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Military

Daily Press Briefing

Jeff Rathke
Acting Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
April 27, 2015

Index for Today's Briefing

DEPARTMENT
NEPAL
UKRAINE
DEPARTMENT/FREE THE PRESS CAMPAIGN
NEPAL
DEPARTMENT
UKRAINE
YEMEN
BURUNDI
EGYPT
IRAN
SYRIA
SUDAN
ETHIOPIA
CYPRUS
IRAQ
NEPAL

 

TRANSCRIPT:

1:03 p.m. EDT

MR RATHKE: Good afternoon, everybody. I have a few things at the top, so I'm going to pour myself a cup of water if you don't mind, and then we'll get started.

All right, so welcome, everyone. I have a few things at the top if you can bear with me. Secretary Kerry is in New York today, as I'm sure you're aware, with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, and they're hosting the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee, or what we refer to as the 2+2. This morning, they met with Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida and Japanese Defense Minister Nakatani. This afternoon, Secretary Kerry will meet with his foreign minister counterparts from Jordan, Egypt, and Iran, and he will also deliver remarks at the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations.

With regard to Nepal, I would like again to express our deepest condolences to all of those affected by the earthquake in Nepal, particularly the families of those who died or were injured. Our Embassy in Kathmandu is working around the clock. On Saturday, Ambassador Bodde declared an emergency, releasing $1 million to relief organizations working in Nepal to address immediate humanitarian needs, and today, you probably have heard Secretary Kerry announced an additional $9 million for response and recovery efforts.

We are sending a nearly 130-person disaster assistance response team to conduct assessments, coordinate the humanitarian response, and provide search-and-rescue capabilities, along with 45 tons of cargo. Advance elements of that team are already on the ground, and the team consists of a 57-person urban search-and-rescue team from Fairfax, Virginia that will arrive in a few hours; another, a second 57-person urban search-and-rescue team from the Los Angeles County Fire Department that should arrive Tuesday, Washington time; and 14 disaster experts with USAID and six rescue dogs that are incorporated into both of these search-and-rescue teams. Among those killed, we are aware of four U.S. citizens who died in the Everest region. We express our deepest sympathies to their families and loved ones.

And the United States stands with the people in Nepal and the region affected by this tragedy. We are running around-the-clock operations with the Government of Nepal and the international community to account for all U.S. citizens and assist with the disaster response effort.

Third item, Ukraine: We are deeply concerned by the deteriorating situation in Shyrokyne, where – which is near Mariupol – where the OSCE special monitoring mission reported on April 26th that monitors observed the most intense shelling since fighting began in the area in mid-February – mid-February of this year, that is. Russia-backed separatists continue to shell Ukrainian forces and refuse the OSCE mission unfettered access. These are clear violations of the ceasefire and the Minsk agreements that they signed. And as the OSCE has made clear, access for the monitoring mission is not subject to negotiations; it is the mission's duty and their task.

At the same time, Russian and separatist forces maintain a sizable number of artillery pieces and multiple rocket launchers within areas prohibited under the Minsk accords. Also, the Russian military has deployed additional air defense systems into eastern Ukraine and moved several of these nearer the front lines. This is the highest amount of Russian air defense equipment in eastern Ukraine since August. Russia is also once again building up its forces along its border with Ukraine. The United States has been clear that the Minsk agreements remain the best chance for a lasting and comprehensive solution to the crisis in eastern Ukraine, and we call again on Russia and the separatists it backs to implement their commitments under the agreements.

One final media issue: With World Press Freedom Day less than a week away, the department is launching its fourth annual Free the Press campaign. The campaign – beginning today, and every day this week, we will highlight emblematic cases of imperiled reporters from around the world who are imprisoned, harassed, or otherwise targeted for doing their jobs by reporting the news. We will spotlight these cases in three ways over this week. We will raise them here in the daily press briefing each day; we will be spotlighting them at humanrights.gov, which is our human rights page on our website; and we'll be using the hashtag #FreeThePress to spread the word and message on Twitter.

The first two cases we are highlighting this year – our first Free the Press profile comes from China, where veteran journalist Gao Yu was recently sentenced to a seven-year term after a closed trial for "leaking state secrets overseas." Ms. Gao has been internationally recognized for her significant contributions to press freedom and civil society in China since her career began in 1979. She was arrested in April 2014 as authorities detained dozens of activists and dissidents ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Her conviction is part of a disturbing pattern of government action against those who peacefully question official Chinese policies and actions. We join the international community in calling on Chinese authorities to release Ms. Gao immediately.

And our second case comes from Syria, where three important freedom of expression activists remain detained on government orders. Mr. Mazen Darwish, Ms. Hani al-Zitani, and Mr. Hussein Ghrer are imprisoned. They were arrested in 2012 for advocating for freedom of expression, and they were held for two years without charge and an additional year without trial after the charges were filed. Their trial has been postponed 21 times and is rescheduled for tomorrow, April 28th. We continue to call for the immediate release of all three individuals who were arrested and remain detained for exercising their human rights. We also call on the Assad regime to release all arbitrarily detained journalists and political prisoners who are currently suffering horrific conditions and are at risk of abuse and torture in the prisons.

