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Daily Press Briefing

Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
April 29, 2016

Index for Today's Briefing




2:13 p.m. EDT

MR TONER: Hey, everybody.

QUESTION: Hello. That was two minutes somewhere, maybe on Venus or something.

MR TONER: Is that how we're starting this? I needed a last minute --

QUESTION: I think we'd be grateful if --

MR TONER: Espresso and – what's that?

QUESTION: -- if the two minutes could be closer to two minutes.

MR TONER: Apologize, guys. No, honestly, sorry. I needed a clarification on something. I apologize for that.


MR TONER: Very briefly at the top, I did want to note that as we've been doing all week, we've been highlighting different cases for the Free the Press campaign, and today we'd like to highlight Woubishet Taye, who is an Ethiopian journalist, who authorities arrested on June 19th, 2011. According to an NGO, he had written a column critical of the ruling party before his arrest.

On January 19th, 2012, a court in Addis Ababa found him guilty on terrorism-related charges and for receiving payment for terrorist acts. He was subsequently sentenced to 14 years of imprisonment and fines. And he's reportedly being held in Ziway prison and has suffered from poor health.

For today's fifth Free the Press campaign case, we'd also like to highlight the case of Madeeha Abdalla, who is a Sudanese editor-in-chief, who was targeted by authorities for criticizing official policies.

On January 13th, 2015, Madeeha was arrested by security forces and on charges of conspiracy, undermining constitutional order, urging the opposition to use violence and force against the government, and publishing false information. These charges carry up to the death penalty if the defendant is found guilty. No court trial has been scheduled, and her case remains open.

We encourage the Government of Ethiopia to release Woubishet Taye and the Government of Sudan to drop its charges against Madeeha Abdalla, and we further call on both governments to ensure that anti-terrorism laws are no longer used to undermine freedom of expression and an independent media.

Over to you, Matt.

QUESTION: Thank you. Can we start with Syria, I guess? I realize this has been discussed already --

MR TONER: No, of course. Happy to.

QUESTION: -- all over the place today --


QUESTION: -- including at the White House. But I'm just wondering if you can offer any details on the Secretary's call with Foreign Minister Lavrov.

MR TONER: Well, the call actually – excuse me – finished only a few minutes ago or moments ago. I do know --


MR TONER: -- that they spoke --

QUESTION: Is it --

MR TONER: Sorry, go ahead.

QUESTION: It's 2:15 in the morning where Foreign Minister Lavrov is.

MR TONER: It's a --

QUESTION: He's a late – a night owl, I guess.

MR TONER: I imagine so. I don't know. I don't know where he is, actually.

QUESTION: He's in China, I believe.


QUESTION: Anyway --

MR TONER: Anyway, I can say that I'm not making that up. They did speak.

QUESTION: So you weren't later than the two minutes because you were getting a readout of the call to give us?

MR TONER: No, unfortunately, it was not. It was another matter but --

QUESTION: I'm disappointed.

MR TONER: No, look, I mean, broadly speaking, they talked about the cessation of hostilities, about some of the efforts that are underway that were talked about on a background call earlier about the reinforcement of that cessation of hostilities in parts of Syria, and also about the political track as well, the political negotiation track as well. I don't have much further to add beyond that.

QUESTION: All right. Well, can you --


QUESTION: Unfortunately, the call that you referred to left me with, and I think others, with numerous questions. You call this a "reinforcement of the cessation of hostilities" for two specific areas, but in fact, why is it not like a retrenchment of the existing cessation of hostilities, which covered the – I mean, you've gone from having agreement on a cessation of hostilities in the whole country to now having a cessation of hostilities in places that are largely just held by the government.

MR TONER: Well --

QUESTION: It seems to be a retracting rather than reinforcing.

MR TONER: No, that's not the intention at all. I think what it is --

QUESTION: Well, I know it's not the intention, but that's what it is.

MR TONER: Let me – look, I mean, that's not – and that's not the impression, certainly, that we want to give. I think, rather, this is a recognition that in some parts of the country, including the two parts that we've identified – North Latakia as well as Eastern Ghouta – that there has been, however you want to put it, a weakening of the cessation of hostilities. There have been numerous incidents on the ground of fighting, renewed fighting between the various groups – the regime and the opposition, armed opposition, who had signed up to the cessation of hostility.

So I think this is an effort to not to simply focus on the cessation of hostility there. Certainly, we recognize it's a much broader issue and that – but that these are trouble areas, if I could put it so bluntly, and that we want to focus on strengthening the cessation of hostilities, renewing it, reaffirming it so that we can quell the fighting or the violations, the ongoing violations in these areas, with, as I think the senior State Department official alluded to earlier, with the expectation that it would be also applied to other trouble spots, if I could put it that way.

QUESTION: Well, isn't Aleppo a trouble spot?

MR TONER: Of course. And I think that he --

QUESTION: It would seem to me that you would --

MR TONER: I think that the senior State Department official who spoke earlier --


MR TONER: -- recognized – we're fully aware that Aleppo is a trouble spot. But we're starting here; we have to start somewhere. We're starting in North Latakia and Eastern Ghouta with the expectation, if this goes well, that we can then again reinforce it elsewhere.

