The following is a near-verbatim transcript of the press briefing chaired in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa by UNMEE Spokeswoman and Chief of UNMEE Public Information, Gail Bindley-Taylor Sainte, via a videoconference linking Asmara and Addis Ababa
On 22 February, UNMEE Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Legwaila Joseph Legwaila returned to Asmara from Addis Ababa where he had held several important meetings with key stakeholders of the peace process. While en route from Addis Ababa to Asmara, the SRSG, accompanied by the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General based in Asmara, Ms Angela Kane and Force Commander, Major-General Robert Gordon, visited Sector Centre Command Headquarters in Adigrat. During his visit, the SRSG received a power-point briefing by the Sector Commander, Colonel Suddhasattwa Bhattacharya on the recent situation in the Sector. They also discussed logistical planning in support of demarcation by the Eritrea/Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) team. General Gordon also visited the INDBATT camp and interacted with the numerous civilian patients who had gathered to receive treatment at the Level I hospital.
On 26 February, the SRSG received in his office the outgoing World Bank Country Representative in Eritrea, Emmanuel Ablo, and his successor, Florian Fichtl, who paid a courtesy call on him.
The overall situation in the Area of Responsibility remains calm.
The Deputy Military Adviser from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York, Major General Martin Luther Agwai, accompanied by Colonel Martin Miguel visited UNMEE from 20th to 26th February. The delegation arrived in Addis Ababa on 20th February, and were received by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and was later briefed by Colonel Kaijo Suminen, the Senior Military Liaison Officer in Addis Ababa. Major- General Agwai arrived in Asmara on 21st February and was received by Force Commander Major-General Robert Gordon at UNMEE Headquarters. He received a briefing on the military situation in the Mission area the following day. He later visited all three sectors and called on the DSRSG Asmara, Angela Kane as well as the head of the African Union Liaison Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (OLMEE) Rodney Kiwa. On his way out of the mission area on 26th February, he met with the Ethiopian Commissioner to UNMEE, Brigadier-General Yohannes Gebremeskel and the DSRSG Addis Ababa, Mr. Cheikh Tidiane Gaye.
The Mission's de-mining contingents continued their work in all sectors during the week. On 21st February, Team Shilalo reported that the Slovak de-mining platoon destroyed three 81mm mortar UXOs at Mukuti.
Team Adi Quala was informed on 21st February by an ICRC representative, Cappuzzo Nicola about the presence of a UXO (80mm mortar shell) near the gate of the Adi Quala prison. The Team informed the Slovak Engineering Company who marked and secured the location of the UXO for subsequent destruction.
On 23rd February, Team Adi Abun patrol found an aircraft bomb, on the left side of the road from Axum to Wurko. The patrol informed the Central Zone Police Headquarters and the local police in Axum. The site was shown to the police and properly marked. The Police authorities informed the patrol that the Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialists from Addis Ababa would take care of the UXO.
On 27th February, the DSRSG Angela Kane, accompanied by staff from Force Headquarters visited Sector Centre where she was briefed by the Sector Commander, the Sector Senior Military Observer, the Sector Administrative Officer and the Political Affairs Officer at the Sector headquarters in Adigrat. She also visited Bada, Zela Ambessa, Senafe, Tsorena and Mai Aini.
In all sectors medical assistance continued to be rendered to civilians, including Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The Force also distributed supplies of bulk water and mid day meals for school children.
There have been no further mine incidents in the mission area during the past week. The threat assessment for the Western Sector however remains at high and due diligence should be observed when traveling on roads in the area.
UNMEE's Mine Action Co-ordination Centre's Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team has destroyed a number of unexploded ordnance (UXOs) in the Central Sector during the past week and this has resulted in the return of valuable agricultural land to the local population. The EOD Team will move to the Western Sector next week to destroy a number of aerial delivered bombs which are located next to UNMEE's main supply route.
Today, 28 February, staff from UNMEE's Human Rights Office monitored the repatriation of some 140 Ethiopian nationals, from Eritrea, under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) across the Mereb River Bridge.
Q [from Asmara]:It's a question about the mine incident last week, but Phil (Lewis) is not here, so I am not sure whether we'll have further information. I was told by some Eritrean officials that the incident that we mentioned last week between Omhajer and Antore, which killed an Eritrean Colonel, it was said here that it was a newly laid mine, but I was told it wasn't by some Eritrean officials, so I was wondering if the inquiry about this accident had been going further or if you had further information about it.
