12:56 p.m. EST
MS. NULAND: Happy New Year, everybody. Happy 2013. I have a few things at the top, first of all a shout out to two guests we have today from Navy Public Affairs. You are most welcome.
Also today is the last day in the office before retirement for our spectacular office management assistant Joanne Pettaway. She’s here with us today. I know many of you have dealt with her over the years. She’s been at the State Department for 43 years. She’s worked for 15 Secretaries of State. She’s spent 14 years in Public Affairs and had to put up with seven different spokespeople, trained all of us, including myself, so a round of applause and thanks for Jo. We’re going to miss you. (Applause.)
QUESTION: I’d like to say something before we go on.
MS. NULAND: Please, Arshad.
QUESTION: Speaking on behalf of the press corps, I just wanted to thank Joanne for her sweetness, courtesy, and forbearance in taking all our calls all these years. (Laughter.) We will really miss you, and you are one of the people who really makes this place run in a much more civilized manner than it otherwise would. So we wish you well. (Laughter and applause.)
MS. NULAND: Hear, hear. We’re going to miss you, Mama Jo.
QUESTION: And you’re a bombshell. (Laughter.)
MS. NULAND: Woo-hoo. All right, you can keep that explicit stuff out of the briefing room, Arshad. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: It’s true.
MS. NULAND: All right. Lastly, I know all of you are very interested in the Secretary’s health. Again, we want to thank all of you for your good wishes, for your good thoughts over the holiday period. I just wanted to say at the outset that I don’t have anything new to update you since the statement that we put out from her doctors on December 31st, where we talked about the fact that a blood clot had been discovered, that she is on blood thinners now and the doctors are monitoring her. We will continue to keep you updated as we have new information to share, as we’ve been doing all the way along. I think that was our eighth statement in some three weeks. So please bear with us, and we will continue to pass on all of your good wishes to her.
Now let’s go to any foreign policy issues that you may have on your minds today.
QUESTION: One --
QUESTION: I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Can I? Just one on that.
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: And I understand you don’t want to dwell on this, but is she still in the hospital and will you let us know whenever she is hopefully back at home and resting?
MS. NULAND: I don’t, as I said, have any update from the 31st. We were pretty clear then, and we will give you another update whenever we have something new to share.
QUESTION: Toria, could you make a request?
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: Because there have been more technical medical questions. Would it be possible to get a briefing with somebody who might answer – there are some questions that have emerged. Is there somebody that would be able to brief us from the medical perspective or more nitty-gritty of what’s happening?
MS. NULAND: Well, again, as you know, two of the eight statements that we’ve put out have come from her personal physicians, so the degree to which you have further questions you can refer them to us and we will do our best to answer them. But I think really we’ve been extremely forthcoming, including from her doctors, on the very specific issues here.
QUESTION: Can I ask you – we understood that she was working from her hospital bed. Can you give us sort of any clarification of what type of work she’s able to do and if she’s been talking to anyone on the phone?
MS. NULAND: Well, first of all to say that, as we said in the statement on New Year’s Eve, she has been talking to her staff, including today. She’s been quite active on the phone with all of us. But she also made some calls on Saturday to a couple of foreign officials. She spoke to Mr. Brahimi, the UN Special Envoy on Syria, for some half an hour on Saturday, discussing his most recent visit to Syria and the state of play there.
And then she also talked on Saturday to Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Al Thani also on Syria but on support for the Palestinian Authority. They talked a little bit about Afghanistan as well. He, as you know, is a regular interlocutor of hers.
So she has begun to pick up her regular phone contact with some of her counterparts.
QUESTION: But Toria, that would technically be before the news came that she had a blood clot, right?
MS. NULAND: Yes, that was on Saturday.
QUESTION: Okay. So has – I’m sorry, but has – that just raises one question. Is she now, after this news has come out and we’re dealing with a slightly different picture, is she now making phone calls or is she talking with staff, anyone, or making international calls?
MS. NULAND: I don’t have any other international calls to report besides the two from Saturday. I’ll let you know when we have more to read out, as we always do. But as I said, she’s been quite active on the phone with staff and taking paper, et cetera.
QUESTION: I have a quick question, Victoria. While the Secretary was in a hospital in New York, the statement was issued by Washington-based physicians; is that right? Any explanation for that?
MS. NULAND: My understanding, and I’ll get you a clarification if there is one, that it was a joint statement by her doctor in New York, Lisa Bardack from Mount Kisco Medical Group, and from her doctor here, Dr. Gigi el-Bayoumi from GW.
QUESTION: A follow-up on Arshad and Jill. Just – so you can’t tell us whether she’s still in the hospital? That’s – just factually, is she still in the hospital, or she’s left the hospital?
