The video is available with closed captioning on YouTube.
12:44 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Happy Tuesday, and welcome to the State Department, a not-snowy Tuesday in March. The only thing I have at the top is to welcome the State Department interns we have in the back of the room. Welcome to the daily press briefing. Hope you enjoy it. And with that, we’ll turn it over to you all.
QUESTION: I don’t really have too much to go on at the start, but I was wondering if you could say anything about Syria and anything more on your efforts to kind of patch together this opposition in disarray.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we talked a little bit about this yesterday, Brad, and I just want to reaffirm that we really want the Syrian opposition to resolve its leadership issues sooner rather than later. You know, as I said yesterday, that we support the organization, not one single person, and what we support is their positive vision statement for an inclusive Syria, a future for Syria that – where the government respects the rights of all Syrians regardless of their affiliation. We support their vision plan for the transition that they laid out in Cairo last year. So while Mr. Khatib’s status still remains unclear, I understand he’s got a six-month renewable term that would end at the end of May, but he’s still heading the delegation at the Arab League. So his status seems unclear still. But –
QUESTION: Is there any progress or any indication that he’s going to reconsider his resignation?
MR. VENTRELL: I’d really refer you to him on that, but –
QUESTION: Have you reached out to him at all?
MR. VENTRELL: We’re still reaching out to him. We haven’t been in touch with him yet. But one other thing I want to clarify from what Jill had asked about yesterday, a little bit about who else are we in touch with. And I can give you a little bit more on the organization.
In addition to the Vice President and the Prime Minister, there’s two additional vice presidents who we’re routinely in touch with: Riad Siaf and Suhair Attassi. Ms. Attassi is the head of the assistance coordination team, so she does a lot of work about helping to get assistance where it needs to get in. There’s a secretary general in Doha, Mustafa Sabbagh. They’ve got 70 members of a general assembly, and they’ve got staff in Turkey, Qatar, they have a Cairo office, Istanbul, and they’re setting up an office in Gaziantap to work on assistance. So they’re really focused on these most pressing concerns of getting assistance to local councils, to those most in need.
I’ll note that Mr. Hitto – Prime Minister Hitto was in Aleppo Sunday working with the newly elected provincial council addressing the needs of these liberated areas, working on basic services like water and electricity, so –
QUESTION: Have you spoken to him at all, Mr. Hitto?
MR. VENTRELL: I believe we have been in touch with him, and he was there with the delegation sitting right behind Mr. Khatib.
QUESTION: Go ahead.
QUESTION: I just want to follow up quickly on what Brad just said. You’re saying that you touched upon this yesterday, but as the day drew on, it became quite apparent that the split within the opposition is not only a split within the opposition, but those who aid the opposition. Like you have Saudi Arabia and Jordan on one side and then the United Arab – and Turkey and Qatar on the other side. And it’s reflected – it’s causing all the split and the tension within the opposition. Do you have a comment on that?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, that’s your characterization. We’re there to – our support --
QUESTION: No, it’s not my characterization, but that’s what everybody says.
MR. VENTRELL: Our support is to the Syrian people. We want them to be in the lead. There are a lot of countries assisting. We’ve worked hard to keep that assistance in a coherent fashion, which we’ve done through meetings in Rome and other international meetings to keep it – keep assistance flowing in a rational and coherent way that really assists them. And we’ll continue to do that, but our support is to the Syrian people. They have the lead. These are their decisions, and we really respect them.
Jill, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. I just wanted to follow up very quickly. I’m sorry, Jill. You’ve invested a great deal in Moaz al-Khatib in nurturing him and so on, and now you seem to be actually dropping him off for – in favor of Hitto. Is that a probable characterization?
MR. VENTRELL: No, that’s not. I reject that characterization. We haven’t supported one individual over another. We’ve had no – there’s no American pick. These are Syrian picks. And these are people they’ve selected. And what we’re supporting is the organization as a whole and their vision. He’s been courageous, as I said yesterday. We appreciate his efforts. It’s unclear if he’s going to continue on, but the organization will. And that’s, Said, what you just heard me outline in terms of the strength of the organization, some of the – what they’ve built up in terms of their ability to implement and provide the vision of a future Syria so that those who are on the fence can change.
Let’s let Jill get a question in.
QUESTION: Is it correct that Mr. al-Khatib asked or told – asked Secretary Kerry that he wanted Patriot missiles to protect Syrians?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if that came up in exactly that language. We saw what he said in his public address today, but this is – really was a NATO decision to deploy Patriot batteries from the U.S., the Netherlands, and Germany explicitly to protect Turkey. So all the details on that, I refer you to NATO, but they were explicitly designed to protect Turkey, and that was their –
QUESTION: Right, but that conversation with Secretary Kerry, can you confirm that he actually brought that up?
MR. VENTRELL: I’d have to check on that. I’m not sure if that particular point came up. He said it. I’d have to check on it.