Lastly, I would just like to welcome a group of four Honduran journalists who are in Washington to meet with press officers at various U.S. Government agencies. Welcome to you. They'll be observing the press briefing today.

And with that, over to you, Brad.

QUESTION: Great. First, Nepal. Can you give us – can you just tell us how difficult it is to get stuff in, any problems you're encumbering as you rush all this aid there?

MR RATHKE: Well, the – I think the important thing is that the airport remains open. And so of course that is making – it will make it easier for flights to get in. But of course, communications and transportation throughout the country remain difficult because of the damage that has been caused by the earthquake, of course.

I would also highlight that the United States, even before the earthquake, we've been helping authorities in Nepal prepare for an earthquake. And so one of – one element of that assistance is a donation of $1.8 million that had took place previously through our Global Peacekeeping Operations Initiative, and that includes disaster relief equipment, which has been prepositioned around Nepal. It includes heavy engineering equipment – tractors, bulldozers, dump trucks – and that will be used in the earthquake relief efforts.

I've got some additional detail which I can get into about other assistance we've provided before the earthquake. If you'd like to get into that, we can do that in response to questions.

QUESTION: We can maybe do that --

MR RATHKE: Go ahead.

QUESTION: -- maybe do that offline.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on Nepal?

QUESTION: I'm still on Nepal. You said there was 1 million and then a subsequent 9 billion has since been announced.

MR RATHKE: Million, with an M.

QUESTION: Million with an M?

MR RATHKE: Yeah.

QUESTION: This does not represent the sum total of what you plan to spend, I guess, as part of Nepal relief efforts, correct?

MR RATHKE: This is our initial response. I wouldn't expect it to be the end.

QUESTION: Are you talking with the UN and other donor countries about some sort of coordinated approach that meets what I imagine would be needs that are 10 or hundreds of times greater than the amounts you've kind of specified?

MR RATHKE: Well, we don't have an estimate of what those needs will be. Of course, we're going to coordinate with the Government of Nepal as well as with the United Nations and other members of the international community. There was an initial meeting to that effect today in Kathmandu which Ambassador Bodde attended. That was a meeting with all diplomatic missions. Our ambassador has been in touch with the prime minister and the chief of the army staff. So we're going to keep coordinating closely, but I don't have announcements yet to make. I'm sure once our team is on the ground and they're better able to assess the situation, then that will be more forthcoming.

I would also highlight that our embassy remains open and the U.S. Embassy and the American Club continue to shelter U.S. citizens and their family members as well as dozens of non-Americans. There are about 85 U.S. citizens at our chancery and about 220 U.S. citizens at the American Club. We're also fielding calls coming in from the public. We've gotten calls from hundreds of U.S. citizens outside Nepal who are trying to – who are concerned about their relatives inside the country and have asked for our assistance. We are supplementing our embassy staff with our resources in the region to better enable us to respond to – not only to the things concerning U.S. citizens, but also liaison coordination with the U.S. Government and such.

QUESTION: I have just one more on Nepal --

MR RATHKE: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- and it pertains to the four American citizens who died. Have you been able to notify family members? And if so, are you able to confirm their identities at this point?

MR RATHKE: I have two names that I can confirm. We can confirm the death of U.S. citizen Vinh B. Truong and Ely Taplan[1]. And we are aware of reports of the deaths of two other American citizens. All of these were located at the Mount Everest Base Camp area when the earthquake struck. Once again, we express our deepest condolences to the family and friends of the victims. But out of privacy considerations, we don't have further comment on the other two.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR RATHKE: Did you have more on Nepal?

QUESTION: Yeah, I'd just ask about the victims.

MR RATHKE: Yeah.

QUESTION: Because I knew about three yesterday and then you've mentioned a fourth one. Were they separate or were they in different parties or were they all together as far – I mean, were they traveling together or --

MR RATHKE: I don't know if they were part of the same group. That I would have to look into and see. It may just be that we only got confirmation of the citizenship later.

QUESTION: And then how many people have been reported – U.S. citizens have been reported missing?

MR RATHKE: So we are – we've been following up on the reports, but I don't have – I don't have an estimate to give you. Again, as I mentioned, we've gotten calls from hundreds of people trying to verify the welfare and the whereabouts of their U.S. citizen relatives inside Nepal, but I don't have a – I don't have a firm tabulation of the number of American citizens who might be missing.

QUESTION: Sure.

MR RATHKE: I think Justin had a question, and then we'll come to you, Roz, on the same topic. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks. The C-17s that are flying in to provide relief, do you know if they're going to be planning to take Americans out from the airport at Kathmandu? There are apparently a number of Americans trying to leave, as are a lot of people, I would imagine. So will the C-17s carry out Americans?