Spokeswoman: (inaudible due to technical reasons)
[The Director of UNMEE MACC Phil Lewis confirmed after the Briefing that an investigation was carried out on this incident and to the best of the MACC's professional expertise the mine involved in this accident was a newly laid mine. MACC he says is convinced of this especially in light of the fact that the area had been cleared twice before and UNMACC would not have missed a mine of that size during the two previous clearances.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: These mines, which were discovered as you said lately, are they newly planted or old ones?
Spokeswoman: Which ones are you referring to, the ones that were in last weeks report?
Q [from Addis Ababa]: No, the ones near the gates of the Adi Quala (prison) and then Axum.
Spokeswoman: These are UXOs; I'll ask Col. Arya to take this.
Chief of Staff: First of all concerning the first question about last week's incident: there were a total of 6 mine incidents reported in the last week from Sector West in which we had two fatal casualties and some civilians injured. Out of the six, five were confirmed as resulting from newly laid mines because all these tracks have been cleared by the Mine Action Coordination Centre, some of them twice, so the accidents which happened last week most of them asked for the assessment of the Force as well as the Mine Action. They were newly placed mines, mark the word I use: "placed" because although the six mines, two or three I don't remember the exact figures were not planted, they were just thrown across the tracks, which have been frequently used and they were definitely not all of them planted at night in a tactical manner as the mines which would have been planted. So they were thrown across the road and when the vehicle passed over it they got hit by it. As for UXO question from Addis, as the acronym indicates these are unexploded ordinances, left over from the period of war and as they are found either by the patrols or the recce teams, they are recommended to be deposed of. But we have had also cases where the UXOs have been reportedly found by civilians and when they realize the dangerous nature of these UXOs they throw them to an area where they can be seen very easily by the Force personnel or by the teams operating with the Mine Disposal, so that they can be disposed of. Definitely the UXO is not a new thing that can be planted.
Q [from Asmara]: As you seem to know more about the 6 incidents of last week, can you confirm that the mine that exploded and killed an Eritrean Colonel was a newly laid mine or newly planted one?
Chief of Staff: First of all I would like to correct you, it was not an Eritrean Colonel, he was one of the militia commanders. There are no Eritrean military personnel in the TSZ.
Q [from Asmara]: I think he was introduced as a Colonel last week at the briefing
Chief of Staff: He has been introduced from the media reporters as a colonel, but UNMEE's position has been, and it has been confirmed, that he was one of the militia commanders. Point number one. The road on which this mine incident happened has been cleared at least twice in my presence, I am aware of it, because we also had a mine incident on this road once before and thereafter this road was cleared and this was quite far away from the UNMEE post, so I am not ready to confirm you the nature of the mine. An investigation into this particular incident is still ongoing. Our MIRT team has not finished there as yet, but to best of our assessment this was a newly planted mine, because this road was cleared by the Force Demining Company and UNMACC at least twice in the last year.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: First a point of clarification, you're talking about last week, do you actually mean the week before last, because if you say last week it actually says in the briefing there have been no mines incidents in the last week so I'm not sure which week you're talking about.
Spokeswoman: I think when Phil says the last week he means this the past week.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: Because a lot of this was talked about last week so I was wondering why we're talking about it again.
Chief of Staff: I don't go by the semantics of the week starting on Monday ending on Saturday, but if my memory serves me correctly the 6 incidents happened between 9th and 17th of February.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: I just wondered you said last week that UNMEE was working on the assumption that these newly laid or newly placed mines may have been the work of groups trying to destabilize the Eritrean Government, have you made any further investigation into this?
Spokeswoman: This was said by UNMACC in our Briefing Notes and they have said nothing further on it besides what they said last week and I would like to correct something. We never said Eritrean opposition parties were trying to destabilize the Government. I noticed that appeared in the press yesterday. That was not said by UNMEE at all. Phil (Phil Lewis Director UNMACC) tried to make the point that since the mines were newly laid, and I think it was explained very clearly, that frequent explosions of newly laid mines (or mine incidents) in that area was concerning because it appeared to be a destabilizing factor particularly for the population. He has added nothing further. That's where it stands.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: So you haven't identified any of these groups that may be laying these mines.
Spokeswoman: No I think he made it clear, even the week before he said groups of people unknown and he made that clear. We have no idea who these groups are, he said "persons unknown."
Q [from Addis Ababa]: Can we say anti-peace groups?