MS. NULAND: As we said on the 31st, she was in the hospital, and I don’t have any change.
QUESTION: So that means she hasn’t left. And then the second thing about Jill was just other than the statement that they’ve issued, the doctors have issued statements, I just want to second Jill’s request for whether it would be possible to have an actual briefing where we could talk to her doctors.
MS. NULAND: I really think her doctors have been quite forthcoming in the two statements that they have issued. If you have more specific questions, you can send them to us and we’ll do our best to get them answered for you.
Anything on the foreign policy side? Can we move on to the world out there? Said.
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- did he discuss with her any possible, let’s say, UN initiatives that might come up with a list of transitional figures for the transition?
MS. NULAND: Well, the conversation was primarily reporting on the visit that he had had to Syria, on his meeting with Assad, on his interactions with other Syrian figures who he was able to meet there.
On next steps, he sees in what we call the three Bs conversation, the dialogue between Mr. Brahimi, Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov of Russia, and Deputy Secretary Burns. As you know, we said before Christmas we expected another rounds of those consultations, and we’re now working to schedule something sometime in the middle of January. So they talked about that. They also talked about their respective interactions with the opposition and our efforts primarily, as you know, to support Mr. Brahimi in bringing to life the fundamental framework that was outlined in the Geneva meetings in June, where there would be a transitional government. So that was the basis of the conversation.
QUESTION: How do you explain the Russian position that if they could influence Bashar al-Assad to leave, they would have done so, and in essence issuing a disclaimer that they have no leverage on Assad. Do you concur, or do you find that as perhaps a very marginal Russian role in aiding Bashar al-Assad?
MS. NULAND: Well, I’m obviously not going to speak for the Russians or parse their statements for you. I would refer you to the Russians on what they have to say. You’ll notice that I think President Putin spoke on his view of Assad sometime shortly before our Christmas and before the New Year. Obviously, we continue to want to see the Russians use any leverage that they have to convince Assad that it is time for him to allow a transition to move forward and to get out of the way for that.
QUESTION: Can I ask, did Mr. Brahimi outline to the Secretary this new plan that he seems to be putting forward, which he says the international community can agree on? And is it something that would meet the approval from the United States?
MS. NULAND: Again, Jo, our understanding is that what he’s trying to do is to put some flesh on the bones of the Geneva outline. He’s trying to look at whether he can pull together a transitional government or get the sides talking about who might compose that government. We obviously support his efforts in this regard, but it has not been an easy process, and we continue to stay updated with him, including through this consultation process including the Russians.
QUESTION: About this transition plan, there – articles have been published and rumors that Assad could be part of this transitional process. According to these rumors, the U.S. also has a positive view on that. Could you please clarify what’s your position on Assad being part of this transitional government or process?
MS. NULAND: We’ve been clear for more than a year: Assad has to go. We don’t see any role for him in a transition. That has not changed.
QUESTION: What do you make of the UN figure that 60,000 Syrians have been killed since the crisis started in March 2011?
MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve seen this report by UN Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay that revises the estimates up to some 60,000. We’ve obviously studying that report. Those are significantly higher than earlier reports. And of course, we continue to be appalled by the brutality of the Assad regime. We continue to place primary responsibility for the violence, for the death, for the carnage, at the feet of the Assad regime.
Please. Still on Syria?
QUESTION: Yeah. On Syria.
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. A great deal has been said about the different groups that represent the Syrian people, lately the coalition. There’s a new group – it’s a secular group – that is holding a conference tomorrow, and they claim that all the other groups do not represent them. They represent a number of parties, such as the Justice Party, which is a secular party. They’re holding a conference in Beirut tomorrow. Will you support such an effort?
MS. NULAND: Well, our understanding is that – I don't know which group you’re – what’s the name of the group that you’re --
QUESTION: It’s called the Syria Salvation Group.
MS. NULAND: The Syria Salvation Group. I’m going to take that with regard to that particular group.
QUESTION: Okay. Please.
MS. NULAND: With regard to conferences in Beirut, what I have is that we expect the Government of Lebanon to host a conference in the middle of January on the refugee situation, but I didn’t have this particular --
QUESTION: That’s something different that is being held tomorrow. And they say that they do represent a lot of political parties that are present in Syria, part of the opposition that is in the country.
MS. NULAND: Let me take that one, Said, and see if we have any comment on that particular group and how we see it relating to other aspects of the opposition and their conference tomorrow.
Still on Syria?
QUESTION: Yes. Did you say that there was a date set for the three Bs meeting?
MS. NULAND: No. We’re still working on that. As you may know, it’s holiday period now in Russia. They have the New Year’s and then the Orthodox Christmas. So, yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. NULAND: Please. Still Syria?
