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Middle East Digest - April 13, 2009


April 13, 2009

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The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit daily press briefings.

From the Daily Press Briefing of April 13, 2009

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11:28 a.m. EDT

QUESTION: Somalia. One, do you have any information about what happened with Congressman Payne’s plane?

MR. WOOD: Matt, I don’t have much in the way of details. The only thing I can tell you is that he has departed Somalia. My understanding, at least just a preliminary understanding, is that he’s, you know, he’s safe, unharmed, and that’s really all I have in terms of the details of it. We’re obviously going to follow this closely and see what, you know, in terms of the details of the case --

QUESTION: Well, you’re saying that he’s safe and unharmed. Why would there be any reason to think that he might be unsafe or harmed?

MR. WOOD: Well, there were a lot of reports that there may have been an attack on either the airport or the plane. I just – I don’t have those types of details. The only thing I – as I said, I can tell you is that – my understanding, he’s on his way to – he has left Somalia and he’s unharmed, as far as I know. Don’t have much more in the way of detail on it.

QUESTION: Robert, can you tell us whether he’s on a U.S. Government plane or some other kind? And can you tell us whether Diplomatic Security accompanied him to Somalia?

MR. WOOD: Yeah. Charlie, I assume he’s on a U.S. Government plane, but I’m not certain of that. But there were no – my understanding is there were no DS agents protecting him.

QUESTION: Did you – did the State Department help him arrange the trip? Were you involved in any way?

MR. WOOD: We provided the congressman with a briefing and gave him a very frank and straightforward assessment of the security situation on the ground, so indeed.

QUESTION: Did you advise him not to go?

MR. WOOD: We briefed him on and gave him a very frank assessment of the security situation.

QUESTION: Well, if you’ve – when you say that you gave him a very frank assessment of the security situation, which means that the security situation is not very good?

MR. WOOD: Well, as you know --

QUESTION: It sounds like you suggested that it’s not a good time to travel there.

MR. WOOD: Well, we have a Travel Advisory out that warns Americans against traveling to Somalia, so he was certainly well aware of that.

Yes.

QUESTION: So no – just to be clear, absolutely no U.S. officials accompanied Payne? The last U.S. official to travel there was Jendayi Frazer, right, in 2007?

MR. WOOD: That’s my – that’s correct, yeah.

QUESTION: And --

QUESTION: Hold on a second.

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: Jendayi, she didn’t go to Mogadishu.

QUESTION: She went to Baidoa.

QUESTION: Yeah, but let’s make --

MR. WOOD: For the record, we’ll make that clear again.

QUESTION: Can you make that clear?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, we can do that.

QUESTION: Yes.

QUESTION: Change of topic?

MR. WOOD: Still on this subject?

QUESTION: Are you in any way (inaudible) viewing this as a retaliatory move after the pirates incident?

MR. WOOD: I have no way of being able to determine that at all.

QUESTION: Where are you at the moment in terms of your review? I imagine you must be reviewing your Somalia policy, so where are you in terms of that review and --

MR. WOOD: Well, look, you’re talking about specifically piracy or the issue of --

QUESTION: Just overall. I mean, there’s a root cause of the problem, which is --

MR. WOOD: Yeah --

QUESTION: -- in Somalia and the lawlessness of the country.

MR. WOOD: Yeah, absolutely, Sue. We have said that many times before. We think that that is a root cause of the problem. And what we’re trying to do is work with a number of countries in the region and around the world to help bring some political and economic stability to Somalia. That’s one of the things we’ve been actively engaged in. As you know, we were one of the co-sponsors of UN Security Council Resolution 1851 dealing with the question of piracy. We’ve been encouraging states to prosecute suspected pirates in their domestic legal systems. And we’ve been working with industry and with the International Maritime Organization to help ships try to avoid these types of piracy incidents. So these are some of the steps we have taken.

But the question of Somalia that you went to, I mean, this is a very complicated, difficult issue. But we have to deal with that root cause if we’re ever going to really get at and prevent, you know, acts of piracy from taking place on the open seas.

QUESTION: But I mean, where are you? You said that some of the steps that you’re already taking – I mean, in the last review, Secretary Clinton has said that there needs to be a more robust effort --

MR. WOOD: That’s right.

QUESTION: -- to combat piracy. Are you going to get kind of a group together, your contact group on Somalia?

MR. WOOD: That’s right.

QUESTION: Are you going to go back to the United Nations? What are you --

MR. WOOD: Well, we’re going to be looking at a number of options and mechanisms. But the contact group, which doesn’t deal with specific events, it does try to provide countries in that area with increased capabilities, information sharing, better coordination in terms of trying to deal with these incidents of piracy. But again, this is a very – you know, it’s a very challenging issue dealing with piracy. I mean, you know, it’s a very challenging issue dealing with piracy. I mean, you know, we’re going to be looking for ways – effective ways to deal with the issue. But I don’t have those answers with you – those answers with me right now. But I’ve given you an outline of some of the steps that we have taken and are doing, but I don’t have anything more other than that at this point.