QUESTION: Well, I just – I just – I mean, I realize that you want to say it's reinforcing, but it just seems to a – an outside observer that it's shrinking.

MR TONER: No, I mean, I think – look, Matt, I mean, the cessation of hostilities is still – in many parts of where it applied to in Syria, was holding. I mean, we talked about this the last weeks. But there were areas, such as Aleppo but other areas as well, where we did see numerous violations.


MR TONER: I mean, attacks on civilians, airstrikes against armed opposition, but also involving civilians as well. So recognition that it was breaking down.


MR TONER: Everybody's spoken to this.

QUESTION: So in your view, this is progress?

MR TONER: Not at all. I would not term this as progress. I think it is an awareness and a recognition of the fact that there are parts of Syria where the ceasefire is, for lack of a better word, deteriorating, and that we need to address those problem spots. And this is an effort to do that.


MR TONER: Go ahead, yeah.

QUESTION: Who agreed to what exactly in Latakia and Eastern Ghouta?

MR TONER: So this is an agreement within the task force, but certainly on the part of U.S. and Russia, that there would be a reinforcement of the cessation of hostilities in these specific areas – again, as a start, with the expectation that this reaffirmation, if you will, or recommitment, would be then extended elsewhere.

QUESTION: Did the Syrian Government agree to this?

MR TONER: The answer to that question is this is an agreement between the U.S. and Russia, with the expectation that as it worked in the original ceasefire, the cessation of hostilities came into effect, that both – that the U.S. and Russia would exert influence on those parties to comply with the cessation of hostilities. And it did, in fact, work originally. And we hope to see that renewed.

QUESTION: But it is not correct, then, to say that the Syrian Government has agreed to this?

MR TONER: Again, I – not that I'm – I have not seen that they have come out publicly and said that they agree to it. The expectation, again, is that, as we've talked about all along, when the cessation of hostilities was put into effect, that the ISSG members would then exert influence on the various parties on the ground so that they comply.

QUESTION: Okay. We have a statement from the Syrian army that says that the new, quote, "regime of calm," close quote, which they say would begin at 1:00 a.m. on Saturday – it is different from what the senior State Department official said --


QUESTION: -- would last just one day in Eastern Ghouta and three days in Latakia. Have you seen that statement, and do you regard that statement as an agreement to a one-day halt to fighting in Eastern Ghouta and three days in Latakia, or do you not – or have you not seen it? Or if you've seen it, do you not regard that as agreement?

MR TONER: So I don't – I have not seen that. But that does – with exception of the start time, 1:00 a.m. versus what we said is --

QUESTION: 12:01.

MR TONER: -- 12:01, exactly – it does concur or comply with what we understood, that there are initial, if you will, time limits on the cessation, on this renewed commitment to the cessation of hostilities. Again, though, it is our hope and our belief that if we can get this – the situation quieted back down, if we can end the – these incidents of fighting and attacks, that we can extend it.

QUESTION: Do you have any – so to ask the question that I asked about the government now to the opposition: Has the opposition agreed to stop fighting in those two areas effective midnight, or 1:00 a.m.?

MR TONER: So we are in touch with, obviously, the opposition right now. I can't report on what they've said, but is it our expectation that they will comply.

QUESTION: So I've seen the tweets that --

MR TONER: Otherwise, obviously, this – if we don't go into it with the expectation that they'll comply with it, then of course the whole premise is undercut.

QUESTION: Yeah. So I've seen the tweets that Mr. Hijab has put out and they make no mention of agreement, or at least what I have seen reported of it. So if I understand things correctly, basically what you've got is an agreement between you and the Russians to call for a cease to the fighting in these two particular areas, but not anywhere else, and no – you guys don't have any agreement from either side that they're going to stop. Is that right?

MR TONER: So I'd frame it a little bit --

QUESTION: Do you have indications? Do you have indications, even if you can't call it an agreement or --

MR TONER: I think it's safe to say we have indications. Because this is something, as the senior State Department official spoke to, we've been working on for some time over the past weeks.

QUESTION: And you have indications then of what? That --

MR TONER: That this – that they will indeed comply.

QUESTION: And what --

MR TONER: And again, it's – sorry to – just to finish.

QUESTION: No, no, please.

MR TONER: Again, this is in keeping with the previous cessation of hostilities, which at the time was basically agreement among the ISSG that the cessation would begin at 12:01 on – I forget now the date.


MR TONER: 27th, thank you – and in fact, it happened. So again, this – all of this hinges on our ability – the United States, other members of the ISSG, and especially Russia – to exert influence to convince all parties to adhere to the cease – cessation.

QUESTION: Okay. And you have those indications that they will indeed comply from both sides?

MR TONER: We have been working on this. We have been in discussions. I can't speak for the Russians with the regime, obviously, but – so I won't attempt to speak on behalf of them. But we have been engaged with the opposition.

QUESTION: So the only indications that you, the United States, have are from the opposition? You, the United States, do not have indications from the government even via the Russians?

MR TONER: Again, I don't know what the Russians have said about – but we are – we wouldn't – we believe that they will be able to exert this.

QUESTION: Okay, and then one more.