QUESTION: Yes. Could I ask about an American journalist called James Foley, who was a contributor – who is a contributor, rather, to Global Post and AFP, who’s been missing in Syria for about six weeks now? His family has just released his name now in a hope that publicity might actually spur new efforts to find out where he is and who has him. I just wondered if the United States is aware of the case and if you had any information at all about his whereabouts or who even, indeed, might be holding him.
MS. NULAND: We are aware of the case, Jo. And regrettably, I don’t have any information that I can share.
QUESTION: Victoria, I just want to clarify. The name of the group for your record is called the National Trend to Save Syria and they are led by a fellow named Nabil Fayyad.
MS. NULAND: Okay. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. NULAND: Good.
QUESTION: So just to go back to Mr. Foley’s case.
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: And similarly, also, is there any news of Mr. Austin Tice?
MS. NULAND: There is not, Jo. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: And what kind of efforts is the United States involved in? Not just these cases, but what happens when you try to reach out to people in Syria who are perhaps holding these journalists in these situations?
MS. NULAND: Well, without getting into individual cases that would take me into privacy issues, let me just say that in general we work through our protecting power. We make our own appeals through various channels and those with influence directly to the Syrian regime for information. We also use our contacts with the opposition as broadly as we can to see who might have information and who might be able to help us and help the family and help the employer understand what’s happened. There have, in these cases, been a number of motives. Sometimes there’s a political motive, but sometimes it’s a more mercenary, financial motive. So there are number of avenues that we try to pursue. And of course, we also offer all consular services to the family, to the employers, et cetera.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: Over the last few days, there were several reports based on Western intel sources, the first one published by Ynet Israeli press, saying that, in fact, the regime, Syrian regime, has been using some kind of chemical weapons in several areas, according to these reports, about 20 times so far used. There are more details, but do you – what’s your understanding? Do you have any information on these claims?
MS. NULAND: We have nothing to confirm such claims. You know where we’ve been on use of chemical weapons by anybody, that this would cross a serious redline.
Still on Syria in the back?
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: Just to stay on that, the Free Syrian Army, according to a Turkish newspaper, says well, we have chemical weapons too. And they’re saying they’ve gotten that technology and the means from officers who have deserted and gone to the FSA. I mean, you have the potential for something very bad if both sides have chemical weapons.
MS. NULAND: We don’t have anything to indicate that the chemical stockpiles of the Syrian regime have been breached or have moved from their sites. We had also made very, very clear that that is a redline and that we hold the regime responsible for the safety and security of those weapons.
Please. Still Syria?
QUESTION: Syria, yes. Going back to the number – the UN number again, President Obama said we were getting involved in Libya to prevent mass graves, but then now that the number keeps rising in Syria, to 60,000 now, so how is that any different?
QUESTION: Is that different?
QUESTION: How is that different?
MS. NULAND: Well, obviously, each one of these situations is different and each one has to be handled differently. We’ve talked about this at length here over the months. Our focus in Syria has been three-fold: first of all increasing the international pressure on the Assad regime through the broadest possible international sanctions, including complete sanctions by the U.S., by the European Union, by the Arab League now; the Sanctions Working Group that we have under the Friends of the Syrian People to try to close any existing loopholes make these sanctions more broad-based, and we do think that they are having a profound effect on the regime’s ability to fuel its war machine, but obviously they haven’t stopped that; the efforts we’re making to expose the support that they’re getting from outside countries, notably including Iran.
We are also, as you know, working in the international community to provide humanitarian assistance, both inside Syria and broadly in all of the neighboring countries that are taking in Syrian refugees. The United States remains one of the biggest contributors to that effort, including our most recent intensive effort at winterization support.
And then, of course, our effort to work with the Syrian opposition to try to make them more united, more broadly representational, more closely tied to political and other opposition movements inside Syria, and to get them ready for the day that we will have a transitional government and prepare for the day after.
So that is what we are focused on in Syria in an effort to do what we can to bring this to an end.
QUESTION: On Syria, on the other question about the Syrian opposition claiming that they had chemical weapons, does the U.S. have any information that the opposition does have chemical weapons?
MS. NULAND: I think I just said that we don’t have any information that would confirm that.
QUESTION: And on Boko Haram, unless there’s something else on Syria.
QUESTION: Yeah, on Syria. Yeah, okay. I’ll go back to that. Sorry.
MS. NULAND: Jill. Still Syria?
MS. NULAND: Benghazi. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. Just if you had an update on hearings on the Hill. I know this is difficult when you’re not quite sure about the prognosis or a schedule for the Secretary, but do you have any idea at all at this point about whether she would be able to testify?