MR RATHKE: Well, the airport remains open. We understand that many U.S. citizens are departing on commercial flights. We are assisting American citizens there with flight arrangements. We've also been providing shuttle services to the airport given the very difficult conditions. I don't have anything to confirm about other sorts of transportation arrangements. Again, the airport remains open and so we're focused on helping American citizens in that regard. I don't have further detail on that one.

Yes, Roz.

QUESTION: This may – yeah, this may be a bigger picture question, but it goes to whether or not Nepal can be effectively rebuilt. The reason why there are so many Westerners in Nepal right now is because this is the spring climbing season; it's the best time of the year to try to summit Everest if you're a mountain climber. And Nepal is charging each of these people upwards of 50 to 100 thousand dollars each for permission to try to summit the mountain.

But when you look at the devastation across Kathmandu and across these villages, places that wouldn't pass any sort of Western building code, it makes people wonder where is all that money going. And then when the U.S. Government then says we're now going to start spending at least $10 million to try to provide support to the people of Nepal who've been affected by this earthquake, the question is: How do you know that the money isn't going to be siphoned off by corrupt government officials and will actually go towards rebuilding the homes and the businesses of the Nepalese people, many of whom never see any of these sums of money that come in either through mountaineering or through foreign aid?

MR RATHKE: Well, Roz, Nepal has just experienced a devastating earthquake and we are assisting because that's part of our – the way we respond to humanitarian disasters.

Now, with respect to the particular – the particulars of the 10 million that we've talked about, there was the initial $1 million announced over the weekend. The $9 million that the Secretary talked about today is focused primarily on our Disaster Assistance Response Team, so in other words it's supporting the U.S. personnel who are going into the region to help with search and rescue and to help with those immediate recovery – recovery efforts.

As I said in response to Brad's question, I don't have any additional announcements to make. But I would also highlight that the kind of assistance the U.S. Government has been providing, just two examples perhaps that are pertinent in this case: The United States military has been spending about $1.2 million to construct deep tube wells within the Kathmandu Valley that would be able to provide water supplies in a major disaster. Two of these deep tube wells were operational and they are providing water supplies to Kathmandu residents. They were completed in recent months.

Also the United States Government in recent time has funded the construction and equipment of a seismically safe blood bank, spent about a million dollars on that. That's at the Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital. That blood bank is currently open and operational. And that's in addition to other work that the U.S. military has done on disaster preparedness training and upgrading infrastructure.

Anything else on Nepal? Okay. New topic?

QUESTION: Can I --

MR RATHKE: Yeah, Lesley.

QUESTION: On Clinton emails, CNN vaguely reported something that the – that the Clinton emails were going to be released sometime this week. Can you – have you got a timeline for us for that, please?

MR RATHKE: I don't have any timeline or announcement to make about the timing. Of course, as we've talked about, there are two tranches – the first is the 300 emails comprising about 900 pages, which are focused – that – which we provided to the Select Committee. We're going through those first, release those first; we'll make them publicly available when they're ready, but I don't have a timing announcement on it.

QUESTION: So that report's not correct?

MR RATHKE: Again, I don't have a timing announcement to make at this stage.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks, Jeff. Regarding your comments on Ukraine, you seem pretty adamant that Minsk II is being violated. Could you clarify – were you saying that – specifically, who this building thinks is violating it? Are we talking the Russia-backed separatists or also the Ukrainian military? And a follow-up to that as well.

MR RATHKE: Well, again, it's clear if we just look at the situation near Shyrokyne, which is near Mariupol – in other words, it is well outside – well beyond the ceasefire line – the Russia-backed separatists continue to fire on Ukrainian Government forces and that's a clear violation of the Minsk agreements. And I think we've spoken separately last week about the ways in which Russian forces, Russian personnel, are working together with the separatists in eastern Ukraine. So I think that the situation there is pretty clear.

QUESTION: There's been murmurings from various voices in the U.S. Government and in the Administration about imposing or leveling some new slate of sanctions on Russian individuals and possibly even businesses and government entities if Minsk II was repeatedly violated. It sounds like you're saying it has been. I wonder if you can give us an update or a sense of where we're at with that sanctions conversation. Is there movement towards it, perhaps?

MR RATHKE: Well, the sanctions, of course, are connected to the presence in eastern Ukraine of the separatists and the Russian – and their Russian backers. I don't have new sanctions announcements to make. But of course, the sanctions are linked to implementation of Minsk, and there's no way the sanctions can be rolled back unless Russia and the separatists live up to their Minsk commitments.

QUESTION: Again, I'm not talking about rolling back --

MR RATHKE: Right.

QUESTION: -- I'm talking about possibly adding more.

MR RATHKE: I understand. I don't have any new sanctions announcements to make, though.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: But what about -- about the air defense systems?

