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UNMEE media briefing notes 21 Jul 2005

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A near verbatim transcript of the press briefing held by the Spokeswoman and Chief of Public Information, Gail Bindley-Taylor-Sainté in Addis Ababa, via videoconference linking participants in Addis Ababa and Asmara. Also present at the briefing in Asmara was the Force Commander, Major General Rajender Singh.
POLITICAL:

The Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General (DSRSG)/Asmara, Joel Adechi, on 18 July, met with the Head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Eritrea to discuss the need to streamline coordination and information sharing between UNHCR and UNMEE pertaining to returnees to Ethiopia and Eritrea.

On 19 July, the DSRSG/Asmara attended the Weekly Heads of UN Agency Meeting in Asmara, during which he briefed the group on current developments in the peace process.

On 6 July, the OIC-UNMEE/Addis Ababa, Leandre Bassole, met with the newly appointed Ambassador of Brazil in Ethiopia, His Excellency Renato Xavier, at the latter's request. During the meeting they exchanged views on developments in the peace process.

MILITARY:

General Overview

The general situation in the Mission area remains militarily stable. There have been no significant changes in troop locations or dispositions. UNMEE conducted 593 ground and 24 air reconnaissance patrols throughout the Area of Responsibility (AOR).

In all sectors, UNMEE peacekeepers continued to provide medical assistance to the local population, along with supplies of bulk water to civilian communities in the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) and the Adjacent Areas. Approximately 263,000 litres of water was supplied to the civilian communities during the past week.

Mine Action

The Bangladesh Engineering Company, working in Sector West, probed an area of 10,200 square metres along the Taula Gimuja-Kerhasha road and cleared an area of 12,100 square metres at Dedalala.

The Kenyan Humanitarian De-mining Company, working in Sector West, probed manually an area of 30,745 square metres in the Grat Mariam minefields.

The civilian contractor MECHEM continued its de-mining operations and manually cleared 67.7 kilometres along roads in the Om Hajer area.

Meeting and Visits

The Force Commander, Major General Rajender Singh chaired the 31st Military Coordination Commission (MCC) meeting in Nairobi from 15 to 17 July 2005. The Ethiopian Commissioner, Major-General Yohannes Gebremeskel, and the Acting Eritrean Commissioner, Colonel Zecarias Ogbagaber, headed their respective Military delegations. The African Union (AU) was represented by its Senior Military Representative, Brigadier-General O. Tiroyamodimo. Delegates to the 31st MCC meeting reviewed the general military situation in the Mission area since the last MCC meeting. They assessed the security environment within the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) and agreed that although peace and stability had remained at a satisfactory level, incidents of cattle rustling and abductions of civilians by armed personnel were cause for concern, as they could have a potentially destabilizing effect on the TSZ. Delegates reaffirmed their commitment to the peace process and pledged their continued cooperation with UNMEE in discharging its mandated tasks in the future. (Details of the meeting can be found in UNMEE Press Release Number 113)

During the week the Force Commmander also visited various posts in Sub Sector East.

On 19 July 2005, The Indian Ambassador to Kenya and High Commissioner to Eritrea paid a visit to the UNMEE Force Headquarters.

UNMEE MACC

On Sunday, 17 July 2005, The UNMEE MACC Programme Manager, Phil Lewis, departed the Mission area for his two-month secondment to Afghanistan where he will be conducting a review of the Afghanistan Project Implementation Facility (APIF) programmes (consisting of some 25 projects of the United Nations Office for Project Services--UNOPS). His role will be to recommend rationalisation and improvements in the efficiency of the wide range of UNOPS projects in the country. He will be absent from the Mission area until 31 August 2005.

The MACC has reported that an ununexploded ordnance (UXO) incident occurred near Arazen village in Sector Center. A nine-year old boy from the Mai Gundi village sustained slight fragmentation injuries in his left shoulder when he found an M75 grenade and caused it to explode by hitting it with a stone. The MACC field staff have been tasked to carry out a preliminary investigation into the incident to determine the facts and details.

The MACC Programme Manager this week briefed the OIC-UNMEE Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General (DSRSG), Joel Adechi, on the current crisis facing the UNDP Mine Action Capacity Building Programme (MACBP). The MACBP has ceased all support operations to the National Mine Action Programme since the confiscation of its project vehicles two months ago. The situation has yet to be resolved. The UNMEE MACC continues to maintain contact with relevant partners to monitor the situation.

