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Daily Press Briefing

Sean McCormack, Spokesman
Washington, DC
June 12, 2008


USAID Food Aid Truck Hijacked by Government Officials
Zimbabwe Government is Using Food as a Weapon
Ambassador McGee to Speak with Journalists Tomorrow
Government Efforts to Maintain Power / Arrest of MDC Official Tendai Biti
Recent Talks Between China and Taiwan
Inter-Agency Review of Proposed Arms Sales
Saudi Islamic Academy / Intolerant References in Textbooks
Working with Saudi Government to Revise Materials
Discussions Continue on SOFA / UN Mandate Runs Through End of 2008
Timetable for Negotiations / Goal is to Get it Done
Human Rights Watch Report / U.S. Rejects Allegations
Abuses in Ogaden Region / U.S. Efforts in Ethiopia
Paris Conference / U.S. Pledge of $10.2 Billion
Support of International Community for Afghanistan
Computer Hacker Incident / Still Gathering Details
U.S. Still Planning to Attend Opening Ceremonies


12:40 p.m. EDT

MR. GALLEGOS: Good afternoon. I don’t have anything for you, so I’ll take your questions. 


QUESTION: Were you able to figure out what – or can you give us anything on this interception of U.S. assistance in Zimbabwe intended for schoolchildren?

MR. GALLEGOS: This was the Government of Zimbabwe hijacking a U.S. humanitarian --


MR. GALLEGOS: -- food convoy that was headed for hungry schoolchildren?


MR. GALLEGOS: That would – USAID is going to be putting something out on that if they haven’t yet. This was an aid program, one of theirs, and therefore, they are putting out something on it. However, I do have something for you. Basically, what we had here was the Zimbabwe military and police officials hijacking a truck that was carrying 20 metric tons of humanitarian food aid that was directed for hungry Zimbabwean children. We have information that the food – humanitarian food was then distributed to government party members at a government party rally. This all happened about June 6th, which was before the government ban on NGOs operating there in the countryside.

Obviously, we’re very disturbed to hear about this. Unfortunately, this is a continuation of what you heard our Ambassador McGee describe last week as food as a weapon, the government party actually using the threat of hunger on poor Zimbabwean children as a weapon against their parents so that they do not vote for President Mugabe*. We believe that this must end. We call on the government, the Zimbabwean authorities to immediately reinstate permission for all aid agencies to resume their lifesaving assistance. Failure to do so constitutes the Government of Zimbabwe in complicity in the assaults, suffering, and deaths of innocent citizens.

QUESTION: Where exactly did this happen?

MR. GALLEGOS: Our understanding, this happened in a town called – an area called Bambazonke, B-a-m-b-a-z-o-n-k-e.

QUESTION: Now, you’ve seen the New York Times account of this?

MR. GALLEGOS: Yes, I have.

QUESTION: Zimbabwean officials appear to think that this place does not exist.

QUESTION: That there is no such place called Bamba whatever.

MR. GALLEGOS: Well, this is an incident that – described to us by our Ambassador, Ambassador McGee, and our country team in Zimbabwe. All of them are very experienced diplomats.

QUESTION: Have you been able to locate this place on a map?

MR. GALLEGOS: Fortunately, for you and any others who are interested in it, I’ll be able to offer Ambassador McGee tomorrow to speak directly to you all on this incident, and what has happened over the last week in Zimbabwe. I believe that he is a extremely qualified and eloquent speaker to what is happening there, to the problems that continue to occur there, and that he’ll be fully prepared and ready to go into greater detail about the incident to you.

QUESTION: Right, but have you – you know for a fact that this town exists?

MR. GALLEGOS: My understanding is that the Embassy has confirmed this report, and that we’re proceeding (inaudible).

QUESTION: Right, but what do you make of the Zimbabwe Government, government officials in Zimbabwe saying that this town doesn’t exist and that you don’t have your facts --

MR. GALLEGOS: Well, I would say that, you know, this is a government that is taking tremendous and, frankly, awful strides to maintain its power, that it is increasingly abusing its own citizens, has raised, or should I say, lowered the bar to a level that we rarely see to include the children of opposition members. We are not surprised to hear the government deny this. We’re not surprised to see them try to dissuade the international media from carrying this story. 

However, our people are on the ground there. They are fortunately willing and able to continue to travel around the country to talk to people about incidents that are occurring and to provide information back to us and to the U.S. and the international media about what is happening there in Zimbabwe.