MR RATHKE: Well, I don't have any information to add to what we shared last week on the air defense systems.

QUESTION: But you're --

MR RATHKE: I could go through that again, but I don't have new information on it.

QUESTION: Yeah, but you're saying that the number of them has increased. Is that correct?

MR RATHKE: Right. We – this is the highest amount of Russian air defense equipment in eastern Ukraine since August.

Yes.

QUESTION: Still on Ukraine.

MR RATHKE: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Last week I think in the statement you referred – not you, but this department --

MR RATHKE: Sure.

QUESTION: -- referred to combined Russian separatist forces, I think, three times in a single statement, which seemed to be a closer linkage than maybe identified in the past. And in light of that I'm wondering if this activity near Mariupol is the result of Russian-backed separatists, as you just indicated, or this combined Russian separatist force that you outlined last week?

MR RATHKE: Well, let me separate those two a little bit.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR RATHKE: Because it is – you're right to that we see the Russian presence in eastern Ukraine has been part of increasingly complex training of separatist forces. This training also incorporates, for example, Russian UAVs, which is also a clear sign of Russia's presence. And so we see increasingly the Russian and separatist forces – oh, sorry, the Russian command and control presence and equipment in eastern Ukraine also is why we've described it as combined Russian and separatist forces.

Now with respect to the question of the current artillery activity around Shyrokyne, I don't have information to draw a conclusion about whether that is separatist activity or Russian separatist combined forces. What we were describing in the information we put out last week was the overall situation in eastern Ukraine. I can go back and look and see if we have more detail on Shyrokyne.

QUESTION: Yeah, that would be helpful.

MR RATHKE: Okay. We'll do that.

QUESTION: I would ask as well – I mean, do you hold – despite you're not at this point willing to call that a combined Russian separatist force or offensive, do you hold Russia ultimately responsible for this latest offensive?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, we've said for a long time that Russian support to the separatists is essential to their – to the military activity they've been able to carry out. We've seen that throughout the conflict. So again, I don't have data at my fingertips with regard to the makeup of the forces who are shelling Ukrainian positions well outside the ceasefire lines. We'll look to see if we can get that, but I think the overall – in the overall situation, it's quite clear that Russia's support is essential.

QUESTION: Without getting into the force makeup, do you see this latest attack as a product of the Russian command and control operations that you've identified in recent days?

MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Okay, I understand the question. I – we'll look into that and come back to you.

Same topic? Russia, Ukraine?

QUESTION: No, Yemen.

MR RATHKE: No? Okay. Michel.

QUESTION: Yeah. Former UN envoy to Yemen says that Yemen political deal was close before Saudi airstrikes began and added – the campaign derailed agreement that could have averted conflict. Do you have any comment on that?

MR RATHKE: Well, from the United States view, it's quite clear that the unilateral aggressive actions by the Houthis and their supporters are the reason for the disruption in the political transition process. So that's clearly the pattern that's been observed, and it was in response to that pattern of unilateral and aggressive actions that Saudi Arabia launched its operation.

QUESTION: But were you aware of this fact before the U.S. supported the military operation led by Saudi Arabia?

MR RATHKE: Well, we worked closely and we continue to work closely with the United Nations and with our international partners. Again, the ultimate goal here is a political dialogue that would lead to a peaceful political transition. There is an established international framework, the Gulf – the GCC initiative and the National Dialogue Council. So we see quite clearly that it was the Houthi aggression that caused this breakdown and led to the Saudi operation.

QUESTION: But don't you think that the military operation broke the deal between the parties in Yemen?

MR RATHKE: Well, the Houthis were not abiding by that deal. That's – I think that's the essential point, that there were extensive efforts made by the United Nations, and those efforts were supported by the international community, and it was the Houthi – or sorry, refusal to engage in that dialogue process and their resort to violence which has brought us to the situation that we find ourselves in now.

Yes, Pam.

QUESTION: Jeff, over the weekend, the State Department released its statement expressing disapproval for Burundi's decision to allow the president to seek a third term. Since then, has there been any dialogue between the U.S. and Burundi? Has the U.S. expressed those concerns directly to the government, and if so, what kind of response have you received?

MR RATHKE: Well, you're – on April 25th, we stated that we continue to support the Burundian people's peaceful pursuit of their democratic rights and freedoms. We also see this as a missed – an opportunity, a significant opportunity that has been missed. We urge all parties to participate in the legislative and national elections. We remain in touch with Government of Burundi counterparts. I don't have any specific conversations from the State Department to read out, though, in that regard.

QUESTION: Can I ask you another --

MR RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Oh.

MR RATHKE: Same topic, Pam?

QUESTION: No.

MR RATHKE: Oh, okay. Then yeah, we'll follow up here, Lesley.

QUESTION: But do you believe that the president should not be standing for that third term?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, we – as we said in our statement, we see this as disregarding the term limit provisions of the Arusha Agreement, and we think that Burundi has missed an historic opportunity to strengthen its democracy and establish a tradition of peaceful democratic transition. So certainly, we – that's our view on the decision itself for him to stand.

