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UNMEE: Eritrea closes road vital to peacekeeping again


UNMEE 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.


General Overview

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.

Mine Action

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 road again?

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 present?

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 times?

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 road.

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 that report.

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 him respond.

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 forth.

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 technical, right?

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 UNMEE.

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 last April.

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, no.

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 it?

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?

DCPIO: Exactly.

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.