UNAMSIL Press Briefing 21 Mar 2003

Report
from UN Mission in Sierra Leone
Published on 21 Mar 2003
(Near Verbatim)
YOUSEF HAMDAN, CHIEF OF PUBLIC INFORMATION

Masimba Tafirenyika: SIERRA LEONE: ANNAN RECOMMENDS GRADUAL WITHDRAWAL OF UN TROOPS

Secretary-General Kofi Annan has recommended a gradual withdrawal of the United Nations peacekeepers in Sierra Leone and a six-month extension of their mandate, noting that the country still is not able to maintain security without UN help.

"Developments over recent months have proved the prudence of pursuing a gradual drawdown of the Mission," Mr. Annan says in his latest report to the Security Council on the activities of the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). The first serious challenges posed to the country's armed and law enforcement forces had "exposed the existence of considerable shortcomings," he adds.

Mr. Annan stresses, however, that these development should not be taken to mean the positive security trend in Sierra Leone has suffered a fundamental reversal, rather that much still needs to be done to strengthen the presence of the country's police in the areas being vacated by UNAMSIL.

"It is widely acknowledged that the presence of UNAMSIL gave the general public the confidence that prevented a deterioration of the situation," he says. "In these circumstances, I would like to recommend that the Security Council extend the mandate of UNAMSIL for a further period of six months, until 30 September 2003."

The Secretary-General expresses concern at the continued existence of the Civil Defence Force structure and says this "may undermine not only the credibility of the demobilization process, but also the long-term stability of the country." In addition, he says the commencement of the indictments by the Special Court carried considerable security challenges and therefore the need to ensure police and prison authorities have the capacity to secure custody of those apprehended.

The report also outlines several critical elements for a lasting peace in the country, including preventing young people from feeling excluded, control over diamond mining and creating reintegration opportunities for ex-combatants. "Solutions to these issues are complex and will require time, resources and actions ranging from promoting economic revival and education to skills training," Mr. Annan observes.

Reiterating his appeal to the international community to help bring an end to the conflict in Liberia, Mr. Annan stresses that "the security of Sierra Leone cannot be fully ensured while the conflict in Liberia persists." With the help of the UN, Sierra Leone has been able to cope with the influx of Liberian refugees but if the conflict continued, "a humanitarian emergency could arise," he says.

LIBERIA: 15,000 MORE FLEE FIGHTING IN NORTHEAST, UN REDUCES STAFF IN BORDER AREAS

A further 15,000 people have fled fighting between government and rebel forces in north-eastern Liberia, swelling the number of internal refugees there to 75,000, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said Tuesday.

Meanwhile the unstable situation has forced the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to reduce staff in several key refugee-hosting areas further south, hampering its ability to help thousands of people who have fled the conflict in neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire, the UN agency said in Geneva.

Since November, UNHCR has been assisting close to 95,000 people in five transit centres in Liberia's eastern border areas. They include nearly 45,000 Liberians returning home from Côte d'Ivoire, close to 40,000 Ivorian refugees and 13,000 other West African nationals attempting to return to their countries. UNHCR said it had also reduced its staff in Maryland district on the Atlantic coat for security reasons.

The new refugees in northeast Liberia fled the town of Gbarnga in Bong county towards Totota following clashes between the government and Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebels, and there were unconfirmed reports that another 2,000 internal refugees staying at a camp called TV Tower had been forced to flee for their safety again, OCHA said.

The UN humanitarian community in Liberia has sent a team to the area to gather more information, working closely with the Liberian government's own emergency agency, the LRRRC, to determine the number and condition of the people who have fled, it added.

Fighting also recently occurred near Liberia's capital in the northwest of the country. Kley Junction, 40 kilometres from the capital Monrovia, was the scene of fighting last week.

Within Monrovia, armed security officers are reported to have searched houses in the Mamba Point and Waterside areas as part of a "cordon and search" operation. The UN has also received reports of the forced conscription of men and women into fighting forces, OCHA said.