QUESTION: But he’s actually asking for a slightly different change of mission, which would be the Patriot missiles would protect the border for the Syrian opposition rebels in those villages that are there, though he --
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’d have to check. I mean, we’ve heard some of this before in private. He’s now publicly saying this, but again, that’s what the NATO mission is.
QUESTION: Can I ask you on another point he made –
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah, go ahead, Jo.
QUESTION: -- which was that – so Mr. Khatib was met with thunderous applause at the Arab League today when he took up the seat of Syria.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: And he’s also calling for the opposition to take over Syria’s seat at the United Nations.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Would that be something that the United States would support?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we really refer you to the UN on that. It’s really a UN decision, and there’s complicated parliamentary procedures they’re involved in how seats are taken from one government to another, and I really refer you to the UN on that process.
QUESTION: But I think of the Libyan instance, for example. The United States did go ahead and support it. I mean, presumably you would have as a member, and a key member of the United Nations, you would have input into that decision.
MR. VENTRELL: Right. But Jo, just to reiterate, we recognize the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. But in terms of recognition as a government, we’re not there yet, and so there’s a process that plays out here in terms of a legal analysis of how much territory they have and how much control of the governing institutions before those kind of decisions are made. So we’re not there yet.
QUESTION: You’re not – so that is too soon, basically, to think about holding the seat at the UN?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, we’re not at a point where we’re doing a switch in legal recognition or something of that nature. But again, these are things that’ll be looked at at the UN.
QUESTION: So what is being recognized as the legitimate representative if you can’t actually take the seat at the United Nations? Is it just a rhetorical ploy to kind of say, “We think you’re good?”
MR. VENTRELL: It’s not, Brad. No. I mean, it recognizes that these are people who represent the will of the Syrian people and not a government that is raining down SCUDs on the women and children.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, what’s the legal effect of that?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, this is --
MR. VENTRELL: Again, as I mentioned, there is a legal process that goes into official government recognitions, but we think that they’re the legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people, which is for an inclusive, democratic Syria that has a government that’s not slaughtering its own people.
QUESTION: Yeah, but what was the legal effect when you made that determination? That they are now the legal – what was it – legitimate representative of the Syrian people’s – I mean, did that have any legal effect? Did that change policy by its mere declaration in any way?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Brad, you know I’m not a lawyer, and so my legal analysis would be weak in that regard. But what I will say is that the effect, really, is – you’ve seen what we did in Rome. You’ve seen the amount of assistance that we’re ramping up to them, you’ve seen our amount of collaboration with them really increase. So we absolutely are upping the levels of our collaboration with them and our work with them.
QUESTION: Just follow-up, Patrick, question, whether the – al-Khatib raised this issue with Secretary Kerry. What is your stance? Would you support – because U.S. also sent Patriots, along with Netherlands and Germany, to Turkey. What’s your current stance? Would you consider supporting it?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I think you heard what I just said, is that the NATO decision, which we did, as you mentioned, have one of the Patriot batteries, is to explicitly protect Turkey. So that was a NATO decision, and we refer you to NATO for more details.
Camille, go ahead.
QUESTION: Patrick, I wondered if you could clarify something in the assistance that you’re providing to Syria, that – the U.S. position is not to provide weapons. What about training for fighters, either military or nonmilitary training for fighters? Is that --
MR. VENTRELL: You know where we are on training on nonlethal assistance. That hasn’t changed. We continue to provide nonlethal assistance to the opposition. In terms of any assistance directly to the SMC, that has been food and medical kits. But I don’t have anything beyond that for you.
QUESTION: Just to follow up his question, Secretary Kerry also made clear that U.S. is not standing in the way for arming the rebels. Are you also okay with others, other allies to support with heavy weapons to rebels?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, look, we’ve made our decision about our nonlethal assistance. Other countries have made their decisions. We’re not going to parse it.
QUESTION: So heavy weapons are also –
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, this is to reaffirm that we think that a political transition is the best way to end this violence, and so that’s what we support and that’s where we’ve long stood.
QUESTION: But isn’t there limits to that policy, that you will not stand in the way of others arming the rebels? Can people send tanks, can they send MANPADS, can they send things that could potentially cause a lot of trouble?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I mean, in some regards, this is a hypothetical because I don’t think we’re there yet, where that --
QUESTION: Well, it’s your policy. You have a policy statement that you won’t support – that you won’t stand in the way of countries deciding to arm the rebels.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I think the cart is getting in front of the horse a little bit. That’s not the kind of thing I’ve heard other countries talking about, but – again, Jill, go ahead.
QUESTION: Patrick, there are two reports at least out there that the United States is directly training Syrian opposition fighters in Jordan. I know we’ve kind of been over this, but just to set the record straight, what can you tell us?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have anything for you on that. Toria said that before, I’ll say it again; I don’t have anything for you on that.
QUESTION: On the split among your allies – they are all your close allies – are you talking to them about trying to sort of close ranks on the issue of Syria? Turkey and Qatar on the one side, Saudi Arabia and Jordan on the other?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, you’re characterizing it that way. We’re in constant --
QUESTION: I’m not characterizing. I mean, that’s --
MR. VENTRELL: Yes, you are, Said. But the bottom line is we’re in coordination with all of the interested parties who are trying to find a better day for the Syrian people. We’re in close coordination with them.
