Return to Transcripts main page


NATO to Take Control of Libya No-Fly Zone

Aired March 24, 2011 - 22:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We begin with the latest in Libya.

Moments ago, new explosions and anti-aircraft fire in Tripoli and the breaking news that NATO has agreed to take the reins from the United States and take over the mission to enforce the no-fly zone, but just the no-fly zone. They have apparently not agreed to take over other coalition military action, like attacking Gadhafi's ground troops and heavy weapons.

It's a very confusing diplomatic situation that we have seen play out today. We will get details on all of it in just a minute. It's important, because outside the city of Ajdabiya today, those heavy weapons of Gadhafi's kept opposition forces from advancing. Opposition forces do not have the weaponry to take the fight against tanks and heavy artillery.

Some amateur video that was reportedly shot a few days ago in Benghazi shows just how outgunned the opposition is. Before I show it to you, I just want you to know we cannot independently verify what is in the video that we're about to show you. It seems to be opposition fighters in street clothes going head to head with a tank.

Here's what the secretary-general said this evening from NATO headquarters in Brussels.


ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN, NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL: NATO has now decided to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya. We are taking action as part of the broad international effort to protect the civilians against the attacks by the Gadhafi regime.


COOPER: So that's NATO saying they're taking action as part of the international effort, not leading the entire effort.

Tonight, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said all 28 NATO allies have authorized military authorities to develop a plan for NATO to take on a broader mission, which is a very complicated way of saying they're still working out getting NATO to do more. Clinton also said the mission has made great strides in a short time and its prime focus remains protecting Libyan civilians.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: In the days ahead, as NATO assumes command and control responsibilities, the welfare of those civilians will be of paramount concern. This operation has already saved many lives, but the danger is far from over.

As long as the Gadhafi regime threatens its people and defies the United Nations, we must remain vigilant and focused.


COOPER: Well, Gadhafi forces continue to fire on civilians in Misrata, according to eyewitnesses we have talked to today. And in Tripoli, new airstrikes just this evening.

Libyan state television showed what it says is a military base in flames after airstrikes on Tripoli last night. They also broadcast images of what they said was a mass funeral, saying the dead were victims of -- quote -- "crusader colonial aggression."

CNN's Nic Robertson was there, said the crowd was mostly angry, not really grief-stricken. And he wasn't able to find any family members at all among those who had gathered. Also apparently when one of the coffins was opened, there was no body inside. We will hear more from Nic later and Arwa Damon with opposition forces in the east.

But joining us live is, senior White House correspondent Ed Henry, at the State Department, foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty, and on the phone, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns.

Jill, first of all, NATO said it reached a political agreement today to command all military operations in Libya, but then NATO's secretary-general said the deal applied only to a no-fly zone. So does that mean they won't use NATO jets at this point to hit tanks or heavily artillery, which seems critical in places like Misrata and Ajdabiya?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, it looks as if at this point we're talking again about the command and control. That would be individual countries that have their own weapons and planes, et cetera. But the point is that NATO would be in control, in command.

And they would be in command of that no-fly zone and what they are working on, and this is where it's kind of murky and changing really fast, is control of the entire military mission. And one of the problems that they can't quite get to that point yet is that crucial members, Turkey, for example, has some real problems with a broader mission, using airstrikes.

That's the primary thing that we're talking about, in that broader mission, using airstrikes. And the French apparently right at the last minute had some reservations as well, although they seem to be on board. I guess again it seems every day, Anderson, we're talking about this. But we have got the no-fly buttoned down. It transfers over to NATO. When you get to the broader mission, which is airstrikes, they're getting there.

COOPER: Mr. Burns, Ambassador Burns, what do you make of all this diplomatic wrangling? You know NATO better than anyone. It's not just diplomatic wrangling because it does have an impact on the actual mission. What do you make of it?


It's not surprising that NATO has had some trouble making this decision. It's positive they have agreed to take over the no-flight zone. I have to believe that within a couple of days they will be an agreement to take over command of the entire operation.

Anderson, that's important, because you want to have unity of command, you want to have a hierarchy, you want to have centralized control over this intricate set of military operations. It's clear a week into this new phase of the conflict that the no-flight zone alone cannot protect the civilians of Libya.

Gadhafi is still attacking Misrata, Ajdabiya. He's still on the move in some places. And so you do need those offensive tactical air operations that the U.S. military has been so brilliant at in the last couple of days. And we have got to hope that when NATO takes over, they will have full command and they will be able to take that kind of action to stop the Gadhafi forces.

COOPER: Ambassador Burns, the White House reiterated today that the U.S. is going to be shifting to what they call a support and assist role. At this point, if NATO isn't in command of the entire thing, can the coalition actually succeed without the U.S. in a lead role?