Spokeswoman: No, I don't think we want to say that. I think "persons unknown" is clear. We really do not know who they are.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: I am not sure you either read the transcript or heard an interview on the BBC with Meles who said that Badme should be awarded to Ethiopia recently, is UNMEE concerned about this, his remark?
Spokeswoman: We never comment on remarks of a head of government. I think that is really out of place. This is his opinion and this is what he was expressing in London quite clearly, we heard it.
Q [from Asmara]:I think two weeks ago I was asking about the tension between the two governments. They have been accusing each other of several things and I was asking UNMEE if this was worrying and you were saying no that the peace process is still on track and you didn't find it worrying. Is it still UNMEE's position or has the recent Meles interview with BBC...don't you find it worrying?
Spokeswoman: No, I don't think that we are worried. We are monitoring the situation very carefully but to say that we are worried, No. I will still say that we are not worried. We are monitoring the comments and the situation very closely.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: Could you tell us the reason why the EEBC decided to start the demarcation from the East, instead of the West? Is it because of the unresolved Badme situation?
Spokeswoman: Now you are not going to ask me a question that starts with a sentence about the EEBC. I don't think so.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: Because you are concerned about it?
Spokeswoman:I cannot comment on anything the EEBC decides, says, wants to do, or anything that falls under the purview of the EEBC.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: We heard that the EEBC has an office here, why don't they come and talk to us?
Spokeswoman: We have been there.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: They don't want to talk to us?
Spokeswoman: I don't know, did you talk with them?
Q [from Addis Ababa]: No, I am just asking you to be, to try and convince...
Spokeswoman: No, I represent UNMEE, the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: If demarcation is going to start in the East, should you UNMEE be making plans for that? So, is UNMEE making plans for demarcation to start in the East?
Spokeswoman: If you notice from what Phil said (in the Briefing Note for today) that UNMEE is working next week in sector west.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: So, you are working on the assumption that demarcation will start in the west?
Spokeswoman: We are not working on any assumptions. When we get clear instructions from the EEBC, we are supporting their process, and I am sure when we have instructions from them as to whether we are starting east, west, center, we will follow those instructions.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: So, from what you are saying, you haven't received any instructions from the EEBC so far?
Spokeswoman: Whatever instructions we do have are confidential, that is what I would say at this point in time.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: I don't understand you just said in the previous sentence that you didn't have instructions, now I understand you may have instructions?
Spokeswoman: Let me say clearly, any instructions that we may have from the EEBC or relationship with the EEBC, to begin with, falls under three criteria: demining for demarcation and logistical and administrative support. When we have information that can be made public on any of those, I will give them to you. If I haven't given them to you that means either we don't have the information or it is confidential. It falls into one of those categories.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: Is it confidential for security reasons, I mean, why is it confidential?
Spokeswoman: What do you think?
Q [from Addis Ababa]: I don't know I don't work for UNMEE. Is it confidential for security reasons, is that what you were saying?
Spokeswoman: No, I am saying that in general, we are not dealing with demarcation except the issue of demining and when we have information on the specifics of demining that we can make public we will give them to you.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: On logistical support I think you are going to be supporting the demarcation logistically?
Spokeswoman: Logistically meaning looking at things like where the contractors will stay (that is office space, storage, communications and transport) that sort of thing.
Question [from Addis Ababa]: Do you have any idea when the demarcation starts?
Spokeswoman: At the moment I have nothing further than what I said last week.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: I mean I don't think the demarcation will go on during the rainy period, you know, after May it is going to be a rainy period, which will be extended up to September. Assuming that, do you think that the demarcation will start before the rainy season?
Spokeswoman: I don't want to make assumptions on demarcation. I think when we have definite information that we can give to you about demarcation, we will give it to you. I understand you frustration absolutely as a journalist I do, but I can't give you information that I don't have to give.
Q [from Asmara]: You were telling us last week that the schedule for the demarcation process was tentative, I know you are not going to tell us when it's going to start, but do you know when UNMEE will be informed by the EEBC about this? I have been told by Eritrean Officials that it's delayed for one month. I have been trying to call EEBC, but they are not able to confirm. Do you know when UNMEE will have this information?
Spokeswoman: I think since the Parties are part of the process, that is the only other source that you can get it from either the Parties or the EEBC but you are not going to get that information from UNMEE.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: How long then, Gail, do you think it will take between the instruction and the actual beginning of demarcation to get contractors to the site, build accommodation and do all these things? How long will it take between instruction and realization?
