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 Asmara and Addis Ababa.
The SRSG is still in New York where he continues to hold a series of informal consultations at the United Nations Headquarters. It is expected that this afternoon (14 March) the Security Council will adopt the resolution to extend UNMEE's mandate until 15 September 2003.
On 7th March, the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General Angela Kane, who is currently, Officer- In- Charge UNMEE visited Sector East and received a comprehensive briefing by the Sector Commander and the Sector Senior UNMO on the operational activities in the Sector. The DSRSG and her delegation then toured various Kenyan Battalion (KENBATT) posts and the KENBATT De-mining Company
On 10th March in Addis Ababa, DSRSG/OIC Kane paid a courtesy call on the Greek Ambassador to Ethiopia, His Excellency Mr. Spiros Aliagas. The DSRSG exchanged views with Ambassador Aliagas on the current situation in the peace process.
On 11th March in Addis Ababa, DSRSG/OIC Kane met with Ambassador Said Djinnit, Interim Chairman of Peace, Security and Political Affairs of the African Union. She exchanged views with Ambassador Djinnit on the current situation of the peace process.
On 12th March in Asmara DSRSG/OIC Kane received a Zambian delegation led by Major General Raphael Chiseta who is the Deputy Army Commander of the Zambian Army. The DSRSG updated the delegation on the current situation in the mission area. The Zambian delegation is scheduled to visit Senafe in the Central Sector before touring Sector West.
The overall situation in the Area of Responsibility remains calm.
De-mining contingents of UNMEE continued their work in all sectors during the week. On 6th March, Slovak Engineering Company, while proving the road south east of Gergera, found and disposed of 15 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition. The Kenyan De-mining Company also found one hand grenade on the same day near their camp at Point 44 and subsequently destroyed it.
Also on the same day, a patrol from Team Shiraro, observed about seven unexploded ordnances (UXOs) located next to the hulk of a military vehicle about 10 kilometres north of the Team Site near the Gahamalo Refugee Camp. This incident was reported to the Ethiopian authorities, which said their experts from Ethiopian Mine Action Office would deal with these UXOs.
On 8th March, members of Team Site Shilalo discovered a projectile of a recoilless rifle near their team site. Halo Trust collected this device for subsequent destruction.
On 10th March, the Slovak De-mining Company while proving an area southwest of Gergera and north of Mereb Bridge found and destroyed 29 projectiles of 7.62 mm ammunition and one Rocket Propelled Grenade. On the next day, they also found and disposed of 18 projectiles of 7.62mm ammunition and one anti-personnel mine in the same area.
Force Commander Major General Robert Gordon inaugurated a sports arena constructed by the Force Construction Engineering Company (CEC) at the Halai Comprehensive Secondary School in Asmara on 10th March. Officials from the Ministry of Sports and the Ministry of Education of the Government of Eritrea attended the function. General Gordon commended the Engineering Company for their efforts. The Zonal Administration of Central Zone Asmara, expressed the Government's appreciation for the contributions of UNMEE.
On 11th March the advance party of KENBATT 11 arrived in Assab. The KENBATT contingent will begin rotating in and out of the Mission starting next Monday. It is expected that last battalion will leave on Wednesday 20 March. The traditional hand-over ceremony will also be held next week.
On 12th March, Acting Force Commander, Brigadier General Peter M Manyara visited Team Site Shiraro and Inda Selasie in Sector West. During the visit, he met Ethiopian Armed Forces 108 Corps Commander, Brigadier General Tafera at Inda Selasie.
In all sectors medical assistance continued to be rendered to civilians, including Internally Displaced Persons. The Force also delivered supplies of bulk water to these groups.
The Drought Monitoring Centre-Nairobi, at the conclusion of the 11th Greater Horn of Africa Climate Outlook Forum, was pessimistic about the weather outlook for Ethiopia and Eritrea for the period March to May. Both countries are already facing major humanitarian needs because of last year's drought and the latest prediction from the DMCN means that Eritrea and Ethiopia will continue to face severe problems in the coming months.
The food aid situation in Eritrea has not improved over the last few weeks with food aid pledges still around 25% and non-food pledges at about 3%. Mr. Simon Nhongo, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Eritrea, in a recent press conference warned donors that Eritrea could face "a complete catastrophe" unless additional aid is made available.
In Ethiopia the pledge situation is slightly better. However, with an update of the December appeal expected soon, Ethiopia would also need additional pledges in order to maintain the current levels of distributions and take care of any new beneficiaries.
Questions & Answers
Q [from Asmara]: When can we know exactly when the mandate will be renewed? I know that it's today, but according to the change of time with New York, when will we be able to know it here?
