12:11 p.m. EST (via teleconference)
OPERATOR: Welcome and thank you for standing by. At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode. After the presentation, we will conduct a question-and-answer session. To ask a question at that time, please press *1. Today’s conference is being recorded. If you have any objections, you may disconnect at this time, and I would now like to turn the meeting over to Mr. Mark Toner.
MR. TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining me. We – as I said, I wanted to do one today before the long holiday weekend, but of course, we can do additional briefings if events warrant.
I did want to address, before answering your questions, there was – there were reports out of Rome earlier today about a suspicious package at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See. I can say that local explosive ordinance disposal teams examined the package and found that it was not an explosive. And also, contrary to some press reports, there were no explosions. And also to add, just to add, there – all personnel at the Embassy are safe and accounted for.
Very quickly, before taking your questions, I also wanted to give a brief update on Cote d'Ivoire. The situation there is calm today. We – there is a small Department of Defense team on the ground at Embassy Abidjan, and they are looking at the damage that was done to the Embassy, I believe, last week, as well as reviewing contingencies. Also, as you know, President Yayi of Benin, President Pires of Cape Verde, and President Koroma of Sierra Leone met with Mr. Gbagbo yesterday several times. We understand they’re submitting a formal report to ECOWAS in Abuja – in Abuja, rather – and we understand they do plan to return to Abidjan soon. And once we get a fuller readout of their meetings yesterday, we’ll certainly give that to you.
We also condemn the attack yesterday on UN – or UNOCI peacekeepers that took place in Youpougan yesterday, and call on Mr. Gbagbo to control his supporters. We’re happy to say there have been no additional reports of UN peacekeepers being attacked overnight.
That’s all I have. I’ll take your questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, we are ready to begin the question-and-answer session. If you’d like to ask a question, please press *1, please unmute your phone, and record your first and last name when prompted. And to withdraw the question, you may press *2.
Our first question comes from Matthew Lee.
QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Can you hear me?
MR. TONER: Yes, Matt.
QUESTION: Would you agree with me that it was divine retribution that the Eagles lost last night?
MR. TONER: (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Listen, a couple things. One, do you – can you be more specific about this DOD team that’s on the – that’s in Abidjan? What do you mean in terms of contingencies? And are they going to repair the Embassy or are they just looking to see how much damaged it was?
MR. TONER: Sure. Matt, I don’t have a lot of details. I do know there’s a small team on the ground. The Pentagon may be able to provide you with more details. I understand it’s a small team that’s assessing, again, the damage from the errant rocket attack last week that I think damaged an outside gate in the Embassy, if I remember correctly.
They’re also looking at contingencies regarding, if there is unrest, possible evacuations, as would be normal and prudent in a situation such as we have in the – in Abidjan.
QUESTION: Okay. You don’t know how many people it is, do you?
MR. TONER: I don’t. I would say several people, several individuals.
MR. TONER: That was your characterization, Matt, and I’m not going to --
QUESTION: I think it’s actually pretty much what he said.
MR. TONER: But in any case, I’m not going to respond directly. Look, we regret the Venezuelan Government’s decision to withdraw agrément for Ambassador Designate Palmer. We’ve said that many times. We believe that it’s precisely because there’s tension in – tensions in the relationship, that it’s important to maintain diplomatic communications at the highest level. It’s in our national interest to do so. So President Chavez’s comments aside, that’s our position.
QUESTION: All right. Well, in fact, his comments were pretty close to what I said. Quote – this is a quote – “If the government is going to expel our Ambassador there, let them do it. If they’re going to cut diplomatic relations, let them do it. Now the U.S. Government is threatening us, that they’re going to take reprisals. Well, let them do whatever they want. But that man -- ” meaning Palmer – “will not come.” I mean, that’s a pretty – I think how I described it was pretty accurate. You don’t have any response to that?
MR. TONER: Well, again, we believe it’s in our national interest to have an ambassador in Caracas so that we can candidly express our views and engage with the Government of Venezuela. It’s – there are tensions in the relationship, and it’s precisely because of that that we feel that it’s important to have appropriate diplomatic relations.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Lalit Jha.