MS. NULAND: She has said that she is open to going up to the Hill. We are working with them now on their schedule, because there’s also a question of when they are going to be in, and we’ll let you know when we have something to share.
MS. NULAND: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: I wondered how closely the United States is monitoring the health of President Chavez, and what – yeah.
MS. NULAND: Well, we’re obviously following the reports of his health, but they are based on Venezuelan Government information. So --
QUESTION: And I wonder if you feel that relationships with Venezuela might be slightly easier if Mr. Chavez, for whatever reason, were no longer in the picture.
MS. NULAND: We talked about this a little bit before Christmas. I think the question becomes if there is a circumstance where he is no longer able to exercise his duties, we want to see any transition take place in a manner that is consistent with Venezuela’s constitution; that any election be fully transparent, democratic, free, and fair, including the environment for such an election; and obviously, we will judge our ability to improve our relationship with Venezuela based on the steps that they are able to take.
QUESTION: How would you characterize your relationship with Venezuela at the moment?
MS. NULAND: I don’t want to put an adjective on it, Jo. I think you know that we have been trying for some time to improve things, but that has proven difficult. So – please.
QUESTION: North Korea?
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- can you tell us what the latest is you have on these apparent – the apparent killings by them of the Christians, and what action is the U.S. taking or assisting the government in this case?
MS. NULAND: I’m going to take that one, Indira, because I frankly don’t have anything on Boko Haram today. But let me take that and we’ll get back to you.
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: Are you closer to naming them as an official terrorist organization?
MS. NULAND: Well, Dana, we’ll continue to look at that, as we have for a number of months. I think there’s always a question in these circumstances whether that’s the most effective way to deal with the organization. As you know, we have named most of the kingpins of Boko Haram in individual sanctions to keep them from being able to benefit from the U.S. economy, et cetera. But there’s also a question of whether some of the lower-ranking folk could be split, et cetera. So we’re continuing to look at what makes most sense.
QUESTION: On North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech, do you see anything noteworthy or hopeful, perhaps, in this speech, his comments about trying to promote a North-South reconciliation and improving their economy, or is this the North Korean leaders have said similar things in the past and haven’t necessarily made a lot of progress in either direction, so --
MS. NULAND: Well, I think that’s primarily the point there, Arshad. We obviously take note of the speech, but we have to judge the D.P.R.K. not by its words but by its actions. You know the actions that he took just before Christmas, which did not make the situation any easier. We continue to make it clear that we believe this leader has a choice to make. He can fulfill his international obligations, he can come back into compliance with his commitments under the 2005 joint statements of the Six-Party Talks and his – and come into compliance with UN Security Council resolutions, and then he will feel a response from all of us, or he can continue on the course that he’s on, which is only serving to further isolate his country and further impoverish his people.
MS. NULAND: Uh-oh. You’re going to take me into economics, not my strong suit.
QUESTION: Simple. Yeah, simple. But is there any way right now that this affects the State Department directly? And also, are you – is the State Department hearing from any people around the world, leaders around the world, officials, about their concern? Has there been an uptick in people calling the State Department? Are the ambassadors saying, “What’s going on?”
MS. NULAND: Well, first of all on the first point, we continue to work and operate on a continuing resolution that is the state of play now as we go into the complete – this round of discussion on the tax situation and then go on to the rest of the work that needs to be done. I’m going to obviously send you to the White House on all of that, but in terms of our operating accounts, we’re on a continuing resolution which is a state that we are very familiar with, as you can imagine.
With regard to views around the world, I think there’s always a lot of interest in how the U.S. handles its economic and political affairs and that this situation is no different. Again, we were able to get through this first hurdle, and that obviously was done in a democratic manner, but there is a lot more work ahead and I think the world will be watching.
QUESTION: In Myanmar, what’s your reaction to the military acknowledging they’ve launched strikes against ethnic rebels in the north, and do you think that the humanitarian situation there is worsening despite your voiced concerns and the visit by the Ambassador to the region last month?
MS. NULAND: Well, obviously we note that the government did today admit that they have been using aerial weapons in Kachin State. We’re obviously deeply troubled by the increased violence. We are continuing to urge the Government of Burma and the Kachin Independence Organization to cease this conflict, to get to a real dialogue to address grievances as the Government of Burma has been able to do in virtually all of the other conflict areas. This is one of the last ones in addition to Rakhine State where we’re still seeing difficulties. And we have consistently raised our concerns about violence in Burma’s ethnic minority areas.
