DAILY PRESS BRIEFING OF OFFICE OF SPOKESMAN FOR SECRETARY-GENERAL
Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York
5 January 1999
Fred Eckhard, Spokesman for the Secretary-General, began today's noon briefing by saying it was the second day in a row he had broken his New Year's resolution to start the briefing on time. He would try to improve that tomorrow.
The Spokesman said he had received oral confirmation from the company from which the United Nations chartered aircraft in Angola that there was a ninth passenger aboard the second missing flight, whose name was not on the manifest. The passenger, according to the company, was the son of the South African pilot of the first missing aircraft. Written confirmation from the charter company was being awaited.
Meanwhile, he said that the United Nations Security Coordinator, Benon Sevan, had met today with Angolan Government officials, including the Minister for Territorial Administration and his deputy, as well as the Deputy Foreign Minister, to whom he had handed a letter from the Secretary-General appealing for their cooperation in the effort to mount an operation to the presumed crash sites. Mr. Sevan had been dispatched to Angola by the Secretary-General to assess the growing security threat to United Nations personnel there and to facilitate a search and rescue mission to the supposed crash sites of those two flights. He was also scheduled to meet with the Angolan Defence Minister and the observer members of the Troika countries of Portugal, the Russian Federation and the United States.
The Angolan Government claimed it had regained the town of Vila Nova, eight kilometres from the assumed crash site of the first United Nations aircraft, and that they were getting close to that site. The United Nations rescue team was standing by in Huambo. Meanwhile, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) reportedly had started to barrage and lay seige to Melanje, the capital of Melanje province. The United Nations had a team site there with six civilian police and one military observer.
From the humanitarian perspective, all humanitarian flights in Angola had been suspended, ending the only possible method of delivering emergency relief supplies to many areas in the interior portion of that country, the spokesman said. Some 40,000 displaced people were in the key town of Huambo; 65,000 in Melanje; and 30,000 in Luena. In all three towns, national staff of the World Food Programme (WFP) remained on the ground to assist the population in need.
By way of background, Mr. Eckhard said the United Nations, whose humanitarian efforts in Angola had begun in the early 1980's, was presently assisting approximately one million war victims there, providing survival rations to 387,000 internally displaced persons fleeing the decades-old conflict. Of the total monthly allocation of 7,000 tonnes of food, 5,000 tonnes were delivered by road.
He said that the United Nations Observer Mission in Angola (MONUA) currently provided escorts for an average of four large convoys each month. Without those military escorts, commercial operators would be reluctant to transport assistance to areas that were not entirely secure, and consequently where the need was greatest. The WFP said it had approximately 20,000 metric tons of food already in Angola, which was enough to continue operations at current levels for at least two more months.
The Security Council had met this morning in informal consultations to discuss its programme of work for the month of January, the Spokesman said. Under other matters, Council members had been briefed on Iraq by the Deputy to the Chef de Cabinet, Rolf Knutsson. An aide mémoire delivered yesterday to the Office of the Iraq Programme by the Deputy Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations had been transmitted to Council members. The Office of the Iraq Programme had also made available its weekly update through 1 January on the "oil-for-food" programme.
The Spokesman said he had flagged correspondents yesterday about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Sierra Leone resulting from intensified fighting there. Further details were available today from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the WFP. Over the past few days, more than 100 refugees had fled into neighbouring Guinea, and the UNHCR said it had received reports of 5,800 more people being displaced in the border areas of Kambia and possibly intending to cross into Guinea if fighting between rebels and the Economic Community of West African States' Monitoring Observer Group (ECOMOG) continued. The UNHCR had made preparations to receive new arrivals on the Guinean side of the border.
Also on Sierra Leone, Mr. Eckhard drew attention to a press release issued today by the WFP in Abidjan confirming the arrival of 20,000 people to the town of Kenema. The new arrivals were reportedly in poor shape. The WFP representative there was quoted in the press release as saying that "the influx in Kenema is just the tip of the iceberg. We are gravely concerned about the situation of several thousands of people we believe are hiding in the bush and waiting for a lull in the fighting to come out".
Continued fighting between rebels and Government forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo had led to a new exodus of refugees into neighbouring Central African Republic to the north and Uganda to the northeast, the Spokesman said. The UNHCR was reporting that since last Saturday, some 5,000 terrified Congolese refugees -- mostly women and children -- had fled the town of Zongo and crossed the border over the Ubangi River seeking safety in the Cental African Republic's capital of Bangui. The refugees said they had fled after gunfire had erupted in and around Zongo out of fear it had been about to fall into rebel hands. The UNHCR staff in Bangui could clearly hear gunfire coming from across the river.
Together with the local Red Cross, UNHCR staff provided food and initial health care to the newly arrived refugees, he went on to say. The UNHCR, over the past several days, had registered more than 2,900 new refugees in Uganda, also predominantly women and children.
The Cambodian refugees remaining in Thailand were showing increasing interest in repatriating, following the surrender of the remaining Khmer Rouge factions at the end of last year, he said. Since the last days of December, some 1,700 refugees had returned from UNHCR-supported camps in Thailand's Surin province and another 357 were scheduled to go back today. The UNHCR said it was supporting the voluntary and safe return of the entire refugee population, but it was concerned that certain groups of refugees were still under strong pressure from some Khmer Rouge leaders who wanted to control the return movement to specific areas only.
The Spokesman next responded to an article published in the Washington Times today which reported that the United States was under-represented at the United Nations. The United States had 60 nations at the Director level, and not 10, as the report had stated. That country had 557 nationals at the professional level, and 1671 overall. The United States was within its desirable range, as established by the United Nations General Assembly. That range was determined not only by the size of a country's contribution, as the newspaper chart suggested, but also by Gross Domestic Product and population levels. Anyone who wished to read up on desirable ranges should read United Nations document A/53/375.
