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UNMEE media briefing notes 21 Feb 2003

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

POLITICAL

On 16 February in Asmara, UNMEE Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, Ambassador Legwaila Joseph Legwaila received a visiting delegation of French Senators from the Security and Defence Committee of the French Senate. The Senators were en route to Djibouti to visit the French troops stationed there. The SRSG briefed them on the current status of the peace process. The French Senators are also scheduled to visit Ethiopia and the Sudan during the course of their tour in the Horn of Africa. In the afternoon, the SRSG left Asmara for Addis Ababa where he was scheduled to hold talks with the stakeholders of the peace process.

On 17 February in Addis Ababa, the SRSG met with H.E. Amara Essy, interim Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union. They exchanged views on the current status of the peace process. On the same day, the SRSG briefed the Representatives of the Permanent 5, Guarantors and Friends of UNMEE and shared with them his views on the peace process.

On 18 February in Addis Ababa, the SRSG met with Ambassador Jeremiah Mamabolo, former South African Ambassador to Ethiopia, who is currently Coordinator of African Affairs in the South African Foreign Ministry, and Ambassador Baso Sanqu, the current South African Ambassador to Ethiopia. The SRSG discussed with the two Ambassadors the current situation in the peace process.

On 19 February in Addis Ababa, the SRSG met with Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin of Ethiopia and discussed with him the current status of the peace process.

MILITARY

The overall situation in the Area of Responsibility remains calm.

On 13 February, it was reported to Teamsite Om Hajer that a jeep struck a mine on the main road between Om Hajer to Antore near Shenshelay. A Colonel and four other militia persons died on the spot, while the driver survived. No further information is available.

On 14 February, a local bus struck a mine on the main road from Dase to Barentu near Sheket village. The mine exploded injuring three persons who were evacuated to Barentu hospital.

Force Commander Major General Robert Gordon visited Sector East on 14 February. During his visit, he witnessed the de-mining activities of the KENBAT Engineers Team at point 44 and also met the Deputy Commander of the Fourth EAF Division, Lieutenant Colonel Gebrehawad Haile at Team site Bure.

On 19 February, the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General based in Asmara, Ms. Angela Kane accompanied by staff from the Force Headquarters visited Sector West. She was briefed at the Jordanian Battalion headquarters in Barentu before visiting its Companies at Om Hajer, Shilalo, Shambiko and the UNMO Team Site in Badme.

On 19 February, a patrol from Team Shilalo was informed by the Militia Company Commander of the Camp at Fikia Weldensey, Afharkee Berhane, that at 0850 hours, a hand grenade had exploded in the Militia Company Headquarters, injuring three persons, one of them severely. The injured militiamen were evacuated to the Shambiko Hospital, and then to the Barentu Hospital.

De-mining Contingents of UNMEE continued their work in all sectors during the week. On 18 February, KENBAT Engineers found one Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) south of Debaysima and disposed of it the next day. They also disposed of another grenade, which was found on 17 February.

In all sectors medical assistance continued to be rendered to civilians, including Internally Displaced Persons. The Force also distributed supplies of bulk water and mid day meals for school children.

HUMANITARIAN

The drought in both Ethiopia and Eritrea continues to be the main humanitarian issue facing the two countries. In Eritrea, food aid pledges remain low at about 25% of the initial request while pledges for non-food assistance are even lower at about 3%. In Ethiopia, food aid pledges are good with almost 50% of the initial food aid requirement having been pledged. However, there is increasing concern in both Ethiopia and Eritrea about the delivery schedule for assistance pledged.

Additional food and non-food aid pledges are badly needed in both countries and donors are urged to respond generously to the various appeals issued by the UN, the two governments and NGOs working in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

MINE ACTION

A spate of anti tank mine strikes on civilian and militia vehicles during the past two weeks in the Western Sector has prompted a review by the UNMEE MACC of the mine and UXO threat assessment for UNMEE operations in the TSZ and adjacent areas issued in October 2002.

All six incidents during the past two weeks are either suspected or confirmed as being from newly laid mines by persons unknown. However the assumption is that dissident groups seeking to destabilize the Eritrean authorities are responsible for these incidents.

