|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
DAILY PRESS BRIEFING BY THE OFFICE OF THE SPOKESMAN FOR THE SECRETARY-GENERAL
The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Marie Okabe, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General, and Ahmad Fawzi, Director, News and Media Division, Department of Public Information (DPI), and United Nations Spokesman on the Middle East.
Good afternoon. Sorry we’re late. There’s a lot going on here, today. And joining us is our Ahmad Fawzi, whom you all know. And he will be taking questions on the Middle East for the duration of the crisis there.
I will start with the Security Council, here. It began its work this morning by hearing a briefing in closed consultations about the Secretary-General’s recent reports concerning the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda and the surrounding region. That briefing was given by the Director of the Africa I Division of the Department of Political Affairs, Welile Nhlapo.
The Council has begun to hear from Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Jan Egeland, about his recent visit to Lebanon, Israel and Gaza, to see firsthand the humanitarian needs of the region since the outbreak of the current crisis. We expect him to speak to you at the stakeout following his briefing. And, the Secretary-General, who, as you know, returned to New York yesterday, is back at Headquarters and he is attending the Security Council briefing, as well.
The Council also expects to discuss a draft resolution on non-proliferation, in today’s consultations.
Yesterday afternoon, the Security Council adopted a presidential statement in which it expressed its shock and distress at the Israeli firing on the UN observer post in southern Lebanon, which, as you know, caused the death of four UN military observers. And, that statement, as you know, is already out.
And, in consultations yesterday afternoon, Council members also received a draft resolution, submitted by France, concerning a one-month extension of the mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.
**Potential Troop Contributors for Lebanon
Earlier this week, the Secretary-General had asked the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to hold a technical-level meeting for potential troop contributors to a possible stabilization force in Lebanon.
And, we had reported on that to you earlier this week. We can confirm that that meeting is scheduled to take place next Monday at 3:30 in the afternoon.
Ahmad Fawzi will have some briefing notes on the Middle East, but, the first item is one that you also have been following this morning, that the UN Interim Force in Lebanon reports that it was decided to relocate temporarily all unarmed military observers of the Observer Group Lebanon (OGL) from the patrol bases to other UNIFIL positions.
** Democratic Republic of the Congo
And then, turning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sunday is election day in that country, and the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in that country, Ross Mountain, has renewed the UN’s call to all Congolese to go to the polls.
Speaking earlier today at a press briefing at the Mission’s headquarters in Kinshasa, Ross Mountain said that all safeguards are in place to ensure that the elections are free and fair. More than 100,000 national and international observers, as well as political parties’ and candidates’ witnesses, will be monitoring the process. Some 400 foreign journalists have reportedly been accredited by the Mission’s media unit to cover that event.
Mountain also said that all security conditions are met to hold the elections. More than 73,000 national police officers have been mobilized, and Congolese, European Union and UN troops will be on standby to provide assistance, if needed.
He expressed confidence that the vote will be peaceful in the eastern Ituri province, especially after an agreement was signed between one of the region’s largest rebel coalitions and the Congolese Government to that effect. A toll free number has also been publicized for the population to report harassment by security forces during the polls.
And, on Somalia, in a statement issued a few hours ago, the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Somalia, François Lonseny Fall, condemned the assassination of Abdallah Deerow Isaaq, the Somali Minister for Constitutional and Federal Affairs, who was shot, outside a mosque in Baidoa earlier today, by unidentified gunmen. And, we have that full statement upstairs.
And, the UN Refugee Agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), will lead a joint inter-agency assessment mission this Sunday to remote areas of eastern Ethiopia after recent reports of Somalis crossing the border.
The reports say the Somalis have been fleeing the country following the Islamic Courts taking control of Mogadishu. There are no figures available as the reports have been sketchy, but, the mission will determine how many people have crossed, and their immediate needs, and also put together a plan for adequate reception arrangements for any future new arrivals. The refugee agency is concerned that any fighting in Somalia could provoke new influxes. And, we have more on that in a press release, upstairs.