BURNS: Well, here's the irony. I understand why the Obama administration is doing this. We are occupied in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have vital interests in what's happening at the other end of the Middle East in Bahrain and Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

But NATO, of course, is a defense alliance and its most important member, its capable member is the United States. And so if we do withdraw to a support role, the pressure is going to be on France and Britain principally as well as Italy to step up, take responsibility, and fly those air missions and patrol the seas as our Navy has been doing, so that we intimidate Gadhafi and we give energy to the rebel forces.

Our hoped-for scenario is that Gadhafi is going to fall because the Libya rise up against him. They won't do that if there's a tepid or inconsistent international military effort. The U.S. has been brilliant, I think, over the last four or five days.

The Obama administration made the right decision to go in. But if there's a big drop-off between a U.S.-led operation and a European- led NATO operation, then I think that could embolden Gadhafi.

COOPER: Ed Henry, how does all this look from the White House, all this diplomatic wrangling? Do they feel they have handled this well?

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they certainly know that they're under great pressure, but they feel some measure of vindication tonight when you talk to senior officials, because as Nic is just laying it out right there, certainly there's more details that have to be worked out, but NATO progress tonight suggests that the president promising it will be days, not weeks, before they turn this over to allies is looking more like a reality, not done yet.

But secondly new tonight as well is you have got the United Arab Emirates now saying they're going to put some planes out there to help with enforcing no-fly zone, military equipment. They had been wavering. That's critical, Arab support, to this mission as well. And then finally, as Nic was laying out, there's still attacks going on from Gadhafi.

But the White House feels that if they had not acted at all, those attacks would be much worse and there might be a massacre right now. They feel like they have a good story to tell. It has not broken through. And that's why tonight they're considering all kinds of options to sort of step up not just their outreach to Congress, but to the American people; one of many things on the table right now is a possible Oval Office address from the president sometime in the near future to explain this mission a little more clearly than they have done so far.

COOPER: Ambassador Burns, and for those who haven't been following this as closely, what's vitally important now and the way this mission seems to be moving now is not just, you know, keeping a no-fly zone; it's really attacking Gadhafi forces on the ground, tanks on the ground, and heavy artillery on the ground, because they're still not compliant according to the U.N. resolution. They haven't pulled back forces from Misrata or Ajdabiya, correct?

BURNS: That's exactly correct.

Gadhafi is still on the move, and it was the NATO -- the U.S.-led airstrikes over the last 48 hours that stopped his forces outside of both of those cities. If we hadn't been able to do that, I think you would have seen terrible scenes inside both cities and brutalities against the civilian population there. So it's vitally important...

COOPER: And unless NATO is in command of that or actually operating that, I mean, does Britain and France, do they have enough airpower frankly to be able to do that over the next coming weeks?

BURNS: Well, certainly the only country in the NATO alliance that has the capacity to wage an intense, prolonged military campaign is the United States. Britain's highly capable, as is France. But you need a command-and-control center to run it all. NATO can provide that. But let's hope that the intensity of this European-led effort can match what the U.S. has been doing, because you have got to keep the pressure on Gadhafi to encourage the opposition forces.

COOPER: Jill Dougherty, what is the timeline for trying to get this figured out about NATO moving beyond just saying OK, we're going to do command-and-control of the no-fly zone, we're actually going to do the whole thing?

DOUGHERTY: Well, they're continuing to work on it at NATO. And then also on Tuesday of next week, you have a meeting of foreign ministers; Secretary Clinton will be going to that. That will be in London. And they will be continuing to work on all of this coordination, because that's the most crucial thing. You have got, again, the military component and you have the diplomatic side of it.

And both of those are very, very important in trying to get that message and put the squeeze on Gadhafi.

COOPER: Ed Henry, John Boehner had attended I think via phone a meeting that the president had with congressional leaders when this whole operation was launched. He's written a letter though with a number of questions for President Obama about the mission, about the costs of it, paying for it, and outreach to Congress. Has the White House responded?

HENRY: They have not really laid out the answers to that. We have counted about 16 questions in that letter, and there are some serious questions that do need to be answered, such as what if Gadhafi survives; what then? What is our position toward the rebels? Are we at some point going to get behind them?

There are a lot of questions, the cost of this mission, that the White House is going to have to answer at some point. And Boehner and others feel privately that the White House was sort of just checking a box when they had this meeting with the president last Friday here at the White House. Some weren't present. As you mentioned, John Boehner was joined in by conference call.

But I pressed his office today and said, well, if he had these concerns even after that meeting and that call, did he call the White House? Did he ask for more? And they say, no, basically that Boehner felt like this was already in motion and it was sort of too late to do something.

I also asked whether he ever wrote a letter like to this to the Bush administration about Iraq. And they said they would have to check. They didn't know.

COOPER: Right.

HENRY: The bottom line is that there are a lot of Republicans on the Hill now raising questions about oversight that they didn't really provide over the Bush administration on Iraq, Afghanistan, et cetera. But the problem for this White House is it's not just Republicans on the Hill that are upset; there are Democrats as well, and it makes it a lot more difficult for them politically.