SECRETARY-GENERAL KOFI ANNAN URGES GLOBAL HELP FOR WEST AFRICA TO STEM FLOOD OF SMALL ARMS

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on 18 March urged the international community to spare no effort to help rein in the phenomenon of mercenary activity that drives the uncontrolled spread of small arms in West Africa.

Speaking at the outset of a Security Council meeting on threats to peace and security in West Africa, which included the participation of representatives of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and more than 25 other speakers, the Secretary-General thanked the Council for focusing attention - even at the critical moment when the world's attention was on Iraq - on a subject that was of great importance to millions of people in that region.

Mr. Annan stressed that the unrestrained proliferation of small arms and light weapons and the use of mercenaries sustains conflict, exacerbates violence and fuels crime and terrorism. "The easy availability of small arms and light weapons is strongly linked to with the dramatic rise in the victimization of women and children and with the phenomenon of child soldiers," he said, adding that light automatic weapons can be carried and fired by children as young as nine or ten years-old.

Noting that the merging deadly phenomena also promotes cultures of violence and impede political economic and social progress, the Secretary-General cited the conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and now in Côte d'Ivoire as having been fuelled "in no small part" by unregulated trade in small arms often paid for with the proceeds from the illicit exploitation of natural resources.

Stressing that the flood of small arms in the region has been accompanied and even facilitated by the rise in mercenary activities, Mr. Annan said the supply side of the mercenary problem, in turn, is linked to the failure of adequately funded and implemented disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes. He added that there had also been a failure to assist countries like Liberia and Guinea-Bissau in restructuring their armed forces as part of post conflict peace-building arrangements.

"Unless adequately addressed, the proliferation of small arms and mercenaries would continue to pose a severe threat to the region's hopes of attaining durable peace and security," Mr. Annan said, noting that spillover effects from one country to the next had been all too common, underscoring the need for regional cooperation and a comprehensive approach.

"I urge all of you to do your utmost to help the countries of the region to build up the capacity to address the issue," he said. "I urge the countries involved, and in particular their leaders, to focus more intently on this very real and very present threat to peace."

UNAMSIL COMMISSIONS SECONDARY SCHOOL AND PIPE-BORNE WATER IN MASINGBI AND HANGHA

UNAMSIL on Tuesday, 17 March, commissioned a secondary school in Masingbi in the northern district of Tonkolili and a pipe-borne water system in Hangha just outside Kenema in the east of the country. The projects, which were implemented by Save Heritage Foundation, were funded by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the British Department for International Development (DFID), and facilitated by UNAMSIL's Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Coordination Section.

Commissioning a five-classroom block and a public toilet at Ahmadiyya Secondary School, UNAMSIL Senior Administrative Officer, Ms. Dara Lysaght, emphasized the importance of education in the development of a nation particularly one that is emerging from conflict such as Sierra Leone. She appealed to the authorities and the town's community to properly maintain the school buildings so that they could serve not only the current intake of "enthusiastic youth" but generations yet unborn.

UNAMSIL Reintegration Coordinator Mr. Desmond Molloy said it was a good time to rehabilitate the school as the "horrible times are over." He expressed his pleasure at the "new future for Tonkolili district" which he said was a model for the rest of the country because of the camaraderie and brotherhood existing between ex-combatants and the community.

Mr. Molloy assured the ex-combatants, who provided the labour to rehabilitate the school, about their reintegration packages, adding that youth engagement and empowerment plans were being worked out by UNAMSIL.

Earlier, the principal of the school, Alfred S. Sesay, expressed gratitude to UNAMSIL, including the 8th Bangladeshi Battalion (BANBATT) and their predecessors, BANBATT 6, UNDP and DFID for the funds provided and interest shown in the welfare of the people of Masingbi. He noted that without the intervention of these agencies and local schoolteachers, the school would have ceased to exist. Mr. Sesay also appealed to donors to help rehabilitate the science laboratory to provide "badly needed science education" for the school's 145 pupils, 35 of whom are girls.

