UNMEE: Eritrea closes road vital to peacekeeping again
media briefing notes 03 Sep 2004 - A
near verbatim transcript of the press briefing held by the Deputy Spokesperson
and Deputy Chief of Public Information, George Somerwill in Asmara, via videoconference
linking participants in Asmara and Addis Ababa.
Also present in Asmara was UNMEE Chief- of- Staff, Colonel Adarsh Pal Singh.
On 29th August, the SRSG returned from leave to the Mission area, arriving
in Addis Ababa.
On 25th August, DSRSG Cheikh-Tidiane Gaye, OIC UNMEE, left Asmara for Addis
Ababa. On the same day, a medal parade ceremony for the Uruguayan Contingent
took place in Asmara. The Principal Political Affairs Officer, Mr. Leandre
Bassole, represented the SRSG.
On 28th August, the PPAO, OIC D/OSRSG, received Maj.-Gen. Ken Gillespie,
Land Commander Australia, who was visiting the Australian contingent in UNMEE.
They exchanged views on current developments in the peace process.
In a letter dated 30th August, the Eritrean Commissioner informed the
SRSG that the government had decided to close the Asmara -Keren-Barentu road to
all UNMEE vehicles effective 1st September 2004.
On 27th August, 219 Ethiopians were repatriated across the Mereb Bridge from
Eritrea, under ICRC auspices. As usual, the UNMEE Human Rights Office conducted
de-briefing interviews with those repatriated, at Adwa transit camp.
On 26th August INDBATT and HRO jointly repatriated an Eritrean woman to her
village in Sector Central, where she rejoined her family. The woman had been
held in police custody in Ethiopia for about three weeks after she allegedly
crossed the border looking for her cattle. Both Ethiopian and Eritrean
authorities co-operated with UNMEE in her return.
The general situation in the Mission area remains militarily stable. There
have been no significant changes in troop locations or dispositions reported
during the past week. UNMEE conducted 671 ground and 15 air reconnaissance
patrols throughout the Area of Responsibility (AOR).
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. Approximately 109,000 litres of water was
supplied to the civilian communities during last week.
During the week, the Bangladesh Engineering Company, operating in Sector
West, proved manually and by mine-detection dog team (MDDT) a total area of
10,000 square metres in the area Maikokah to Mukuti in the Adjacent Area and
9,600 square metres between Bushuka and Geza Erab in the TSZ. One Anti-Tank
rocket was cleared.
The Kenyan Humanitarian Demining Company, also working in Sector West,
proved manually a total area of 9,531 square metres in the Mai Hbey minefield.
One POMZ mine was cleared.
In Sector Centre, Mechem (civilian contractor) continued its de-mining
operations and using MDDT cleared a total area of 9,016 square metres at Wisho
Village, north east of Tsorena. One POMZ mine was cleared.
Meetings And Visits
On 25th August, the Force Commander, Major General Rajender Singh along with
the Chief of the Uruguay Air Force, Lieutenant General Enriqe Bonnelli,
attended the UNMEE Medal Parade for the Uruguayan Contingent.
During the week, the Force Commander continued with his visits to various
sectors as part of his familiarization with the AOR of the peacekeeping force.
On 28th August, the Force Commander visited various Team Sites and troop
locations in Sector West. The Senior Sector UNMO, Company Commander and Team
Leaders briefed him.
One mine incident was reported on 28th August 2004 in Tserona. The mine
blast reportedly took place approximately four km west of Tserona, along the
track from Mai Agam to Egrimekel. A militia truck with three militiamen was
badly damaged. No one was injured. The MACC Operations Section is currently
carrying out a Preliminary Investigation (PIR) to confirm the report.
Questions and Answers
Question (Asmara): George can you try to explain to us what has
happened regarding the letter denying your access to the Asmara Keren Barentu
DCPIO: Very little that I can say except that a letter was received
stating that the Asmara-Keren-Barentu road will be closed again and that the
alternative route would again be open to us. No reason was given.
Question (Asmara): What has UNMEE's response to this been?