UNMEE, UN agencies and humanitarian organizations do not appear to be specific targets, although the random nature of the incidents does pose a threat to travel by all elements in the Sector.

The threat assessment for Western Sector remains at HIGH and due precautions as issued by the MACC and FMAC should be followed.

However the threat of mine incidents on roads in the Western Sector is not considered to be so great that all movement should cease or be restricted. Provided that proper caution is exercised, road travel is possible in the Sector at an acceptable level of risk.

The UNMEE MACC, FMAC and UNMEE Force elements will continue to monitor and assess the situation and provide timely updates on the threat of mine incidents.

Questions and Answers

Question from Addis Ababa: Just before we talk about the mines, Reuters was quoting a UN official on Tuesday and reporting that demarcation is expected to be delayed until October.

Spokeswoman: We read that story with great dismay, because it is completely untrue.

Question from Addis Ababa: So it is going to start in May?

Spokeswoman: At the moment we are waiting to find out when it will start.

Question from Addis Ababa: But it is scheduled to start in May?

Spokeswoman: What we said before was that it was scheduled to start in May.

Question from Addis Ababa: And that's still as it stands?

Spokeswoman: We said back then though, that it (the May date) was tentative because it depended on a number of other issues. So, right now, we are waiting to find out when it will start.

Question from Addis Ababa: So what caused the dismay when you read the Reuters story that they could start in October?

Spokeswoman: Because it is absolutely untrue. And there has been no indication to UNMEE that it will start in October. So when we read it, we were dismayed because when we have information, we give you accurate information. Plus our concern was the fact that it referred to "a UN official" as the source. As you know demarcation is not our purview, we've said that before. The only person who would have that information would be the SRSG, because as an observer to the process he would be given that information (and I am sure he was not "the UN official" referred to.)

Question from Addis Ababa: So now the May schedule is tentative?

Spokeswoman: It was tentative from the beginning. As soon as we hear officially we will obviously let you know accordingly.

Question from Addis Ababa: When you say tentative is there any sort of indication that it is becoming less likely or is it as tentative today as it was three months ago, four months ago or five months ago? Are we moving away from May or is it exactly the same as it was five/four months ago that it is tentatively May?

Spokeswoman: I think I would like to leave it as stated that it was tentative from the beginning and remains a tentative schedule.

You had asked me something that I didn't respond to, that is on the trust fund. The trust fund as of the 31st of December stands at 10.2 million dollars. There is a shortfall now projected around 1.5 million, so it is looking better than it was but I must add that this is an artificial figure in large measure because this figure is based on the question of when demarcation starts and ends. Because we don't know that at this time it is an approximate figure. The longer the process takes the more expensive it will become.

Question from Addis Ababa: Is that the same trust fund that Diane was talking about?

Spokeswoman: Yes it is the same trust fund for demarcation.

Question from Addis Ababa: From memory when Diane was talking about it, it was at six million and you had four million.

Spokeswoman: That was what I am saying the gap has been closed as more contributions have been received.

Question from Addis Ababa: So, you have 10.2 and you are 1.5 short as of 31st of December.

Spokeswoman: Yes so, it means that there are enough funds for demarcation to begin at this stage.

Spokeswoman: Can I just go to Asmara, if there are any questions?

Question from Asmara: I am referring to the mine accidents. You say (in your Breifing Notes) that "however the assumption is that dissident groups seeking to destabilize the Eritrean authorities are responsible for these incidents." Can we know more about this? Where does this assumption come from?

UNMEE MACC Director, Phil Lewis: In fact UNMEE Political Affairs Office has done some work evaluating why the strikes are occurring, where they are occurring and whom they are occurring against. What was said last week remains valid this week. We don't know who they are. It is by persons unknown. The targets show that there is, and I used the word before, "a terrorizing aspect" of the local population. The local population is being terrorized by the way these incidents are occurring. Anyone can make the assumption that if this is occurring in the way it is, there must be somebody out there seeking to destabilize the situation because that's exactly what is happening by the numbers of these incidents. The local authorities might have their own ideas. We have our ideas. No one has been proven to be a perpetrator of any of those incidents at this stage. We can only state what we have stated, that there are groups out there and if they are going to be causing this sort of activity, then they must be dissidents of some ilk. We wish we knew more. If we knew more, if the local authorities knew more obviously it would be easier to take action against the people that are causing those problems. But this is what we know at this stage. We cannot give you any more information simply because we don't know.

