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UNMEE media briefing notes 14 Feb 2003

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UNMEE PUBLIC INFORMATION
The following is a near-verbatim transcript of the press briefing chaired in the Eritrean capital, Asmara by UNMEE Spokeswoman and Chief of UNMEE Public Information, Gail Bindley-Taylor Sainte, via a videoconference linking Addis Ababa and Asmara.

POLITICAL

On 10th February, SRSG Legwaila Joseph Legwaila returned to the Mission area after attending a meeting of the Ethiopia Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC) in London.

On 12th February, SRSG Legwaila received a visiting Delegation of the Office of the Human Resources Management from the United Nations Headquarters in New York. The SRSG exchanged views with the delegation on the sound management of human resources, especially with reference to staffing matters in UNMEE.

MILITARY

On 12th February, the Indian Battalion (INDBAT) mobile patrol from Tsorena discovered one anti-tank mine placed in the middle of the Maiagam Road, south of River Belesa. It was subsequently destroyed by the Slovak Engineering Company.

Lt Gen John Reith, the United Kingdom's Chief of Joint Operations, visited the Mission area over the period 12-13 Feb 03. On 12th February, the General met with SRSG Legwaila for an exchange of views on the peace process. During his visit, Lt. Gen Reith also toured UNMEE posts in Bada and Zela Ambesa before driving to Sebya.

The Force continues its humanitarian assistance in all sectors to civilians, including Internally Displaced Persons.

MINE ACTION

An accident occurred in a known mined area outside the village of Grat Mariam in Gash Barka. The details of the incident are as follows: A shepherd heard an explosion at approximately 1500 hrs on the 7th of February but did not take any action. The next day, at approximately 0600hrs the bodies of two boys, aged 15 and 17 years were found in the minefield. A HALO TRUST ambulance team removed the bodies from the site and transported them to Shilalo. The deceased boys who were living in the Adi Keshi IDP (Internally Displaced People) camp some 30 kilometres away, were apparently hitting a mine or UXO with an axe when the device detonated. The MACC will deploy a Mine Risk Education team to the IDP camp this week.

A second incident occurred 100 meters from the turn off into the village of Shambiko from the main road. The accident happened on a compacted road and involved a civilian Fiat, passenger bus. The bus struck an anti tank mine causing extensive damage to the front left part of the bus. Five of the seven persons evacuated by ambulance were seriously injured and the other two sustained minor injuries. The Deputy Administrator of Shambiko evacuated the injured to the Barentu Medical Centre.

A tractor struck a newly laid anti tank mine at 1320 hrs on 9th February while entering a dry stream bed approximately 2.1km East of Bin Bina village. The driver survived, but a passenger in the ill-fated tractor died on the spot.

At approximately 18.15 hrs on 11th February, a civilian truck carrying 20 passengers struck an anti tank mine 15 kms west of Mailam on the Shambiko - Mendefera road. Three persons suffered moderate injuries and were admitted to Shambiko hospital. The incident is under investigation by MACC personnel.

The Eritrean mine action National Training Centre reconstruction project was officially declared open on 13th February 2003 by Ambassador Hubert Kolb, of the Federal Republic of Germany to Eritrea, and the General Manager of the Eritrean Demining Authority, Brigadier General Tesfai Issak. The project was funded by Germany at a cost of US$205,000 and managed by UNMEE MACC and the Headquarters of the United Nations Office of Project Services (UNOPS) in New York.

Q&A

Q [from Asmara]: During this week the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia have been criticizing each other quite violently. Is it something that UNMEE perceives as something that they should be worried as we are approaching the demarcation process?

Spokeswoman: I don't think that UNMEE considers it something that is worrying. I think both governments are sovereign entities and have the right to express their concerns in whatever way they would like to. We are obviously listening on both sides to hear what each side is saying, but to say that it is worrying us at this moment, I would say no.

