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UN probing how 'black box' from Rwanda came into its possession - spokesman

11 March 2004 The United Nations is investigating how it came into possession of a flight data recorder - a "black box" alleged in a press report to have been from the downed aircraft of the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi - and is handing it over to an outside firm for an analysis of its contents, a UN spokesman said today.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan has instructed the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) - the UN's in-house watchdog - to look into exactly what happened 10 years ago after a black box turned up in UN offices yesterday, spokesman Fred Eckhard said at a press briefing in New York.

His announcement came after a recent article in the French newspaper Le Monde alleged that the UN was given the flight data recorder from the Falcon aircraft that crashed on 6 April 1994 in Rwanda, killing Presidents Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprian Ntayamira of Burundi. Their deaths set off a chain of killings and massacres throughout Rwanda that year, with the death toll from the genocide mounting to more than 800,000 people, mostly minority Tutsis and "moderate" Hutu.

Mr. Eckhard said that yesterday, the UN traced the paper trail of a black box that was sent by diplomatic pouch from the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) in 1994 through Nairobi, Kenya, to UN Headquarters in New York.

That trail took officials to the Air Safety Unit of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, located in a building across the street from the main UN complex, where officials found a black box in a locked file cabinet.

"I say a black box, not the black box, because what we found was in pristine condition," Mr. Eckhard said. "In fact, when it was received in the Peacekeeping Department's Air Safety Unit 10 years ago, the officials in charge at that time apparently concluded that it could not have been the black box because its pristine condition indicated that it had not been in a crash."

Because of that judgment, he added, the Air Safety experts, after unsuccessfully trying to identify its source, put it in the file cabinet and did not report it up the chain of command.

Mr. Eckhard stressed that none of the senior peacekeeping officials of the time had any knowledge of it and that the first time they knew of its existence was yesterday. "They then reported this to the Secretary-General's Office," he said.

"The black box is now under lock and key in this building. We intend to immediately turn it over to a qualified outside body for analysis of its contents," he said.

Asked by reporters to outline how the black box found yesterday came into the possession of the United Nations, Mr. Eckhard said that Roger Lambo, who headed the air operations unit for UNAMIR, sent the box by diplomatic pouch to the Peacekeeping Department's Air Safety Unit, headed at the time by Andy Sequin. He added that the air safety experts had made some effort to circulate serial numbers found on the black box, but had not been able to determine its origin.

Responding to another question about which officials had not been informed of the existence of the black box, the spokesman mentioned Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who at the time headed the Peacekeeping Department; Chef de Cabinet Iqbal Riza, who had been Annan's deputy in the Department; Hdi Annabi, who worked in the Department and is now Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping; Chief Military Adviser Gen. Maurice Baril; and the UN Force Commander in Rwanda, Gen. Romeo Dallaire.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was surprised to find out that a black box existed, "much less in this building." He told reporters that the situation "sounds like a real foul-up, a first-class foul-up," but that he did not think there has been any attempt to cover up.

"I was incredulous when I was told it existed, because it was first raised with me when I was in Canada, following the Le Monde article, and I said 'I don't see why we would not cooperate with an investigation. It is our policy to cooperate and to assist in all criminal investigations, and I will look into it when I get back.' So I called from Canada and said, 'Check it out,' and here we are," he said.

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