DCPIO: Our response is that we will, and I will ask Col A P Singh in
a moment to speak about this, but we will have to obviously use the alternative
route as we have been doing for the past few months.
Question (Asmara): Are there problems with that alternative route at
DCPIO: I think I will ask Col Singh to respond to that, because he
has probably got the more detailed military knowledge.
Col. A P Singh: As far as the alternative route is concerned we have
been monitoring the trafficability aspect of it on a daily basis and as per
reports that we have in the last 24 hours, this route is still passable. There
are bad patches but it can be driven through.
Question (Asmara): How big a difference is it making to journey
Col. A P Singh: I am sure you know this particular route up to
Mendefera is black tarmac road. Thereafter from Mendefera by far it gets into a
kind of a dirt track right up to Barentu. So that is the place where you
normally start losing out on time. So if you have a convoy going of heavy
vehicles it does definitely take longer than it would have on a proper tarmac
Question (Asmara): Are we talking twice as long?
Col A P Singh: We tried sending a convoy some months back, it took
close to 10-12 hours on this alternative route.
Question (Addis Ababa): Just a clarification on this 290 people. Did
you say repatriated from Eritrea? Was it because. . . I don't have the press
release (briefing notes) with me?
DCPIO: Yes two one nine, two hundred and nineteen and they were
repatriated across the Mereb Bridge from Eritrea.
Question (Addis Ababa): How were (was) their condition, I mean?
DCPIO: I do not have any details on their condition. I am sure since
they were under the ICRC auspices that there were no difficulties. I would
imagine they have been under the care of the ICRC for a while.
Question (Asmara): Is UNMEE disappointed by the closure of the road?
DCPIO: Yes I would say that we are definitely disappointed. I think
there is a great deal of disappointment.
Question (Asmara): There were talks a few weeks back of a new page in
relations with Eritrea, is that thrown out through the window now?
DCPIO: Well, I would say it certainly is a step backwards. You know
it is one of the things where you take two steps forward and one step back. I
would not say it was thrown out through the window. UNMEE will continue to
maintain as positive a relationship as it can with both parties as we have done
in the past, but it is nevertheless disappointing that this has happened.
Question (Asmara): Last time when the Eritreans closed the road they
said it was because you were illegally monitoring their movements along the
road. Was that mentioned this time in the letter?
DCPIO: That was not mentioned.
Question (Asmara): Was any reason mentioned in the letter?
DCPIO: No reason was given.
Question (Asmara): Have you asked for clarification on. . ..?
DCPIO: I understand that clarification has been asked for, yes.
Question (Asmara): But it has not been provided yet?
DCPIO: As at the moment there is no response.
Question (Asmara): Previously these things have gone as far as Kofi
Annan in NewYork. Has this been relayed back to New York? What sort of action
are you taking so far?
DCPIO: Inevitably since there is the Secretary General's report that
is due out very shortly now, very soon, I am certain that it will appear in
Question (Asmara): How big an obstacle is it to UNMEE's work to have
this road blocked.
DCPIO: Probably again that is a question for Col Singh. I will let
Col. A P Singh: Like last time it dramatically deals with our
movement of logistics support to Sector West and we were working when the road
was closed from March till sometime back and we have no choice. We have to use
the alternative road. I guess we have to do the same thing now.
Question (Asmara): Has there have been any further word on the
resumption of direct flights?
DCPIO: No as I mentioned to you last week there are meetings taking
place at a technical level involving the civil aviation authorities and other
meetings will take place. We hope we will resume the flights shortly, very
soon. But it is a technical thing, which involves the ICAO, which is based in
Montreal. So inevitably there are communications that have to go back and
Question (Asmara): The problem now is purely technical, both sides
have. . .
DCPIO: Yes I do not think we should call it a problem, it is simply
that after four years of there not being any direct flights of any kind,
inevitably there are things that have to be done, there are certain steps which
have to be taken, which involve the International Civil Aviation Authorities.