Q [from Asmara]: Does UNMEE think that as we are approaching the demarcation process this coming May, are these three months left considered fragile or where everybody should be very careful, or just continuing normally, or you are taking special care?

Spokeswoman: I think at the moment as far as we are concerned, the peace process is still on track and stable and we are looking to see how things develop on both sides and we hope that everything will go smoothly.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: There has been allegation from Eritrea attributed to the President that Ethiopia is massing troops along the border. Could you tell us if this allegation has some credence?

Spokeswoman: I don't know if you saw an article that appeared on this, which quotes the Force Commander and I am going to quote that to you. The Force Commander says that "he has seen the BBC articles on this issue." He says: "I do not know whether President Isayas has been quoted correctly because I understand that the speech was in Tigrinya and I have not seen a translation." He added that, "UNMEE's mandate is to monitor the Temporary Security Zone and the re-deployed positions of the Ethiopians and Eritreans forces in the adjacent areas outside the TSZ. In this process we have observed no massing of troops of either party on the border. Indeed I continue to compliment the parties on the discipline that they have shown in abiding by the terms of the peace agreement. From my observation and meetings with the military of both sides, the message I get from them all is that the real enemies are poverty and drought." That is the statement attributed to the Force Commander on that issue.

Q [from Asmara]: The SRSG Legwaila has attended the Boundary Commission meeting in London, so I would like to have detailed information about the meeting.

Spokeswoman: We are not at liberty to discuss anything on the meetings of the EEBC. The meetings of the EEBC are confidential and UNMEE is there only as an observer.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Just following the question of the colleague in Eritrea about the EEBC, will the SRSG be briefing diplomats here in Ethiopia and in Eritrea about what happened at the EEBC?

Spokeswoman: The SRSG usually briefs the delegates on a regular basis, whether he will precisely discuss the EEBC meeting I have no idea, but he regularly briefs the delegates on both sides on the peace process and I am sure if there is anything in the London meeting that pertains to the peace process he certainly will brief them on that.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Is there any reason then why we can't be informed what is going on in the EEBC briefings when diplomats can?

Spokeswoman: I didn't say that he was going to brief them (the diplomats) on the EEBC meeting.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: You said if any thing has come up in the London meeting he will be briefing them.

Spokeswoman: No, I said if there is anything that pertains to UNMEE and the peace process.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Was there any thing that pertains to UNMEE in the peace process in the EEBC briefing at the weekend?

Spokeswoman: I think that I said before; the meeting of the EEBC is confidential. I am not at liberty to give you information on the EEBC meeting. We are in the process of putting together something that probably will be useful to you, which will tell you precisely what UNMEE's role is and what the EEBC's role is in this process. I think it maybe useful to help you see clearly what the roles are and we don't need to go through this each time there is an EEBC meeting.

Q [from Asmara]: I just would like to ask you about the information given to the people who live closer to the border. Who is supposed to give them information about the demarcation process?

Spokeswoman: The Parties.

Q [from Asmara]: Does UNMEE feel that the populations are well informed, are well prepared?

Spokeswoman: UNMEE is not involved in that process. We are not involved in the process of informing populations in sovereign countries about the demarcation process, it is up to the Parties to inform their people. All that UNMEE can do is to appeal to the Parties to make sure that is done. That's what we have been doing. We have been urging them to make sure that their people are informed.

Q [from Asmara]: And from what UNMEE can see in the region, does UNMEE see that the people are well informed. Does UNMEE have the feeling about how the people see the demarcation process?

Spokeswoman: Demarcation is really not under our purview, so we don't go about asking people about demarcation. The only thing that we are involved with is demining for demarcation and Phil Lewis (UNMACC Programme Manger) has spoken about it two weeks ago and what we are doing in that respect. As you can see we are trying very hard to make sure that there is Mine Risk Awareness in areas, where there are potential dangers. (UNMEE also provides logistical and administrative support as part of our support to this process)

Q [from Addis Ababa]: On this newly laid anti-tank mine, I would like to ask two questions. First, are there suspects, who are they? Second, is it in the TSZ or outside the TSZ, this village, which is referred to here?