Question from Addis Ababa: Your political affairs people have come up with this idea, does the same notion apply to the peace process or is it specifically that it's destabilizing Eritrean authorities and if it is not to apply to the peace process but to Eritrean Authorities, how did the political affairs person or people make the distinction?

Spokeswoman: I think that is a difficult one for Phil to answer. Phil is dealing with mines and you are asking him to make a political assessment. That I will have to check with our political affairs people since it came from them. We will check with them and get back to you.

Question from Addis Ababa: When you talk about Eritrean authorities being destabilized, I don't quite understand what you mean by Eritrean authorities. Do you mean the Eritrean government or small local administration?

Phil Lewis: You are trying to get us to make statements that we really cannot make. You have an increasing number, of what appears to be random strikes against civilian targets. That is going to cause- simply by the fact that there are so many deaths and injuries in these activities- a problem from the local level through to the Government level. People are becoming concerned. Obviously if these incidents are going to continue, the local people are becoming concerned and they want to see some action and therefore that could have a destabilizing effect. There is no need to try and read anything more into it about who exactly is going to be destabilized. The whole area is going to be destabilized from the civilian population through to every level of Eritrean authority involved in that region.

Question from Asmara: On the humanitarian section, it says that Eritrea has got a pledge of 25% for food-aid, and 3% for non-food aid. Can I have the source of that information?

Spokeswoman: These figures came from OCHA, from Musa Bungundu -- Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator and Head of OCHA in Asmara. As a matter of fact we were expecting him this morning because we know there was a donors meeting in Eritrea on Thursday and our hope was that he would have given us an update on the donor meeting. I will see if he can give us something in writing for the briefing note that we can add. If not we will make sure that he is here next week because he did express an interest in giving an update since we had rather an extensive briefing on the situation in Eritrea about almost three weeks ago, I think. (The Spokeswoman would like to correct the information given above. In fact the comments referred to are accredited to UNMEE's Humanitarian component and have been confirmed by Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator and Head of OCHA in Asmara)

Question from Addis Ababa: I am on the Colonel and four militia who were killed in a mine incident. I am afraid I don't know that area very well. Is that in the TSZ or where about is it?

Spokeswoman: This is not the one on the 19th.

Question from Addis Ababa: No, this is Om Hajer to Antore near Shenshelay. I don't know where that is? It is on the page one.

Lt. Col. Arif Maula Chief Military PIO: Yes, it is in the TSZ.

Question from Addis Ababa: I am not entirely sure of this, but my understanding was that Colonels shouldn't be in the TSZ, it is only for militia. Is that wrong, I don't know?

Lt. Col. Arif Maula: Eritrean militia and police are allowed into the TSZ. He is a militia Colonel, he is not a military colonel. This is was it was reported to us.

Question from Addis Ababa: Is that standard that you have colonels in militia's armies and this sort of thing?

Col Arif: They have the same ranks as the army.

Question from Addis Ababa: They have exactly the same?

Col. Arif: This is what I am saying.

Question from Addis Ababa: Is there any investigation by UNMEE on this issue?

Spokeswoman: On the accident?

Question from Addis Ababa: On the mine accident.

Col. Arif: There is no scope for investigation. It was reported a few days after it happened and it is quite far from our camp. There is no further investigation.

Diane Bailey: I would like to let Phil answer that question as well.

Phil Lewis: The MACC has in fact dispatched a preliminary investigation reporting team to that site. Because the information came through so late and because we are already conducting investigations into the several other recent accidents, we were not able to dispatch the team until yesterday. However our team has been down there, they investigated the incident on Wednesday, they came back on Thursday to Om Hajer and we are expecting the report through to us later today. There is another accident that occurred and it was reported on 19 February. There is some confusion over this one as to whether the report refers to another mine strike or whether it is referring to a grenade, but the same reporting team will go to that region and investigate so as to obtain full details of that report as well. Wherever we can, wherever we get the information in a timely manner, the MACC always dispatches an investigation team to the site as soon as it can and does an investigation. Based on that investigation, if there were UNMEE personnel involved it could then lead to a Board of Inquiry but in all cases -- this year thus far there have only been civilian or militia involved which then does not necessitate a Board of Inquiry to be held by UNMEE.