Commissioning the rehabilitated pipe-borne water system at Hangha, Ms. Lysaght said both the people of Hangha and the partners in the rehabilitation had something to be proud of. While wishing them good luck, she appealed to them to take the greatest care of it. Mr. Molloy said whereas the National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (NCDDR) would eventually close down and UNAMSIL withdraw, communities would stay forever. He therefore appealed to the former fighters and the community people to reunite "in the best interest of the development of your country."

Mr. Molloy said that very shortly mass youth community projects including sport and culture would start with funds from the office of UN Volunteers in Germany. He said these projects could only reach them if they lived once again as one entity.

The project involved the rehabilitation of 34 taps designed to avoid water wastage and a 500-gallon water tank that draws water from the nearby dam. More than 1,600 households comprising about 3,600 people, mostly women and children, will benefit from the project.

UNAMSIL ACTING FORCE COMMANDER VISITS TONKOLILI AND BOMBALI DISTRICTS TO REVIEW SECURITY SITUATION

UNAMSIL Acting Force Commander Maj. Gen. Syed Athar Ali yesterday visited the northern towns of Magburaka, Tonkolili District, and Makeni in Bombali District to review the current security situation in the northern province.

In Magburaka, the Deputy Commander of UNAMSIL's Sector Centre, Col. Sarwar Azam, informed Maj. Gen. Athar that in spite of the recent indictments by the Special Court for Sierra Leone of former Revolutionary United Front (RUF) leaders and a Government minister on war crimes charges, the current security situation in the area was "calm and stable." He said there was no significant reaction to the indictments by local leaders, the army or the police but assured the Acting Force Commander that his troops would continue to monitor the situation. The peacekeepers are also providing security and transport to the staff of the Court as they continue their investigations.

The Acting Force Commander was also briefed on the Community Arms Collection and Development Programme recently introduced under the supervision of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in collaboration with local paramount chiefs. Under the programme, local communities are encouraged to hand over weapons at designated dropping points, particularly shotguns, that were not covered under the recent disarmament process.

The Deputy Sector Commander commended the cooperation his troops were getting from the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces and the Sierra Leone Police who are "quite active in maintaining law and order." According to Col. Sarwar, conflicts in Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia have resulted in an influx of refugees in the sector.

In his statement, Maj. Gen. Athar commended the sector commander for the good work his troops were carrying out in the sector, noting that communities were gradually accepting the authority of local security agencies deployed throughout the sector.

Before flying to Makeni, the Acting Force Commander visited the Level II Hospital run by Bangladeshi Medical 3 in Magburaka where he was briefed on the daily activities of the hospital. In addition to attending to the medical needs of peacekeepers, the unit also provides medical assistance to local communities who constitute the majority of patients treated at the hospital.

Later in the day, the Maj. Gen. Athar visited the Nigerian Battalion (NIBATT) 15 based in Makeni where the Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Samual Nudamajo briefed him on the battalion's deployment, the general security situation in the area and the humanitarian activities to local residents. Before flying back to Freetown, the Acting Force Commander visited the Bangladeshi Battalion (BANBATT) 7 Mechanical Company in the town of Yele.

Mr. Hamdan: The public affairs officer of UNHCR has joined us, if you have any questions regarding the refugee situation. I am also pleased to let you know that I have received two statements from the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the conflict on Iraq. Should anyone of you be interested, we'll be happy to give you copies after the briefing. Now I will open the floor for questions.

QUESTIONS & ANSWERS:

Q: Taking into consideration this security situation vis-à-vis more indictments of the Special Court, shouldn't there be at least a halt in the scaling down of troops?

Mr. Hamdan: You have to focus on "gradual" here. The drawdown, adjustment and withdrawal has already been decided on in the last Security Council resolution last September. Any withdrawal that is going to take place is according to a plan that would not jeopardize in any way the security situation in the country. The drawdown started as early as November last year. By the end of May, UNAMSIL will still have a force of no less than 13,000 troops.

You have to keep in mind that any adjustment of the UNAMSIL troops will not in any way lower the level of their capacity. This is an adjustment. There were some units that they had in the past been doing certain tasks. Now the tasks were completed. I'll give you an example.