Spokeswoman: I am going to ask Phil Lewis (UNMEE MACC) to take that question, but there are several mine incidents. Which one specifically are you talking about?

Q [from Addis Ababa]: A tractor struck a newly laid mine, second paragraph, second page.

Phil Lewis [UNMACC Programme Manger]: It is inside the TSZ and it is not our job to speculate about who may or may not have been laying these mines, in fact we have no idea who is laying new mines. They are simply terrorising the local population and there appears to be, from our point of view, no rhyme nor reason as to why these mines are being laid.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: For Phil again, just broadening Tsegay's question. Can you tell us all of the mines that you have listed, the one on the 7th where two boys were killed, the on the 9th, the one on the 11th, are they all in the TSZ? Are they all in the western sector? Or are they in different sectors?

Phil Lewis: There are all in TSZ and there are all in the Western Sector.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Just on that point, I mean, I think it was two weeks ago that we had the same discussion about mines in the western sector, in the TSZ. I mean it seems to be a very serious problem there, you say, one has been newly laid, the other two are old mines, or they are newly laid as well, or do we not know as yet?

Phil Lewis: We have finished our investigation of the one on the 11th of February and we have concluded that that also was a newly laid mine. The one that went off in the middle of Shambiko, the circumstantial evidence would suggest that it would have to be an old mine. However there are other indicators that could suggest otherwise, so we are not sure about the one in Shambiko. The fact is that it went off less than 50 metres from the police post in Shambiko, so it would seem, to us anyway, illogical for people to be able to dig a hole in the road and bury a mine in full view of the police post. However you cannot rule out that possibility and the fact is that we don't have the sort of technology that enables us to conduct a forensic investigation of the site and so we can never be 100% sure whether it was newly laid or not. But certainly the other two, all evidence points to the fact that they were newly laid and we are not sure about the one in Shambiko. The one with the two boys was in a minefield. It was in a known mined area. We are not sure whether the boys actually hit a mine or hit a UXO because a lot of these mine fields have large UXOs lying around them as well. We don't send investigation teams in the middle of a mine field to investigate fully this type of incident. However we do believe that they were probably trying to cut an anti-tank mine in half, which is why they were both killed.

Q [from Asmara]: Do you think that the border will be demarcated in May, as scheduled? Are you optimistic? There are many rumours from both sides.

Spokeswoman: Well I don't think that UNMEE can operate on rumours. UNMEE has to remain optimistic because for us the peace process is important. So I think we remain optimistic until something tells us otherwise.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Phil, going back to the mines, two weeks ago I think it was the Force Commander who said that these newly laid mines they presumed, were laid by elements operating in that area, is that the same assumption for these newly laid mines? And secondly, when you say "newly laid" what specifically do you mean by "newly laid," yesterday or last week or a month or six months?

Phil Lewis: When we refer to "newly laid" we mean generally either the night before or the same day. These three incidents all occurred in the afternoon and it is the first time that we have had accidents of this nature occurring in the afternoon. Generally it is the first, second or third vehicle to cross the road in the morning that hits mines, which adds a new dimension to the problem for us. It appears that it could be possible that these mines are actually being laid in the middle of the day or in fact only minutes before a particular vehicle comes along a road. And that as I said adds another dimension to the problem for us in trying to keep the roads safe. We have no idea of who could be laying these mines. What the Force Commander was doing I would suggest is making a calculated assumption that there are elements operating out there, that, for whatever their own reasons are, want to cause problems for the local population. But certainly it does not appear to be any targeting of anyone in particular. It's not UNMEE, it's not the UNMOS, it's not local administration, the militia or anyone else that it is suffering these casualties or these accidents. It's the local population in virtually all cases. It would be nice to know but unfortunately we have no idea who could be doing this or even what their reasons might be.