QUESTION: Can you – do you – why did it take, you know, almost a week? This happened on the 6th, today is the 12th. Why was this not known (inaudible)?

MR. GALLEGOS: I’m not quite sure exactly when it was known within, you know, the different bureaus, the different – the Bureau of Africa in the building. I’m not sure when the Embassy reported on it and when it came to light, and then they decided to issue this press release on it. I think it would be a good question for the Ambassador. I think he’ll be able to give us the tic-toc on this.

QUESTION: And the last one on this; you said 20,000 tons?

MR. GALLEGOS: Twenty --

QUESTION: Metric tons?

MR. GALLEGOS: Twenty --

QUESTION: Metric tons?

MR. GALLEGOS: -- metric tons of humanitarian food.

QUESTION: Of what? Can you be more specific about what it was?

MR. GALLEGOS: I’m not exactly sure exactly what the food stuffs were, but I think we can get you some more detail on that.

QUESTION: Is the AID statement supposed to have that detail in it?

MR. GALLEGOS: It doesn’t from what I can see right here.

QUESTION: Does it have --

MR. GALLEGOS: I will endeavor to get that information for you.

QUESTION: How did the Embassy learn of the incident? Was it just through its own sources, was there any --

MR. GALLEGOS: Like I said, I’m going to let the – I’ll let the ambassador speak for the – each and every reporting cable out of an Embassy is signed by the ambassador himself, whichever – whomever that ambassador may be. And he’s going to be able to give you the details on that.

QUESTION: Did it take so long to come out cause they were trying to verify the information?

MR. GALLEGOS: Well, I think there’s – number one, there’s the reporting of it, there’s – trying to – we look at it, we see what it entails, what it means, what has happened, and then we decide what we’re going to do with that information.

QUESTION: Gonzo, do you know if this aid was branded with the American flag and the USAID logo? And if so, if it was rebranded when it was distributed?
MR. GALLEGOS: I am not sure. That’s a level of detail I don’t have.
QUESTION: The food was distributed again to –

MR. GALLEGOS: My understanding is that the humanitarian convoy left the food warehouse prior to the recent Government of Zimbabwe ban on NGO operations. The driver made a scheduled stop to unload the humanitarian assistance, including grains, beans, and oil at a school, including – and we will find out if there were other items there – at a school that benefits from a U.S. program supporting school feeding. A group of military officers, war veterans and police officers, dispatched by Governor Chugudu of Manicaland and led by a Zimbabwe Army Colonel, arrived and threatened the driver, forcing him to go to the Bambazonke police station for protection.

Meanwhile, the Governor and other senior Government of Zimbabwe and ZANU-PF officials had organized a political rally near the Bambazonke police station. When the hijacked vehicle arrived at the police station, the Governor instructed the war veterans to distribute the food to ZANU-PF supporters at the rally.


QUESTION: On Zimbabwe, do you have any comments on the top MDC official who was picked up? Now, he’s been charged with treason, which carries a death penalty. 

MR. GALLEGOS: Actually, we can confirm reports that the Movement for Democratic Change Party Secretary General Tendai Biti was arrested upon his return to Zimbabwe at Harare Airport today, June 12th. He was apprehended and taken by authorities as he returned home from South Africa. 


QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. GALLEGOS: Oh. (Laughter.) 

QUESTION: Do you welcome this step and –


QUESTION: -- the obvious continuation of Zimbabwe’s democracy or --

MR. GALLEGOS: Thank you. Thank you, Matt. Obviously, this is yet – yet another provocation by the government. This is another example of their concerted effort to ensure that the opposition party cannot campaign effectively. It’s important for the world to take note that this abuse by the government of its own people continues and that we, the United States and others around the world, are taking note of this. 

Yes. Yes. 

QUESTION: (Inaudible) any sort of actions or anything you can comment on with regards to how you’re going to address the situation? 

MR. GALLEGOS: Well, I think this is an issue that, you know, we’re consulting with parties in the region. We’re going to continue to consult with them on ways to manage this situation. Look, we know and understand the grip that the Mugabe regime has over the country. As the Ambassador McGee said, you know, last week, you know, we are taking note – the world is taking note. And if this government does not allow a free and fair runoff, they will have to pay in some way, shape, or form in the end. And they will be held accountable. 


QUESTION: Change of subject?


QUESTION: Do you have any comment on China and Taiwan’s recent talk to further improve ties?

MR. GALLEGOS: Oh, yes. 