And, on Nepal, the UN team -- which is currently in Nepal to explore possible UN support to that country’s peace process -- met in Kathmandu today with the senior most leaders of the Maoist Communist Party. Mission leader, Stefan de Mistura, welcomed the Maoists’ announcement that they would extend their ceasefire for an additional three months.
The mission also met today with Nepal's Home Minister and the Government team conducting talks with the Maoists, as well as with the Secretary of Defence and the Chief of Army Staff.
**Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)
And, turning to the Economic and Social Council, it is expected to close its 2006 substantive session in Geneva today. And, in the course of its session, the ECOSOC held a number of special segments, including a high-level segment on employment, a humanitarian affairs segment, and a segment on coordination of UN agencies, which this year focused on the reforms undertaken by the Secretary-General, and there’s a press release on that, as well.
And, we have the Week Ahead at the United Nations for your planning purposes next week. And, I will now turn to Ahmad Fawzi, for him to give his briefing on Lebanon. And, he can take your questions first, and then you can turn to me.
Briefing by Middle East Spokesman
Thank you, Marie. Hello everybody. I’m here, as Marie said, to take your questions on the Middle East during the current crisis. This is a question of division of labour, and on this matter, I’m working very closely with the Office of the Spokesman for the Secretary-General. Many of you know me from previous incarnations as a Spokesman here before, and on different assignment areas, including Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a pleasure to be here, although, of course, events are deeply troubling in the Middle East.
Let me start by confirming what Marie said about UNIFIL consolidating its observers in the south. The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has reported that it was decided to relocate, temporarily, all unarmed UNTSO military observers of the Observer Group Lebanon -– what we call the OGL -- from the patrol bases in the area of Marwahin and Markaba to UNIFIL positions.
You’ll recall the other day that Assistant Secretary-General Jane Holl Lute told the Security Council that we may need to prepare for Observer Group Lebanon’s consolidation, in order to minimize further risks to its personnel.
There were two direct impacts on UNIFIL positions from the Israeli side in the past 24 hours, and five other incidents of firing close to UN positions from the Israeli side. It was also reported that Hizbollah fired from the vicinity of five UN positions.
All UNIFIL positions in the area of operation remain permanently occupied and maintained by the troops. The number of troops in some Ghanaian battalion positions is somewhat reduced because of the increased safety risk for the troops, due to frequent incidents of Hizbollah firing from the vicinity of the positions, and shelling and bombardment close to the positions from the Israeli side.
On the humanitarian situation, I know that Mr. Egeland will be briefing the Council and will be talking to you after his briefing. So, I’m not going to dwell very long on that, just to say that the UN and NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières today were sending two humanitarian convoys to Sidon and Jezzine, in southern Lebanon. There were 8 trucks [to Jezzine] carrying all kinds of humanitarian supplies. And, there was a 10-truck convoy to Sidon, also carrying urgent needed supplies.
In addition to the convoys, the World Food Programme has started a humanitarian cargo airlift, which will take temporary warehouses and generators to the region. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, for its part, reports that it is still waiting at the Syrian border with 500 tons of emergency relief supplies for more than 20,000 people. And, it expects to gain access to Lebanon early next week.
Finally, I’d just like to say that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, reports that –- you remember, it launched a flash appeal for $149 million for Lebanon -- $15 million has been received in pledges and a further $5 million will be made available through the Central Emergency Response Fund.
Marie and I would be happy to take any questions you have. I will be taking questions on the Middle East.
Deputy Spokesman: Let’s start with the Middle East.
Question: First of all, the Secretary-General is going to be attending the Security Council meeting. I just want to know, given the situation as it stands now –- pathetic, heart-rending, whatever –- will the Secretary-General put all his moral authority to ask the Security Council to come up with some sort of a ceasefire resolution? Is he going to do that or not?
Mr. Fawzi: The Secretary-General is putting all his efforts and all his energy – and, as you are asking about moral authority –- his moral authority as well, to the international community to agree, to get both sides to agree to a cessation of hostilities. There are various ways he’s doing this, and I think that you should listen very carefully to Jan Egeland’s statement to the Council today, as one exemplification of what the Secretary-General is calling for.