QUESTION: Yemen --

MR RATHKE: Yes, Namo.

QUESTION: Sorry, Egypt.

MR RATHKE: Egypt?

QUESTION: Yes. On your press freedom campaign, there are reports yesterday that Al-Masry Al-Youm, which is a private newspaper in Egypt – some of its journalists have been – have faced interrogation from the police because of publishing a long, detailed report on police brutality in their country. What's your – have you seen that report, sir?

MR RATHKE: I'm not familiar with that report. I'm happy to look into it. Again, we take press freedom very seriously, but I just don't – I'm not familiar with the particulars of that one.

Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Can we stay in Egypt?

MR RATHKE: Yeah, stay in Egypt. Yes, go ahead, Michel.

QUESTION: Yeah. The Egypt foreign ministry spokesperson has said that Minister Shoukry and Secretary Kerry will discuss this afternoon the resume – or resuming the Strategic Dialogue between the two countries. Do you expect this to happen soon?

MR RATHKE: Well, I'm not going to get ahead of the Secretary's meeting with Foreign Minister Shoukry. There will be a spray at the top and I think we'll put out a readout of the meeting after it's over. I think we may also have a fact sheet on one aspect of the talks, which we'll put out a little bit later today, but I'll let the Secretary and Minister Shoukry meet first before we put that out.

QUESTION: On the press freedom --

MR RATHKE: Yes.

QUESTION: -- are you going to be addressing at all over the next week what happened in Paris to Charlie Hebdo or any other similar acts against media regarding publishing of blasphemous – material deemed blasphemous by some?

MR RATHKE: Well, I don't have the full lineup of each case that we will highlight in the course of the week, but I take the interest.

QUESTION: Given that it was just about the most deadly attack on the press --

MR RATHKE: Certainly.

QUESTION: -- in recent memory --

MR RATHKE: Certainly.

QUESTION: -- would it – what would it – I mean, can you really avoid it in a week on press freedom?

MR RATHKE: I understand the question, yeah. I don't have the full lineup for the week. We'll keep you in rapt attention for the remainder of the week. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: And on Iran --

MR RATHKE: Yes.

QUESTION: -- can you give a hint at all at what Secretary Kerry and Minister Zarif will be discussing? I think Energy Secretary Moniz described sanctions as one particular issue that remains unresolved at this point. Will that be at the head of the agenda or will that include other things?

MR RATHKE: Well, the Secretary has a pretty packed schedule today, so we don't expect this meeting to be an extremely lengthy one. It will certainly – and there's a lot to discuss on the nuclear issue. I'm not going to break it down into component elements, but we certainly expect it to be focused on the nuclear issue, as we always do. I think it's also quite likely that the Secretary will raise the fate of American citizens who remain in Iran either in prison or missing, and so we'll be doing a readout, then, after the meeting.

QUESTION: So, I mean, if it's not going to be a very lengthy issue, is the goal then essentially to what? To keep the relationship and the lines of communication open, to smooth over some of the tensions that emerged after the framework agreement? What can you say?

MR RATHKE: Well, we've got a lot of work to do between now and the end of June. Of course, Under Secretary Sherman was in Vienna last week, and so this is an opportunity to continue the high-level momentum behind reaching a conclusion, a joint comprehensive plan of action, by the end of June.

QUESTION: But it sounds like from this meeting, you don't expect – it's not supposed to be a deeply substantive meeting as much as kind of a benchmark in the process.

MR RATHKE: Well, it's not going to be like the Lausanne talks, where we had perhaps days and days of detailed negotiations, but it's certainly going to be focused on all the same issues, even if they're not going to get into as much detail just given the limited time.

QUESTION: Will they discuss Yemen?

MR RATHKE: Yes – well, if time allows, they may discuss it, but again, this is not going to be an extremely long meeting. If it does come up, I think it's likely the Secretary would say what we've been saying publicly, that all parties should conduct themselves in a manner consistent with UN Security Council resolutions and applicable international law.

Yes.

QUESTION: Okay, two topics. What do you think about Iranian participation in the Geneva talks, like the Syrian opposition talks in Geneva?

MR RATHKE: So with respect to the UN special envoy, there of course has been discussion about convening meetings. I think it's important to point out that Special Envoy de Mistura emphasized that these are not negotiations, this is not Geneva III. The U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Daniel Rubinstein will be part of the upcoming UN-led consultations in Geneva, but again, we don't see these as negotiations. These are consultations. I think that's the way that the special envoy has described them.

QUESTION: And – but how do you look to the Iranian participation into – in that?

MR RATHKE: Well, we're aware of reports that Iran has been invited. We would refer you to de Mistura's – him and his team for more information. If Iran wants to play a constructive role in peacefully ending the Syrian conflict, we think the way forward is clear: end its support for the Assad regime and endorse the principles of the Geneva communique.