Spokeswoman: Is there no other question in Asmara because I am going to take another question on this side if there isn't?

Question from Addis Ababa: To Phil and Col. Arif; Phil I just wanted to know on the 13th of February incident, where your guys went down on Wednesday, is there any suggestion at all that this is a newly laid mine? And to Col. Arif I wanted to ask is Om Hajer in the Western Sector? I am afraid that I don't know the area that much.

Phil Lewis: As I said we haven't got the investigation yet but initial indications are that it is most likely a newly laid mine in that road. It has been cleared twice in the last several months. It is highly unlikely that in two separate clearances you are going to miss a mine of that size. The road runs parallel from Om Hajer virtually a few kms north of the southern boundary of the Temporary Security Zone. It is well inside the western Sector. It is in fact roughly one third of the way between Om Hajer and Shilalo. So it is definitely deep inside the TSZ in the bottom southwestern corner of the Western sector.

Spokeswoman: If there is nothing else in Asmara I will come back to Anthony. Can I just ask if anybody else in Addis has a question?

Question from Addis Ababa: On the same subject. Given that the assumption that dissident groups are attempting to destabilize Eritrean authorities would the incident on February the 13th fall into that category like the other incidents we have seen in the Western sector?

Spokeswoman: Can I answer that? I think what Phil has said really clearly is that he wasn't trying to make a political statement. What I am trying to say is that I don't think that this particular sentence really needs to be beaten to death he made it very clear as to what he meant.

Question from Addis Ababa: I accept that what you have said is that there are 6 incidents in the past 2 weeks suspected or confirmed of being newly laid mines, by persons unknown. However the assumption is that dissident groups seeking to destabilize the Eritrean authorities are responsible for these incidents, now that's accepted. What I am trying to establish is whether this incident on the 13th of February is an incident that you would incorporate into these incidents you're talking about, or whether that is something that you wouldn't categorize as fitting into those incidents?

Spokeswoman: Phil, did you hear that?

Phil Lewis: The incident does not appear to be any different from any of the other six. It appears to be random in nature. There is no reason to suspect that this one is different from the others.

Question from Addis Ababa: I have two questions the first one concerns the demarcation process and two countries' border. We heard from the news sources that the Ethiopian government requests that the demarcation process starts from the eastern side of the border of both countries but we haven't heard any statement from the Eritrean government. Is there anything from the Eritrean government? The second one is that on the February 19th February the DSRSG based in Asmara Ms. Angela Kane visited the Sector West of the border area controlled by UNMEE. She visited the team site in Badme, so what is the situation in Badme since the border resolution in The Hague?

Spokeswoman: I take it that you are new to the briefing; I can tell by the questions. Demarcation is not something UNMEE deals with. Demarcation is strictly the work of the Boundary Commission, which is a completely separate entity from UNMEE therefore we don't answer any questions on demarcation at all unless it relates to one of the three areas that were dealing with. The three areas that UNMEE is involved with is one: demining for demarcation, which we have spoken about before, the other two areas are logistical support and administrative support that we give to the Boundary Commission in this process. Those are the only areas in which we have any comment when there is a comment to be made. The DSRSG went on a normal tour because she is very new to the area and she was just visiting our team sites. We happen to have an UNMO team site in Badme, nothing more.

Question from Addis Ababa: But the demarcation process is very significant to the peacemaking process in these two countries.

Spokeswoman: It certainly is.

Question from Addis Ababa: So UNMEE has to know something about what's going on?

Spokeswoman: We certainly do. We know things that we are informed about as part of the process but this is specifically the work of the Boundary Commission and they are the only people who can answer questions on demarcation.