So it’s very concerning obviously that these weapons are in use, and we will continue our discussion with the government about it. As you say, our Ambassador Derek Mitchell was up in Kachin State trying to talk to the various stakeholders about a month ago; that was before this most recent uptick in violence, so he will continue to press the case.
QUESTION: Yeah, on Myanmar.
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: Have you taken up with the Burmese Government not to use aerial power against the Kachin rebels?
MS. NULAND: Again, we are just today getting confirmation that this has happened. I am sure that we will be formally expressing our concern about that kind of weaponry.
QUESTION: And you said that you are deeply troubled by the increase in violence. You are not troubled with the use of aerial power?
MS. NULAND: As I said, we are troubled by the use of air power. We were not in a position to confirm it until the government confirmed it itself, and it’s extremely troubling.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: Do you have timing yet for a visit by Hamid Karzai, who was supposed to be coming early this month? And will he be meeting with the Secretary? Will other officials come with him who will meet with the Secretary or other top officials?
MS. NULAND: I think there’ll be more information on that in coming days, probably not out of this building but out of our counterparts at the White House. And in terms of his schedule here, as we have the rest of his schedule locked into place, we’ll presumably have some things to announce here as well.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Afghanistan?
MS. NULAND: Still on Afghanistan? Go ahead.
QUESTION: On Secretary’s talks with the Qatari’s Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, was the issue – what was discussed during the talks? Was issue of the Taliban’s liaison office in Qatar was also discussed between those?
MS. NULAND: I’m going to say that they did talk about Afghanistan. They obviously talked about the efforts that we are making, that the Government of Qatar is making to try to support Afghan-Afghan reconciliation, but I’m not going to get into any further details of that conversation.
QUESTION: And also the Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister today said that they will not accept a liaison office in Qatar by Taliban until – unless they come to the negotiating table. Do you agree with that?
MS. NULAND: Again, we support an Afghan-led process of reconciliation. We’re not going to get ahead of Kabul or anybody else in this process, but we are trying to encourage and support an environment where real talks and real progress can be made.
MS. NULAND: Again, as you know, we have been working hard to create an environment not only within Afghanistan, but also regionally have support for Afghan-Afghan reconciliation. We have in our trilateral conversations – U.S., Afghanistan, Pakistan – worked on this quite hard, and we’ve been encouraging Pakistan and Afghanistan to work directly. So whenever they make progress together, that’s something that we support and it needs to be on the basis of dialogue, obviously.
QUESTION: In the past, U.S. had always expressed concern that the release of these prisoners might be harmful because they might again go back to the terrorist activities. Have you received any kind of assurance from Pakistan on this issue?
MS. NULAND: Again, this is an issue between Pakistan and Afghanistan for them to work on it together and for them to be able to have the kind of dialogue that allows them to work through these issues and to make sure that they have good management of individuals when they are released.
QUESTION: Was (inaudible) a primary topic of discussion between the Secretary and the Qatari Prime Minister?
MS. NULAND: As I said, there were three topics. I would say the first subject and the bulk of the conversation was on Syria.
QUESTION: Okay, apologies.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: The Palestinian issue?
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: The Israeli military issued orders to farming communities and nomadic residents of the West Bank – the Jordan Valley in particular – because they want to conduct some military exercises. Could you comment on this?
MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything particular to say on that one.
QUESTION: Could you find out?
MS. NULAND: I’m not sure that we’re going to have any comment on that at all, Said.
QUESTION: Okay. And since the last time you expressed your deep concern and disappointment back on December 18th, there has been a great deal of settlement activity and announcements and so on. Have you been able to, during that time, to raise the issue directly with the Israeli Government?
MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we remain in constant contact with the Israeli Government, as we do with Palestinians. Let me say more broadly as we turn the calendar to 2013 here, now is the time for leaders on both sides to display real leadership, to focus on the work that’s necessary to return to direct negotiations, and we urge both sides to clearly demonstrate that they’re serious about achieving two states living side by side in peace and security. So we call on Israel, we call on the Palestinians to cease any kind of counterproductive, unilateral actions and to take concrete steps to return to direct negotiations so that all the issues can be discussed, and the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security can be realized.
QUESTION: Are you counseling the Israeli Prime Minister as the election draws near not to take politically expedient actions like expanding even more settlements at this time?
MS. NULAND: As I said, we are counseling both sides to avoid provocative actions.
QUESTION: I mean, yeah, it’s a new year, but there have been lots of new years since Oslo – (laughter) – and lots of new years prior to Oslo.
MS. NULAND: And we’re going to keep trying every single year until we have peace (inaudible).
QUESTION: But it – no, no, but it seemed as if you had a reason for that.