Spokeswoman: That I really don't know.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: Could you tell us next week?
Spokeswoman: I can certainly check to see if there is a timetable.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: When does your mandate expire?
Spokeswoman: End of March.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: Do you think that it will be renewed?
Spokeswoman: Well we would hope it would be renewed. We are waiting for the Security Council to meet and we hope that meeting will take place in mid-March. We have been optimistic about this process from the get go so I think we continue to remain optimistic.
Q [from Asmara]: Last week I heard from the media that the newly laid mines that were planted in western buffer zone were laid down by Eritrean opposition groups, so they got this information from UNMEE Public Information Department. Would you like to comment on this?
Spokeswoman: I did comment on it a little earlier. UNMEE did not say that Eritrean Opposition groups had done such anything that was not our comment. I think whoever put that story out that was their spin. And I notice there's been a lot of spinning recently. My hope is that if we stick to the facts we won't have to spin as much, but we definitely did not say that.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: Just to refresh my memory; what's your annual budget?
Spokeswoman: I don't want to give you a figure that's inaccurate I have it upstairs.
[The annual budget of UNMEE is just over 200 million USD]
Q [from Addis Ababa]: Have you asked for additional budget?
Spokeswoman: No, I don't think that we will be asking for more budget. Remember our budget cycle runs from a certain period to a certain period so we can't just pull it out of a hat and decide midstream we need more money. The UN has very financial rules so we have an annual budget that runs of June of one year or rather the current budget ends June 30 of this year. The new budget cycle begins July 1 2003 so the last one would be July 1 2002 to 30th of June this year.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: In view of the rising tension do you think that UNMEE will asked for more troops?
Spokeswoman: I think that UNMEE is at this point in time is looking at the situation very carefully. Just because you have different sides seeing things differently we will not just automatically react.
Q [from Addis Ababa]: So the answer is?
Spokeswoman: I think we would only ask if there were a need for troops. We are very comfortable at our 4200 as a matter of fact. And usually in the final phases of a mission you don't ask for additional troops you downsize. Colonel Arya did you want to add anything to that? Are we looking for additional troops?
Chief of Staff: Thank you Gail you said it rightly. We are very optimistic and there is been no observation on that and there is no reason to ask for any additional troops, we are optimistic to see that peace prevails as both parties have pledged repeatedly.
Spokesperson: If there are no further questions Margaret Odoch-Jato is here. She's come from the course, which we are running called the "Joint Training of Trainers for HIV/AIDS Educators Workshop". This is the second time that we are doing this in Ethiopia and UNMEE I may add is one of the first peacekeeping missions to do this experiment where we carry out HIV/AIDS training not only with our own staff but with the military of both countries, both Eritrea and Ethiopia. And tomorrow they end the two-week course that has been going on here. Margaret, who is a member of Public Information, is a part of the course and we had hoped that Michael Munyoki who is the course leader would have been here but unfortunately he had to led a course for someone who didn't turn up and as a result he has asked Margaret to come because they would like to have a press conference at tomorrow's closing and they'd like to ask whether you'd all be there.
Margaret Odoch-Jato, Coordinator of Media Monitoring and Addis Outreach Centre: The training is taking place at the Headquarters of the Ethiopian National Defense Force and we are providing transport for journalists who would like to come. The press conference is at 4.15pm, but the program for the afternoon starts at 2.30pm. We are going to have the students graduate and there will be speeches from high level officials of the Ethiopian National Defense Force and also from the UNMEE side we hope the Force Commander and the Deputy SRSG will be there. So we have planned to pick up the journalists from the National Hotel at 3.30. If you are interested and want to come for the press conference or if you want to come for the whole afternoon I would like to know so that we can organize the transport accordingly. For those, there will be definitely be transport at 3.30 pm for the press conference at 4.00 pm from the National Hotel.
Spokesperson: Is there anything you want to ask on the course itself
Question from Addis Ababa: Can you give us figures of HIV positive persons in the Ethiopian Army?
Margaret Odoch-Jato: That one you will get from the press conference tomorrow.
Spokesperson: I think that's why they want you to come so that you can get more information on what they're doing.
Margaret Odoch-Jato: There is very interesting information that will be summarized at the press conference.
Spokesperson: If there is nothing else pressing, Thank you very much Monica for helping us out and Colonel Arya for coming to the press briefing and filling in and thank you all very much for being with us. See you next week.
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