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Source: UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea
Date: 25 Mar 2004

UNMEE media briefing notes 25 Mar 2004


A near verbatim transcript of the weekly press briefing chaired in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa by the Spokeswoman and Chief of Public Information Office, Gail Bindley-Taylor Sainte', via videoconference linking participants in Asmara and Addis Ababa . Also present in Asmara Phil Lewis, Programme Manager for UNMACC.


On 18 March, in Asmara, the Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) briefed the diplomats in Asmara on the status of the peace process; the Security Council's meeting with Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) as well as its informal consultations on the Secretary General's progress report; and Security Council resolution 1531 (2004). Also present was the Force Commander Major-General Robert Gordon who briefed the officials on the Sector Military Coordination Committee (SMCC) meetings, the latest Military Coordination Commission meeting in Nairobi and the overall military situation in the Mission area.

On the same day, the SRSG made remarks at the National Union of Eritrean Women's (NUEW) workshop (supported by UNMEE) on women's rights and HIV/AIDS. In his statement, the SRSG highlighted factors that contribute to the problems relating to HIV/AIDS, and assured the audience of UNMEE's support for joint initiatives on these issues.

Meanwhile in Addis Ababa on 18 March, the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General (DSRSG) Cheikh Tidiane Gaye met with Dr. Tekeda Alemu, the Ethiopian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, at the latter's request. He also attended the launching of the Pan-African Parliament (PAP), which took place at the United Nations Conference Centre in Addis Ababa.

On 19 March, the SRSG attended the screening of UNMEE's documentary, "Next Steps to Peace" at the Intercontinental Hotel in Asmara.

On 22 March, the SRSG, accompanied by the Force Commander visited Sector Centre, where he inaugurated the Bada water pipeline project, funded by the Quick Impact Project (QIP) funds. He also attended--at the invitation of Eritrea's Department of Water Resources of the Ministry of Lands, Water and Environment-- celebrations marking 2004 World Water Day, the theme of which was "Water and Disasters." The observance was held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Asmara.

On 23 March, the SRSG met with the French Ambassador to Eritrea, His Excellency Gerard Sambrana, who paid a courtesy call on him. Later in the afternoon, the SRSG received a delegation from the South African Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who also paid a courtesy visit.

On 24 March the SRSG attended the Italian Contingent Medal Parade. In the afternoon he was interviewed by journalists from the "Boston Globe" and "the Washington Post". Both correspondents are based in Nairobi.


General Overview

During the past week, UNMEE conducted 656 ground and 13 air reconnaissance patrols throughout the Area of Responsibility. The general situation in the Mission area continues to remain tense, yet is assessed as remaining militarily stable. There have been no significant changes in troop locations or dispositions reported over the past week.

In all sectors, UNMEE peacekeepers continued to provide medical assistance to local civilians, including Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), along with supplies of bulk water to civilian communities in the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) and the Adjacent Areas.

Restrictions of Freedom of Movement

The Asmara - Keren - Barentu road continues to remain closed to all UNMEE movement, a restriction which considerably hampers UNMEE in the performance of its mandated tasks.

Mine Action

The Slovak Engineering Company, demining mechanically and manually, cleared an area of 11,149 square metres in the Adi Hakin-Mai Hbey minefield and an area of 1,300 square meters in the vicinity of the village of Sheshebit (8 km southeast of Shilalo) in Sector West. Ten pieces of MYB-2 igniters, one 82 mm mortar bomb, six detonators, two fuses and three POMZ-2 anti-personnel mines were cleared in the Adi Hakin-Mai Hbey minefield. In Sector Centre, a detachment from the Company manually cleared an area of 3,782 square meters along access roads to the border area near Ksad Eiqa, about 15 kilometres south of Adi Quala.

The Kenyan Demining Engineering Company, working in the Adi Hakin-Mai Hbey minefield, also manually cleared an area of 3,269 square metres of four detonators, six fuses, one grenade and thirteen POMZ-2 anti-personnel mines.

MECHEM de-miners cleared 14.2 kilometres of road near Shilalo, a 5.8 kilometre stretch of road near Adi Melele and 55.5 kilometres of road near Tokombia. In addition, they cleared an area of 400 square meters at the Mai Hbey minefield of 93 POMZ-2 anti-personnel mines, which were found in the area.

On 23 March 2004, the UNMEE Mine Action Coordination Centre (MACC) was awarded a UN 21 Award in recognition of their outstanding 'team productivity,' initiatives and contributions in 2003 which were aimed at improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the UN Organisation. The award applauded the MACC Team for its approach of 'extending beyond its coordination role to include operational activities, such as mine risk education, explosive ordnance disposal and mine clearance, demining for demarcation, medical coordination and emergency response.' The award praised the MACC for being 'the first UN Mine Action Centre to successfully integrate civilian and military demining operations and personnel into a holistic operation, employing best practices to achieve significant results.'

