iran and warned Syria that they risk confrontation if they continue to support terrorism. Iran and Syria, of course, are two of the main backers behind Hezbollah.

My next guest has met with Syria's president as early -- as recently as last week. David Lesh is a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University. He also wrote the book "The New Line of Damascus: Bashar al Assad and Modern Syria".

Professor Lesh, I appreciate you joining us. You have said that Syria's president manipulated this whole situation in the Middle East. How so, and what do you think he wants to accomplish?

DAVID LESH, PROFESSOR, TRINITY UNIVERSITY: I think there's some question as to how much he did manipulate it to produce a desired outcome, versus being a serendipitous benefactor of events initialized by other parties such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. I think it's a -- it's a combination of both.

I think it's actually more the latter than the former. I think President Bashar is taking advantage of this, using the situation to try to get back you know, in the game a little bit, to try to get a seat at the table in diplomacy so that any sort of solution that comes about regarding Lebanon and certainly any sort of regional solution on an Arab-Israeli level must include Syria.

COOPER: Has this situation been good for Syria in the sense of, I mean, back in March of last year, you know, a million people poured into the streets into Martyrs Square, calling for Syria to get out of Lebanon. They left with their tail between their legs, the military, the intelligence services.

Is this basically allowing Syria to get back inside, into Lebanon?

LESH: It could be. I mean, on one level in Syria they're distressed at the level of destruction. They're being overwhelmed by over 100,000 refugees.

But on another level it's repairing a lot of the damage that the situation you described last year caused in Syrian-Lebanese relations, because the Syrians are taking Lebanese into their homes and so forth.

I don't think right now there's a danger or a situation where Syria would move troops back into Lebanon, although they have increased the militant rhetoric of late, with President Bashar saying that the military forces are on heightened alert. But they don't really want a conventional war with Syria -- with Israel, excuse me.

And you know, belligerent rhetoric plays well right now in Syria and plays well on the Arab street. But he has to be very careful not to heighten the rhetoric so much where he feels compelled to act militarily if Israel continues to expand the war in Lebanon.

COOPER: Does Syria, though -- you said Syria's sort of more reacting to stuff that Hezbollah is doing. How much control does Syria, do you think, have over Hezbollah?

LESH: I think it's more limited than most people think, particularly since Syrian forces are no longer in Lebanon after the withdrawal last year that you mentioned.

However, it does in my mind provide logistical support. So there is a level of influence. There is a level of political support. But I believe Hezbollah is much more independent in Lebanon than most people think, and I think Iran is the senior partner and Syria the junior partner in terms of influence with Hezbollah.

COOPER: Professor David Lesh, lots more to talk about. We'd love to have you back on the program. Thank you very much for joining us.

When we come back, we're going to look at what is going on in Cuba with Fidel Castro, the latest on his health condition and his brother, Raul Castro, now officially in charge of the country, and of course a lot more from the Middle East when 360 continues.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Well, now to our -- the other big story that we are following in this hour. The health of Cuba's president, Fidel Castro. He has handed over power to his brother, Raul Castro, as he underwent surgery for intestinal bleeding. Our state-run Cuban television says that Castro is recovering well, that he's in stable condition.

Let's check in with our CNN producer. CNN's the only network, American network that has a full-time bureau in Havana. Shasta Darlington joins us now from Havana.

Shasta, what's the latest on Castro?

SHASTA DARLINGTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, after a day of rumors and unanswered questions, Fidel Castro sent a new message to the Cuban people this evening, saying that he was stable following the surgery.

He didn't appear in person, but in a statement read on television he said he was feeling just fine, which was good news for many Cubans, who woke up for the first time in 47 years without Fidel Castro in power and a little concerned about their future.

At least on the surface, they put a brave face on the change and this shift in power. After Fidel Castro handed the reins over to his younger brother, Raul, provisionally while he recovers from the operation.

Cubans went to work, went about their normal business, but you couldn't help noticing as people talked in the streets that they are wondering what lies ahead, especially since neither Fidel Castro nor Raul Castro has made any public appearance since the announcement last night -- Anderson.

COOPER: How unusual is it for Fidel Castro to just send information through letters and not actually appear himself? I mean, is it an unusual thing for him not to be appearing in person or at least in video?

DARLINGTON: Well, Fidel Castro is obviously famous for his appearances. Three, four, five-hour speeches. So in some ways, yes, it's unusual. But then again, he's never handed power over to his brother.

So I think people are taking that as a sign that he really is suffering a serious health problem at this point. It's even making some wondering if this is more than a provisional handover of power, if this couldn't be the beginning of the end, Anderson.

COOPER: And how has his health been? I mean, in the last couple of months as you've watched him make speeches, does he appear significantly frailer than he was a year ago?