Question: The reason why I’m asking is, how much pressure can he put on it -– there’s such inertia, which exists in the Security Council. As a follow-up on this UNIFIL situation, has Israel given the United Nations enough explanation as to why it killed those four people that particular day, and are you satisfied with that explanation?
Mr. Fawzi: Israel has said it will conduct an investigation. We look forward to the outcome of that investigation, of course. The Secretary-General, however, has called for a joint investigation. That remains to be seen. We will, in the meantime, cooperate with the Israeli investigation, provide all the information we have. And at the same time, as is the practice with all such incidents, the United Nations will conduct its own board of inquiry into the incident, and any information that comes out of that will complement what the Israelis are doing.
Question: Israel has not agreed, as yet, on any joint investigation?
Mr. Fawzi: No.
Mr. Fawzi: May I take a question from someone else? Yes?
Question: Two questions. First, how many military observers are being relocated?
Mr. Fawzi: A total of eight; four from two patrol bases.
Question: It’s eight people. And, the other question, I see that you said that the Israeli army impacted twice on the UN: eight artillery and mortar rounds inside an Indian battalion; one artillery round impacted the perimeter wall of UNFIL in Naqoura. I also see, apparently they shelled again the position where you are trying to recover the body where the Canadian observer was killed. Did you protest to Israel why, do you have any explanation why they were still shelling that position? Is there any Hizbollah activity around there?
Mr. Fawzi: The answer to your first question about the shelling is, yes, that position did come under fire again today. The reason why is unclear. We don’t have the answer to that question. And, yes, UNIFIL is doing what it usually does in these circumstances, and it is communicating with the other side to find out exactly what’s happening. We have been trying to find the remains of the fourth peacekeeper, as you said.
Question: So, you can’t do that right now [talkover]…?
Mr. Fawzi: Right now, we had to stop because of the shelling.
Question: Mr. Fawzi, I just wanted to ask you, first of all, you said that there’s a humanitarian cargo airlift scheduled. Is it going to land in Beirut at the Rafik Hariri Airport, and was it repaired? And, the second thing is, you also said that UNHCR is still waiting with its convoy at the Syrian border, but is expected to go into Lebanon early next week. Did they sort of secure some sort of promise from Israel that they could come in, or what is the background behind that, and why is it early next week?
Mr. Fawzi: They’re working on getting authorization to go in. I’m not very clear on the steps that they’re taking, but, they anticipate to gain access to Lebanon next week. This is the information that UNHCR gave us. I think for further information, we should ask UNHCR, and I’m happy to do so on your behalf. World Food Programme, same thing. Information from that agency is that they would be conducting an airlift into the region, as their statement says. They’ve started a humanitarian cargo airlift, which will take temporary warehouses and generators to the region. So, exactly where they’re going to land at the moment is not clear to me, and it may be unclear at the moment for operational reasons, but again, I’m happy to check on that and let you know.
Question: A letter was sent by the Government of Lebanon to the Secretary-General, and I believe, to the President of the Security Council, complaining that an Israeli attack led to an oil spill affecting much of the Lebanese coastline. Do you have any information about that?
Mr. Fawzi: No, I don’t. But, as I said, I’d be happy to look into that, too. I was not briefed on that letter. You say it’s from the Government of Lebanon? Okay, I’ll look into that.
Question: Could we have some more detail about Hizbollah firing from the vicinity of UN positions? I know, for example, that Marie said that yesterday such firing took place outside of four UN positions, and I believe you said today, additional firing. Which positions are these? How significant is the firing? What’s the impact and the result of it all? And, has the UN protested this? And to whom does the UN protest Hizbollah firings?
Mr. Fawzi: That’s a good question. UNIFIL, of course, has contacts with all parties, and they would be talking to them about what’s going on. I don’t have details about where and from where and how frequent. When we have those details, we will share them with you.
Question: Because it would be interesting to know how significant all of this is in the fighting.
Question: It is obvious that humanitarian aid is needed, but, it’s not obvious what UNIFIL is doing there. The mandate of UNIFIL was to make sure that southern Lebanon is under Government authority. In a warfare situation, what rationale could you give us for the presence of UNIFIL over there?