The Programme Manager of MACC Phil Lewis attended the 7th International Meeting of National Mine Action Directors and UN Technical Advisors in Geneva, Switzerland. The event was conducted under the auspices of the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS). The purpose of the meeting was to provide a global forum where participants are able to exchange ideas, and discuss issues concerning contemporary global mine action issues.

Meetings And Visits

On 20 March, the Deputy Force Commander and Chief Military Observer Brigadier- General Walid Krishen visited the Military Observer Team Sites at Mendefera and Adi Quala where he was briefed by the respective Team Leaders.

On 22 March, the Special Representative of the Secretary General Legwaila Joseph Legwaila and the Force Commander Major- General Robert Gordon visited Bada in Sector Centre to inaugurate a 2.5 km pipeline laid by the Indian Battalion (INDBATT) to supply water to the village of Boleli (approximately 1 kilometre north of Bada).

On 23 March, the DFC and CMO Brigadier-General Walid Krishen visited the Military Observer Team Site, the Kenyan Demining Engineering Company, the Slovak Engineering Company, the Bangladesh Engineering Company and the Jordanian Battalion Company at Shilalo.

Evacuation of Seriously Injured Eritrean Boy

On 18 March, the INDBATT Company at Zela Ambessa evacuated a critically injured young Eritrean boy by vehicle to the Senafe Hospital. The boy had sustained serious back and leg injuries in a fall from a rooftop and required immediate medical attention. INDBATT's action, which saved the boy's life, was highly appreciated by the local administration and the villagers.

Repatriation of Ethiopian Minors on Humanitarian Grounds

On 18 March, the INDBATT Company Commander at Zela Ambessa arranged for the repatriation of two Ethiopian minors, aged 14 and 11, who were apprehended by the Eritrean Police at Lahio (5 kilometres south west of Zela Ambessa) after they had accidentally strayed into the Temporary Security Zone earlier that day.

Return of Cattle

On 16 March, the INDBATT Post Commander from the Italian Fort arranged, in conjunction with the Eritrean Police, the return of 12 cattle that had strayed into the Temporary Security Zone from Ethiopia.

Forced Border Crossing

On the evening of 16 March, a civilian vehicle crossed the southern boundary of the TSZ from Eritrea into Ethiopia in the vicinity of the Mereb River Bridge. The vehicle which was speeding, crashed through the Eritrean checkpoint and then avoided the UNMEE checkpoint by crossing the dry riverbed. Subsequent investigations with the Ethiopian authorities confirmed that there was only one person in the vehicle.

Medal Parades

On 24 March, SRSG and the Force Commander presented UNMEE medals to members of the Italian Military Police Company at their medal parade, which was held at the Staff Officer's Camp.

On 25 March, SRSG and the Force Commander presented UNMEE medals to members of the Finnish Guard Company. Admiral J Kaskeala, Chief of Defence of Finland was the guest of honour at the medal parade, which took place in the Finnish Camp in Asmara earlier this morning.

Questions and Answers

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Thank you Gail, my question is about this freedom of movement of UNMEE vehicles in Eritrea, (on the) Asmara- Keren-Barentu (road.) How long has it been closed now?

Spokeswoman: Let me just check on the exact date, I think it was in the first week of March, the 5th of March to be exact.

Q [from Asmara]: Can you just tell us how the situation is regarding this road? Is UNMEE still discussing with the Eritrean authorities to get access to the road again?

Spokeswoman: We are, absolutely (raising this issue at every opportunity) because this is a very important road. I think the Force Commander made that clear when he was here two weeks ago-that this is our main supply route to some 1,500 troops and therefore we need to make sure that the road is reopened as soon as we can get it open. So we are waiting on the Eritrean authorities, who have said that they are undertaking an investigation and as soon as we hear from them, which we hope will be very soon, we hope the road will be reopened and we can continue to carry out our normal duties.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: We are hearing that along the border near Zelembessa, there have been lots of military activities by Eritreans, a lot of explosions and gunfire and in fact they tell us there is lots of smoke following the explosions and so on.

Spokeswoman: On which side of the border?

Q [from Addis Ababa]: On the Eritrean side. They are saying, that is because the Eritrean forces are engaged in some training exercises. Have you observed this? Has UNMEE observed this? I would like to know.

[Please note the correction in this response from the Spokeswoman to her earlier statement regarding training activities on both sides of the border. In fact the Force has confirmed that training activities with live ammunition has only taken place on the Ethiopian side.]