Later in the day, the Spokesman's Office issued an oral clarification on that item, informing correspondents that the article was not the work of the Washington Times' United Nations correspondent, but of another reporter.
Turning to contributions, he said that two more countries had paid in full for 1999: Finland and Singapore, with checks for more than $5.6 million and more than $1.8 million, respectively.
Mr. Eckhard announced that Marie Okabe was now an official member of his staff. Prior to her lengthy recruitment, she had worked as a press officer for the UNHCR, and, previously, as a reporter for United Press International. "She's razor sharp, helpful to a fault and has an energy level so high that she 'zings' through the Office", he said. Her main beat would be the humanitarian work of the United Nations in the field. Ms. Okabe was a Japanese national, who was educated in Japan and the United States and married to an Iraqi-American -- "a real UN story". With five out of six professional positions in the Office now filled, she was the jewel in the crown.
Asked if there was any way to get the parties in Angola to stop fighting and whether the United Nations had given up on the peace process there, the Spokesman said that in the immediate term, there was an appeal to the two sides to stop fighting so that the United Nations could reach the sites where it was believed the two planes had gone down. The Security Council, of course, continued to pressure both sides to implement the Lusaka Protocol. There was not much evidence that either side was now prepared to do that since they had effectively gone back to war. The decision for the Council -- and it was the Secretary-General who would have to make the recommendation to them by the 15 January due date of his report -- would be whether there was any peace left to keep. The Spokesman did not want to prejudge that decision.
Had Mr. Sevan met with UNITA yet? another correspondent asked. Mr. Eckhard said the Security Coordinator had a second letter in his pocket. The Angolan Government had, recently, consistently objected to direct contact between the peacekeeping Mission or the Secretary-General's Special Representative with UNITA leadership. It was not yet known whether it would be possible for Mr. Sevan to personally deliver his second letter.
To a follow-up question about a contingency plan for delivering that letter, the Spokesman said it remained to be seen whether Mr. Sevan would indeed be able to deliver it.
Another correspondent asked if the Secretary-General was attempting to pass his extensive knowledge of the reality of Angola onto members of the Security Council to enable them to elaborate a new approach. Mr. Eckhard understood that the correspondent's question reflected his wish for a preview of the Secretary-General's report on Angola due out next week. The report was not yet written, and he therefore could not say any more about it right now.
Asked if any efforts were under way to develop a peace process that involved the United Nations in Sierra Leone, Mr. Eckhard said he did not have any guidance today on the situation there, but would try to get an answer for the correspondent later today.
Another correspondent, noting concern that the military conflict in the Congo could spill into other countries, asked about the presence and role of United Nations personnel in that country, and how information was transmitted to Headquarters in New York. The Spokesman said the United Nations had a peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, which had a role in the recent elections there. The recent information out of that country came from the United Nations humanitarian relief network, namely the UNHCR, the WFP and others. His Office was in touch with those agencies on a daily basis and they were the source of today's information.
To a question about the scaling back of the peacekeeping Mission in Angola, the Spokesman said there was a time when the implementation of the Lusaka Protocol appeared to be going forward smoothly, following the Secretary-General's visit to Angola last year when he had managed to get the UNITA members of Parliament to "come out of the bush" and listen to his address in the Parliament chamber in Luanda. The United Nations Mission there was at a reduced level, and of course the question facing the Security Council was what to do with the more than 700 troops still in Angola -- increase their strength or pull them out.
Friday 15 January, was the date by which the Council had requested the Secretary-General's report on Angola, he said in answer to another question. Given the recent circumstances, the Secretary-General was hoping to deliver the report sooner. It would include a report to him from the peacekeeping Mission, which he hoped to receive by the end of this week.
Another correspondent asked where things stood regarding American and British humanitarian personnel in Iraq -- had their numbers been reduced and would the United Nations comply with such selectivity on the part of the Iraqi Government? Mr. Eckhard said the matter had been brought to the Council's attention this morning by Mr. Knutsson. There were a modest number of British and American United Nations humanitarian workers in Iraq: the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) resident coordinator was American, the Deputy Director of the WFP in Iraq was American, the Secretary of Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Iraq Prakash Shah was American. That was a relatively small number.
He said that the aide mémoire of yesterday suggested that those remaining American and British personnel -- at the expiration of their current visas or conclusion of their contracts -- be phased out because the Iraqi Government felt it could no longer guarantee their security. That information had been conveyed to the Council. Ultimately, that was the Secretary- General's call on the advice of his Security Coordinator.
With Iraq now openly defying all of the Security Council resolutions, how did the Secretary-General perceive the situation, and did he view his involvement in Iraq as a failure? another correspondent asked. Mr. Eckhard believed that, in his closing press conference of 1998, the Secretary-General had characterized his efforts to find a peaceful solution to the standoff between Iraq and the Security Council as insufficient. Yes, the Secretary- General felt regret over that. The situation was now in the hands of the Council, and the Secretary-General would not wish to characterize its handling of the matter. The correspondent's question should be asked of Council members.
Asked how many countries had paid their dues by year-end, Mr. Eckhard said he would provide that number at the end of the briefing, adding that it was more than in the previous year. [He later said that 117 Member States had paid in full in 1998, compared to 100 in 1997.]
Replying to a question about whether there had been a precedent of a chargé d'affaires of a country presiding over the Security Council, rather than a permanent representative, the Spokesman said he would have to check with Protocol on that.
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