QUESTION: Why is it that you have not tried – I mean, everybody is aware of – you describe it as the trouble spot, which is rather Orwellian. Everyone is aware of the severity of the violence in Aleppo, and particularly on civilians this week. So why didn't you try – and maybe you did and you just couldn't do it – but why didn't you try to get a halt to the violence everywhere? Or did you try and you couldn't get indications from either side that they would entertain that thought?

MR TONER: I think in part, Arshad, it's a recognition that Aleppo is very complex – and we've talked about this, and the fighting around there is indeed, as you put it, alarming. But a sense that we need to start somewhere – we're going to start in Latakia, in East Ghouta, and as we can reinforce the cessation of hostilities, it's our intention to extend it elsewhere.

QUESTION: But did you try to – did you try to get a halt to the violence in Aleppo?

MR TONER: Well, I think – sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you. I think, again, the senior State Department official who spoke before addressed this and said we are absolutely trying to get a similar recommitment in Aleppo. We're just not quite there yet.


QUESTION: What's the problem?

MR TONER: Well, again, I don't want to get into the battlefield assessment of what's happening in and around Aleppo other than to say it is very complex, it's very fluid. We've talked before about the fact that there is, for lack of a better word, intermingling among these different groups. A lot of this hinges on the fact that you can separate out and clearly delineate, for lack of a more sophisticated term, the good guys from the bad guys – those who are part of the cessation and those who aren't, namely al-Nusrah and Daesh.


QUESTION: But as far as I know, Jabhat al-Nusrah and Daesh do not have aircraft. The only --

MR TONER: Of course, yeah.

QUESTION: The only parties that we can reasonably assume that would have been flying sorties in Aleppo and dropping bombs would be either the Syrian military or the Russian military or both.

MR TONER: Without doubt.


MR TONER: I don't object to that. I know --

QUESTION: So what is so complicated --

MR TONER: No, we have --

QUESTION: -- about trying to, one, stop the fighting in Aleppo, and then, two, the larger question, which has never been satisfactorily answered since the ceasefire took effect back on February 27th: How are people who are violating the ceasefire being held accountable for what they're doing? Is it enough to just catalog for an eventual war crimes trial? Are people going to face some sort of punishment now?

MR TONER: So, Ros, first of all to your first question, I absolutely don't have an argument with your point that any airstrikes that are carrying – that are being carried out targeting civilians or targeting the Syrian opposition have to be either the regime or the Russians. And we have been very, as you know, over the last few days especially, very clear in condemning those continued airstrikes. Certainly, what we saw over the last couple of days, strikes on first responders, strikes on hospitals, were beyond egregious. And we've been very clear, as I've said, about calling for an immediate halt to those airstrikes.

In response to your second question, there is a process in place, and I've talked about this before. There isn't – let me phrase it this way. There is an incentive to keep the cessation in place for all sides. We recognize that there have been pockets where it has broken down due to, as I said, tensions on the ground, breakdowns in – exchanges of fire, but also, as you point out, airstrikes against some of these opposition groups. So I'd rather rephrase it to say what your question is, what is being done to punish those who break the cessation of hostilities, I would rephrase it slightly and say, well, it's in everyone's interest who believes that an end to the fighting is to their benefit – and we hope that's everyone, including the regime – that it's in their interest then to cease these incidents, these attacks on various armed groups on the ground.

QUESTION: Can you confirm--

MR TONER: And that – and frankly, that is the whole – if I could put it that bluntly, that is – the cessation of hostility hinges on that understanding or that commitment to the fact that when you have an end to the violence, an end to the fighting, all sides, frankly, benefit. And then you can get the political process on track.

QUESTION: Did the Secretary make that point very clear about the airstrikes to Foreign Minister Lavrov?

MR TONER: I know that they spoke about recent incidents of violence, including over the past several days. He has raised before – I just – I haven't gotten a full readout of the call, so I apologize. I know he's been very clear in the past, as you well know, publicly speaking about it, and he has conveyed those concerns directly to Foreign Minister Lavrov.

QUESTION: This is my final one.


QUESTION: Isn't it concerning or worrisome that the possibility that the airstrikes were carried out by the Russians and not just by the Syrians, doesn't that even call into question whether or not Russia should even be part of the process of trying to establish and maintain a ceasefire as well as be supportive of a political process?

MR TONER: Well, again, we spoke about this earlier. This is – what we have unfolding in Latakia, in East Ghouta, is a test. And I know we've talked about this before; it's probably a less than satisfactory answer to many of you, but this is a test of their commitment. And so we had a cessation of hostilities that largely was holding for several weeks. It brought about a real reduction in the violence, allowed humanitarian assistance to be delivered to many parts where it wasn't able to get to before. And now we've seen a deterioration of that, so this is a recommitment. And it's a test for the Russians and for the regime as well as for the Syrian opposition. I can't leave them out of it. I mean, it's a two-way street to recommit themselves to this.

QUESTION: Mark, there is a report --

QUESTION: But Mark, this is another thing you're talking about. You've been talking --

MR TONER: Sorry, I'll get to all of you.

QUESTION: You've been talking about this being a test since February 27th when the cessation began.