QUESTION: And you had it right there and you read it. Something – surely something is different other than the fact that the ball has dropped one more time on Times Square and there is no peace in the – between the Arabs and the – between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
MS. NULAND: I think we always want to see a new year advance the cause of peace. We want to see a better environment. I think that’s been the goal of American administrations for decades. So this is our first time to talk to you since the ball dropped, and we want to just take that opportunity to express our 2013 hopes.
QUESTION: Is there a concern that perhaps whatever window of opportunity there might have been is rapidly closing?
MS. NULAND: I think, again, this is a particularly important period now that we are heading into. And we have a second term for the President, we have upcoming elections, we have an environment that was quite fraught and quite difficult at the end of 2012. So the question is whether we can make a fresh start in 2013, and that’s going to require restraint on all sides.
QUESTION: Is it possible that a window is opening?
MS. NULAND: Again, we want to see 2013 be a better year. We really do.
Scott, still on this, or on something else?
MS. NULAND: Scott, behind you. Please.
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: During the break, we learned of the evacuation of U.S. diplomatic personnel from Bangui. Can you tell us what the situation is now and if the U.S. is supporting the Central African troops that are in the capital?
MS. NULAND: Well, we did issue – I think it was New Year’s Eve – we issued a statement of concern about the situation on the ground in the Central African Republic. We remain deeply concerned about the deteriorating security situation in the Central African Republic. We understand that the Seleka rebels took the town of Sibut over the weekend. We call on the rebel alliance to cease its hostilities and its movement towards the capital, and we also call on the government and the rebel alliance to ensure the safety of the civilian population.
We also call on C.A.R. Government to ensure that its own security forces respect the rights of the civilian population. We’re particularly concerned by allegations regarding the arbitrary arrest and disappearances of individuals who are members of ethnic groups with ties to the Seleka rebels. And we also reiterate our call that those who are responsible for crimes under international law be held to account. So we are watching very carefully.
As you know, we had some U.S. troops in Chad to aid in the evacuation of our Embassy folk from Bangui. They have now left, is my understanding.
QUESTION: Does that evacuation from Bangui affect U.S.-supported efforts to track down the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Central African Republic?
MS. NULAND: No. These are separate issues, and our efforts with regards to Lord’s are based, as you know, in Uganda.
QUESTION: Is there any suggestion that the rebellion that President Bozize is currently facing has some link to the Lord’s Resistance Army as a way to weaken his government and his allies who are – including yourself – who are trying to run down the LRA?
MS. NULAND: At this stage, we don’t have any indication of connections between the rebel movement and the continued presence of Lord’s in that piece of the Central African Republic far to the east. In fact, the geography’s pretty dispersed if you look at it.
QUESTION: Toria, are you aware of the reports that the rebels say that they’ve halted their advance on the capital and that they’ve agreed to start peace talks?
MS. NULAND: Our understanding is that both sides are making better noises about sitting down together, but it’s still talks about talks at this stage. And again, we call for a halt to the advance and we call for everybody to get to the table.
QUESTION: So do you not believe that the rebels have indeed halted their advance, as they say they have?
MS. NULAND: Well as I said, they took Sibut over the weekend.
MS. NULAND: We want to see it stop. We want to see them all get to the table now.
QUESTION: So – but, wait a minute. You don’t – I mean --
MS. NULAND: They haven’t moved beyond Sibut since the weekend is my understanding.
QUESTION: Right, okay.
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: Sorry. The decision to evacuate – is that part of – does it have anything to do or part of a policy of being more security conscious post-Benghazi?
MS. NULAND: I think we always look at these on a case-by-case basis. And the concern, I think, simply was that the rebel advance had gotten closer to the capital and that it wasn’t clear whether it could be stopped by C.A.R. forces. So this was a decision taken with an abundance of caution. But I would note that most of the Western embassies and the UN also have suspended operations in Bangui. I think only the French are still operating, and they did so after reinforcing with many hundreds of troops.
QUESTION: Sorry, just staying on Benghazi, I wondered if there was any State Department reaction to the report that came out from Senate – from the Senate committee on Monday, in which they mention that they found that the State Department made a grievous mistake in keeping the mission in Benghazi open despite the deteriorating security conditions that were happening in the city.
MS. NULAND: Well as you know, Jo, we had our two deputies testify extensively on the 20th of December with regard to the Accountability Review Board report and our analysis of it. And they were very explicit about the mistakes that were made, the accountability that needs to be taken, and the steps that we have to take to implement all of the recommendations of the Accountability Review Board. So we are looking hard at that and we are working on it. As you know, the Secretary accepted all 29 of those recommendations. We’ve set up now a very broad process inside the building to ensure that we implement all of those recommendations. It’s under the leadership of Deputy Secretary Nides. He’s already had one implementation meeting before the holiday and we expect another one this week sometime to make sure that we really can learn the lessons and improve our procedures.