Yes.

QUESTION: So in terms of, as you say, trying to bring about some political and economic stability, are you meeting – planning on meeting any members of the – are they called a government now? I can’t remember what --

MR. WOOD: The transitional federal government.

QUESTION: The transitional government.

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t know if there are any specific meetings, but you know, we do talk to the leadership from time to time. And it’s complicated, Sue. It’s not easy. You know, Somalia doesn’t have a stable government, a stable political system at this moment. We’re working to try to bring that about. But it’s not easy. If it were easy, we would have been able to do so by now.

But the important thing is, is that we clearly have an issue in this region right now, piracy, and we need to work cooperatively with a whole host of countries as best we can to prevent these things from happening, and then, of course, if they do happen, to be able to prosecute these pirates.

And so this is ongoing. This is not something we’re going to be able to solve overnight. But I think we’ve got some steps in place. We’re going to be looking for further mechanisms, as I said to Elise, and go from there.

QUESTION: So where would you prosecute these pirates?

MR. WOOD: Well, it really depends, as I said. We’re encouraging other states to prosecute pirates within their legal jurisdictions. We have an MOU, as you know, with Kenya. And other countries have their own agreements with Kenya and possibly with others in the region to deal with this question. So --

QUESTION: What about this particular pirate --

QUESTION: What about the 16-year-old?

MR. WOOD: Hold on one second.

QUESTION: What about this particular pirate in U.S. custody? Where is this pirate?

MR. WOOD: Well, the Justice Department is probably the appropriate entity for you to get in touch with about this particular case. I don’t have any details on it.

QUESTION: Do you have any reaction to some of these pirate leaders over the last few hours saying that they’re going to kill any U.S. or French sailors or anybody that they come across in retaliation for this incident?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, these folks are bandits. You know, they’re lawless. We need to be able to, as I said, work on some very effective frameworks for dealing with these characters. I don’t have any specific response to, you know, these statements that have been made, except to say that the international community is seized with this issue and we are going to do all we can to deal with the various questions that come from the – that flow out of these incidents of piracy.

So – yes.

QUESTION: Do you suspect al-Qaida involvement with these pirates?

QUESTION: I’m not aware of any at this point, of --

QUESTION: Or do you think that just that they’re a bunch of --

MR. WOOD: I don’t know of any al-Qaida involvement. I have no idea. Just that they’re a bunch of criminals and we’ve got to prevent them from carrying out these types of acts in the future. And that’s where we’re focused right now.

QUESTION: Are you considering an extended – an expanded U.S. Naval presence in the area? I mean, it seems like the most obvious thing that you could do to – if you’re going to do everything you possibly can to try to prevent it.

MR. WOOD: Well, again, Arshad, I wouldn’t want to talk about those types of things from the podium. Certainly, the Defense Department deals with those sorts of questions. But that’s not something – I don’t think any of us would want to talk about publicly, you know, in terms of steps we may or may not take.

Yes, Lach.

QUESTION: Is there anything that the commercial shipping can do to protect themselves? And are you, as a government organization, trying to support these measures, such as arm people aboard these ships?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, well, as I said, under, you know, Resolution 1851, you know, we are trying to do what we can to support industry and others who are – you know, who could fall victim to these types of incidents. But we certainly provide advice where we can, and other countries do as well, as well as the international organizations that have equities with regard to this question. So – and we’ll be looking for additional ways to better help industry – you know, the shipping industry in particular – in dealing with these types of questions.

So the good thing is that the positive to come out of this incident and other incidents that have happened is that the international community is now very focused on this matter. And we need to take action. We’re going to be working with, you know, interested countries to try to do what we can and do it quickly.

QUESTION: Do you consider – I mean, you’ve said that these are criminals and bandits. Others have called them maritime terrorists. Are you considering this kind of terrorist activity or do you make the distinction because it’s more for commercial gain or, you know, kind of money or loot, and not necessarily kind of political aims?

MR. WOOD: Well, as I think I said last week, I’m not going to get into, you know, calling them this or that beyond what I’ve said in terms of being bandits.

QUESTION: Well, but I mean, if you call them terrorists, I mean, something --

MR. WOOD: I didn’t call them terrorists.

QUESTION: Well, no, I’m saying that if you designate them as – you know, not designate in the legal sense, but if you consider this terrorist action, I mean, certainly there is a lot more resources and stuff at your disposal.

MR. WOOD: Right. But I’m not an international lawyer, as I’ve said many times, so I wouldn't be able to --

QUESTION: Well, are you consulting international lawyers here in the building?

MR. WOOD: We are talking not only in the building, we’re talking to other governments about how we deal with these individuals. So I don’t really want to go beyond that at this point.

QUESTION: New subject?

MR. WOOD: On the same subject?

QUESTION: Just one more thing.

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: When are you expecting the rescued captain to come back?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know.