Spokeswoman: That it is going to be difficult. It's going to be this evening (Eritrean time) because the Security Council meeting on Ethiopia/Eritrea is scheduled for this morning (New York time) and of course you know there is a lot going on with consultations on Iraq, so at the moment we do not know what the exact timing will be. But as soon as we know we will certainly make sure that you know whatever is put out on the web. We will also call New York first thing this morning (their time) and get a sense of the timing, so you can call us probably just after lunch and find out.
Q [from Asmara]: Is it possible to know what was in the speech of the SRSG? I think he made a speech on Tuesday, but I wasn't able to get any transcription. Can you maybe tell us what he said in his speech?
The Spokeswoman on checking on this matter was informed that the SRSG's statement to the Security Council is confidential and not for public distribution. It is an introduction to the report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council, which in large measure reflects what is contained therein.
Q [from Asmara]: You know Gail, I think that the Security Council is going to hold the meeting today, and they are going to discuss the extension of UNMEE's mandate. What about the issue of boundary between Ethiopia and Eritrea? I think that recently there was an allegation from both sides. I think that the Boundary Commission has said that the Ethiopian Government is delaying the process, so are they going to discuss this issue?
Spokeswoman: The Council has already finished its discussion. What we are expecting this morning; New York time that is, would be the final set of recommendations in the form of a resolution. I hope you have read the Secretary-General's report. A lot is contained in the report of the Secretary-General on what the discussions would be centred on, so I think that it would be a key piece of information for you to look at, to have a sense of what they would have been discussing. When the mandate is extended and we see the final resolution, you will have a definite sense of what the Council has said and that's what we are waiting for right now, the resolution.
Phil [Lewis] (Programme Manager UNMEE MACC) was not here last week and we did not include an update on mine action, so he would like to give you a verbal update on what's happening on mine action and what we will do Sammy, for the ones who are not there in Addis, we will include Phil's comments in the final transcript.
Phil Lewis: On the 5th of March there was a UXO incident in Barentu where one child, seven years old and a 23 year- old adult were injured when an internal rod to a bomblet exploded. This internal rod had been used as a coffee grinder for over a year by this family and somebody decided to put it in the fire and then when they went to get it out of the fire it exploded causing significant injuries to the child and burns to the adult. That combined with the rest of the report that you've got today about the number of the UXOs that have been found and disposed of, indicates or demonstrates that UXOs do in fact pose a major threat to the local population and in fact are causing quite more causalities and damage to the local population than mines. This is normal in most theatres where normally there is a ratio of 10 to 15 to 1 UXO for every mine that has been laid, so the sheer numbers make them a far greater threat. They are also above the ground, lying in all areas, not marked and therefore UXOs are a major consideration in any mine action programme and particularly in this mission. The MACC conducted an investigation into the 2 mine incidents in northern Ethiopia in early March and for that we are very grateful for the cooperation given to us by the local Ethiopian Armed Forces and the conclusions were that these were in fact newly laid mines as this is not a known mined area, and no fighting had taken place in these areas and the roads had been regularly travelled. They were plastic mines. The perpetrators are unknown and the EAF actually reported a third anti-tank mine that they located and removed from the road in the same area. This hasn't been confirmed by the MACC. It's just a report that we have received from the EAF, so it does demonstrate that there is a risk in those areas. One was 30 kilometres from Badme and the other one was 80 kilometres from Badme into Ethiopian territory. The mine incident at Shinsheli on the 13 of February that killed 5 militia officers has also been investigated and it is also most likely a newly laid mine and a plastic anti-tank mine as well, so it appears as though maybe they are lighter, I am not sure, but plastic anti-tank mines are in vogue at the moment for these newly laid mines. They were a lot, many thousands of these mines used during the last conflict and so we have no idea who has removed them or what they have maybe being used for, but it seems that the Belgium plastic anti-tanks mines are the ones been used at least in the latest 3 incidents, 2 in Ethiopia one in Eritrea.
Q [from Asmara]: I was talking to some government officials here in Eritrea I think 10 days ago, 1 week ago and they were telling me that the people who are laying the newly laid mines don't come from inside Eritrea, they believe that these people are located in Sudan or in Ethiopia. How do you respond to this?
Phil Lewis: It's not our job to try and discover who has been laying these mines and to do anything about trying to stop it. Its' simply our job to try and keep the roads clear and investigate the incidents when they occur. We have given our assessment in the past of who we think may have been laying them. We certainly don't have any concrete evidence either ways as to who has been laying them, but certainly these mines are extremely portable and there would be no reason why people couldn't carry them several kilometres either across the border or in fact people within Eritrea couldn't be using them. We have no idea either way on who has been using these mines. Certainly the ones in Ethiopia are a little bit dumbfounding to us in that they are so far into Ethiopia-- 80 kilometres from Badme inside Ethiopian territory is a long way to be carrying mines. I am not saying it's not possible, it's just rather strange that these mines are going off in these areas.