QUESTION: So you don't mind the participation of Iranian --

MR RATHKE: Again, that's – the scope, the dates, the participation are things that the UN special envoy is working on, and – but the principle is clear: the Geneva communique.

QUESTION: But you don't mind, like, sitting with the Iranians around the same table to consult --

MR RATHKE: Well, again, let's see what details we get from the special envoy about how this will go forward.

QUESTION: Can I ask – another topic, please?

QUESTION: No, stay on Syria.

MR RATHKE: Let's say on Syria and then we'll come back.

Roz, and then we'll go to Michel.

QUESTION: Yeah. Do you have anything about reports that the Syrian may have used chlorine against citizens in both Idlib and Hama on Sunday? Have you heard anything about this?

MR RATHKE: Well, we're seeking more information about those allegations. We are not in a position to confirm those details. I think the United States view on the Assad regime's use of chlorine as a weapon has been quite clear. It's been stated by the White House, by Secretary Kerry, by Ambassador Power, but I don't have the – I'm not able to confirm those specific allegations.

QUESTION: If there were confirmation, would this heighten the U.S.'s push to do something about the Syrian military's behavior, in light of the testimony that was offered two weeks ago at the UN Security Council?

MR RATHKE: Well, if these allegations do turn out to be true, it would just be the latest tragic example of the Assad regime's atrocities in Syria. They continue to flout international standards and norms, including the Chemical Weapons Convention. So I don't have any steps to announce at this point, but clearly it would be consistent with the pattern of truly grave use of chlorine as a weapon by the Assad regime.

QUESTION: Are the international community's hands tied because chlorine is not classified as a weapon, per se?

MR RATHKE: No, it doesn't tie the international community's hands. Of course, chlorine is a chemical that can be used for industrial and other purposes in addition to being used as a weapon, but that doesn't change the Chemical Weapons Convention's view and – on its use as a weapon.

Michel.

QUESTION: Thanks.

QUESTION: Did you mean there will be consequences?

MR RATHKE: Well, look, we stand by our previous statements that the Assad regime has in the past used chlorine as a chemical weapon. The OPCW has reported on this extensively. I don't have specific steps to announce now. We're looking into these newest allegations.

QUESTION: But up to now, Syria hasn't faced any consequences from the U.S. for chlorine gas use. Is that right?

MR RATHKE: Well, I think there has – if you mean a military step, then yes, you're right. But I think the response, the international response, to the Assad regime's continued use not only of chlorine as a weapon but its attacks on the Syrian people, which have led to countless deaths and dislocations, have the attention of the international community. That's why we're working with the Syrian opposition and other forces within Syria.

QUESTION: But even non-militarily, how – what have been the consequences – direct consequences to the Assad regime before --

MR RATHKE: Well, I think Syria is largely isolated internationally and --

QUESTION: But they were anyway. I mean, they've used even worse chemicals and you (inaudible)--

MR RATHKE: Which led to a situation in which the international community pressed Syria --

QUESTION: Right.

MR RATHKE: -- and we've gotten out 100 percent of their declared more serious chemical weapons as well.

QUESTION: But can you point to – can you point to any specific consequences the Syrian Government has faced for chlorine gas use?

MR RATHKE: Again, we're looking into this and we're working with our partners. I don't have anything more to announce.

QUESTION: Why should they heed your call to stop using these – your and other – and the call of other governments if they haven't been punished for it?

MR RATHKE: Again, we continue to work with our international partners. I don't have anything more to add on that.

QUESTION: But Jeff --

MR RATHKE: Yeah, Michel.

QUESTION: You said that Ambassador Rubinstein will participate in the consultation --

MR RATHKE: Yes.

QUESTION: -- that Special Envoy de Mistura will make. Is he ready to meet with the Syrian regime delegation?

MR RATHKE: Again, we don't know what the format or the – again, these are consultations. These are not negotiations. So we'll wait to see what the actual details are of the consultations that the special envoy is announcing, and then we'll be able to tell you more about exactly how the U.S. will engage there. The point is that he will be our senior official who will take part, but who he'll meet with is all something that will develop in response to the – a more specific agenda from de Mistura.

QUESTION: In principle, is there any thinking about meeting the regime?

MR RATHKE: Again, we – I don't have any plans to announce about that. We'll see how this – how these consultations take shape.

QUESTION: Just have a quick one.

MR RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead, Brad.

QUESTION: Still on Syria.

MR RATHKE: Yeah.

QUESTION: There was one report – I believe it was The Washington Post – that suggested Assad's government is far weaker than many imagined, that perhaps it crumbles before our eyes in the coming months or whenever. Is that your assessment in this building, that the Assad regime is crumbling or is in deep trouble right now?