QUESTION: And in the meantime, the Syrians and the Russians seem to be laying the groundwork to continue to take more territory in eastern Syria. There's new, fresh troops that arrived near Aleppo recently. They're working. They're talking about cutting off Aleppo's supply lines to Turkey. They're talking about beefing up their supply lines, their own supply lines to Aleppo, the Syrian regime. And meanwhile, this partial localized ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta and in Latakia is freeing up troops for the Syrians potentially to go to – to go east to fight in Aleppo. And it's looking like the American approach is to go along with that – with that strategy, and, I mean, a lot of people are interpreting this as an American acquiescence with the Russian and Syrian strategy, which is to retake the country.

MR TONER: Not at all, and I – and this is a mutually agreed-upon strategy with the Russians out of a recognition that we have a cessation of hostilities that is, in many parts of the country, facing serious challenges. We're starting in Latakia, we're starting in East Ghouta. Those are problems areas as well, but again, with the expectation that we can enforce this elsewhere if we have success, and fully recognizing – and we spoke to this earlier – that the situation around Aleppo is urgent.

And so we need to address that and we have been trying to address that on the ground – and again, we spoke to this in the backgrounder we did earlier today – this is not part of any acquiescence at all. And while I certainly won't speak for Russia's intentions, as I said, this is in many ways a test of their commitment to this whole process that we have now in place, which is a cessation and concurrently a political dialogue or negotiations in Geneva. We have to test the premise here. We have to test this. We – I know we've been this – we've been there before and we've said this before. We don't believe it's time to give up on this, but we need to renew our commitment to it.

QUESTION: So I want to ask about this dialogue in Geneva --

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: -- as this – as the Syrians and the Russians with their Iranian allies are moving around and into Aleppo, further into Aleppo. Are the – I mean, what is the – I guess I'm wondering, what is the message that you're giving to the opposition, whose people are in Aleppo, with regards to the – to this dialogue in Geneva? Because they're up against a decision over whether Assad will continue to be a member of this process, a participant in this process. The United States has been on record saying that he shouldn't be or that he should – that he should step aside earlier. He's saying that's not going to happen and the rebels don't think that that should happen either. Is – are they – should they – do they need to acquiesce to what Assad is saying? Because you're also – the Americans also – I mean, no one's also --


QUESTION: -- providing them with the equipment to protect themselves with in Aleppo.

MR TONER: Well, look, we're in very close contact via our special envoy, Michael Ratney, with the Syrian opposition. We're communicating them – communicating with them on an hourly, if – or daily if not hourly basis. We've always said there should be no preconditions to the process that's underway in Geneva. However, we certainly recognize that the strain that the ceasefire or the cessation is under now, the acts of violence and the terrible attacks that we've seen over the past several weeks, don't create a very – an environment that's conducive to these talks moving forward.

That said – and the Secretary spoke with Staffan de Mistura, I think, last night – that said, he did say after his previous – the previous round ended last week that he was encouraged – and I get that these are incremental steps here, there's no – there's not going to be any eureka or breakthrough moment with these talks – but he was encouraged that the talks ended last time with actual – the actual issue of political transition, how to get there, on the table. Before, it was mostly logistics, it was mostly talking about actually the process of the talks themselves. He believes that they did make an advance and he wants – we – he and we, of course, want to see that work continue.

But again, we're under no illusions that if the fighting continues on the ground, if the ceasefire or the cessation continues to be under threat, that's going to complicate things considerably.

QUESTION: Can you clarify something on this?

MR TONER: Let me get to David first, then I'll get to you, Tejinder. If you have – yeah, sorry.

QUESTION: Your answer has been kind of implicit, but I'm just going to see if I can get it clear. You – the new agreement in Latakia and Ghouta is that the Russians will pressure the regime to have a ceasefire there --

MR TONER: Pressure, exert influence, however you want to put it, yeah.

QUESTION: Influence the regime, and that you will try and influence the --

MR TONER: Precisely.

QUESTION: -- opposition.

MR TONER: Along with the other members of the ISSG. I don't want to make this to be a binary thing, but go ahead. Yeah.

QUESTION: Okay. But doesn't that imply, then, that you have no agreement with the Russians to influence the regime not to strike anywhere else, like Aleppo?

MR TONER: No, I think – no, I don't want to – again, I don't want to give the impression that we're somehow saying, "Hey, guys, green light on everything else in the country."

QUESTION: Are you confirming that you currently don't have Russia's agreement to influence the regime to not strike Aleppo?

MR TONER: We have clearly expressed our concerns to Russia about the violations.

QUESTION: You've said that you've expressed your concerns --


QUESTION: -- but did they accept your concerns? Have they agreed --

MR TONER: You'll have to talk to them, but I agree that it's – I would agree with you --

QUESTION: But in saying that you have their agreement to pressure the regime in Latakia and Ghouta, you've confirmed what they said.

MR TONER: Again --

QUESTION: Can you confirm that – what they said about Aleppo?

MR TONER: Again, David, I'd go back to the fact that we view this as a test – clearly as a test of everyone's commitment to the cessation – Russia's and certainly the regime's.

QUESTION: You keep saying that you don't want to leave the impression --

MR TONER: Leave the impression, yes.

QUESTION: -- that you're giving them a green light everywhere else, but I – you don't want to, but that's – unfortunately, that's the impression that it leaves.