COOPER: Ambassador Burns, to me, one of the central questions, and I haven't been able to get an answer of it in all the stuff I have read and talked to people about it, and maybe you can, what happens when and if Gadhafi moves forces back from Ajdabiya, from Misrata, complies with the letter of the U.N. resolution, restores electricity, and then opposition forces, rebels, whatever you want to call them, start taking offensive operations, start moving westward toward Tripoli; would the coalition support them with airpower?

BURNS: I don't think anybody knows at this point. That's been the problem from the beginning in an operation that's otherwise been brilliant militarily.

There's a contradiction here that the mission has really not been clear. Are we the referee between Gadhafi and the rebel forces or are we actually acting on behalf of the rebel forces? So far the military operations have been consistent with the U.N. Security Council resolution, because they have been in defense of civilians.

Should the opposition actually take the offensive, that's a question, question mark, whether or not the European-led NATO forces are going to actually fly air cover and assist them. But it's a critical question, because the danger here is that there could be a stalemate, that neither side might be -- would be powerful enough to achieve a military victory.

A stalemate rewards Gadhafi. He maintains power in Tripoli. He runs most of the country, and that can't be the wish of the United States. Our policy, as expressed by the Obama administration, is that Gadhafi should go. And so the coalition operations one would hope would lead toward that result, that Gadhafi would fall from power.

COOPER: Yes, a lot of questions remain unanswered.

Ed Henry, Jill Dougherty, Ambassador Burns, thank you very much.

Let us know what you think. We're on Facebook. Follow me on Twitter at @AndersonCooper. I will be tweeting tonight as well, if I have time.

Up next, is a NATO command the best-case scenario? And what about the battle on the ground? I want to talk about more about that question I just raised. We will talk strategy with two retired generals, one who says he was shocked by today's NATO's announce .

And later, a total reversal in Japan -- new testing apparently now shows Tokyo's tap water safe for babies. Just 24 hours ago they said stay clear. So can the levels of radioactive iodine rise and fall that quickly? We will talk it over with 360 M.D. Sanjay Gupta and also nuclear expert Michael Friedlander ahead.



ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Struggling to gain ground, opposition forces are under attack, still fighting to clear the northern entrance to Ajdabiya, but unable to advance.

(on camera): The rounds seem to be landing more over there in that direction, and that's because the fighters are telling us they have units going in from each side.


COOPER: CNN's Arwa Damon near Ajdabiya in Eastern Libya. We will talk to her live in just a moment.

Closer to Tripoli, Gadhafi's forces continue to fire on opposition fighters and civilians in the city of Misrata, according to eyewitnesses. Journalists are not permitted there, so it's very difficult to gauge the actual level of violence.

Earlier tonight, I talked on the phone with a spokesman for the opposition in Misrata. And we have to point out we can't independently verify what he's saying. Here's what he said.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We wake up every morning on the sound of shell fire and snipers targeting civilians. It took us a little while to figure out what's the best way of dealing with the (INAUDIBLE) situation in Misrata.

And we had a breakthrough just this evening, as the reports that I have received have confirmed the killing of 30 snipers. That's 3-0.


COOPER: It's impossible to know if that number is accurate. All the people though in Misrata that we have talked to over the last several days do speak about the snipers on top of buildings in parts of the city.

Despite the coalition airstrikes against his military installations like this one in Tripoli, Gadhafi has shown no sign of backing off the campaign against his opponents. And that of course raises key questions for NATO, the U.S. military, and our allies going forward.

On the phone is retired Army General Mark Kimmitt, who is also a former assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush. General Kimmitt currently serves as executive vice president of Advanced Technologies Systems Company, which is a defense contracting firm.

General, you told Wolf Blitzer earlier today that you were shocked by this deal with NATO. Why? BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK KIMMITT (RET.), FORMER U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR PLANS AND STRATEGY: Well, one of the principles of war has always been the notion of unity of command, one man in charge of the battlefield, one mission on the battlefield.

What we have got here is a situation where we essentially have two four-star generals fighting different battles on the same terrain with different forces. And so it's going to invariably be a bit confusing as they work out the procedures to operate in this unique type of situation, and it's just going to make the job more difficult for them.

COOPER: Can it remain that way? If -- they say they're trying to have NATO take over all command-and-control for the entire mission, not just the no-fly zone, but also airstrikes against targets on the ground, but if that deal cannot be worked out, can you have a split mission like this?

KIMMITT: Well, you can. It's not a question of are you able to have one? It's just preference.

We give tough missions to our commanders; we give toughs jobs to our commanders. They have got a lot of things to do on the battlefield without having to worry about additional factors such as, is that a NATO aircraft flying above us; is that a U.S. aircraft flying above us? How are we going to deconflict the terrain; how are we going to deconflict the air lanes? The mission is tough enough without this added complication, and hopefully as you mentioned, NATO will decide to embrace the entire mission quite soon.