MR RATHKE: I don't have an analysis of the internal dynamics of the Syrian Government to offer. Clearly, Assad has lost his legitimacy. We've said that a number of times. But I don't have an analysis of their – of the regime's longevity. It's clear they've outlived the welcome of its – their own people, which I think is the important thing, but on those details, I don't --

QUESTION: You don't see the tide of the conflict fundamentally shifting at this stage?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, battlefield analysis from here is something we do not try to engage in. So I don't have that – I don't have a prediction not make of that sort.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: On Syria too.

MR RATHKE: Yeah.

QUESTION: Any reaction to the death of the intelligence official Rustom Ghazali?

MR RATHKE: I don't have any response on that. Additional on Syria or --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR RATHKE: Okay, we'll go to Pam, and then we'll come here.

QUESTION: Do you have any reaction to today's re-election in Sudan of President Bashir, especially considering he is still wanted by the ICC for war crimes?

MR RATHKE: We have said and I'll repeat, we regret the Government of Sudan's failure to create a free, fair, and conducive elections environment. The restrictions on political rights and freedoms, the lack of a credible national dialogue, and the continuation of armed conflict in Sudan's periphery are among the reasons for the reported low participation and the very low voter turnout. So as a result of this, we do not consider the outcome of these elections to be a credible expression of the will of the Sudanese people.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Okay. It's about Ethiopia.

MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Really words cannot express how saddened the Ethiopian people are right now. As you heard the news, ISIS shot and beheaded 29 Ethiopians and one Muslim who stood up in support of his Ethiopian Christian brothers. And there is no doubt that ISIS will continue to behead Christians unless the world leaders take decisive action to stop or destroy ISIS. My question is: Besides condemning and besides bombing ISIS targets, what is the United States current effort to stop or to destroy ISIS effectively from beheading more people?

MR RATHKE: Well, we've got a broad campaign against ISIL, and it covers multiple pillars, including our military actions in Iraq and Syria, our support to the Iraqi Security Forces, our work with Syrian opposition, as well as our partnership with countries in the region to fight ISIL both in security terms, also in terms of delegitimizing their message. And so we've got a broad campaign. Of course, with respect to Ethiopia, we've had just recently high-level talks between Under Secretary Sherman and her counterparts in Addis Ababa. So this is a threat that we take seriously and that we work closely with our partners on.

Lesley, yes, you had a follow-up.

QUESTION: Yeah. I was hoping to ask you also for a reaction to the outcome of the elections in Cyprus.

MR RATHKE: Yes. A lot of elections --

QUESTION: Yep.

MR RATHKE: -- this – the last few days. So we congratulate Mustafa Akinci on his election as the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community. We continue to support the negotiation process conducted under the auspices of the United Nations and Special Negotiator Eide, and to reunify the island as a bi-zonal and bi-communal federation. And we reiterate our willingness to assist in any way that the parties would find useful.

QUESTION: Do you know if the Secretary has spoken to him?

MR RATHKE: No, no calls to read out from that.

QUESTION: Because the Secretary did say last week he was interested in trying to make good on the peace process and suggested a bigger role for the U.S. in that.

MR RATHKE: Well, our commitment to the peace process is longstanding, and the Secretary of course had a couple of opportunities to talk about that when he met with the foreign ministers of Greece and of Turkey. And we look forward to working with Mustafa Akinci in his capacity as the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community.

QUESTION: Thanks.

MR RATHKE: Yeah, we'll go along this side and then come back. So start all the way in the back. Yeah, just behind you, then we'll come forward. Yeah.

QUESTION: Okay. So on Iraq, there are reforms in the Iraqi armed forces – it happened in the past and still happening, and also in the Peshmerga divisions. Is the United States behind these reforms or endorsing these reforms in any way? Because one of the Iraqi lawmakers accused the United States of appointing or forcing Iraqi Government to appoint one of the Sunni leaders for the Mosul operations. And that's one.

The other one is on the U.S. veterans joined Peshmerga in Iraq. What is the status for them when they come back or when they're injured or killed – for their family and also for themselves?

MR RATHKE: Well, the first question, I'm not aware of those reports to which you're referring so I don't have any comment on those specifics. Of course, we have joint operations centers in the Kurdish region as well as in Baghdad, and we work closely with our Iraqi counterparts as they – as they look at how they want to carry forward the fight against ISIL. But I don't have any comment on those.

And certainly, decisions about how Iraq's forces will respond, whether it's in Mosul or anywhere else, are decisions made by Iraq's leaders, not by the United States.

QUESTION: And there was a response by the U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad Stuart Jones about this, and I was wondering if you have any more than that that he had, that he said that the appointing commander of the Mosul operations was not U.S.-initiated.

MR RATHKE: Well, I think that's exactly right.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR RATHKE: And so I don't have anything --

QUESTION: The second question?

MR RATHKE: -- to add to it. The second question?

QUESTION: Was - did the U.S. – some – voluntarily some U.S. veterans joining --

MR RATHKE: Oh, well, we have long advised American citizens against travel to Iraq. No American citizens who might possibly be there in any kind of capacity fighting or doing so with approval or any sort of support of the United States Government, so I don't have any comment on the --

QUESTION: Will it be an issue when they come back to U.S.?