MR TONER: I mean --

QUESTION: I think that that's – I mean, you do realize that, right?

MR TONER: Well, again, I – no, I don't, because we're not simply saying that no holds barred in the rest of the country. Where – what we're focused on, if I could put it this way, are areas that we have seen the cessation under threat or weakened – pick your adjective – that need to be addressed. We're starting in Latakia and we're going to spread out from there.

Please, Tejinder.

QUESTION: A few points. One, you say that at the moment U.S. and Russia is agreeing. That means you are not blaming Russia for the recent bombings.

MR TONER: You mean the attacks on facilities?

QUESTION: The attacks, yeah. So you have cleared them and then you are making an agreement with them. And then can we call it a proxy agreement between two powers who are controlling two sections which are fighting there?

MR TONER: I mean, I'm not going to tell you how to put it. I – what I explained to Arshad or David – this is the ISSG, and that is in part this International Syria Support Group – that's part of the function of the group, is to get all the various stakeholders on Syria together so that they can, again, exert whatever influence they may have on the various parties to the conflict in Syria to get this peace process in place.

QUESTION: And the last one: Has the U.S. spoken to or reached out to any of the European allies?

MR TONER: Well, of course. We're always consulting closely with them and many of them part of the ISSG, absolutely.

QUESTION: That's a generic answer. In this particular – before this agreement, have you spoken to anybody in particular?

MR TONER: Again, I would – yes, we are consulting with them frequently.


MR TONER: Are we ready to – do we want to stay on Syria, or --


QUESTION: I've got one on Syria, so --

MR TONER: Okay, Arshad and then – are you Syria as well, or – okay.

QUESTION: Mine's very small.


QUESTION: I read you what the Syrian army had said – the Syrian army statement said with regard to the duration of --

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: So I want to make sure: Is it your understanding that – are their figures correct? In other words, 24 hours, at least initially, in Eastern Ghouta and 72 hours in Latakia – Northern Latakia?

MR TONER: I'm – I believe that is correct. And I apologize; I'm just looking now to see if I have it written in front of me, but that is indeed my understanding, yes.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

MR TONER: Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, Mark. Yesterday a video was surfaced on internet showing that U.S.-supported YPG forces was transporting dead bodies in Afrin in an open trailer truck after a clash with the oppositions, and some of the bodies didn't even have a head on them. And I was wondering if you are following the case and if you have comment on that.

MR TONER: You're talking about the video allegedly by the Afrin Kurds --


MR TONER: -- forces, Kurdish forces. No, we've seen the video, obviously, and while we can't authenticate it 100 percent, we, without hesitation, strongly condemn this kind of behavior that it depicts, and believe that it only serves to heighten tensions between those groups in western Syria. And we – while we haven't provided any support for the Afrin Kurds, we do continue to express publicly and privately our serious concerns when the YPG and Syrian forces – opposition forces come into conflict west of the Euphrates. This fighting has to stop. It's destabilizing, to say the least; it's counterproductive, and I'll leave it there.

QUESTION: And last year, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also raised the same concerns about YPG, and the State Department said that they are investigating the issue. And I was wondering if you came to any conclusion on that.

MR TONER: I don't have any update on that. I apologize. Just – I don't have it in front of me. I'm not aware. But I do know that we take any allegations of human rights abuses – serious allegations and credible allegations – very seriously, and we have expressed the same concerns to the YPG as well.

In the back, sir.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Sir, the U.S. Administration reportedly decided to not contribute U.S. fund towards the F-16s deal to Pakistan on the directive of Foreign Relations Committee. So can you update on the – can you update us on that?

MR TONER: Can I update you on the sale of?

QUESTION: F-16s, sir.

MR TONER: Well, you know where we come down on that. We believe the F-16s – I mean, we believe they're the right platform to support Pakistan's counterterrorism efforts, and have been a part of the successful pushback, if you will, or in past operations against some of the militant groups that are active in Pakistan.

QUESTION: Sir, what about the Foreign Relations Committee decision to not contribute U.S. funds for the F-16? Are you aware about that?

MR TONER: I am aware that some members of Congress have stated their concerns about how to finance this sale. I'd refer you to them for comments about their concerns.

QUESTION: Sir, it is also reported that – sir, the American military aid to Pakistan, like $742 million, has also been put on hold by the Congress. So, I mean, how do you see this situation?

MR TONER: Your last question was about that all --

QUESTION: Some military aid, $742 million, yeah.

MR TONER: -- military aid has been put on hold.


MR TONER: I would have to take that question. I don't know the – I don't have any details on that.


QUESTION: I think the deal with this, if I understood it, is that a license has been granted for the sale of the aircraft --

MR TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: -- but has not been granted for the foreign military financing to fund it, correct?

MR TONER: That is – so that is – again, I would refer you to Congress, but there have been concerns, at least, raised by some members of Congress about using FMF.

QUESTION: Mark, I have a question. Mark?

QUESTION: Yeah, but can I follow it up?


QUESTION: So from the State Department perspective, who is paying for this F-16? The government – U.S. Government is paying or the Pakistan's – Pakistani Government is paying for the F-16s?