Question (Addis Ababa): Well, it is a follow up from our friend in
Eritrea. How soon do we expect this flight to resume? Do we have a certain time
like approximate, you know, can you say a month, a week? You said it is only
DCPIO: I think it will be probably wrong of me to speculate how long
it will take. I have heard that it should be a matter of weeks but of course in
the meantime if I say anything more detailed than that, you can be sure that it
can take much longer. So I do not want to say more than that but I have been
told it should be a matter of weeks.
Question (Asmara): I am just thinking about relations with. . . I
mean there is a new Force Commander who came here. It was a bright new start.
Is this back to square one? I mean people have talked all this year about
relations between UNMEE and Eritrea being bad. Is this the worst it has been?
DCPIO: I do not think that I can answer that at this point. I really do
not think that it would be appropriate to answer. We have a new Force
Commander, and as you have commented, it is an opportunity for a new start and
as I mentioned to you earlier absolutely no reason has been given for the
change back to the government requesting UNMEE to use the alternate route. So I
do not think I want to speculate any more at this point. I think you can
probably find out more from the Government of Eritrea.
Question (Asmara): They have not given you any reason. So do you
think the closure of the road is unfair?
DCPIO: Again I do not think that it is something that you would
necessarily characterize as unfair. It is simply that it makes our work much
harder, much more difficult and if there is going to be more rain in the coming
weeks, which is quite possible, it could make our work considerably harder to
the point where we may have to supply Barentu by helicopter. So I would not
necessarily call it unfair I would just say that it simply is a situation which
makes our work considerably harder. We are here to keep the peace, basically.
We are here for the two governments so I think if our lives are made harder
then our work is made more difficult and in the end it is the two people who
are going to suffer; the people of Ethiopia and the people of Eritrea.
Question (Asmara): You mentioned that you are here at the invitation
of the two governments, and primarily you are based here in Eritrea. So when
this sort of thing happens do you not think 'why are we bothering?'
DCPIO: No. In fact the SRSG was interviewed just two days ago, and he
was asked a similar question and he said, "No I cannot be pessimistic. I
have to be optimistic. It is part of my job" and he said that we will
continue, we will keep on trying, we will keep on working to keep the peace, we
will remember our mandate and we will do our best to carry out our mandate. And
I think that should be the attitude and that is the attitude of most people in
Question (Asmara): But do you think that this step shows that
increasingly you are not operating with the consent of the parties?
DCPIO: I do not think that that is something that I can necessarily
confirm. I think that these are issues, which need to be talked through and
thought through. I do not think that one should leap to any conclusions. It
would be wrong I think to come to that conclusion.
Question (Asmara): I asked you in the last press conference about the
situation regarding UNMEE's local staff and on what position they were
currently in. Have you got any further information on that?
DCPIO: Yes I think I put it in the media-briefing transcript last
week. The situation has improved. There have not been any more incidents and we
have continued to work on a positive basis. So it is not something that has
been followed up any further, since the discussions took place when it happened
Question (Asmara): Does the disagreement still exist over whether
UNMEE local staff should perform national service?
DCPIO: I am not aware that it is an issue, which has been discussed,
Question (Asmara): It has in the past been discussed.
DCPIO: In the past it has, but since April it has not been discussed.
Question (Asmara): So the Eritreans have dropped it or you dropped
DCPIO: There was an improvement in the situation as I put it in the
notes last week. There was a definite improvement in the situation and at this
point neither side has been talking about it.
Question (Asmara): Which is a good thing?
Question (Asmara): Just in Summary George, what is the current state
of relations between UNMEE and the Eritrean Government?
DCPIO: Well I think that I would take my cue for answering that
question from the SRSG. We continue to work on a day to day basis with both
governments, not just with the Government of Eritrea. We continue to work on a
day to day basis with both governments, and we look forward to a situation
which will improve as had seemed to be the case quite recently.
Question (Asmara): And now there has been deterioration?
DCPIO: Well, as I said, it's two steps forward and one step back.
Question (Asmara): But you are convinced there will be more steps
forward and that you haven't just turned the corner?
DCPIO: We hope so yes.
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.