SPECIAL EVENTS:

Plans are being discussed by the UNMEE Special Events Committee for both the celebration of the International Day of Peace (21 September 2005) as well as the 60th Anniversary of the UN (24 October 2005)

Questions and Answers

Question (Addis): As regards the Force Commander's comments in the MCC Press release about continuing incidents of violence and noting an increase in the number of cases of cattle rustling in the border area; and Colonel Zecarias' mentioning of kidnappings and cattle rustlings, can you give some details about these alleged incidents? What are the continuing incidents of violence? How much has cattle rustling increased? Has anyone been killed? And, when and where have such incidents taken place?

Force Commander: Firstly, I think before I take on this question it will be fitting for me, as I always do after the Military Coordination Commission's (MCC) meetings, to briefly put across to you my views as to what we have been able to achieve and what has been the general outcome. The press release on the Military Coordination Commission's meeting has already been issued and it contains generally all the details. As you are aware, this Military Coordination Commission's meeting was being held after a gap of about two months, and this is in the aftermath of the recent statement by the President of the Security Council and also the Secretary General's report. During this Commission's meeting, first and foremost, let me mention to you that both sides expressed their full support to this mechanism of the MCC. In fact, both sides also mentioned that despite the travel problems--because of various flights being cancelled from Eritrea,-- the very fact that the Eritrean delegation took such a long route and was able to arrive there, their representative mentioned that this shows the continued commitment of the Government of Eritrea towards the cause of peace. Similar sentiments were also expressed by the representative from Ethiopia. What we were able to do during our meeting was firstly, to take stock of the security situation, identify the problem areas which remain and which need to be addressed. We also got a briefing on the sector-level MCC mechanism and the various actions that are being taken to make this mechanism much more effective. In the Commission's meeting, we also were able to review the decisions that we had taken last time about some measures to be (put in place) to ensure that the violent incidents calm down; we took stock of that and, of course, the details have been given out in the press release. But I would basically like to mention that overall; I am quite satisfied with the way the complete proceedings of the MCC took place. I am also satisfied with the outcome of the meeting.

During the meeting, the importance of the sector-level MCC was emphasized by both sides. It was also emphasized that whatever decisions we take in the MCC meetings, like (the) action plan, which was worked out last time, needs to be implemented through the mechanism of the sector-level MCC; and in that regard, there was total agreement from both sides that we need to make the mechanism of the sector-level MCC stronger. The second thing, of course, which we have also discussed, was to take stock of the fact there has been some increase in the cases of cattle rustling. Some of it does take place during this time of the year, but both sides expressed their full resolve to cooperate with UNMEE in ensuring that we control this menace. Let me also mention that we also in that meeting took stock of the fact, that though a large number of cattle rustling and cattle straying incidents have taken place, many of the incidents have been resolved or many of the cattle which had either strayed across or were taken, were returned to their owners from both sides, and this process is continuing even after we have returned from the MCC meeting. So this is generally (the situation) as far as the Military Coordination Commission's meeting that we held [is concerned]. Now coming to these various questions on the details of the cattle rustling incidents, I am sorry I do not have [the information at this time]. We will get back to you later.

But as far as the violent incidents are concerned, basically from May until now there have been four cases. On the 29th of May, one Ethiopian shepherd was hacked to death. The Ethiopian authorities claimed it was done by Eritrean shepherds. In our investigations, we have not been able to prove any such thing. This was case number one and this happened in the Adi Tekalo area near the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ).

Case number two was on the 16th of June: two Eritrean shepherds were injured and their cattle were rustled when a group of armed horsemen threw a hand grenade at them. They suffered some injuries and also got their legs fractured. We are still investigating this incident. From the information we have, we have been able to conclude that an incident like this did take place, however the identity of these armed horsemen could not be ascertained by us. As far as the Ethiopian authorities are concerned, they have totally denied this. It could possibly be the action of some of the cattle rustlers.

Then, there was an incident of blast injury on the 25th of June in Zesergabo hill, near Tsorena inside the TSZ in which one of the militia soldiers suffered some injuries. We were told a day after the incident that this possibly could be the result of some of the cross- border fire. However, our investigations from the MACC also stated that this could also be the result of blast injury. So, whether this took place because of an unexploded ordnance (UXO) or cross-border fire, could not be ascertained. Authorities on both sides were contacted. The Ethiopian position is quite far away from where this incident took place, though. It is about two kilometres away, and their involvement in this incident could not be proved.