Question from Asmara: I was told a few days ago that after the EEBC meeting, in London the SRSG had a meeting with European Ambassadors here in Asmara. I was wondering whether this meeting was called by the SRSG, what were the issues discussed, and if it was unusual for the SRSG to call these kind of meetings.

Spokeswoman: He regularly meets with the Guarantors of the peace process, (the Friends of UNMEE) and what we call the P5- the 5 representatives of the permanent 5 members of the Security Council this is a regular meeting. He meets with them at his request just to update them on what is happening to discuss any concerns they may have or questions they may have. It is just a regular meeting he has with them all the time.

Question from Addis Ababa: What about the issues they discussed?

Spokeswoman: Normally we don't give out the subjects that are discussed because it's a private meeting; it's just between the ambassadors and the SRSG. It covers all aspects of the peace process, he will give them an update from the last meeting to wherever the peace process is at that point in time.

Question from Addis Ababa: I just wondered if we had a name for the Colonel or an age or any other detail about him or her that was killed in the 13th of February incident?

Lt. Col. Arif: We don't have any further information.

Phil Lewis: Because I still do not have copy of that report I cannot advise on whether we even got the information and what the information is. When I get the report, if the information is provided, that is available for release next week.

Question from Asmara: Colonel Arif, are you 100% sure or content with information that the Colonel was in the militia?

Lt. Col. Arif: This was what was reported by the Eritrean militia. We did not see the site, or the body. This is based on that information. We have no further information available.

Spokeswoman: If you are concerned about it, I will definitely ask the Chief of Staff so that we can double check. (UNMEE Chief of Staff has confirmed that the Militias are in the habit of calling their Commanders by a designation similar to that of the Army. However there are no distinguished insignias wore by these militia by which we can identify their actual status or designation.)

Can you identify yourself, because I don't know this journalist?

Question from Asmara: I am an information officer with the Information Coordination Center, which is a joint venture between ERREC (the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission) and OCHA. (question inaudible)

Diane Bailey: He said that ERREC has a report that 272 persons were displaced in the Kole-Gerala, south of Monoxito and President Isaias of Eritrea mentioned that Ethiopian troops were amassing along the border, yet our briefing notes refer to the situation in TSZ as calm and stable. How do you reconcile the two?

Spokesperson: I think this is what the Force Commander was asked about almost two weeks ago and he said the Force had checked into this and the Force did not find any troops amassing on the border. I think the statement that the Force Commander made is in our briefing notes, which we can give to him. Actually it was in last weeks' briefing notes. It's very clearly stated. I wouldn't want to paraphrase it because it's a very substantive statement which he can look at.

Question from Asmara: Any confirmation of the displacement of the people in the area, south of Monoxito, which happened in August of last year. At that time it was 172, but now there are reports that there are 272 people that have been displaced.

Spokeswoman: We will have to check on that for you and get back to you.

Question from Addis Ababa: On the meeting between the sort of diplomats and the SRSG both in Eritrea and in Ethiopia, did any of them express any sort of dissatisfaction with the peace process as it stands at the moment?

Spokeswoman: I haven't heard the SRSG mention that at all, so if they did certainly not to my knowledge.

Question from Addis Ababa: Are you aware of any demarches going into the Eritrean Authorities regarding the peace process?

Spokeswoman: No,...you have to remember that Addis is a diplomatic capitol in many ways and there will be many demarches back and forth, UNMEE is not going to be keeping a record of every comment made by very Ambassador.

Question from Addis Ababa: Even if it's regarding the peace process surely you would keep a record of that Gail.

Spokeswoman: If it is something significant and usually most significant comments we hear of yes, but I haven't heard of anything along the lines that you have mentioned.

(NOTE: Queries pertaining to the EEBC are to be referred to:

The Office of the Registrar (attention: Ms. Bette Shifman)
Eritrea/Ethiopia Boundary Commission, Permanent Court of Arbitration
Peace Palace, 2517 KJ, The Hague, The Netherlands
Telephone: +31 (0) 70 302 4167;
E-mail:shifman@pca-cpa.org; http://www.pca-cpa.org)

For further enquiries please contact:
Gail Bindley-Taylor Sainte, UNMEE 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