MR. TONER: Hey, Lalit. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello, yeah, this is Lalit.
MR. TONER: Lalit, I hear you. Sorry.
QUESTION: Do you know about – this is about Burma, where in Thailand, more than 160 Burmese refugees have been forced to return back inside Burma, where the violence is still going on. Do you have anything to say on this? Are you observing the situation over there?
MR. TONER: Lalit, one more time. You said there’s refugees being forced out of – who are in Thailand?
QUESTION: Yeah. According to UNHCR, about 160 Burmese refugees have been forced by Thailand to go back home and to go back to Burma.
MR. TONER: And --
QUESTION: And human rights organization have issue – have expressed concern about this, and do you have anything to say on this?
MR. TONER: I’d have to check on the status and – but we’ve long expressed our concern about these refugees and their possible return to Burma. But as to what you’re reporting now, I’d just have to check and get an update for you.
QUESTION: Okay. One more thing on Burma. As Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, and you had one round of talks with her after she was released, in the new year, what kind of engagement and at what level of engagement do you intend to have with Aung San Suu Kyi?
MR. TONER: Well, we hope to continue engagement with Aung San Suu Kyi, and as you said, we’ve already had one round of discussions with her. What we want – our long-term goals for Burma are quite clear. We’ve sought a path of principled engagement with the Burmese Government. We haven’t had a great deal of success.
But we want to see a more transparent and democratic political process emerge there, and certainly we call on the release of all Burmese political prisoners, and hope to work more closely with Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition there. And also, again, we do believe that by engaging the Burmese Government, we can advance our national interest in Burma and hope to do that. It’s been not exactly fruitful so far, but perhaps in the new year, it – we’ll make progress.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Arshad Mohammed.
MR. TONER: Hey, Arshad.
QUESTION: Hey, Mark. About the DOD team in Abidjan, how – forgive me if I missed this at the top, but when did they arrive, and how long do you expect them to be there?
MR. TONER: I believe they arrived yesterday, and I don't know how long they’re going to be there. It’s a fair question. I’ll try to get that for you.
QUESTION: Okay, thanks. And then you talked about the contingency and preparing for contingencies, should there be violence or unrest, I think you said, of possible evacuations. Just to be clear, do you have any current plans or intent to evacuate Embassy personnel or U.S. citizens, or is this simply a planning sort of exercise, should that eventually be something you would consider?
MR. TONER: Arshad, I’d characterize it as part of prudent planning on the part of an embassy in a situation such as Embassy Abidjan. As you know, the Embassy is under ordered departure – or authorized departure, rather.[i] There’s no plans to do anything more than that at this time. But again, we do contingency plan.
QUESTION: Great. And then lastly, Prime Minister Putin today is quoted as saying that while there’s still some issues to work out, that Russian – and I want to make sure I get the phrase right – no, no, I think he may have said WTO accession – hang on a second – questions were made of Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization, but that Russia can be expected to join it in 2011. Do you concur with that assessment?
MR. TONER: Arshad, I’d have to – frankly, I’d have to get an update on where that process is. But we’ve supported Russian WTO accession, and really, frankly, it’s between Russia and WTO to iron out the details. But I’m not sure where the process is at.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
MR. TONER: Yep.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Sonia Schott.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Toner. Going back to Venezuela, it – what you say, it is a kind of invitation to the Venezuelan Government to talk to them, to open the dialogue before this issue with the ambassador will be solve?
MR. TONER: Sonia, I was trying to be clear. What we want is – and what we’ve wanted all along – is a normal diplomatic relationship with Caracas. It’s why we named Ambassador Designate Palmer and received agrément for him. We deeply regret, frankly, that that was – agrément was withdrawn by the Venezuelan Government. But our position remains that we believe it’s in our national interest to maintain diplomatic relations with Venezuela. We have tensions, we have areas of disagreement, but we believe it’s only through a candid conversation with the Venezuelan Government that we can discuss those differences.
QUESTION: Mr. Toner, can you please elaborate a little bit more on how is the way the U.S. Government speak with the Venezuelan Government? Which way do you use if you don’t have any ambassadors?