There was an engineering unit whose job was to dispose of unexploded ordnances. By August last year, that unit had already disposed 30,000 of those ordnances, and it was decided that for any remaining ordnances, UNAMSIL will report their existence to the Sierra Leone army who will dispose of them. It didn't affect in any way the strength of the force and the capability of the Force. You have to also keep in mind that adjustment means that the situation is going to be monitored closely and that any drawdown and any withdrawal will be commensurate with the increase in the strength of the army and the police.

This is an ongoing process of training, recruiting and building infrastructure for both the army and the police. Any decrease in the force of UNAMSIL will be compensated by an equivalent strength available in both the army and the police. In principle, you have to remember that the UN does not have any occupation army in Sierra Leone. Its job is to assist the country to restore peace, stabilize the peace, and to be able to manage the affairs of the country, including security. It is envisaged that only when the country is able to achieve that fully that UNAMSIL will no longer be needed.

Q: Can you break down these tasks - adjustment, withdrawal - in terms we can understand? To OCHA, what is the current situation with the refugees? To the military spokesman, what is the general security situation in the country?

Maj. Yusuf: The drawdown and withdrawal programme has been on for quite some time. We've made arrangements with the Sierra Leone army and police to work hand-in-hand in the security of this country. Even in the places where we're withdrawing, we still have our military observers over there. Right now, we have the Force Reserve which is working hand-in-hand with the Sierra Leone police and armed forces. Last week we had a military exercise that took place in Kambia and that exercise was conducted with the Sierra Leone army and police to enhance their performance. I wish to reassure you that UNAMSIL withdrawal won't affect the security situation in this country in any way. We're working hand-in-hand with the Sierra Leone police and army to maintain law and order in this country.

Ms. Francesca Fontanini: We had an influx of 8,000 Liberian refugees in the last few weeks of February. Since March the influx has scaled down considerably. Last week, only 50 refugees came into Sierra Leone. All of them had been relocated in the interior of the country mainly in Tobanda and the new camp in Largo and Gondama camp in collaboration with the Sierra Leone government, UNAMSIL, and other international and national partners. We still have 1,000 in Zimmi station and they will be relocated in the interior of the country. At the same time, we still continue with our repatriation exercise, that is bringing back Sierra Leone returnees. Last week we had repatriated 463 returnees from the camps in Guinea. Also by airlift, we have two flights from Liberia arriving on Tuesday and Thursday in Sierra Leone with 60 returnees. This repatriation exercise will accelerate very soon in mid-April, when a bridge will be opened in Kailahun district. We will be repatriating more and more Sierra Leoneans.

Q: Do you in any way as a mission, with the fighting in Liberia, think that with the influx of refugees, there's going to be a threat to the security of Sierra Leone?

Maj. Yusuf: The situation in Liberia vis-à-vis what is happening in Sierra Leone is under control. We have our troops along the border. We have military observers deployed along the border monitoring what's happening. So far the situation is calm. There's no threat to security and the life of anybody in this country.

Q: Yesterday, a UNAMSIL vehicle had an accident along Kissy Road. Can you please confirm it?

Mr. Tafirenyika: The only information we have is what we read in the newspapers this morning. We haven't been officially informed about the accident and will certainly check on it.

Q: My question is about Hinga Norman. He has made his first appearance and he has pleaded not guilty.

Mr. Hamdan: Unfortunately, the public affairs officer of the Special Court is unable to attend this briefing. I'll pass on your question to him so he can give you the answer as soon as possible. I cannot speak for the Court. It's a totally independent entity from UNAMSIL. If you see anybody from the Court here, it's only that we are cooperating with them and providing them with our facilities that they don't have. But we are not spokesmen for the Court. They speak for themselves. I will help you only by passing your question to the court and they'll be happy to answer it for you.

Q: Francesca, is it true that most of the camps are overcrowded and that supply of food is not as regular as it should be?

Ms. Fontanini: With the opening of Tubanda, the camps are no longer overcrowded. For food, the responsible agency is the World Food Programme. According to them they can provide food for the next few months. You can get information from them. From my knowledge, there's no problem at the moment. The refugees receive a monthly ration which consists of rice, oil, and condiments. There's a specific task force that's constantly monitoring the calories of the food rations. Special treatment, of course, is provided for vulnerable cases, mainly young children, adolescents and women.