Mr. Fawzi: UNIFIL has been doing a very important task over the past 28 years. I understand your question and the context in which you’re asking the question, that the situation has evolved on the ground, there’s a war going on at the moment -– has its activities and responsibilities, have they changed in any way? Certainly, UNIFIL has to adapt to the changing circumstances on the ground. In fact, UNIFIL troops themselves are trapped without fuel and without supplies, and have to resupply themselves, in order to help the population in the south. However, they are helping the population in the south in many ways. Some are requesting assistance; some are requesting refuge; some are requesting basic supplies, like food and water. One of UNIFIL’s tasks was to monitor the Blue Line, and to monitor activities across the Blue Line. This is a very important task because it feeds into our reports here at Headquarters to the Security Council, and it has to continue to do this important task that it was mandated to do by the Security Council.
So, today, as you know, the international community is looking into ways to perhaps create a new force. Now, what shape and form and mandate will that new force take, we will find out in the days and weeks to come. But, until a new force is created for Lebanon, whether it’s based on the force we have on the ground today, or whether it’s a completely new force, remains to be seen. In the meantime, don’t underestimate the work that 2,000 men and women are doing on the ground in south Lebanon today under the UNIFIL flag. Thank you. Richard?
Question: As a thought, maybe at the end of the briefing, you may want to spell your name for TV broadcasters who are not familiar with you or your beard since your last appearance here.
Mr. Fawzi: You approve, do you? (laughter).
Question: And, basically, why were they relocated? If we could get past the terminology of the observers temporary relocated –- why now, as opposed to a few days ago? You say eight people -– there was a report over there, according to the Spokesman, of 50, and Mark Malloch Brown, earlier on the air, said withdrawal of the UN -- and he probably was talking about UNIFIL and the observers –- would send a horrible signal to the world. So, now what kind of signal, or was it just a necessity to pull back?
Mr. Fawzi: I’m sticking by my figures. That is what I was told by Milos Strugar, our spokesman in the south this morning; I spoke to him on the phone: four observers from two posts were consolidated to UNIFIL. If I stand to be corrected, I’d be happy to hear the other figures, but these came straight from the mouth of the spokesman of UNIFIL. Why now? I think the reason is obvious. The situation is becoming extremely precarious. We lost four brave soldiers, three days ago. We needed to get these men out of the line of fire, and that’s what we’ve done.
Question: Has the board of inquiry started for the UN? Has anybody interviewed people –- the widow of the Canadian who sent the e-mail(s) –- just factually, do you know?
Mr. Fawzi: No, I don’t, and I don’t want to get into that subject at the moment. This is a private e-mail, and we didn’t have access to it. Yes?
Question: I have a few questions, but, before I start, do you speak French?
Mr. Fawzi: Conversational, but I’m not going to answer your question in French. Je m’excuse énormement.
Question: Okay, I’ll ask the questions in English. On Sunday, I believe, you evacuated one of the observer posts in Lebanon when it became clear there was a risk of danger. Why did you decide not to evacuate all the observer posts at that time?
Mr. Fawzi: You asked that question before in this room, and you got the following answer: because we were given assurances that the UN was not being targeted. Next question.
Question: Okay. My next question: the widow of the Canadian peacekeeper-observer, she said yesterday she believes in her heart that her husband is still alive. Could you maybe explain the sort of recovery effort and whether the body has been recovered, and why the UN is convinced that he is dead?
Mr. Fawzi: My heart goes out to the widow of the peacekeeper, and all of us here at the UN are extremely shaken by recent events. No, I can’t go into the details. I can tell you that they are using everything they have. If you see pictures of, and perhaps you have seen photos of the bunker, it has been flattened, and I’m so sorry to say that even the remains that we found are in terrible condition. So, I really don’t want to go into further details. I think I’ve said enough on that matter. We are going to continue to try and find his remains. That’s all I’ll say on that.
Question: And, my final question is why was this post manned by humans? Why was not an electronic way of monitoring this place used? Why was it necessary to have human beings in those locations?