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. GALLEGOS: Actually, I don’t have it.  Actually – yeah, I do have something to say about that. No, this is – we believe it’s important for the two to work towards a peaceful resolution of the cross-border – (inaudible) the Cross-Strait issues. Our understanding is that they had a good conversation and we are hoping that they will continue in the future. 


QUESTION: Have you received Taiwan’s request for President Ma Ying-jeou to transit through U.S. on his was to Central America in August? 

MR. GALLEGOS: No, I haven’t seen that – I haven’t seen any notification of that request. I’ll have to see where we are on that, see if there has been -- if we have received one.

Yes, David. 

QUESTION:  Do you have anything on a report in one of the papers this morning that the Bush Administration is basically sitting on the proposed Taiwan weapons sale and that there’s some doubt that this is – that it’s going to occur during the Bush Administration? It’s --

MR. GALLEGOS:  Mm-hmm. Well, you know, we follow the Taiwan Relations Act. This is something we take very seriously. There’s an interagency process to determine what sales of defense products will be sold to the Taiwanese. It’s an interagency process that when it is concluded, we go to Congress and notify them of the intent. When all of that has been accomplished, we’ll proceed. We’re not at that point yet. 

Yes. Joel.

QUESTION:  Gonzo, the Islamic School in Northern Virginia, they’re again promoting or putting out questionable materials for terror, hate and incitement. Have you spoken with the school administrators and are you reviewing a curriculum and textbooks? 

MR. GALLEGOS:  Let’s see – yeah. You’re speaking specifically about the Islamic School and the textbooks that they have there? You know, we don’t believe any government should produce materials that are intolerant of other religious, racial or ethnic groups, or teach such intolerance as part of its educational curriculum. For several years, we’ve engaged the Saudi Government on the need to eliminate intolerant references toward other religious groups in textbooks and other educational materials used in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

As a result, in 2006, July of 2006, the Saudi Government acknowledged the need to revise and update its textbooks, to remove all intolerant passages that disparage or promote hatred toward other religious groups or religions. And to that end, the Saudi Government said it would make such a process -- it would – excuse me, it would undertake such a process to be completed in time for the start of the 2008 school year. And we’ll continue to work with the Saudi Government on efforts to revise the textbooks.


QUESTION: On Iraq, and we asked Mr. Sean McCormack about this on Monday in terms of a long-term agreement between the U.S. and Iraq. Now, the AP today quoted an anonymous source that’s close to the negotiations in Baghdad as saying that the deal may not be signed by next month, as Ambassador David Satterfield had stated. And that same source also stated that the UN mandate may have to be extended, and that is obviously due in December. Do you still maintain your confidence that a deal might be signed next month, maybe?

MR. GALLEGOS: Well, I think that the UN mandate does run through the end of the year, we’ve got about six more months to get to that point. I believe that we had Ambassador Crocker up here last week. He spoke very clearly about his concerns that this be done – more important to him, this be done right, be done correctly than quickly. There’s time left. We’re continuing with our discussions with the Government of Iraq. It’s important to us that this be done correctly and we will see where we go with that. 

We’ve stated before that we’re not going to really go into the discussions in public. However, when we’re through, this will be a transparent document that we will share with all those who are interested in seeing it. The process continues and we’re serious about it and we’ll continue – see where we get.

QUESTION: Do you see, perhaps if negotiations do extend beyond what Ambassador David Satterfield had said, is that sort of not achieving your aims? Or do you aim to have more complete, or, I guess, more complete of an agreement rather than finishing on (inaudible)?

MR. GALLEGOS: Well, I think we have a hard deadline of the end of the year, a lot of “ifs” in your question there. I think the biggest “if” is: Will we be done at the end of the year. We have six months to get there. We’re going to continue working. We would like to finish this as quickly as we can. However, we do understand that this is a negotiation. There’s a lot of give and take. But in the end, we plan on having a document that both governments are satisfied with.


QUESTION: Anything on the impact of the Japan-North Korea talks in Beijing on the U.S?

MR. GALLEGOS: I don’t have anything on that, actually. Hold on, let me see what – no, I don’t. Sorry, let me see if I can get something for you on that.


MR. GALLEGOS: Yes, Mr. Gollust.

QUESTION: Were you able to get any guidance on the Human Rights Watch report having to do with Ethiopia’s activities in the Ogaden region, particularly the angle that – you know, the United States has remained silent on the issue and failed to use leverage to control this – these --

MR. GALLEGOS: As a matter of fact, I do. And I appreciate your passing me that document earlier this morning.