Q [from Asmara]: Why don't you try to invite the Boundary Commission to the briefing?

Spokeswoman: They are a separate entity and we cannot just invite them. You have to remember that the Boundary Commission was put in place by the two Parties. You have to look at the relationship as well. It is headed by an independent person. They are an impartial body and so are we and we like it to keep it that way. I understand your frustration and, being a journalist myself, I understand that. But we as UNMEE can do nothing to help you in this situation.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: With reference to the question my friend asked here are you suggesting that the road had been used all morning and then in the afternoon the bomb was there?

Phil Lewis: In all three cases that occurred in the last few days, the road had been travelled by many vehicles, prior to these accidents occurring. Of course these roads are fairly ill defined as far as their width goes and vehicles tend to drive all over the road so it is remotely possible that the thing could have been there all day and simply missed by the previous vehicles. However it is more likely, and we are talking about possibilities and probabilities here, that the anti-tank mines were put in place sometime during the day rather that during the night time, the night before.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: On the question of mines the EEBC when they drew up the rules for demarcation said they wanted it done in the Western Sector, is there any suggestion that these mines are being laid to destabilize the peace process?

Phil Lewis: That is something that I cannot speculate on. Put it this way: if it was, it is not having any effect because they are not laying them exactly on the border area where demining for demarcation or in fact demarcation will occur. There have been, at the last count, 16 anti-tank mines laid, we consider most of them being new ones, since January 2002. They are spread from as far west as Om Hajer to as far east, as the latest one, fifteen kms west of Mailam which is well past Shambiko. So it is a huge area. There appears to be no pattern and, as I repeated before, no rhyme nor reason as to why a particular mine gets laid in a particular area at a particular time. That is what is making it so frustrating and difficult to deal with the issue.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: I just wondered if there was any indication of these mines where they might have come from? Did the Eritreans have different mines from the Ethiopians? So is it possible to see whether they might have been mines used by the Ethiopian side or whether they were mines used by the Eritrean side?

Phil Lewis: The mines that we have listed that were used by both sides are exactly the same mines. In fact, Eritrea is on record in the land mine monitoring report of the last two years as never having purchased any mines of their own. All the mines that the Eritrean Forces have ever used have been mines that have been captured from Ethiopian Forces in the past. So they are exactly the same mines that both sides use. Even if they were different it is very common for people to be able to go to a known mine field, dig up an anti-tank mine and go and use it for their own purposes. In other countries where I have been, I have seen villagers dig up anti-tank mines and put them around their beehives to protect them. It is not something that you can say categorically it came from one side or the other because the mines could have been lifted from either side's minefields by third parties unknown and used for their own purposes.

Q [from Asmara]: You said that there were 16 newly land mines since January 2002. Were they anti-tank mines or any kind of mines?

Phil Lewis: These are only anti-tank mines on roads.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Phil I just wonder if you could bring us up- to-speed on the Mine Risk Education. From memory I remember there being some problems in Eritrea about Mine Risk Education with the Government, am I completely off the mark or is that right?

Phil Lewis: Up until August 2002 there was a very comprehensive Mine Risk Education programme being conducted in the Temporary Security Zone by a British NGO, Mine Awareness Trust, who were undertaking community-based mine awareness projects in over 30 villages within the Temporary Security Zone in the Western Sector and also by 26 Mine Risk Education personnel employed by the Eritrean Demining Agency, a local NGO, who had been technically advised through Danish Church Aid. In August the entire programme was closed down. Since then there has been no national Mine Risk Education campaign conducted and the only Mine Risk Education being conducted at the moment in the TSZ is by two emergency Mine Risk Education teams that UNMEE MACC established to work with the Force demining elements. These teams have responded to the emergency situations over the last two week-ends where children have been killed and have given Mine Risk Education to villages and to IDP camps as a response to those emergencies.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Would you say Phil that given the injuries and deaths that have occurred over the last seven days that this a very good reason to restart the national comprehensive Mine Risk Education again in Eritrea?