Mr. Fawzi: That’s an interesting question. I think we should investigate the possibility of perhaps remote[-controlled] observer posts, but, so far, this is the method that has been used over decades. And, I would have to ask our military experts, which I am not, whether it’s possible to do that remotely. Thank you for raising that question. Can I take somebody else’s question who has not asked a question? Yes?
Question: The Lebanese Transportation Minister said that, even with the remaining power plants in Lebanon that they are five days from running out of fuel entirely. So, I’m wondering I guess whether the UN, any UN agency, is endeavouring to get fuel into the country to run the power plants, or what communication you may have had with Israel to that effect?
Mr. Fawzi: We are trying our best to resolve the fuel problem. In fact, it’s a crisis. Fuel prices have gone up by 600 per cent, and they’re running very low on fuel. I can’t give you the exact details of what we’re doing, but, yes, we’re all trying to do something, and that just underlines the importance of the international community making a decision very quickly on the cessation of hostilities, so that we can provide humanitarian supplies, basic infrastructure repairs, fuel oil, among many, many other things that need to be provided to people in need, and get the negotiations going so that, down the road, we can reach a more formal ceasefire, which will enable Lebanon to rebuild its country, rebuild its infrastructure, and empower the Lebanese Government throughout its territory. Yes, in the back?
Question: A couple of questions derived from some of my colleagues questions. First, you mentioned that you have contacts with all parties. May I assume you mean that to include that you have some contacts with Hizbollah, or at least, you have ways of contacting them -– you know, you call somebody or can call somebody, or something like that? From the other comment and the suggestion about the remote posts, do I take it to mean that every post that you do have is normally or regularly -– I know there’s nothing normal or regular at the moment –- but, is normally or regularly staffed only by human beings, not by electronic equipment of any kind?
Mr. Fawzi: That is correct. They, of course, have some equipment, and I don’t have a list of the gear that they have, but, you’d expect them to have things like binoculars. I don’t know how sophisticated the equipment electronically is, and I’m not sure that I would even be allowed to talk about it. But, yes, these posts are staffed, operated, by human beings. Now, what was your first question?
Question: Contacts with Hizbollah? Do you have some way of getting to them indirectly?
Mr. Fawzi: Of course. Well, we have contacts by virtue of the fact that Hizbollah have representatives in the Lebanese Government. They have ministers, they have members of parliament. So, it ain’t difficult if you want to meet somebody from the Hizbollah party to do so. And, our, don’t forget that the Secretary-General has a personal representative on the ground in Lebanon, Geir Pedersen, the Personal Representative of the Secretary-General, who has his own contacts, as well.
Question: Another question on the number, you said that only eight observers have been relocated. Does that mean that 42 of them, or 40 of them, are still, you know, in their positions and still doing their jobs? And, if that’s the case, why is that presented as a relocation of all the military observers? And, my other question was –- do you have any background about Hizbollah tactics around the UN positions? Do they fire behind the positions? Do they use the UN positions as a way to shelter against the Israeli army? Can you just give us a bit of background on that?
Mr. Fawzi: On figures –- there are 50 unarmed military observers, but, in order to answer your question faithfully, you should see me after the briefing, so that I can double check exactly who is where. I don’t have that information on hand at the moment. Yes, Hizbollah sometimes uses UN positions as a shield. We have reported that faithfully and extensively to the Security Council when it happens. In Jane Holl Lute’s report or briefing to the Council on last Wednesday, 26 July, we said, and I think these were her exact words, unlike in the vicinity of some of our other patrol bases, Hizbollah firing was not taking place within the immediate vicinity of patrol base Khiyam, the day Khiyam was demolished. So, I think that indicates that there are times when that happens, when there are some activities. But, do I have information about Hizbollah activity around our bases today, no I don’t.
Question: When Jane Lute was here, she said she would check on whether there was previous Hizbollah activity around that base in Khiyam. Do we have that answer now? Do we know whether -- as the e-mail that has been circulated suggests that there was Hizbollah activity…?
Mr. Fawzi: I’ll talk to her after the briefing. Are you talking about the day before, the week before?
Question: …could be a good time frame. I’m just trying to see whether there was Hizbollah activity around that time that could explain why the place was targeted by the Israeli army.