MR. TONER: Well, we do have a chargé in Caracas, I believe, so we still do have some level of communication with the government. But an ambassador is an ambassador, and is a head of mission there, and can engage on an appropriate level with the Venezuelan Government.
QUESTION: And any change of the status of Ambassador Alvarez, the Venezuelan Ambassador to the U.S., that you will say this is going to change, or do you expect a change of ambassador, the Venezuelan ambassador here?
MR. TONER: Well, for questions regarding Ambassador Alvarez’s plans, I’d just have to refer you either to the Government of Venezuela or to Ambassador Alvarez himself.
QUESTION: But there is no initiative from the U.S. Government to ask Ambassador Alvarez to leave the country?
MR. TONER: Well, I understand he’s not in the country right now. I believe he’s in Caracas.
QUESTION: Yeah, he’s on vacation, but I mean officially, that the U.S. Government is going to ask Ambassador Alvarez to leave as ambassador, as a representative, Venezuelan representative, to the U.S.?
MR. TONER: Well, we did say that we regret, obviously, the Venezuelan Government’s decision to withdraw agrément for Ambassador Designate Palmer. It affects our ability to carry out normal diplomatic relations, and we also said that there could be consequences for that action with that.
QUESTION: Could you please elaborate a little bit more on what kind of consequences that it could be for this --
MR. TONER: I’ll decline to elaborate. I’ll just say that there could be consequences.
QUESTION: So you don’t want to be any – as specific, more specific on that?
MR. TONER: Not at this time. Thanks.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Min Lee.
QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Toner. The Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is coming to D.C. next Monday. And do you know, is he coming to prepare for President Hu’s visit in a few weeks? And can you give us some details on the preparation of President’s Hu’s visit? Thank you.
MR. TONER: Thank you, that’s a good question. I don’t have anything to formally announce at this time. But as soon as we get an update, I’ll let you know. I know that you and others are very interested in the details of that. Regarding President Hu’s visit too, I would just refer you to the White House for details.
QUESTION: And the Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, is he going to meet with Secretary Clinton, or do you know who is he seeing this time?
MR. TONER: Again, we don’t have anything formal to announce at this time. Once we get more details, we’ll let you know, obviously.
QUESTION: Okay. One more question.
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: There are reports saying the U.S. will deploy a third aircraft carrier to East Asia. Can you confirm? And what is the political statement behind this?
MR. TONER: I would refer you to the Pentagon on the deployment of aircraft carriers.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Yep, next question.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Flavia Jackson.
QUESTION: Hi, Mark. I was asked – I was going to badger you about Venezuela again. (Laughter.) I’m sorry. So I mean if – correct me if I’m wrong. So my understanding is that you reserve the right to still ask Alvarez to leave, but you haven’t done so yet?
MR. TONER: Well, I said consequences, and I’m not in a position really to elaborate on what those consequences could be. You can use your imagination, I suppose, but I’m not going to get into the details.
QUESTION: Is that a good thing to ask a journalist to do, to use their imagination? (Laughter.) Okay, thanks.
MR. TONER: Yeah, sure, Flavia.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Raghubir Goyal.
MR. TONER: Goyal, Happy New Year.
QUESTION: Mark – yes, Mark, how are you? First of all, Happy New Year and Happy Holidays, and thank you for everything. Your staff, and yourself, P.J., all have been very nice, and Happy Holiday and Happy New Year to the Secretary also.
My question is that if – you may be aware of the news that India is still again on high alert as we enter the new year. One, if you have received any kind of information that you maybe have trouble with India as far as cross-border terrorism, just like Mumbai’s trial 26/11. And finally, what do you expect in the new year as far as terrorism is concerned, cross-border between – from Pakistan to India, and also Afghanistan and Pakistan situation and U.S.-India relations?
MR. TONER: Goyal, you don’t disappoint with your broad questions. But in terms of the specific terror alert, as you mentioned, in India right now, I would just say we really can’t comment on intelligence matters. What I can say is that we currently enjoy an unprecedented level of counterterrorism cooperation with India, and are working closely with Indian authorities in any way that we can be helpful.