QUESTION: But would you accept the finding from the committee that it was a mistake to keep the Benghazi facility open?
MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to go beyond the comments that we made on the 20th, which were extremely extensive with regard to the things that went wrong.
QUESTION: And do you have an update for us on the three members of staff who were put on administrative leave? Is that still – well, there was four. One person resigned. And --
QUESTION: He resigned his – as we were subsequently told, he resigned his Presidential appointment as Assistant Secretary, but he didn’t resign from the State Department, unless I’m mistaken.
MS. NULAND: That’s correct.
QUESTION: So – but it’s a great question. I mean, are they – is there any change in their status?
MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything to report to you today. If there is anything – any change, I’ll let you know.
QUESTION: Related to Libya, do you have any comment on the resignation of Ali Aujali as the Minister of Foreign Affairs designate?
MS. NULAND: I actually – I’m going to admit to you that I missed that, Said. I will take it and I’ll get back to you.
QUESTION: Are you concerned the same incident in Benghazi would happen again in Yemen? As you’ve said, the State Department is now taking the threat to the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen seriously. Are you increasing the security?
MS. NULAND: Well, as you probably know, our mission in Yemen has been operating for quite some time at a highly sensitive and secure level. We continue to work intensively with that government, not only on security challenges for us, but security challenges for the Government of Yemen and the people of Yemen across the country. So we obviously take this situation with utmost seriousness, and we are taking all necessary measures.
QUESTION: But how do you make sure that tragedy won’t happen again?
MS. NULAND: Well, obviously, I’m not going to get into the details of how we manage our security in general terms or in specific terms at our Embassy in Sana’a, but I will tell you that our Embassy has been at emergency staffing levels for quite some time, including a pretty cautious status with regard to internal travel, et cetera.
QUESTION: Is the Ambassador still keeping up his same daily schedule since these events?
MS. NULAND: I don’t think I’m going to get into the security posture of the Ambassador except to say that we take these things very seriously.
MS. NULAND: Please. On Iraq, go ahead.
QUESTION: On Iraq, what do you make of the protest in Iraq? I mean, obviously, there are more – they’re now in Anbar, in Mosul, and they’re even – they’ve moved to the – blocking the highway that connects Iraq into Syria and Jordan, the international highway, and they’re protesting against the – Maliki’s regime, their government, they’re against what they call sectarian practices, arresting women and torturing them. That’s – these are their claims. What do you make of these protests?
MS. NULAND: Well, first, let me just make the general statement that we always make, which is that we support the right of peaceful protest around the world. That said, we have been concerned by violence by parties during these protests, and we call on all those involved to exercise restraint, to respect that right of peaceful expression, and to apply that right responsibly without inciting further tensions. And any actions by any party to subvert the rule of law or provoke ethnic and sectarian tensions risks undermining the significant progress that Iraq has made towards peace and stability, and the important work that the U.S. and Iraq have been doing together.
So we want to see these difficult issues settled through consultation among Iraqi leaders, and we want to see them reach an agreement on the path forward for Iraq.
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: Can I follow up in Iraq?
MS. NULAND: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Just yesterday, Prime Minister Maliki said that the protestors either should stop or they’re going to be stopped forcefully (inaudible). Do you have any reaction to this? It seems like something is coming up.
MS. NULAND: Again, as we do around the world, we respect the right of peaceful protest, but protest has to be peaceful, and protestors who are protesting peacefully have to be dealt with peacefully. So --
QUESTION: So what’s your understanding? The protests have been peaceful?
MS. NULAND: Again, I think I said that we have been concerned about incidents of violence that – by various parties. And so we are again making it clear that if protests are peaceful, that’s one thing, but if there are incidents that incite violence or that are violent on any side, that would take Iraq backwards.
QUESTION: Prime Minister Maliki also warned Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan directly that Turkey’s policies regarding Iraq is dividing Iraq – unification of Iraq, and things are heating up. There are many other instances and statements. Are you concerned, between Iraq and Turkey, recent events?
MS. NULAND: We have consistently urged our ally Turkey and our partner Iraq to work well directly together. They obviously have a huge number of issues at stake in having good relations with each other and being able to work through issues that divide them.
Please. Egypt, yeah.
QUESTION: Egypt. Last week, you released a statement regarding the referendum and the situation in Egypt. After that statement, many tensions are still there and the relation between the President and other executive or, let’s say, legislative bodies are still intense. Do you have – what is your reading or understanding of what’s going on in Egypt in the last few days after the releasing of this statement? Because it’s like as if the opposite track is going on in Egypt now, and if you have something to say or not?