DARLINGTON: Not significantly, no. He'll definitely (AUDIO GAP) for two, three hours at a time (AUDIO GAP)...

COOPER: Shasta Darlington, we lost that -- lost that signal. Appreciate your report there.

CNN's Ed Lavandera has been following the situation from the Little Havana neighborhood in Miami. That is home to, of course, many Cuban exiles. He filed this report earlier. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A second night of celebration in Miami's Little Havana, after word that Fidel Castro handed over power while undergoing intestinal surgery. The Cuban government's claim that Castro is in good spirits barely dented hopes that Cuba's dictator is finally about to go.

Cuban exiles have been playing dominoes in a waiting game here nearly half a century. News of Castro's failing health has livened up the game.

"Yes, yes, yes, we're very happy," he says. "Let's see if we can finally get a chance to go back home."

Mario Lozada escaped communist Cuba 46 years ago. Like so many others, he remembers the exact date, October 4, 1960. Because he left so much behind, thousands lost lives, businesses and homes. Many saw friends and family imprisoned or killed. And now when they see Fidel Castro's face, this is how they wish for his death.

In Havana itself, Cubans went about their daily routine. Free speech has been stifled for decades here, so people aren't celebrating Castro's ill health. Those willing to speak at all wish the Cuban dictator a speedy recovery.

"I am a little nervous because he has reached a certain age, but, well, we have confidence in the doctors of our country so that Fidel can be re-established soon."

Another said, "We Cubans are here for no other reason than to support Fidel. We are the right arm. He is the left. We are the body of him. The soul of him is us."

That kind of language is music to the Cuban government. But to the exiles in Little Havana it's a charade. They say you just can't find anyone in Cuba willing to admit it.

He says angrily, "Fidel should never have been born. It's not his mother's fault. He should never have been born. He's an assassin."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Ed, how much do people in Little Havana know about Raul Castro? I mean, how much is he a known quantity?

LAVANDERA: People here who have been following this story so closely for decades clearly have read a lot about him, have heard a lot about him. But they just think he is more of the same. So even though -- if Raul Castro were to assume power after Fidel the people here still wouldn't be any happier about it.

COOPER: And the celebrations that we're seeing, I mean, are the people you're talking to pretty much convinced that this is it for Castro? LAVANDERA: You know, it's been a little bit mixed. The question today has been and everywhere you go is the whispers, what do you think? What do you think? Is he alive? Is he not alive?

Quite frankly, whatever's coming out of Cuba at this point is not being believed by the thousands of people who are here on the streets of Little Havana. Anything short of seeing Fidel Castro in public again, and even that might not convince them that he is doing well enough to continue in power. So people here are celebrating as if this were the end of him.

COOPER: All right. Ed Lavandera from Little Havana in Miami. Thanks very much, Ed.

When we come back, we'll talk to a man who has met Castro several times and get his perspective on what may be really happening inside Cuba right now. Stay tuned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Fidel Castro, tripping in 2004, an incident which got a lot of attention around the world, raised speculation about his health. State-run television in Cuba now says that Castro is stable and recovering from surgery after having experienced intestinal bleeding. Of course, exactly what is happening is not fully known. The information coming directly from state-run television in Cuba, allegedly from a letter from Castro himself.

He has not yet appeared on television, and that, of course, has raised a lot of questions for Cubans, not only on the island but also the Cubans spread throughout the world. And as we just saw in Ed Lavandera's report, in the Little Havana section of Miami.

Joining me now is Peter Kornbluh. He's the director of the Cuba Documentation Project. He's met Castro several times, most recently a year ago. He's also met Raul Castro.

Peter, thanks for being on the program.

What do you make, first, of what's happening inside Cuba right now? Do you believe what the state-run Cuban television is saying?

PETER KORNBLUH, DIRECTOR, CUBA DOCUMENTATION PROJECT: Well, it's hard to know whether what they're saying is exactly the truth or a variation on the truth.

I do believe that Fidel Castro has undergone surgery. It's not exactly clear when. It is obvious that he has a serious condition. This is a day that I think Cuba had hoped to avoid, but they've been preparing for for many, many months.

And I think that they are handling it in a way which, as they stated today, is a situation of state security and trying to protect their security against what they see as, you know, potential U.S. aggression given the circumstances in Cuba.

COOPER: What does a Cuba run by Raul Castro look like compared to a Cuba run by Fidel?

KORNBLUH: Well, Raul is a very different person than Fidel. He's lived in Fidel's shadow for many, many years, even though he has been a historical player in almost all the same history that Fidel has been part of for these last 47, 50 years, actually.