Q [from Asmara]: I just want to make sure I understood what has happened in Ethiopia. Could you just explain again, these mines were they newly laid or not?
Phil Lewis: As I said earlier the investigation has determined that they were newly laid mines. Both of them were in fact laid right on the edge of road, off the main part of the well-travelled road, which is a very hard surface and it would have been extremely difficult to dig into to lay new mines. Both were very much on the edge of the verge of the road. In fact one truck after it hit the mine went off the edge of the road down an embankment. So the photographs show that both vehicles if they had been travelling on the proper road wouldn't have hit the mines. Why the vehicle swerved so far off the road is anyone's guess. One was actually on the wrong side of the road. Not only was it not on the road, it was well off the road on the wrong side of the road when it hit the mine. So I guess that part of the lesson to be learned from this is, stick to the main well travelled hard surface of the road because it is very difficult in most of the roads out there to dig deep enough into those hard packed roads to bury newly laid mines. It's not impossible, but it's very difficult and people are more likely to take the easy option and dig into the softer verges to lay new mines and so if you stick to the main part of the road you're more likely to be safe. Of course when you have to pass another vehicle in some of these very narrow hard packed roads that's when the troubles will occur.
Q [from Asmara]: There have been rumours in these days about Ethiopia troops who are in Sudan now and who are facing Eritrean troops and the rumour is saying that these people have been even fighting since a few days. Is it something that you have heard about or that you can comment on?
Spokeswoman: No, I heard about it this morning for the first time, just as you have heard it, as a rumour. I have asked the Force to look into it. The Force Commander, as you know, some weeks ago when this was first mentioned, I did put out a statement saying that the Force has no knowledge of that, so we will investigate again and see if there is any truth to the rumours.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: I would like to ask you the question, these days the case of Badme is very serious in Ethiopia and what do you think if Badme is demarcated on the Eritrean side and the Ethiopian Government refuses the resolution of the EEBC. Do you think if war breaks out what would be the solution?
Spokeswoman: I am going to refer you to the Secretary-General's report. The last sentence of the report, which I think is really interesting and important, reads like this. It says: "The period ahead will pose many challenges, but I am convinced that with the full cooperation of the parties and the continued and invaluable support of the African Union and interested Member States, including troops contributing countries, the peace process will continue to move forward". I think that is where UNMEE is coming from, it's very well put and this is our opinion on what it's happening right now. We are listening and looking and observing and hearing very thing that has been said on both sides, but this is our hope, that the peace process will continue to move forward in spite of the challenges that may lie ahead.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: Have you seen any military movement around the Temporary Security Zone these days, what have you been observing?
Spokeswoman: Military meaning Ethiopian and Eritrean military?
Military PIO: No, we have not noticed any abnormal movement either of Ethiopian or Eritrean military. They are doing their routine normal movement and there is no abnormal movement, which can be mentioned here. We have not noticed any such movement.
Spokeswoman: Things are very calm and quiet at the moment in the Temporary Security Zone. Nothing unusual. Up to today the situation report says everything remains calm.
Q. [from Asmara]: Yesterday I heard that according to the Boundary Commission plan they were planning to demarcate the border starting from the western part of the buffer zone and you also hear according to all the schedule you told us that it will be started in the western part of the Temporary Security Zone then in the central part of the buffer zone, then at the end of August it will be finished in the eastern part of the TSZ. But yesterday I heard that things are already complicated. The Boundary Commission has a new plan that they are going to start demarcating the border from the eastern buffer zone and it will be not from June up to August, but mid of July up to, after the rainy season, up to October or November. Have you any idea about this change of plan?
Spokeswoman: I want to correct one thing. I have never discussed demarcation at all. I have said many many times that the demarcation is not the process of UNMEE, so you will not hear anything about demarcation schedules from me. What you can find which is here in the Secretary-General's progress report, it's in the appendix to the report, is a schedule of the order of activities as at 23 February and this is an appendix to the Boundary Commission Report which is in Annex 1 of the Secretary-General's progress report on Ethiopia and Eritrea to the Security Council. So you can get that information. It's very clearly stated there what the Boundary Commission intends to do, and I would refer you to read it really carefully. It gives you dates, everything is set out. I am sorry that our friends in Addis are not there today, because they have been asking many questions about that. It's in the Secretary-General's report. Read it from cover to cover and you will have it all there.
Q. [from Asmara]: I think that the Eritrean government now is expecting a lot from the UN. I was talking to some officials here who were saying that according to the Algiers agreement the UN is supposed to take action against one of the 2 parties if one of the 2 parties is nor respecting the agreement. I believe that they are really expecting a lot from the UN now to take action. How do you respond to that?
Spokeswoman: Let's see what the Security Council says in its resolution because we will be guided by whatever action the Security Council requires us to take and that will be contained I am sure in the resolution when it comes.
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