The fourth incident was the beating up of an Eritrean shepherd on the 27th of June by five Ethiopian nationals and (who also) rustled 28 of his cattle near the Shambiko area Team Site. This injured shepherd was admitted to the hospital. We have investigated this incident and there is no denying the fact that the individual had been beaten up. The cause of this could not be ascertained. The involvement of the Ethiopian Armed Forces (EAF) in this could not be proved and it was not even alleged in the first place. It seems it was again a case of some of the cattle rustlers from the other side, trying to steal some cattle.

So these were the various incidents and, as you would recollect, we had also discussed in the last MCC a number of violent incidents which had taken place in which some cattle rustlers had come and were fired at, and there had been a couple of deaths and we had at that time, evolved an action plan which basically concentrated on education of the people on both sides of the border, (to have the people) cooperating with UNMEE, ensuring that (they) report (incidents) straight away to UNMEE, allowing UNMEE to investigate the matter as early as possible, and ensure that as far as cattle grazing is concerned, the shepherds are advised not to go too close to the Southern Boundary of the TSZ, keeping control on their own side over anti-social elements and, last but not least, to see that we try to avoid any violent incidents [in the area], exercise due restraint and resolve the matters through the mechanism of the sector-level MCC. So, these were some of the points which were again flagged during the meeting; and we were able to broadly come to a consensus that these (recommendations) needed to be implemented and implemented vigorously through the mechanism of the sector MCC.

Question [Addis]: Based on Colonel Zecarias' comments at the MCC, [do you want to comment on] where, when and how many [kidnappings have occurred]?

Force Commander: You see, over a period of time we get a number of incidents or a number of cases taking place in which people from both sides sometimes either cross over or are taken away. In most of the cases, whenever the allegation is made or an initial report is given on incidents from both sides, the allegation generally comes as "kidnapping." Some of them we are able to resolve, in which either the persons [concerned] come back to their side on their own, or the other side repatriates them. As far as kidnapping is concerned, up to now we have not found any case in which there has been a deliberate attempt by the armed personnel on both sides--either the EAF (on the Ethiopian side) or the Militia on the Eritrean side -- to get involved in any kidnapping.

Question [Addis]: I have a question regarding the recent MCC meeting. Did the two officials raise questions about the deployment of forces and do you have any other development?

Force Commander: They expressed concern and that was it. The Eritrean side expressed concern on continued deployment of additional troops on the Ethiopian side. There have been no additional troops on the Eritrean side.

Question [Asmara]: How easy is it to cross the border? Could you give some indication of that?

Force Commander: I am no expert on how easy or difficult it is, but I would like to mention that as far as UNMEE is concerned, our mandate is quite clear: that is, we are to ensure the separation of the two Forces, ensure the sanctity of the Temporary Security Zone and (that) the environment is peaceful. I would not like to comment on (the issue of) cross-border movement of civilians.

Question [Asmara]: Is it possible to get more information on how many troops have actually been moved by the Ethiopians at the end of last year? I know it has been recorded in terms of number of divisions but is it possible to get an actual figure for the number of troops?

Force Commander: Your guess would be as good as mine. The normal strength of a Division of the Ethiopian Army can be taken from some of the published material and you can multiply it by seven divisions. Seven Divisions have moved which the Ethiopian side has been quite transparent about. There has been no further addition as per the information available to us now. They (the Ethiopians) have also taken me around to some of them. My officers have (also) gone and visited them. They are in contact with the UNMEE Commanders on the Ethiopian side. Let me also mention that over a period of time we have also had an equal amount of cooperation from the Eritrean side as well and there has been no change whatsoever in the over-all number of divisions in the adjacent areas towards the Eritrean side.

Question [Asmara]: Can you tell me where the publications are, where I can find them?

Force Commander: I will tell you after this. (laughter)

For further enquires please contact: Gail Bindley-Taylor-Sainte, Spokeswoman and Chief, Public Information Office or UNMEE Headquarters Asmara, Telephone: 291-1-150411- extension 6017 or our tie-line in New York: 00-1-212-963-3779-Ext 6017or UNMEE Headquarters Addis Ababa, telephone: 251-1-726895 extension 7059.

UNMEE Website: http://www.unmeeonline.org