Phil Lewis: There have been deaths and injuries from UXO's and mine accidents since August of last year. There've been deaths and injuries from those types of accidents during the Mine Risk Education campaign. The fact is because there are so few mine action assets deployed in the Temporary Security Zone since August of last year, we are not getting the information concerning casualties that we were getting in the past. And we know that many incidents are going unreported so it is impossible for us to say-which is what I think you are leading to- that the lack of mine risk education is in fact having an impact on an increase in casualties in the Temporary Security Zone. We simply don't know that because we are not getting information that we were getting in the past. The fact that two horrific accidents have occurred in the last two weeks and the fact that we have deployed Mine Risk Education assets to those areas to try and make the people aware of the problems-- there are many many other areas in the Western Sector and in fact right through the Temporary Security Zone and the rest of country where people live on a daily basis with UXO and mine problems under mine threat and Mine Risk education is a very good way of at least making people aware of the danger and informing them of how to deal with the danger. Not so much because there have been two accidents in the last two weeks but simply because in an area that is affected by mines and UXOs, it is always beneficial to have a comprehensive Mine Risk Education programme and therefore we would strongly urge that all steps be taken to get a Mine Risk Education programme operating again in the affected areas in Eritrea.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Again on the mines, is it possible to give us an estimate on the number of mines in the western sector and is it the most heavily mined sector out of all three?

Phil Lewis: From the records that we have that were supplied by both Parties, in fact the Western Sector is the most heavily mined area in the TSZ. There are pockets of intensive mines and UXOs in the Central Sector and a very small area in the Eastern Sector but certainly the Western Sector is the most heavily mined area. As far as numbers go, I am not a big one for numbers, we have information that several hundred thousand mines were laid during the last conflict alone, but what we don't have is the information on how many of those mines were actually lifted by both Parties and in particular by the Ethiopian Defence Forces when they had control of that area. We know that large numbers were lifted, but we don't know how many and therefore it's all speculation. The fact is that many areas are considered by the local population to be dangerous and they won't go into them. There might be one mine, there might be a thousand mines there. The fact is that if the local population is afraid to use that area it means that it's a "no-go" area and has to undergo the process of demining. Numbers do not mean a lot in our business. What means a lot to us is that the area is considered by the local population to be dangerous and therefore needs our efforts to clear it.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Gail a few weeks ago, three or four weeks ago you were away and Diane was chairing the press briefing and she mentioned there was a short fall in cash in the trust fund, I think they were requiring, this was to do with demarcation. They were requiring about six million and I think at the time about four million had been pledged roughly, and I just wondered if you could bring us up to speed on the latest there whether all the money has now come in on that?

Spokeswoman: I do not think that all the money has come in. I know that the SRSG continues to talk with potential donors, to urge them to give as generously as they can and as quickly as they can because time is of the essence. What I will have to get for you is where the figures stand at this stage. I will get it for you and make sure we put it in the briefing notes.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: And lastly, UNMEE were very kind to respond to the comments that Isayas was alleged to have made regarding troop build up, could UNMEE also give us a comment on his comments regarding Badme, that Ethiopia was dragging its feet because Badme had been awarded to Eritrea, is that correct?

Phil Lewis: UNMEE has no comment on that issue. UNMEE commented on the other because that has to do with the TSZ but we do not have any comment on the question that you are specifically asking.

For further enquires please contact:

Gail Bindley-Taylor Sainte, Spokeswoman and Chief of Public Information
UNMEE Headquarters Addis Ababa, telephone: 251-1-726895; Mobile: 251 9 223031

Or UNMEE Headquarters Asmara, telephone: 291-1-150411
or our tie-line in New York: 00-1-212-963-3779