COOPER: Is the mission clear enough, you think, for the military at this point? Because, again, I don't know if you heard before the break, but I was asking Ambassador Burns the question of if opposition forces start to advance beyond Ajdabiya, if they start to try to take over cities that they have lost before, that they haven't even had before, will the coalition provide air support for them?

KIMMITT: Well, the confusing part I think is, for the last generation, we have always worked under the premise that when you use the military, it's in a decisive way, that the military use is going to lead to a conclusion, an ultimate conclusion.

We don't have it in this case. Here, we have the military conducting a very limited mission, which in many ways doesn't relate to the overall policy, which is to remove Gadhafi from power. So, yes, there is still some confusion there.

And I think, if you add that additional complication of what happens when the rebels are on the move, I don't think that's clearly defined yet, I think it's just going to add more confusion to the situation, not only for the troops in the air, but also for the publics that has to support this mission.

COOPER: If there's not an agreement, if Turkey refuses to let NATO be involved in direct airstrikes, and then you have a situation where Britain, France, and whether the U.S. wants to be involved or not, can Britain and France maintain an operation of airstrikes the kind of the pace that we have been seeing?

KIMMITT: Well, they can, but it's unlikely that that's going to happen. We can never forget that, as Ambassador Burns said, the United States is part of NATO. The United States will always be part of that force. While there may be a desire that the United States takes somewhat of a support role, provides intelligence, provides tankers, more than likely, we will see American aircraft at the front of the pack for some time to come in this mission.

COOPER: General Mark Kimmitt, appreciate your expertise. Thanks for being with us.

Now, if the fighting in Libya develops into a long, drawn-out stalemate, that presents obviously additional problems for coalition problems.

A short time ago, I talked to Bob Baer, Robert Baer, a former CIA officer and co-author of "The Company We Keep." I also talked to retired General James "Spider" Marks, the former commanding general of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center.


COOPER: General Marks, from a military standpoint, it seems like the next phase of this will have to be from the coalition standpoint, beside just enforcing a no-fly zone, targeting Gadhafi ground troops or tanks and artillery. Does that seem to you the next logical step?

BRIGADIER GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Well, it is. And in fact it's been ongoing right now. The challenge that we have is NATO has now stepped up and said they are not going to be a part of targeting Gadhafi forces on the ground and put at risk the citizens and the population in Libya.

So, clearly, those targets are going to have to be engaged if there is going to be a legitimacy to the separation of these warring powers that are taking place in Libya right now. NATO said they don't want to do it. The United States is going to do it.

COOPER: It seems like that's been happening around Misrata, Ajdabiya as well.

But, Bob, unless -- you know, the ability of the opposition forces increases dramatically, without taking out tanks, without taking out, you know, large guns and weaponry, that the coalition, that the Gadhafi regime has, the opposition is not going to be able to make much progress.

ROBERT BAER, INTELLIGENCE ANALYST, TIME.COM: Oh, I don't think that they will. They're too disorganized. We're not even sure who they are. We're not even sure how many officers are among them. No one is leading them competently.

And all they seem to do is just be firing off their guns in random directions. And as long as Gadhafi has got armor and is in cities with that armor, we're going to have to become more engaged or risk seeing a real massacre, because Gadhafi is not going to give up.

COOPER: General Marks, one of the things I don't understand, given what the mandate is supposed to be, which is protecting civilians and humanitarian relief, if rebels do start to advance in whatever direction, say they take Ajdabiya and they start to advance westward, would the coalition provide air cover for them?

MARKS: In my view of all of this, that's already happening right now.

Now, albeit, what has been said from the commanders is that we have not picked sides and we are not flying missions in support of the rebels. Clearly, we are. We are the close air support for the rebel forces in order to back Gadhafi's forces out of the way. So I think it's really definitional at this point.


COOPER: But it's one thing to provide air support around Misrata and Ajdabiya, with the argument being that part of this resolution was that they were supposed to withdraw their forces from there. They haven't done that, and they're still shelling civilians, at least in Misrata, so they're fair game. But if they do pull back, and rebels advance to other cities, I guess my question is how involved does the coalition become in this civil war?

MARKS: Well, Anderson, that's very much the point.

If Gadhafi's forces pull back and are no longer posing a threat, either to the rebels or the civilians, but the rebel forces advance, right, and close the gap and intend to engage with Gadhafi's forces, now you have got a very difficult challenge here, because you are -- the coalition will provide close air support for those rebel forces.

COOPER: Right.

Bob, I read in "The New York Times" an interview with an official from the new provisional government in Benghazi. And he said there are about 1,000 military personnel who have some form of training who are on the opposition side. Can 1,000 trained men actually make an advance, even if they have a bunch of younger civilians who have AK- 47s with them?

BAER: I don't think so.

Number one, they weren't part of an elite unit that was cohesive before. They have defected from the army. They're not used to working with each other. I have heard that they're missing all sorts of things, like communications. They're running out of ammunition. A lot of the weapons they have looted from Gadhafi's stores, they don't know how to work.