To your broader question regarding future terrorist attacks or threats emanating from the general region, obviously I can’t predict what may come. But just as obviously, it remains foremost on our minds and on the minds of the people in the region. And obviously, we are working diligently with Pakistani authorities as well as Afghanistan authorities to address those threats in every way possible. These are existential threats for all the countries of the region, as well as for – well, and also a very real threat for the United States, and we’re going to continue to work constructively to neutralize, dismantle, and destroy those threats.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir, and Happy New Year, all of you.
MR. TONER: Thanks, next question.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Christophe Schmidt.
MR. TONER: Hey, Christophe.
QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Back on Cote d'Ivoire, the EU countries have announced today that they will only accept ambassadors named by Ouattara, so I called the embassy here in Washington and they said that so far, nothing had changed for them. So I wonder what the plans are and if any decision has been made.
MR. TONER: Well, Christophe, I am aware of the EU’s comments. As far as we know, no new ambassador has been named to the United States yet. Obviously, we view President Ouattara as the legitimate leader of Cote d'Ivoire. And in his capacity when he names a diplomatic corps, including for – to the United States, we’ll work within appropriate protocol to recognize that person. But there is a procedure here. And the bottom line, however, is that we believe that Ouattara – President Ouattara is the legitimate leader of that country, so --
MR. TONER: -- we’ll support his – the people he chooses as his diplomatic emissaries.
QUESTION: Okay. So just to be clear, if he chooses someone to send him to the U.S., you will accept it?
MR. TONER: Again, there’s that – there’s a whole protocol in place. But bottom line is we’ll support his decisions.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Andrea Arenas.
QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon. Is there a possibility of the U.S., once again with Venezuela, revoking the visa for the Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez, and when would this decision be made?
MR. TONER: That’s a fair question. However, it’s a question I can’t answer. I’m prohibited to discuss visa issues under U.S. law, so I can’t talk about anything – any information pertaining to an individual’s visa status.
QUESTION: Would we know, though, when he comes back from vacation, would he be back to just serving as – continuing his functions as the ambassador of Venezuela in the U.S.?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I would refer those kind of questions to Ambassador Alvarez and to the Venezuelan Government. My understanding is that he’s currently in Caracas.
QUESTION: All right, thank you.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Cami McCormick.
MR. TONER: Hi, Cami.
QUESTION: Hi, Mark. I’m wondering about this report of the draft resolution that may go before the UN Security Council on – by supporters of Palestinians condemning the Israeli settlements. What would the U.S. response be to that?
MR. TONER: Well, every U.S. Administration has been for decades has been clear on this. We don’t accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity, and in fact, we believe continued expansion is corrosive to peace efforts, as well as to Israel’s future. We believe, fundamentally, that direct negotiations are the only path through which the parties will ultimately reach the framework agreement that is our goal, our mutual goal. And final status issues can only be resolved through negotiations between the parties and not by recourse to the UN Security Council, so we’ve consistently opposed any attempt to take these kinds of issues to the Council, because we believe that these kinds of efforts don’t move us any closer to our goal, which is of two states living side by side in peace and security.
QUESTION: Would the U.S. go so far as to use its veto power?
MR. TONER: Again, it’s a hypothetical at this point, Cami, but I think I made our position pretty clear. Any more questions?
OPERATOR: Yes. The next question is from Joe Shaw.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mark. Can you just clarify about the suspicious package? Who made the determination that it was a false alarm? Was it U.S. security at the Embassy, Vatican security, or Roman security? And if it was just determined to be something like stationary supplies or something, what flagged the package as suspicious in the first place?
MR. TONER: Obviously, we put out – obviously our embassies in Europe and especially in – well, our embassies in Rome – yes, we have two – are on a heightened sense of alert, given events from the past week. And I think it was in that frame of mind that there was a suspicious package. I believe the RSO was notified, a regional security officer was notified immediately. The local authorities were called. I believe it was the local – as I said, the local explosive ordnance disposal teams that actually examined the package and found that it was not an explosive. I don't know what it was, however.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
MR. TONER: Yep.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Lalit Jha.