Spokeswoman: I know that training was going on and there was firing on the Ethiopian side of the border, and we were concerned that the firing was very close to the southern boundary of the TSZ. This was a matter raised in the Sector MCCs and since that time, though the exercises have gone on they have moved away from the southern boundary of the TSZ. As far as on the Eritrean side I will just have to check with military whether they have heard anything of firing around the Zelembessa area on the Eritrean side.

CMPIO: From a military point of view, so far we have not received any information on this sort of incident that firing is being conducted from the Eritrean side. We have not received any message so far.

Spokeswoman: The Military PIO has said that he does not have any information on this but we will check for you. We always do when you raise issues like this. We will check with the Force. Sharif could you check with the force and if we have anything more we will add it to the briefing note.

CMPIO: Okay I will check it and in the next briefing (note) I will let know. But there is some information that there was fire fighting. Some of the huts (in the area) were burnt by fire. Not firing of ammunition. This was just normal fire fighting.

Q [from Asmara]: It is about that civilian who crossed the border from Eritrea to Ethiopia, do you know if it was an Eritrean citizen?

Spokeswoman: The vehicle that crashed through (the Eritrean checkpoint,) yes it was.

Q [from Asmara]: Was it a male or female?

Spokeswoman: I have no idea. I have no other details other than what you have there.

Q [from Asmara]: I was just wondering if the person had been arrested in Ethiopia, if you knew about that?

Spokeswoman: No, I don't. I would presume so, since we asked the Ethiopian authorities and they were the people who were able to tell us that there was one civilian who crossed the border. So I am assuming that the person was apprehended on this side. But I think it also goes to show that they (people crossing the border) don't necessarily need to go through UNMEE checkpoints to cross the border.

[Please note that the Spokeswoman has also ascertained from the Force that they cannot confirm whether the civilian who crossed the border in the incident of 16 March was apprehended on the Ethiopian side.]

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Inaudible

Spokeswoman: It is not at our checkpoint, that's the bottom line.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: They avoided your checkpoint.

Spokeswoman: They did avoid our checkpoint.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Inaudible...

Spokeswoman: We have always said if people want to cross the border, they will find means of doing so.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: I note that the Deputy SRSG had a meeting with Dr. Alemu, do you have any further information about what they talked about, as it was called by the Foreign Affairs person?

Spokeswoman: Usually we do not give you any more information on those meetings especially because (on this occasion) it is at the Ethiopians' request, not ours. You know those meetings are usually confidential and I am not allowed to say anything on them.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Would you explain to us the status of demarcation as of now, since the Secretary-General presented his report to the Security Council?

Spokeswoman: Have you read the report and the Security Council's resolution?

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Inaudible...

Spokeswoman: That is why I am asking, have you read both?

Q [from Addis Ababa]: No I didn't.

Spokeswoman: Okay, because I think it is really important and I said this before and if you don't have copies, we will furnish you with them. But I think it is important to read the recommendations of the Secretary- General's report as well as the current resolution and what it says on the issue of demarcation because it says clearly there what the UN's expectations are.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Would it be possible...

Spokeswoman: On demarcation as you know, the ball is not in our court

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Would it be possible to get copies of the Progress Report?

Spokeswoman: Absolutely, Adane can you make sure that copies of both the Secretary Generals' Progress Report as well as the Security Council resolution 1531 are available because I think it is really important that you read it, really thoroughly.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: First of all congratulations on receiving that award. Just a routine one, I wonder if you could explain the difference between mechanical and manual de-mining? I am assuming that mechanical is much faster but presumably mechanically you can't get to certain positions and the manual is better in that case. But could you give us the difference then please?

Phil Lewis: (Programme Manager UNMEE MACC) Thanks very much for the congratulations. Mechanical, we have one unit here that uses heavy machinery such as tank rollers and heavy flails, as well as remote controlled light flails. And mechanical is primarily used as a groundbreaking tool to clear the way for manual or dogs clearance. It is faster, but obviously it cannot be used as stand-alone because it is not a hundred per cent accurate in its clearance techniques and therefore you always have to follow mechanical with manual or with dogs or a combination of both. Manual is by far the most painstaking and slowest way of clearing, but it's also the most effective in that with a good well trained manual team, you can be assured that if they have been trained to international standards and operated to international standards they would have cleared the land one hundred per cent which is something that machines just cannot do.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: I am not really satisfied with the response I got from Asmara about these activities (near) the border. I would like to know what is the distance of the UNMEE post from the border, because I have heard this, not from one person, but ten fifteen persons, that there have been activities there. And the fact that UNMEE is telling me they don't know any thing about it, just makes me a bit unhappy. So I want to know if it is a matter of distance. I would like to know what is the distance between the border and the next UNMEE post inside Eritrea?