MR RATHKE: I don't have any specific comment on that.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR RATHKE: Well, again, I don't have any comment on that.

Yes, go ahead --

QUESTION: Wait, no, no, no, just to follow this up --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR RATHKE: Okay, sorry. Brad, go ahead.

QUESTION: I mean, he raised a good point. Is it – is this a criminable offense, fighting for the Peshmerga?

MR RATHKE: Well, that would be a Department of Justice question.

QUESTION: What are you advising American citizens about --

MR RATHKE: Well, we're advising American citizens against travel to Iraq.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR RATHKE: And that applies across the board. So --

QUESTION: But you're not putting out any specific warning – this government – about taking a weapon and joining a non-state military group and fighting?

QUESTION: Or even another --

MR RATHKE: Well, again, that's --

QUESTION: -- country's military.

MR RATHKE: Well, that's – I think is a separate – would be a separate question. But that would be a Department of Justice question. I'm happy to check with them and see if they have guidance that they're able to offer.

QUESTION: Are you aware – are you aware of whether Homeland Security officials would be taking a closer look at Americans who say they're coming back from Iraq?

MR RATHKE: I'd encourage you to ask – I'd encourage you to ask DHS colleagues about that.

Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Under Secretary Wendy Sherman is going to Dhaka, Bangladesh to have a fourth annual U.S-Bangladesh Partnership Dialogue. Do you have any update (inaudible) what they're going to talk about? And also my second question is: Is Nisha Desai Biswal is going along with Under Secretary Sherman to Dhaka, Bangladesh?

MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: I think it's on Thursday they are going.

MR RATHKE: Yeah, I don't have – I don't have travel details to announce. I'm happy to look into that and see if we can --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR RATHKE: If we have anything more, we're happy to share that.

QUESTION: Yeah, okay.

MR RATHKE: Yes. Iraq, go ahead.

QUESTION: There was – there were reports that President Barzani of the Kurdistan region is coming to Washington in the first week of May, and the State Department confirmed the visit that he's coming here. Do you have anything new about that visit --

MR RATHKE: I don't have any announcement to make about --

QUESTION: Has he been invited by – the State Department has confirmed that he's coming to Washington in the next coming weeks, but has he been invited by this building or --

MR RATHKE: I don't have any details to announce about his possible travel.

Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Can you address reports alleging a secret easing of rules for the drone program in Pakistan?

MR RATHKE: I think those reports refer to purported decisions made in the White House, so I would refer you to White House colleagues on that.

QUESTION: And then secondly, do you have any reaction to the comments by former President George W. Bush criticizing foreign policy, saying President Obama is putting the U.S. in retreat?

MR RATHKE: Well, if I remember, if I understood correctly, I think that was a closed event and I haven't seen a transcript of his comments. I think people have been reporting based on what they heard. I'm not going to respond – respond to those.

Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. I was just wondering if you have a readout for Secretary Kerry travel to Ethiopia and Djibouti, meeting their presidents.

MR RATHKE: I don't have a travel announcement to make. I think when we have one – we'll have one soon. But it's – we don't have a travel announcement to make today.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Jeff --

MR RATHKE: All right. Yeah? Sorry, Brad, did you have --

QUESTION: Jeff --

MR RATHKE: Laura.

QUESTION: I was actually hoping we could go back to Nepal real briefly.

MR RATHKE: Sure.

QUESTION: A couple questions. First, do you have any estimate on how many Americans were registered as living or visiting Nepal at the time of the earthquake?

MR RATHKE: I don't have an estimate to give. Again, as I think we've talked about in other contexts, we have a lot of people who register, who may be there temporarily, who may stay longer. It's hard – because there's no requirement to register, it's hard to come up with a precise estimate of the American presence in Nepal.

QUESTION: All right. And then was there any actual damage to the infrastructure of the embassy itself?

MR RATHKE: Our embassy is open and operating. I'm not aware of any significant damage, at least not that is impeding their operations. I think, of course, we'll – we're looking into that as part of the response to the earthquake, but of course, there are lots of other work to be done taking care of the American citizens who are there as well as liaising with the government colleagues. So we're able to continue operating, and in the coming days, we may have an opportunity to share more about whether there was any damage to our facility.

QUESTION: And then all embassy personnel as well are accounted for and uninjured?

MR RATHKE: So all of the American personnel at the embassy are accounted for. We are continuing our efforts to account for all of our local employees, so we are still trying to verify all of the local employees.

QUESTION: So correct me – they're not all accounted for?

MR RATHKE: We have not finished accounting for all of our local staff at the embassy. All American staff, those who are under the authority of the chief of mission, we have accounted for.

Okay. Thanks, everybody.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:51 p.m.)

DPB # 71

[1] Thomas Ely Taplin



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