MR. TONER: Hey, Lalit.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi, again. A couple of questions on South Asia, first with – on Afghanistan. The last week in Turkey at a trilateral summit between Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan the Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that he would be supporting the proposal to – for the Taliban to office – to open an office in third country, in Turkey. Do you – does the U.S. support such a proposal for Taliban to have an office, open office, in any country?
MR. TONER: Lalit, that’s something I haven’t seen, frankly, in any kind of press reporting. If you want to send that to me separately, I’m happy to look at it.
QUESTION: Okay, I will send it.
MR. TONER: Our policy regarding any kind of peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan Government have always been that it’s an Afghan process, and as such it’s for them to work out.
QUESTION: And following up on Raghubir’s question about terrorist high alert in India, do you have any sense of the cooperation that the three countries are having – U.S., India, and Pakistan – on terrorist – terrorism issue? Is there any trilateral kind of cooperation, or is it always the bilateral between all these three countries?
MR. TONER: That is a fair question, Lalit, and I don't have a very good answer for you. I’m not sure that I want to get too deeply into the nature of our counterterrorism cooperation. But I do believe that there is information exchanged between all three.
QUESTION: And finally, this week on Monday, India’s – The Reserve Bank of India told its bank and other companies to stop processing transaction with Iran through the Asian Clearing Union. There’s a feeling in India it’s something in which India is trying to (inaudible) any sanction against Iran. Have you seen those news reports? And what’s your observation on that?
MR. TONER: This is – I’m sorry, news reports that India is supporting UN sanctions against Iran?
QUESTION: Yeah, they’re – India has taken some (inaudible) measures, which some of the – many news analysts say that this is in – supporting sanction against Iran.
MR. TONER: Well, obviously, as a UN member, they would be – they would have to uphold sanction regime against Iran, and we view it as further proof that Iran is being further isolated by its behavior. More and more countries are ensuring that the sanctions, 1929 and then the additional sanctions by the EU and by the United States and others, have real teeth and are having an impact and are, in effect, isolating Iran more and more.
QUESTION: And finally, on Pakistan, the political turmoil that is there amidst the political – some of the political parties coming out of the government and then some rejoining it, are you keeping a tab on it? How does the internal disturbances, political disturbances inside the country is going to affect your operations in the region?
MR. TONER: Well, Lalit, we obviously – our concerns – put broadly, our concerns are that there continues to be a functioning democracy in Pakistan. But in terms of internal political debates and parties leaving the government, that’s really an internal matter for Pakistan.
QUESTION: Thank you. That’s all for today.
MR. TONER: Great. Last question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our final question will come from Matt Negrin.
MR. TONER: Yeah, Matt.
QUESTION: Hi. Russia reacted to a statement on the Khodorkovsky trial from the White House and the State Department by saying, “Attempts to apply pressure on the court are unacceptable,” and that “We are counting on everyone to mind his own business, both at home and in the international arena.” What’s your response to that?
MR. TONER: I’m sorry, what was the – what were the comments again? I’m --
QUESTION: No, that’s okay. It was – this was from the foreign ministry in Russia. They said, “Attempts to apply pressure on the court are unacceptable and we are counting on everyone to mind his own business, both at home and in the international arena.”
MR. TONER: I don’t have a response, beyond what we said quite clearly the other day, and that is his – this second trial and the guilty verdict for Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev obviously raises questions in our mind about what we’d say – what we call the apparent selective application of the law to these individuals. We are also troubled by the allegations of serious due process violations and what appears an abusive use of the legal system.
Fundamentally, we have concerns about human rights in Russia, and we’re going to continue to raise those concerns openly with the Russian Government.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up? If – are you worried that any tension here could temper the celebration over the ratification of the START Agreement?
MR. TONER: Again, we’ve got a very – as you can tell by the exchange over this issue, we’ve got a very frank and candid relationship with Russia. We have areas on which we disagree, and there are also areas where we can work constructively together. And the New START is a great example of that. So I don’t believe – no, I don’t believe it’s going to be detrimental.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Yep. Thank you. Everybody, have a very Happy New Year, and thanks again. Have a good afternoon.
OPERATOR: Thank you for participating on today’s conference. The conference has concluded. You may disconnect at this time.
(The briefing was concluded at 12:42 p.m.)
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