CMPIO: There is no equal distance from this border. It varies depending upon the camp location or post location. In some places it is two or three kilometers, in some places it is just close to the TSZ southern boundary line. So it varies, there is no fixed distance of the UNMEE posts to the border.

Spokeswoman: But we did say we would check. We did not say that it may not have happened, but that that we are not aware of this, as far as we know.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: You should have known by now. This has happened last week, UNMEE should have known...?

Spokeswoman: But first of all you are assuming that your source is correct?

Q [from Addis Ababa]: It is correct, because I know these are people living there. They came here and I talked to them. They told me, there is no reason why they should lie about it.

Spokeswoman: Well, I am not saying they are lying. I would not go that far. But I am saying that we did mention that there were training activities. What I do not know is whether it was specifically in that area on the Eritrean side. That is what we would need to check.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: You said only the Ethiopians are doing training?

Spokeswoman: Well the Ethiopians had informed us when they were going to do these exercises, so we knew.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: On the Eritrean side you don't have?

Spokeswoman: But on the Eritrean side, I personally don't know any thing about (training exercises). That I would have to check.

Q [from Addis Ababa]: But not for next week.

Spokeswoman: No we will check today. I am sure the Force will know on the ground, he (Military PIO) can check today and we will get back to you and let you know.

[The Spokeswoman has confirmed that there was a firing incident in the area around Zelembessa, which apparently was caused by inebriated persons firing into the air.]

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Have you sustained accidents as a result of the worst road you have to use because of the blockage?

Spokeswoman: The (alternative route to) the Asmara-Keren-Barentu road?

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Yes.

Spokeswoman: Have we had accidents?

Q [from Addis Ababa]: Yes.

Spokeswoman: No, we have very careful drivers. (laughter) Not at all. No we haven't had any accidents. It is a huge inconvenience because it takes much longer. It does obstruct our being able to use our main supply route, which is a major problem, which is a major obstruction. It also, as the Force Commander I think has said, it also makes us half blind in terms of being able to monitor what is happening in that area, because it means when we take the other route obviously there are areas that we cannot see (or monitor effectively.) So it does affect our carrying out our mandate.

Q [from Asmara]: If you are so fed up with the Eritreans about the closure of the road why do you keep on doing CIMIC projects and stuff for them?

Spokeswoman: No, Jonah I don't think... Did I use the word fed up? (laughter) I just wanted to check on that one. No what I would say is that CIMIC (Civil Military Collaboration) projects are very important for the communities. And for us that is a really important part of our mandate to help the communities as much as we can, regardless of what is happening politically. CIMIC projects are a way of, as the Indian Battalion says, "winning hearts and minds," and that is why we would continue those because it has nothing to do with what is happening politically.

Q [from Asmara]: So the Eritreans have refused to let you use this road. Have you got any counter measures you can use such as stop cooperation in some areas, stop helping in another area, or you are just going to keep on with your diplomatic channels and talking to them about it and hope they will change their mind?

Spokeswoman: I think you have to remember we are a peacekeeping mission and I do not think (the leadership of) peacekeeping missions walk around just generally trying to have confrontations all over the place. I think what we try to do is to resolve the situation as best as we can, and this one, we are making sure that we continuously raise it in every quarter that we can, that it is a distressing thing for us at this point in time in more ways than one, and that it is also obstructing our mandate over and above everything else. So it is not just that we are sitting and not doing anything. Perhaps our methods of addressing this are little different from yours.

Q [from Asmara]: I hope it is more successful than your continued lobbying about the high altitude air routes.

Spokeswoman: I wouldn't say we have been totally unsuccessful. We are still talking about it. At the moment it is not a dead issue. So I would take that as a good sign of hope that we can eventually move there, and we have made our position on that very clear. If you look at the Secretary General's progress report it has been raised again with the hope that something will be done. It is a same thing with the restrictions of freedom of movement. It says here clearly, (Spokeswoman referring to Resolution 1531)"the Security Council strongly urges the parties to cooperate fully and expeditiously with UNMEE in the implementation of its mandate" and that includes making sure that any restrictions or impediments to the work of UNMEE are lifted. It is a request by the Security Council.

Q [From Addis]: Is your flight restriction lifted?

Spokeswoman: Not as yet, but let me flag it for you, (operative paragraph 8 of resolution 1531) it does say that we expect that this is another one of the issues that needs to be looked at urgently because of the effects on our operational costs. The Security Council "...urges both parties once again to establish expeditiously a direct high altitude flight." It is in there.

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 6017
or George Somerwill, Deputy Chief, Public Information Office UNMEE Headquarters Addis Ababa, telephone: 251-1-726895 extension 7104; Mobile: 251 9 223031.

UNMEE Website:


With the exception of public UN sources, reproduction or redistribution of the above text, in whole, part or in any form, requires the prior consent of the original source.

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