MR TONER: Again, I'd refer you to the White House because they probably have the latest on that.

QUESTION: Mark, I have --

QUESTION: Why White House? It was – the notification to the Congress was sent by the Department of State.

MR TONER: I understand that. I would refer you to the White House.

Please, Nike.

QUESTION: Can we move on to a different topic --


QUESTION: -- Ukraine and Belarus?

MR TONER: Sure thing.

QUESTION: On Ukraine, we have seen reports by OSCE monitors that violations of ceasefire in eastern part of Ukraine has reached alarming numbers in recent months – alarming numbers not seen in recent months. Given that situation and in your estimation, how likely it is to have a election by July?

MR TONER: Well, we are certainly concerned about the level of violence in eastern Ukraine, that it's the highest we've seen since the September 1st ceasefire went into effect, with, I think, some 30,000 ceasefire violations, which is a huge number, in April alone. And OSCE reporting does confirm that separatists are largely responsible for these violations. We again call on Russia and the separatists that it supports to fully comply and observe the ceasefire.

You asked about the elections. Assistant Secretary Nuland was in the region, was in Ukraine, and while there, she said that we don't – we have put no date on when elections need to happen. What we're more concerned with and made absolutely clear that Minsk requires that there be sufficient security and OSCE access and the ability of candidates to ballot and the ability of citizens to hear from candidates before you can hold any kind of election.

QUESTION: Fair enough. And then while – with the pro-Russia separatists still in control of majority part of eastern Ukraine and with some pro-Russia members in the – deputies in the parliament, does the United States share some of the concerns or even fears that this will weaken Kyiv's control in other parts of the country?

MR TONER: Look, I'm not – I mean, not necessarily. I mean, we're always concerned that having this kind of situation in – with Russian-controlled and Russian-supported separatists in eastern Ukraine does require a great deal of focus and effort by the government itself and the security forces. Clearly, it's been a strain on Ukraine's government. It's been a strain on the Ukrainian people. It's been a strain on Ukraine's economy. But we've also seen the government make a real effort to institute economic, political reforms, anti-corruption efforts. They need to do more, certainly, but we have seen progress.

So it's our view that the government is making an effort, that it is making progress – needs to do more, certainly, but I would say – I don't want to create the impression that the rest of the country is somehow in flux or in transition. That's certainly not the case at all. But to have a conflict like that in your – in part of the country, part of Ukraine's sovereign territory, is certainly destabilizing to say the least.

QUESTION: Can I ask on Belarus?


QUESTION: Can we – my question is in that region too, so --

MR TONER: Okay, sure, let's finish with Belarus, and then I'll go to you and then Arshad.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Mark, do you have anything on the announcement from today that U.S. will continue to suspend sanctions on entities – nine entities from Belarus?

MR TONER: Yep. So we are extending, as you noted in your question – we are going to extend temporary sanctions relief to Belarus beyond April 30th, I think for up to six additional months. And this is – we view it as an incentive for the Government of Belarus to take additional steps in terms of respect and – for human rights, media freedoms, civil society freedoms, and democratic elections – especially, I think, the upcoming 2016 parliamentary elections. And we also are providing this relief in part to support Belarus's economic independence and as well as its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

QUESTION: You mentioned --

QUESTION: So you're extending the suspension of those sanctions?

MR TONER: We're extending the suspension of the sanctions.


QUESTION: And then you said --

QUESTION: What – sorry, go ahead.

QUESTION: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can I get one?

QUESTION: You mentioned that this is an incentive for Belarus to continue to improve on human rights for the coming six months, but in the past six month, given what was described in the annual Human Rights Report in the – by the State Department, the U.S. remains concerned and there continue to be problems in human rights violations in Belarus. Can you elaborate more about the reasoning behind today's decision?

MR TONER: Sure. I certainly didn't want to paint a picture that suddenly there's no concerns about human rights in Belarus. It's been a mixed bag, if I could put it that way. I mean, we have – we've seen some steps, certainly, and – but we need to see more. Again, I would frame it this way: that it's an incentive for Belarus and the Belarussian Government to take additional steps. If it continues to demonstrate progress, then certainly we can take additional steps. If it doesn't, then we always have the – retain the option to reinstate sanctions if needed.

QUESTION: Just a --

MR TONER: Please, you and then up – I'll get back to you.

QUESTION: Just a quick one here.

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: And if you don't have anything else, if you could take it --


QUESTION: -- I'd be grateful.


QUESTION: So Russia's Yamal, Y-a-m-a-l, liquefied natural gas project has secured a loan from Chinese lenders worth $12 billion. The loan is denominated in euros and Chinese yuan. My question is: In the U.S. Government's point of view, is such a loan – does or would such a loan violate any sanctions that have been imposed on Russia because of its actions in Ukraine?

MR TONER: Ukraine. Yeah, let me take that question, to be honest.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

MR TONER: I wouldn't want to attempt to answer it without specific details.

QUESTION: Yeah. Do you have anything on the reported sentencing of – by North Korea of an American, Korean American, to 10 years of hard labor?