They are really, truly a ragtag force. And you see the logic of this. As General Marks was saying, we -- almost the next step is putting some sort of support on the ground to help them. They need to get organized. And I don't know who that would be. And it looks like another war in the Middle East, a big one.

COOPER: So where do you see this going? I'm going to ask this of both of you.

General Marks, where do you see the next week or two bringing the United States, bringing NATO, bringing the coalition?

MARKS: Within the next couple of weeks, you're going to see what you're seeing right now, which is an attempt to achieve some degree of separation between the rebel forces and Gadhafi's forces, so that there isn't anymore ground engagement.

The only way that that legitimately is ever going to be monitored or enforced is if you integrate ground forces. What you're looking at is an implementation of some type of a peacekeeping force. We're in the peacemaking stage right now. But some form of peacekeeping is going to have to be in place. But who are those contributing nations? I simply don't know.

COOPER: Bob Baer, what do you see?

BAER: I absolutely, totally agree. We need some sort of force on the ground. As we saw in Yugoslavia in the '90s, you just can't do this by air alone.

COOPER: And, Bob, when you hear, as a former CIA officer, when you hear the U.S. saying, well, people around Gadhafi are making calls to us in the U.S. and calls to others in the coalition, do you buy that? Because I feel like we heard that a lot around the Iraq war around -- people around Saddam Hussein were making calls. Is that for real, do you think, or is that to make Gadhafi and his circle paranoid about who may be really on their side or who may be trying to hurt them?

BAER: Well, I know what the calculations on Libya's side, Gadhafi's side is. He wants to confuse us, undermine our resolution in this.

I have some ties in the inner circle there, and they were saying things like, well, Gadhafi is going to let the al Qaeda people out of prison and you're going to have -- foreigners are going to be kidnapped and killed and so on, these threats. But in fact, it looks like his tribe is holding together at this point.

I see no indication. And we will not know if they get rid of Gadhafi until after it's done.

COOPER: Bob Baer, General Spider Marks, appreciate both of you being on. Thanks.

MARKS: Thank you.


COOPER: Coming up in a moment, the latest from on the ground in Libya. We will check in with Arwa Damon in Benghazi and Nic Robertson in Tripoli, where there have been new explosions tonight. And also Nic has hard reports from Pentagon sources that Gadhafi loyalists may be searching Tripoli morgues for bodies they can present to reporters as being civilian casualties. We will talk to him about that.

And later, new developments in Japan: officials in Tokyo now saying the tap water is safe again for infants after yesterday they reported it wasn't safe. Could the levels have really dropped so significantly in just a day? We will talk to 360 M.D. Sanjay Gupta about that and to Michael Friedlander about the latest at the crippled nuclear plant.



ROBERTSON: It was an occasion full of surprising moments.

This is, by far, one of the biggest mass burials that we've seen. But when one of the coffins here was opened that we saw, it was empty. And quickly whisked away.


COOPER: Nic Robertson reporting on a mass funeral today in Libya where one of the coffins was empty.

Also today, new anti-aircraft fire and some of the biggest explosions yet.

Other big news tonight: just a week since the resolution to create a no-fly zone, NATO has agreed to take command of enforcing it, but will it be much of a game changer?

Joining us live from Tripoli is Nic Robertson, and in Benghazi is Arwa Damon.

Nic, I just saw a tweet that was from you from something from the Pentagon source about maybe Gadhafi loyalists going around to morgues. What's that about?

ROBERTSON: You know, this is about the government being very keen to try to show that civilians are the casualties here, and they've talked about this on a number of occasions. And they haven't been able to show us proof to try to take us to a house, civilian house that had been hit. That didn't work out. They didn't find it.

And the government, we were told about that funeral today. Some of the victims there from coalition bombing, some were soldiers, some were civilians. But we haven't been offered any concrete proof.

And what we're hearing from sources at the Pentagon matches what opposition people in this city are telling us, as well. They're telling us electronically. Nobody is quite brave enough to come out and tell us face to face.

But they're saying the same things. They're worried that, because Gadhafi wants to portray the Libyans as victims here, and try and stop the coalition bombing, that they will go to extraordinary lengths to try and present us with civilian casualties, to the length of finding bodies in the morgues that would match that sort of scenario.

I have to say, we haven't seen that yet. We haven't been presented with it. But neither has the government here shown us any civilian casualties. We can't say categorically there haven't been any; just the government hasn't been able to show us so far, Anderson.

COOPER: Arwa, have opposition forces...

ROBERTSON: Just as I'm talking to you...

COOPER: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

ROBERTSON: ... Anderson -- just as I'm talking to you here, I'm hearing a jet aircraft flying overhead here, and it's not often we hear that. But often, when we have, sometimes you get a loud explosion afterwards. But that, I think, is an indication, that we're hearing that jet aircraft, of how the coalition feels, that it now dominates the skies here, Anderson.

COOPER: Nic, how...