Raul will be perhaps more pragmatic. He will be more of an administrator. He will not lead by charisma. Nobody would accuse him of being charismatic.

But he will gather both his own proteges and those of Fidel Castro, who have been groomed for this very day around him, to continue to sustain the revolutionary government in Cuba, the Castro -- Castro regime in Cuba for the foreseeable future.

COOPER: Under what right does Castro have the power to just hand over the reins of government to his brother? I mean, it sounds almost like a monarchy.

KORNBLUH: Well, he designed a constitution some years ago. His brother has always been designated as his successor. He said again recently that his brother would succeed him. And just a few months ago on Raul's 75th birthday the state -- the Communist Party newspaper ran a big spread on Raul, which essentially reintroduced him to the Cuban public as the person that would take over and lead after his brother could no longer lead.

COOPER: Peter Kornbluh, we appreciate your point of view and appreciate you joining us to talk about what's going on in Cuba.

We've got to go. We've got some breaking news to report out of here in the Middle East. CNN has learned more about that commando operation in the northeast of Lebanon, very close to the Syrian border.

What we understand now is this. Israeli commandos have reportedly seized several what are described as militants from inside that hospital. We had earlier heard the report that commandos had entered the hospital and had checked the identity documents of everyone inside that hospital.

It now appears from this early report -- and again, this is just an early report -- but that the Israeli commandos have taken several people from that hospital and have returned -- brought them back here to Israel.

We're trying to get final confirmation on exactly who the people that were seized are. We're trying to check with Israeli Defense Forces and also reporters covering the story from Beirut and also from here along the border. We'll try to get more information.

That, of course -- that operation the furthest north that Israeli forces have gone so far in this operation. We have seen air strikes very close to the Syrian border. Air strikes even at the checkpoint crossing over from Syria to Lebanon. And certainly air strikes on the main highways going into Syria. But this is the first time, that we have heard about, of a commando operation that far north. Apparently now having seized several people from inside that hospital and returned them to Israel.

Again, we're trying to find out more information, and we'll bring it to you when we can.

We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back with much more from here in the Middle East.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: So CNN has now confirmed with Israeli Defense Forces. What we know is this, that Israeli commandos have seized several what the Israeli Defense Forces described as militants from that hospital in the Bekaa Valley very close to the Syrian border, less than 20 miles away from the Syrian border.

According to Israeli Defense Forces, they have seized several militants, and they have brought them back to Israel. This is the first such operation that we have heard about in this ongoing conflict.

We're joined by CNN's Michael Ware, who is in Beirut monitoring the operation.

Michael, what do we know about what went down?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, everything is still shrouded in this early dawn light with mystery. The operation took place about 11 p.m. last night. It's now getting close to 6 a.m.

What we know is that Israeli airborne troops punched deep into the Bekaa Valley to the town of Baalbeck, where they hit at least one hospital if not other targets.

What we're now hearing over the wires coming out of Israel is that the Israeli airborne forces without casualty, were able to reach their target and then extract their forces and return to Israel with Hezbollah prisoners. It's still unclear who those prisoners are. The reports are conflicting.

One at this stage names three individuals, all of whom it says are low-ranking officials. One, coincidentally with the same name as the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Other reports are less clear about the identity of the prisoners who have been taken to Israel -- Anderson.

COOPER: OK. So all we can confirm and have confirmed with Israeli Defense Forces that several militants in their words have been brought back to Israel and, according to Israeli Defense Forces, no commandos hurt in that operation.

I should point out that earlier Hezbollah was saying that Israeli forces were pinned down in that hospital, that Hezbollah fighters had responded to the incursion, and that there was a fierce firefight. Again, we do not know the details of the ongoing operation.

But Michael Ware, the significance of this really is that this is not only a different type of operation than we have seen or at least that we have heard about in this conflict, but that also it's close to the Syrian border and it is far north, as we understand, there have been ground operations so far.

WARE: Absolutely, Anderson. This is new in both those ways that you highlight. Both in terms of geography, where they struck, and also in terms of the nature of the operation. We haven't seen it in this conflict. But this is a very Israeli style of doing business.

So this is a new development to this current conflict as we await to see what unfolds in the coming days -- Anderson.

COOPER: Interesting to note, too, as we've been talking about really throughout these last several weeks is the degree to which military activity on the ground is designed to ultimately have dividends around the bargaining table.

This operation certainly could be seen in that light, a tit for tat operation, the seizing of Hezbollah prisoners, perhaps to be used later down the road, or perhaps to be used to get information. At this point we simply don't know.

But Israeli Defense Forces are saying that they have returned several militants, or brought back several militants here to Israel.

We're going to try to get more information in this next hour of 360. Stay tuned for that. We'll be right back from live from the border with Lebanon.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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