QUESTION: Do you have any practical, you know, information that you could share with us?

MR. WOOD: No, I don’t, honestly, Sue. I’d refer you to the Defense Department on that one.

QUESTION: So the State Department is not involved in any way?

MR. WOOD: I didn’t say we weren’t involved. I just said for the issue that you just raised, I just don’t have any information and will refer you, you know, to DOD.

QUESTION: Separate issue. On Iran, Javier Solana spoke to Mr. Jalili and it seems that Iran is welcoming what they say – you know, they hope to be a constructive dialogue with the P-5+1. I just wondered whether you had any details on Solana’s call and whether you, you know, welcomed their welcoming of talks?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I mean, of course, we welcome the fact that they’re, you know, interested in having a dialogue. And you know, I would refer you again to the sincere offer of the P-5+1 to provide Iran with what we believe is a very good, substantive package of incentives. We want to deal with Iran on this issue. It’s an important issue to the international community. And Iran needs to show the international community that its nuclear program is a peaceful one. Right now, the international community is very skeptical about that. But as I’ve said, we want to directly engage Iran on a range of issues, and we encourage Iran to continue – well, we encourage Iran to come forward and provide the international community with all of the assurances that it requires to be convinced that Iran is pursuing a peaceful nuclear program. But as I said, we remain skeptical about it.

QUESTION: And have you heard from them yet on the aide-memoire and whether – have they provided any details through the Swiss, for example, on Roxana Saberi?

MR. WOOD: Nothing on the aide-memoire. I haven’t checked this morning. No update on Roxana Saberi. I’ll be checking each day.

QUESTION: I mean, on the one hand, they say they want constructive talks. But yet, on the other hand, they’re not really doing very much to show that, you know, they’re reaching out their hand or unclenching their fist.

MR. WOOD: Well, as we’ve said, actions are important. And we have, you know, offered our hand of dialogue and we’ll just have to wait to see if the Iranians will reciprocate.

QUESTION: Same subject?

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: How does the P-5+1 offer of last week fit into the review? Can we expect, for example, this desire to meet with the Iranians on a multilateral basis in coming weeks to form a major part of that review? I ask because some people say the review is unlikely to be a single set piece announcement in the way that the Iraq and Afghanistan reviews were?

MR. WOOD: Well, you know, as I said last week, Under Secretary Burns briefed the P-5+1, you know, on the Administration’s Iran policy. As I think I said as well, there are certain aspects that are still being looked at. But we’ve made very clear we would be willing to meet with Iran without preconditions. And you know, we’ll be making clear in the days ahead, you know, additional details about our engagement with Iran and other types of meetings that may take place, but I don’t have anything for you at this point. But I think it’s important to remind everyone that we are willing to engage Iran without preconditions and we’ll just see whether Iran is willing to take up that offer.

QUESTION: (Inaudible). Recently, a 13-year-old girl was stoned to death after she’d been gang raped. They – this was Sharia law. But has there been any statement – investigation into it or a statement on the treatment of women and children in Somalia? I realize this is a --

MR. WOOD: You mean a statement by the Somali Government? Is that what --

QUESTION: No, by the State Department regarding that incident or the abuse of women.

MR. WOOD: Look, the abuse of women is something that we all are very concerned about all around the world.

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR. WOOD: And I’m not familiar with this particular case, but we obviously will condemn it in the strongest possible terms and we want to see this type of thing not happen again. But again, I’m not familiar with the particulars of this case. But it’s obviously – you know, it’s an issue that the Secretary cares very deeply about. And I’ll look and see if there’s any more information about it.

QUESTION: There was a 13-year-old girl who was sentenced to be stoned to death and the sentence was carried out. She had been walking to visit her grandmother and she was raped by three men. and her father raised the issue with the authorities and they condemned her to be stoned to death and she was stoned to death. I mean, it was a horrific ---

MR. WOOD: You know, it sounds like it was horrific. I – look, I don’t have any details on it. I will look into it. But, you know, it’s a horrific act and – you know, we condemn it in the strongest possible terms, as I’ve said. But let me look into a little bit more and get some more detail for you.

QUESTION: Do you have anything on Mitchell’s visit to the Middle East?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I’ve got something. I believe Senator Mitchell is en route to Morocco and will be having discussions, obviously, with Moroccan authorities. I don’t think I have much more than that at the moment. You know, as you know, he’s going to advance the goal of the two-state solution in the Middle East. But when we have some more details with regard to his travel, I’ll – we’ll be happy to get them to you.

QUESTION: Can you even say where his first stop is in the Middle East?

MR. WOOD: I – that’s all I have.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: What is the status of State – Department of State regarding Turkish-Armenian borders? You know, there is some dynamics because there are media reports that the state border between Turkey and Armenia may be open soon, and from outside – some officials link it to – from Turkey link it to some preconditions. So what are the stance of --

MR. WOOD: I’d have to refer you to those two governments for details on what’s going on on the border.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. WOOD: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 11:54 a.m.)



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