ROBERTSON: Definitely hear it flying over.

COOPER: And -- and how often do you hear planes like that? And has the anti-aircraft fire, has that reduced a lot over the last couple of days?

ROBERTSON: It has reduced a lot over the last couple of days. Whenever there's explosions, bombs, missiles drop, the anti-aircraft gunfire now is up very -- is up very quickly, gone very quickly. That I would say is probably the second time, second or third time that we've actually -- can definitely, definitively say we've heard the sounds of aircraft flying over the -- over the city here, Anderson.

COOPER: And we're showing tape from, I believe it was from Sunday, of anti-aircraft fire. Nic saying it's gone down a lot since then.

Arwa, how closely are opposition fighters actually paying attention to this kind of diplomatic dance that's been going on with NATO about command and control?

ROBERTSON: Sorry, I...

COOPER: Sorry, Nic. Go ahead. Is there something.

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, they do -- they do...

COOPER: Arwa, if you could hold on. Arwa, if you could just hold on one second. I'm sorry.

Nic, sorry, go ahead. You just heard an explosion? ROBERTSON: I'm so sorry because of the delay here. But yes, we did hear an explosion there just after hearing that aircraft fly over. It sounded as if it was on the edge of the city, probably towards the west. There are military bases out there.

Yesterday when this happened, when there were explosions at that base, witnesses did call in and tell us or e-mail us some time later that they had seen smoke rising from these bases.

COOPER: And about this time -- I think it was maybe an hour or so earlier last night -- we also had some explosions.

I'm sorry, Arwa, go ahead about how closely opposition fighters are paying attention to the NATO diplomatic wrangling.

DAMON: Anderson, they pay close attention to anything that has to do with Libya, because they're very keen on making sure that the international community is still paying attention to what happens here.

And of course, they realize just how sensitive the current mission in Libya is right now. But when it comes down to the debate as to who's going to be running the mission, who's going to be in control of the skies, as long as that no-fly zone continues, as long as the air strikes continue, they don't really care that much about who's actually going to run it.

What they will grow concerned about is whether or not there is some sort of vague rhetoric or discrepancy as to whether or not those air strikes, those attacks against Gadhafi's ground troops, are in fact, going to be continuing. Who's going to be controlling that? How intense are they going to be in the days and weeks ahead?

Because frankly, without those ground troops, we're going to go back to what we were saying before these air strikes began. If Gadhafi's military is not being attacked on the ground by allied forces, they are going to maintain an ability to beat back the opposition and keep their control over these cities and towns and those massacres that eye witnesses keep telling us about are going to continue.

COOPER: We saw you on the outskirts of Ajdabiya today ducking for cover because how far are opposition forces outside of Ajdabiya? And is that the essential problem, that they can't get closer because of tanks, because of heavy artillery?

We also saw that video from -- apparently from Benghazi, video that was put up on YouTube of basically a guy -- You know, opposition fighters going against a Gadhafi tank.

DAMON: Yes, Anderson, that's pretty much how they describe the fight here. They describe themselves, as we're seeing, basically, poorly armed and they're not even wearing body armor, and they're trying to take on a tank.

When it comes to Ajdabiya, the opposition fighters have been bogged down. They're pretty much in the same scenario since Sunday. Gadhafi's troops, a small unit, we are being told, controls the northern gate. A larger group controls the western one. But this small group of Gadhafi forces has managed to keep the opposition there bogged down for around six days now.

We're told that they have a number of tanks. There's only a small unit of fighters there. But because of the tanks and because of the artillery they have at their disposal, every single time the opposition forces try to move forward or try to come in, they attack them from the side. They're simply getting hammered.

And they lack the military strategic capability to be able to overcome these tanks, maybe from a military perspective, given the weapons that they have. And they lack the weapons to be able to fire back and basically destroy these tanks on their own.

They've been telling us that there was an air strike against this location Wednesday morning, that they say destroyed three tanks. But obviously, the ability to keep the opposition forces out and away from controlling this critical gate to Ajdabiya has been an ongoing problem.

COOPER: Right.

DAMON: And the question is, if the opposition forces are this bogged down by this tiny unit outside of Ajdabiya, how are they going to get this momentum and expertise to move further ahead, all the way to Tripoli, like they're saying?

COOPER: Yes, it doesn't seem like they'd be able to.

Nic, I see you looking around. Are you hearing more?

ROBERTSON: Yes, we're hearing -- I can hear sort of distant anti-aircraft gunfire and it sounded like another distant explosion. It's hard to be sure, but that's pretty much -- pretty much how it sounded right -- right in the last 30 seconds here. And I think you'll hear the aircraft again, as well.

COOPER: Nic Robertson, stay safe, be careful. Arwa Damon as well, thanks very much.

Still ahead tonight, in Japan, officials now say tests show Tokyo's tap water safe for infants. Hours earlier, though, they were warning parents not to give their babies tap water. If you were living in Tokyo, what would you do? We'll talk about the surprising change with Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

And we'll talk about the latest with what's going on inside that nuclear plant.