MS. NULAND: More broadly, beyond what we said after the constitution passed, I think what we are looking for is to now see this constitution implemented in a manner that maximizes the protection of human rights for all Egyptians, that helps to build consensus and build the ability to work together across communities in Egypt. That’s what we are looking for, that’s what the majority of Egyptians are working for.
But since you raised the issue of Egypt, let me say that we have been concerned by reports in recent days of Egyptian Government efforts to restrict media freedom and criticism within Egypt, particularly by investigating media figures, including Bassem Youssef, and individual media organizations for insulting political leaders and allegedly spreading false information.
A fundamental aspect of a healthy democracy is that people can be critical of their government and that there can be a free press free from prosecution. So we strongly oppose any kind of legal restrictions on freedom of expression, and we continue to urge the Egyptian Government to respect freedom of expression, which is a universal right as one of the harbingers of the kind of country they want to have going forward.
QUESTION: It’s good that you raised this issue because I was going to raise it, as a matter of fact, because it’s reflecting the kind of suppression of --
MS. NULAND: Yes.
QUESTION: -- freedom of expression. Beside that, in Egypt in particular, because you’re involved in this helping Egypt economically, this economic situation is getting worse and worse. And there was some talk a while ago about the IMF agreement and it was postponed, and it was said that or reported that U.S. somehow involved in asking Egyptians or Egyptians were asking to say that it is not the proper time to now make an agreement. What is your reading of that IMF agreement and it’s – you encourage it? Definitely you encourage it, but I’m not sure if you are – anything – a step is taken recently to go – to make the Egyptians or to ask Egyptians if IMF go back to this – the talks or agreement?
MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, it was the Egyptian side that suspended the talks sometime before the new year. This is a matter to be decided between the IMF and Egypt. We’ve talked about this before, that whenever an IMF agreement is being considered in a transitioning democracy, there are generally reform steps that are expected, there is a path forward to ensure the future economic health of the country before an agreement is concluded. So our understanding is that they had not yet, between them – the IMF and Egypt – crossed all the Is and dotted all the Ts or however you want to come to that.
MS. NULAND: (Laughter.) And then the Egyptian side asked for some time. So that’s where it stood, but I would refer you to the Government of Egypt in terms of where they are with the IMF.
QUESTION: So just to follow up --
MS. NULAND: But we obviously strongly support them being able to come to an agreement because it would speak to the reform path that the Government of Egypt is on, and it would also unlock our own ability to help Egypt more.
QUESTION: Once a while ago, before even the IMF agreement or postponing of the IMF agreement, it was raised, the issue by U.S., to support Egypt or somehow to fund the 450 million, and you were saying that there is some kind of negotiations are going on or whatever, talks are going on between the State Department and the Congress, and – all these are on hold now?
MS. NULAND: Well, we were able to provide some budget support to the Government of Egypt. There’s a secondary issue of economic support funds which we had notified to the Congress, some of which are tied to the IMF agreement, some of which are not. But I think in general there is a conversation that we are continuing to have with the Congress about whether they’re prepared to support the release of that money. And some of it, as I said, is tied to conclusion of an IMF agreement.
QUESTION: So I know that two weeks ago, the last U.S. official was – beside the Ambassador, of course – who was there was Assistant Secretary Posner, for Human Rights. Is there any visit is coming up or anybody or is planned, or any visit in the coming days?
MS. NULAND: Let me check on that. I don’t have anything to announce today, but let me see who we have going to Cairo next.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks a lot.
MS. NULAND: Yeah. Anything else? In back?
MS. NULAND: Iranian nuclear activity is always of concern to us.
QUESTION: No, the missiles tests, which they did over the weekend, on the new year.
MS. NULAND: Let me get back to you with any official comment we may have on that one.
QUESTION: Just one --
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: -- very quick.
MS. NULAND: Well, let’s just stay on Iran here.
QUESTION: The government there is claiming that it’s captured two U.S. drones in addition to the ones that it had previously claimed. Do you have any response to that?
MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything to confirm that. You might ask our brothers at the Pentagon. I have not heard that.
QUESTION: One very quick on Syria. Again, going back, the 60,000 people number just released this morning, we know that you have a redline for chemical weapons. Do you have any redline for this number of casualties, whether hundred thousand, 500,000, million? Is there a line that you’ll --
MS. NULAND: You know where we are on Syria. We’ve talked about this at length. We are all watching this bloodshed, which is now into its second year, with revulsion and loathing. And it is the Assad regime that bears responsibility. They could end it and stop it at a moment’s notice and spare their own people. They bear responsibility.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. NULAND: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:47 p.m.)
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