Q: UNAMSIL troops are presently occupying four schools in the Kono district. Is UNAMSIL going to wait until the government asks them to hand it over to school authorities?

Mr. Hamdan: Every building that UNAMSIL uses is by an agreement. I can assure you that anytime that the owner or owners of any building that is occupied by UNAMSIL come back and they're ready to take it over, arrangements will be made quickly to vacate that building and to restore it. In asking that question, you must remember that UNAMSIL contingents are building schools and other humanitarian projects such as community centers, clinics. One battalion alone is providing medical services to its troops and at the same time to thousands of patients in the community. When you ask this question, you are implying that UNAMSIL is taking over schools. This is a very misleading portrayal of the situation.

Q: Maj. Yusuf, you are saying that there's no problem with security in this country. Kofi Annan, however, has a different view. Even the Special Court is saying that they're trying someone out of the country and they have reasons. What is your line now about the security situation in this country?

Mr. Hamdan: The Secretary-General is recommending the extension of the Force for another six months. The Secretary-General is naturally concerned about certain areas that need to be addressed and work is going on, and they need time to be addressed. Among the situation the Secretary-General is concerned about is the border with Liberia. It is clear to everyone that any travel in one country in the sub-region affects the security situation in another country. That's why the Secretary-General recommended the extension of the mandate of the Force for another six months. Maj Yusuf is right when he tells you that the security situation is stable. There is no contradiction with this press release on the report of the Secretary-General and the assurances from the military spokesman that the security situation is stable. This is exactly the case. There are areas of concern, and these are specified in the report.

Q: For the military spokesman, now that UNAMSIL is gradually withdrawing, suppose there is an eventuality, how are you going to tackle it?

Maj. Yusuf: Our withdrawal from this place does not create a security vacuum, please get that clear. The Sierra Leone police and armed forces are there. As we are withdrawing, we have a standby force here, a Reserve Force, which at any part point in time is ready to assist the Sierra Leone police and armed forces to combat any insecurity situation in this country.

Q: I'm little bit confused by the statement of the (Special Court) Prosecutor that Hinga Norman is being tried out of the country for security reasons.

Mr. Tafirenyika: I think you need to distinguish between potential threats to security and what's actually happening on the ground. There will always be threats to security anywhere, anytime, but right now the security situation is stable.

Mr. Hamdan: I don't think you have to interpret this action by the Court. This is a decision that was made by the Court. They must have good reasons as to why they decided to do exactly what they did. Don't read, however, that if a trial or a court case is decided to be closed or in an undisclosed location, that it could be only in order to maintain security in that specific location and not to draw conclusion that this may cause threat to security in other location. There are many trials in every country depending on the circumstances of those trials that are held with added security measures because the case calls for that. This is in order to allow for the process of law and the right of defendant to be guaranteed without interference by any outside sources. This is not unique to this case; it happens all over the world, that some court cases require special security measures.

Q: You mentioned a unit in UNAMSIL that's responsible for detonating bombs. A couple of weeks ago they located some bombs in the eastern district of Kailahun. They reported the matter to the Sierra Leone army who said they don't have the expertise. My concern is what are you doing in that respect, imparting knowledge to our personnel like the civilian police?

Mr. Hamdan: You can be reassured that this decision for the army to have responsibility for disposing of those remaining scattered ordnances was not done haphazardly, without clear coordination between UNAMSIL and the army. I can assure you that the expertise is there. If you ask the army, they will tell you that they have a capable and expert engineering unit.

Maj. Yusuf: There's a procedure in reporting this. You report to any UNAMSIL official or any military observer. But right now, we don't have an engineering unit. The Sierra Leone police and armed forces have the capacity. We have an expert in ammunitions disposal. He liaises with the Sierra Leone army and police.

UNAMSIL Headquarters, Mammy Yoko, P. O. Box 5, Freetown, Sierra Leone Tel: 232-22-273-183/4/5 Fax: 232-22-273-189