Mr. Fawzi: Okay. Linda?
Question: And following up also on that, can we get more detail about the Hizbollah firings, which UN post has, again, how significant it is and, as was reported to the Security Council that Hizbollah obviously does use, from time to time, UN posts for firing, and, you know, I think it would really round out our sense of what’s going on there. And also, since the Secretary-General does have a representative on the ground as you say, has he met with representatives of Hizbollah to protest firings from near the UN; what’s the level of the relationship, is there a stepped up effort to be in touch with Hizbollah now that this conflict has dramatically escalated?
Mr. Fawzi: I don’t want to speak on behalf of Geir Pedersen at the moment. He continues his contacts with all parties whenever he deems it necessary to do so and, I’ll leave it at that at the moment. If I have any further information based on your question I will let you know.
Question: Has UNIFIL ever been an object of attack in the past?
Mr. Fawzi: Certainly there have been casualties before, and the largest I can recall was 10 years ago in Qana, when the Fijian barracks of UNIFIL came under attack, which were housing scores of Palestinian refugees at the time.
Question: We understand from the Syrian ambassador that three Syrian convoys bearing humanitarian aid were attacked in Lebanon in the last several days, I think most recently yesterday. Do you know anything about that? Has there been any collaboration between the United Nations and Syria to deliver humanitarian aid to Lebanon?
Mr. Fawzi: I don’t have information on that, but, I’d be happy to look into it for you. You say three Syrian convoys were attacked. Do you know what location they were in?
Question: No, except that it was in Lebanon.
Mr. Fawzi: Well, perhaps you should follow up with the Syrian Ambassador, if he provided that information. But, I’d be happy to ask our side if they were collaborating at all with them.
Question: He said it was near Baalbek and that one of the convoys was from the United Arab Emirates Red Crescent Society.
Mr. Fawzi: Okay. Do you have any questions on any other matters to Marie?
Question: On the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MONUC, in this room you yourself have answered this question about Kazana and that MONUC was standing by. Mr. Titov earlier this week said the investigation is ongoing. In today’s New York Times, there’s an op-ed by a man who filmed the underlying situation in Kazana and he says –- and I’m sorry to say this –- “If any investigation took place it was a well-kept secret. Certainly the United Nations investigators never asked to see the hours of footage we took.” I guess I’m trying to figure out now what it meant during all these weeks that we’ve been asking about the investigation if, in fact, no one asked the person who filmed it for their film. It seems like there should be some answer to this thing that appeared in the New York Times today.
Deputy Spokesperson: In response to that, I do have a statement from the UN Mission in the DRC. You can pick it up in its entirety upstairs, but, basically, what they’re saying is that regarding the media reports alleging that a number of civilian casualties may have resulted from a military operation conducted by the Congolese armed forces with the support of MONUC troops in April of 2006 in the village of Kazana, in the eastern Ituri district, these allegations have been thoroughly investigated and found untrue.
MONUC forces do not open fire indiscriminately and investigations are conducted in case of alleged infringement of the rules of engagement. And, in spite of the challenges, and often facing greater number of hostile elements, MONUC forces try to put an end to the impunity of the armed groups they are battling and help re-establish the authority of the State in Ituri in order to allow the coming elections to take place.
I suggest that you pick up the report in its entirety upstairs.
Question: Two days ago Mr. Titov said the investigation wasn’t complete yet. This footage was shown on British television and they said they had more footage, so what were they investigating?
Deputy Spokesperson: I will look into the specific question about whether or not they looked at this footage, but, according to MONUC, the allegations have been thoroughly investigated. For more details, I think we have to get it directly from the Mission and we will.
Question: The briefing on (inaudible) is he going to do a stakeout, is there any way to ask him what was said, or to follow up on that?
Deputy Spokesperson: Well, it’s based on a report of the Secretary-General which, as you know, is out as a document. We can certainly ask if he will be interested in talking to you. He’s already finished today because he’s gone upstairs and Jan Egeland has started his briefing, but, we can certainly ask for you.
Any other questions for me? If not, have a good afternoon and don’t forget, Jan Egeland at the stakeout immediately after the briefing. Thank you.
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