MR TONER: Sure. I mean, as always with these kinds of cases, we're aware, we've seen the media reports that a U.S. citizen has been sentenced to, as you pointed, 10 years of hard labor. I can't, because of privacy considerations, speak to it in detail. We've seen this – these types of actions on the part of North Korea in the past. We will certainly work, continue to work with the Swedish embassy to provide whatever support we can provide to any American citizens detained in North Korea. But --

QUESTION: Have you been able to confirm the sentencing?

MR TONER: I'm not able to at this point.

QUESTION: Not able to because of privacy concerns, or you haven't been able --

MR TONER: I'm not able to speak to it. No, I'm not able to speak to it. We've seen the reports is all I can say.

QUESTION: I have a question.

MR TONER: Yeah, please. I'm sorry. Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you. Mark, Armenian army attacked Azerbaijani village with heavy weapons on Thursday, killing two civilian and wounding at least eight civilians in Terter and Aghdam. And this is photos. Over 50 --

MR TONER: These are? I'm sorry. These are pictures of the attacks?

QUESTION: Yes, Armenian attacked – Armenian army attacked Azerbaijan civilians.

MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, look, we --

QUESTION: Over 50 houses have been destroyed as a result of heavy shelling. I would like State Department comment on latest escalation on Nagorno-Karabakh.

MR TONER: We don't want to see any escalation in the violence. We abhor such attacks by either side, and we need to see a return to the process that is in place to bring about a peaceful settlement to Nagorno-Karabakh. We call for all sides to de-escalate and to return to the peace process.

Please, sir.

QUESTION: Yes, the question is on Mexico. Assistant Secretary Jacobson finally got confirmed last night. Do you have details on the call the Secretary – sorry, the foreign minister from Mexico made to her yesterday, last night? And when do you expect for her to arrive in Mexico City, considering all the time she spent here?

MR TONER: Sure. Well, first of all, as the Secretary himself noted, we are very happy that she has been confirmed by the Senate and we believe she's going to make an excellent ambassador. Mexico is our third largest trading partner. We work together on a variety of issues – energy, border and security challenges. We confront challenges like narcotics trafficking. So we absolutely are delighted that we now have an ambassador there to represent our interests. And again, we are very pleased that she has been confirmed.

You asked about – I'll try to get you details about her phone call with the foreign minister. And I don't have a precise date on when she might arrive in Mexico. I'm sure she's very much looking forward to beginning her tenure there as ambassador. And – but as soon as I have a firm date I'll share that with you.

QUESTION: Excellent. A quick follow-up?

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: I understand there is a Travel Warning for Mexico issued in April the 15th and later it was reviewed. But there's been some acts of violence happening in the port city of Acapulco, which, as you know, it's a very popular destination for many Americans. Do you have any specific additional warning specifically to Acapulco for American citizens to visit or not?

MR TONER: I believe that Acapulco is part of the area that is mentioned in our Travel Warning, our existing Travel Warning. Certainly, as we get more specific – and this is true not just for Mexico but for any country. If we have more specific information on certain areas or cities or events writ large that we believe may pose a threat or a concern to visiting American tourists or even expats who live in a country – and again, I'm not talking specifically to Mexico – we would update our website and travel.state.gov, which we always ask that Americans who are traveling check that and get real-time information on wherever they're going to. But I believe – specifically to your question – that Acapulco is contained in that Travel Warning.


QUESTION: On Bangladesh?

MR TONER: On Bangladesh.

QUESTION: Secretary's call to the prime minister. I believe there are some differences between the U.S. and Bangladesh and who are responsible for the attacks, recent attacks. Was this discussed during the phone call?

MR TONER: Well, I know that he offered U.S. support for the ongoing investigation into these recent attacks, certainly the one that killed our own employee and human rights advocate, as well as his friend and colleague earlier this week. And the Secretary did urge the prime minister to ensure a thorough investigation into these and other attacks, recent attacks, and to redouble efforts by law enforcement to protect these individuals who we believe are at risk.

QUESTION: ISIS and Taliban have been claiming that they were responsible for these attacks. How serious the situation is inside Bangladesh? Because the Bangladeshi Government says it's the opposition parties who were responsible behind this.

MR TONER: I'm aware of some of these claims, and it's – it's a very complex situation on the ground. Look, I mean, what we're asking for is that the government conduct, as I said, an investigation into these attacks, these brutal attacks and these brutal murders, that identifies who the perpetrators are. I don't think we can say with certainty – I mean, as you said, there's been various claims of responsibility. We have no reason to – not to believe those claims of responsibility. But what is clear is that there is a threat on the ground. I mean, we've seen several now murders, brutal murders, over the past several weeks. And we want to see the government there take every step possible to protect its citizens.

QUESTION: Sir, I have one more on Pakistan, if you'll allow me.


QUESTION: One more.

MR TONER: One more.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Thank you.

MR TONER: One more, and then we'll free people for the weekend.

QUESTION: All right. Sir, Pakistan right now is having a military operation against the – all terrorist networks across the country. And they keep saying that the American military aid and F-16s are much needed for the capacity-building of Pakistani security forces. So now when Congress is halting the military aid, in your opinion, how much this affect the war against terrorism?