The death toll rises in Syria. Also, new violence breaking out as Syria's government shuts down Internet service. We've heard that before, haven't we, in other places? Officials say CNN and other news organizations, well, officials in Syria, they say we're making too much of this story. We say how about giving us some visas, and we'll go in there for ourselves and see.

We'll be right back.


COOPER: Breaking news in Japan. The official death toll from the earthquake and tsunami now more than 10,000. And the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, there was a radiation accident inside one of the reactors today.

At least two workers were hospitalized after stepping in radioactive water while laying cable in reactor No. 3. The water reportedly seeped into their boots. Tonight, nuclear safety officials said the water had 10,000 times the amount of typical radiation for that location. Ten thousand times.

Teams of workers are trying to bring the plant's reactors back on line to restore the cooling systems. It's been almost two weeks since the quake and tsunami knocked them out.

The work is obviously incredibly dangerous. There have been multiple setbacks. Work has been suspended several times when smoke has erupted from various reactors.

Today, the Kyoto News Agency reported that levels of radioactive iodine were rising off the eastern coast of Japan. And in the meantime, in the capital in Tokyo, residents received a new message about the tap water.

While the government was handing out nearly a quarter million bottles of water to residents, officials say new tests show levels of radioactive iodine in tap water are safe for babies. This, of course, just hours after they said -- and we said it last night on the program -- that tests have found levels dangerous for infants. Now the government says the water is safe.

As you might imagine, a lot of people in Japan are wondering what to think and whom to believe. Plenty of questions tonight about radiation and the reactors leaking it. Our chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins me now and also Michael Friedlander, former senior operator at three nuclear power plants.

Sanjay, so what about this conflicting information? They now say the water is safe for infants. What's a parent to do?

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, it's interesting, because even when we were there, Anderson, the levels in the water were fluctuating pretty wildly. There were times when it got high, spiked up, and then it came back down. You know, so I think that this is not entirely unexpected.

Part of the issue is here that the particular radioactive particle they're talking about, radioactive iodine, it may go down in activity over a certain period of time, it has a certain half life. So that's what could be happening. But I think, you know, part of the problem here is that, you know, the levels, the measurements may lag a little bit behind. So we may be getting a reflection from a couple of days ago as opposed to a couple of days in the future.

I think, you know, for infants, the numbers are important here. They say the activity level was as high as 210. The upper limit of safety is 100 for infants. I think for the next several days, if not weeks, probably people are going to be pretty anxious about giving water to -- tap water to their infants, and understandably so. I mean, until the radiation leak stops, until we're sure the spikes aren't going to occur again, I think that's probably going to be the better sense of judgment for a lot of those parents and infants out there.

COOPER: Michael, if you were in Tokyo, would you drink the tap water? And also there's concerns, obviously, about food, and that's something you've been raising a lot.

MICHAEL FRIEDLANDER, FORMER SENIOR OPERATOR AT THREE NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS: Yes, Anderson. You know what? I'm completely honestly engaged (ph) with Dr. Gupta on this. I think that over the course of the next days and weeks, that we should totally expect to see these kind of spikes.

Remember, this -- we have a pretty high degree of confidence that this iodine was brought into the water supply through the watershed in the north region of Japan from Tokyo. And of course, as rain falls on the area, it washes off the contamination into the rivers. I see they're forecasting more rain next week. So it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest day we'll see this die down and late next week we'll see another spike.

COOPER: Sanjay, should Americans be concerned about -- about food coming from Japan? Obviously, the USFDA has now banned certain vegetables from just a few prefectures near the plant. Would you be concerned about other food?

No, not particularly. I think the short answer is no. I think Americans don't need to be concerned about this. I mean, Anderson, you remember that when we were there, we were asking these questions, and the answer we got back immediately is, "Look, the FDA already screens a lot of food for radiation."

Then the second answer we got back is, by the way, we're going to screen all the food from Japan that could be affected. And by the way, only 4 percent of our food comes from Japan anyways. And then, of course, the ban now, as you mentioned.

I think, you know -- I think those are pretty good safeguards. But I think the larger question some people are asking is, "If I eat this stuff, is it going to make me sick at the levels that they're at now?

And I think one good way to think about it is that, even if with the spinach that people have made a lot of lately, because they have the big leafs. They can capture these radioactive particles. Even if you ate that spinach every day for a year, you would get about the same amount of radiation as one CT scan. That's by no means negligible, Anderson, but it's -- you know, not likely to be harmful to human health, either. So I think it's unlikely that you're going to get it, but even if you do in small amounts, probably not going to be a problem.

COOPER: Michael, for you how big is the food issue? Because I mean, obviously, with Chernobyl, what I hadn't realized with Chernobyl is that a lot of people who got ill later were drinking milk in the weeks after Chernobyl, and the milk was radiated.