We have received the report and are studying it carefully. We take all allegations of human rights abuses seriously. However, we strongly reject Human Rights Watch’s contention that the U.S. Government has minimized or possibly actively ignored the matter. We are aware of allegations of human rights abuses by Ethiopia. International NGOs and other aid organizations operating in the region have reported that both the Ethiopian military and the ONLF were responsible for abuses and harsh techniques to intimidate the civilian population. It is not possible at this time for the USG or international observers to verify independently who has committed these human rights abuses. 

Since May, 2007, the U.S. Government has collaborated closely with international organizations, NGOs, and other donors to develop a concerted approach to the Ethiopian Government, urging it to mitigate the humanitarian human rights impacts of its counterinsurgency operations in the Ogaden region. Our Ambassador in Ethiopia has persistently raised concerns over human rights abuses with the highest level of the Ethiopian Government, as have senior U.S. Government visitors to Addis Ababa.

U.S. Government military assistance to Ethiopia is designed to transform the military into an apolitical, professional defense force that can secure its borders and protects human rights. Our assistance – total U.S. Government assistance over the last year has been $700 million.

QUESTION: Over the last what period?

MR. GALLEGOS: Year. This year. Excuse me. This year.

QUESTION: And – sorry. What (inaudible)?

MR. GALLEGOS: Ethiopia.

Yes, Kirit.

QUESTION: A question on Afghanistan and the donors conference. Is the U.S. disappointed that not more money was pledged? I think it was a little under $20 million and 10 of it, or half of it, essentially, came from the United States. 

MR. GALLEGOS: $10 billion.


MR. GALLEGOS: $10 billion. Well, I – we do think it’s important for countries to come to the conference to provide support for the development and economic – the economic development portion of aid to Afghanistan. Richard, when he spoke to you all about this, was pretty clear that, you know, there was a – that we would have a substantial contribution and that we believed that other governments would come through as well. I think that there has been substantial contribution by other countries. We’re looking forward to their support in Afghanistan, the continued development of Afghanistan, and we believe that although this conference was held during this one day that there will be – countries will continue to support Afghanistan in the future.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. disappointed that there was only 20 million – 20 billion?

MR. GALLEGOS: I think in anybody’s – by anybody’s book, 20 billion is a lot of money. And like I said, we see – we look to continued support throughout the coming days, months and years for a developing Afghanistan. 


QUESTION: Gonzo, China has – apparently have committed, either by government or by hackers, and compromised the database of Congressman Wolf and Smith. This is a human rights database. And have the Chinese apologized? And also, have they compromised a protest-free Olympics and will you attend those Olympics early in August?

MR. GALLEGOS: I’ve seen the stories. I don’t have any information on exactly what happened or who might have – who might have perpetrated – perpetuated --

QUESTION: Perpetrated.

MR. GALLEGOS: Thank you. Perpetrated the act. I think the President has been very clear about his desire and willingness to attend the Olympics, the Opening of the Olympics. I haven’t heard anything different at this point.


QUESTION: Just again – sorry. And you said the Multinational Force’s mandate in Iraq ends at the end of the year, but can you just clarify if you’re still confident on at least meeting the deadline that Ambassador Satterfield had stated of reaching agreement by next month?

MR. GALLEGOS: Well, I – Ambassador Satterfield said what Ambassador Satterfield said. I’m not going to be one to parse his words. I think Ambassador Crocker, the Ambassador in the country, has been very specific about this idea that we – our goal is to get this done. That is our goal, to get it done. I don’t have a specific date for that, but we do know that there is a date out there looming at the end of the year. It’s still six months away. The Government of Iraq and we are working together on this, continue to discuss this issue, and I believe that this will be accomplished. I’m just not going to give you a date on it.

Yes, Susan.

QUESTION: The Chinese – have you had any conversations with them about this computer incident? Because Wolf and Smith were jumping up and down about it and rather upset that their computers apparently have been violated and said that it went back to China?

MR. GALLEGOS: Mm-hmm. Well, like I said, I really don’t have enough information on exactly what happened or who did it. 

QUESTION: But not any conversation?

MR. GALLEGOS: Not that I know of. Not that – I don’t know of any conversations from this building with --

QUESTION: No attempt to find out what --

MR. GALLEGOS: Not that I know. I don’t have any --

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:02 p.m.)

DPB # 105

*Morgan Tsvangirai  [return to text]


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