MR TONER: Well, again, I mean, we – look, I thought I spoke to this before when I said that we do believe the F-16s are helpful. We recognize that Pakistan is trying to make efforts to fight against the terror groups that threaten all Pakistanis. And we do believe, frankly, that Pakistan's relations with its neighbors and with the region – frankly, there's been some ups and downs, but we believe it's trending towards greater dialogue to resolve differences. We want to see that continue. And in all types of these arms transfers, we do take into account regional security and a range of other factors. We believe our security assistance does contribute to a more stable and secure Pakistan and region.

I'll leave it there.

QUESTION: Can I just follow it up for a quick question? Do you know how much U.S. military aid to Pakistan is being held up because the Congress? Do you have that figures?

MR TONER: I don't. I don't have a firm – I just don't have the figure on that. I apologize.

QUESTION: Okay. Yesterday Donald Trump on a Fox interview said that if he becomes the president, he will get Dr. Afridi freed in two minutes. I know you have been asking Pakistan to free Dr. Afridi, but can you tell us what steps you have been taking to get him free?

MR TONER: Well, you're right to say we believe he's been unjustly prisoned, and we have clearly and repeatedly communicated our position to Pakistan the Dr. Afridi case, both in public and private, our opposition to his imprisonment. We continue to raise this issue at the highest levels in any discussion we have with Pakistanis' leadership. The Pakistani Government has assured us that Dr. Afridi is being treated humanely and is in good health, but again, we don't believe he's being – or we believe he's being unjustly imprisoned.

QUESTION: Have they given any signals to you on he being freed any time in the future?

MR TONER: No, we don't have any kind of firm commitment. Again, we don't have any firm commitment about his release or any firm details about his possible release. But we continue to press his case.

QUESTION: I've got --

QUESTION: Can you take a question? You just referred us to the White House for the F-16 details. They have – NSC has responded: "Tejinder, we would refer you to State on this." (Laughter.) So --

QUESTION: That's called being jerked around in real time. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: And I had mentioned that you have referred us to --

MR TONER: Have we mentioned that we're cutting off Wi-Fi for this briefing room? (Laughter.)

Look, I mean, Tejinder, I don't have specifics.

QUESTION: You can take the question and give us the details.

MR TONER: I can possibly take the question, but I wasn't doing that insincerely. My understanding was that the White House wanted to handle those questions. If they refused to answer them, then --

QUESTION: No, they have referred us back to the --

MR TONER: -- or push them back to us, then we'll try to get you information.

QUESTION: I've got – I got three extremely brief ones. One is: A video surfaced earlier this week which purports to be an – from Iranian – it's Iranian video that purports to promote children going to Syria to fight, but it --

MR TONER: Sorry.

QUESTION: Anyway, I'm just wondering if you guys are aware of that and if you --

MR TONER: I'm not. No, we'll look into it.

QUESTION: Thank you. And then secondly, is there any update at all – have you gotten any update from the Emiratis on the case of the father and – the American father and the son?

MR TONER: Oh, let me check. I don't know that we have much new. Let me check on that, though.

QUESTION: How about the lady who was arrested at the airport? There was a U.S. citizen arrested in February, I think, at the airport for insulting the prince.

MR TONER: In the Emiratis or – wait, he's asking about the --

QUESTION: It was Abu Dhabi, I think – one of the Emirates.

MR TONER: But you're asking about, I thought, the Eldarats.


MR TONER: Yeah. Let me just see if I have anything new rather than repeat all the things we've already said.

I don't, so let me see if I can an update for you on that, Matt.

QUESTION: Can you get – can you check and see also if you have anything on Ms. Khawaja, who was – when the Secretary was in Bahrain, the Bahraini foreign minister said she would be freed.

MR TONER: Yeah. No, that, actually, I did get an update on it because Matt asked about that the other day. You're talking about – yeah --

QUESTION: Zahrah Khawaja?

MR TONER: Yeah, yeah, Zainab --


MR TONER: -- al-Khawaja. So you're right, foreign minister of Bahrain announced the government's decision to release her at a press conference with Secretary Kerry on April 9th or – I forget what exact – the exact date was, but during his visit to Bahrain. But we understand that she still remains in detention with her infant son – or infant child. We would urge the Government of Bahrain to follow through with its publicly announced plans to release her as soon as possible.

QUESTION: Beyond the statement that you just made now that you would urge the government to do this, have you actually --

MR TONER: I urge, we urge.

QUESTION: Have you actually urged them, though, or are you just saying this now?

MR TONER: I can only imagine that we have been in touch with them through our embassy. I don't know that we've – at what levels, but I would imagine through our embassy we've continued to follow up on her case and continue to watch it.

QUESTION: Can you check on that to make sure?

MR TONER: I will, yep.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: And the last one: Yesterday I asked Kirby to take this question on the disputes or scandal, some might call it, in the UK Labour Party.

MR TONER: Yeah, no, it's actually --

QUESTION: You guys – have you taken note of this? What – if you have, what do you think?

MR TONER: Sure. We have. We condemn any – we categorically deplore and condemn anti-Semitism and racism in any and all of its forms. We were glad to hear, frankly, that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did state definitively that his party will not tolerate anti-Semitism. And I'd refer you for more details to the Labour Party, but we condemn those kinds of remarks.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MR TONER: Yep. Thanks, guys.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:07 p.m.)

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