FRIEDLANDER: Yes. This is, in my view, probably one of the legacies that we're going to be dealing with for the next months and years to come with on this -- on this issue. The iodine is going to go way over time. As they've indicated, it's got an 8 1/2 life.

Some of the other things that we've seen, the other radioactive components that we've seen, have a minute -- half life in the order of minutes. So that's all going to go away.

But there is some longer-lived materials out there that need to be monitored over time. The reality of it is we know that radiation concentrates within the food train and we'll see, I think, over time as -- as organizations hopefully are monitoring this in the food supply, not only in Japan but globally, just to give us some peace of mind that we are not contaminating the food chain and causing a risk to people.

COOPER: Michael, also, obviously we have the two workers who stepped in water that was highly radioactive. In terms of developments inside the nuclear plant today, what do you see as the most important?

FRIEDLANDER: Well, I think -- this, I hope, really brings home the extraordinary wicked radiological conditions that can exist in this plant and the absolute meticulous care that's going to need to be taken on a regular basis. Most of the radiation is bottled up, and we start opening valves and moving that water around outside the containment, we have the risk of seeing these type of radiological conditions. So it's absolutely imperative that that be managed. And that's something that we'll be following very closely.

COOPER: Sanjay, finally, we talked about this before, but it bears repeating because it obviously freaks a lot of people out, especially on the West Coast. Increased radiation levels have been detected in several western states in the air. Very minor levels but, you know, residents have been told that they don't have anything to worry about is. Is that still your advice, as well?

GUPTA: I think so. You know, as things stand now. And I think, you know, the measurements, and we and I were there, Anderson. We saw the official numbers coming back in terms of how much of these radioactive particles were being released.

I think it's still safe to say that what we thought was going to be true was true in terms of the amounts that are reaching the West Coast of the United States and as far East as Colorado, as you saw on the map there.

It's a very small amount, incrementally small, with what we're already exposed to every day. For example, you know, just doing the sort of work that you do at a television studio, you're going to get a certain amount of radiation, Anderson.

If you add one one-hundred-thousand to that, that's how much more you're getting.

So it's not each a percent more that you're getting as a result of being exposed to that in those states that you mentioned on the map.

So it's a very small amount. Now, even after Chernobyl, which you mentioned earlier, we know that the radioactive particles circulated around the word several times after Chernobyl. But the amount that hit the United States, for example, was about 1/10th the radiation of a chest X-ray over time.

So the amounts are small. It bears watching, for sure, as everyone has been doing, to make sure those levels don't continue to go up or something else disastrous doesn't happen. But as things stand right now, I don't think it's a concern.

COOPER: Sanjay Gupta, appreciate it, Michael, as always.

And Michael Friedlander, as well. Thanks so much.

Up next, the uprising in Syria. As many as 34 demonstrators killed in the past couple of days. The government there is blaming the instability on outside agitators, including CNN. Don't all these governments blame the media at one point or another? We find it absurd, of course. More details on that coming up.


COOPER: Deadly violence broke out again today in Syria in the southern city of Dara between government protestors and security forces. Human rights activists say that over the last two days, at least 34 people have been killed there.

We can't show you video of the violence today, because the Assad government shut down the Internet and continues to deny CNN entry. Incredibly, however, the government publicly blames CNN and other news organizations of exaggerating the unrest. We're going to have more on that in a moment. We'll actually show you what they said. It's pretty remarkable.

Some video that has gotten out over the past couple of days, so we've been able to show you some images of government forces firing on protesters in Dara.

And on Sunday, security forces used tear gas and other measures to disperse crowds. Last night on "360," a courageous human rights activist, who insisted we use his full name, even though it could get him killed, told us what's happening in Dara. Again, we can't independently confirm what he told us, but here's part of what he said.


WISSAM TARIF, HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST: The situation last night, they killed six people. Last night, and killed six people. And old lady of 88 years old was injured. She died at 10 a.m. in the morning. Her family tried to bury her.

The regime, the security forces prevented the funeral because they know that during the funeral, people gather, and people become more excited. And that caused much more anger, and people gathered again around 2 p.m. around the mosque. And they were seized by security forces.


COOPER: Anyone watching Syrian state television today did not see images of unrest. They saw pro-government rallies. How about that? A government spokeswoman insisted that Syrian TV has credibility and tells the truth and blamed outside organizations, including CNN for its coverage.


BOUTHAINA SHAABAN, SYRIAN GOVERNMENT SPOKESWOMAN: The problem is, with some media organs, who wanted to exaggerate, the figures who wanted to exaggerate what happened, and I want to refer to one news item that was on BBC, on CNN, on many news, that accused the security forces by attacking the mosque while they were not able to show, ten people near the mosque, in fact they were not able to show anything around the mosque and even the mosque.


COOPER: I would politely remind that government official that, like many news organizations, we've repeatedly applied for visas to report in Syria. We would very much like to be able to show more of what is happening in your country. Our request for visas have so far not been granted.