Let’s do one more on Syria and then on to other topics.
QUESTION: Just one quick. It looks like last three days, there have been heavy fighting in Damascus. What’s your reading of the situation in Damascus right now?
MR. VENTRELL: We have seen increased fighting in the streets of Damascus, including close to some of the key government centers, and it’s just further evidence that the regime’s authority is eroding.
QUESTION: So obviously, you’ve seen the reports that North Korea’s put its military and strategic rocket units on a war footing, and specifically with threats – specifically threatened to strike at the U.S. mainland, Hawaii, and Guam. I mean, I’ve seen the – what your colleague over in the White House had to say about it. So specifically, does North Korea have the capability to strike the U.S. mainland or Hawaii and Guam?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, Jo, I think my language is going to be very similar, but just to reiterate so you’re all clear about what the U.S. position is, North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric and threats follow a pattern designed to raise tensions and intimidate others. The D.P.R.K. will achieve nothing by threats or provocations which only further isolate North Korea and undermine international efforts to ensure peace and stability in Northeast Asia.
So we continue to urge the North Korean leadership to heed President Obama’s call to choose the path of peace, come into compliance with its international obligations. But we’ve long said, Jo, that the U.S. is fully capable of defending itself and our allies against the D.P.R.K. attack, and we’re firmly committed to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan.
QUESTION: But my question was actually specifically whether America believes that the North Koreans could carry out this threat.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I wouldn’t get into hypotheticals or intelligence from this podium, but we’re fully capable of defending ourself, and we’re fully capable of defending our allies, South Korea and Japan.
Jo – Jill.
QUESTION: A change of subject?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Amanda Knox, we have that case, the – Italy’s highest criminal court has overturned their acquittal. And I’m interested in now what kind of role the State Department plays in this and what role the Justice Department plays in this. Can you tell us?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I definitely couldn’t talk about the Justice Department, but our understanding is that the written opinion has not been released yet, so it appears to be an ongoing legal matter in the Italian court. So we can’t really comment beyond that, and really have to refer you to Ms. Knox and her legal team regarding the next steps.
QUESTION: Right, but let’s say that it comes down to it. I mean, I know this is a hypothetical, but legally, it could happen. There would be a new trial and then there – if she were convicted, there could be a request for extradition. What governances – is it the extradition treaty between the United States and Italy?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, you know, Jill, we never talk about extradition from this podium in terms of individual cases, and I refer you to lawyers – her lawyers on any specific case. That’s really a hypothetical, as you said. In terms of what exists between Italy and the U.S., those two countries are – if there are any treaties, I’d have to look into that. I’m not aware.
QUESTION: So it doesn’t sound like you can say much about this case.
MR. VENTRELL: No, unfortunately you’ve posed a number of hypotheticals which we can’t get into. We really refer you to her legal team.
QUESTION: But has the State Department been informed by the government, the Italian Government, about any of this?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware that we’ve had any role at this point. We provided consular services when she was overseas, but I’m not aware of any role at this point.
QUESTION: Well, more generally, has the United States extradited people to European courts for trial?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I have to look into it. I’m happy to look into the issue of EU to U.S., broadly speaking, and what treaties are in place. I’m just now aware.
MR. VENTRELL: Said.
QUESTION: With Goyal’s permission, on Burma. (Laughter.)
MR. VENTRELL: You two are going to ask Burma together?
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Are you following up on reports of entire Muslim neighborhoods being torched by extremist Hindus, and are you doing anything about it?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, thanks, Said, for the question. I don’t think I ever expected a Burma question for you, but seeing that you two are together, we’ll just go ahead. We do remain deeply concerned by reports of communal unrest in Bago. This is a town that’s south of where we talked about before – Meiktila, before, following earlier violence of loss of life and widespread property damage in and around central Burma. So we extend our deep condolences to those affected by this violence, including families of the victims. We urge authorities to restore order and maintain peace in a manner that respects human rights and due process of law, and to provide all necessary assistance to internally displaced persons.
You know that we promote – what we want is inter-communal and inter-faith dialogue, tolerance and mutual respect. We’re encouraged by the actions of some religious leaders in that direction. And just to note, Ambassador Mitchell put out a statement from our embassy earlier today, in Burma, that we are announcing $100,000 in disaster assistance to the people affected by the violence. This includes hygiene kits, blankets, utensils, plastic sheeting, emergency water and sanitation assistance to the displaced people. So we are providing assistance directly.
QUESTION: I wonder if you could go a bit deeper into the subject. I mean, these riots have broken out and they’ve been going on for at least a week now, but there have been other instances of unrest since Burma started opening up more to the outside world. And I wonder if this is a symptom of the fact that they may have started opening up, but they actually don’t have in place yet the correct kind of procedures for dealing with this kind of civil unrest. I mean, is the global community moving too fast with pouring in aid and outside influences? And should they step back and just let them get in place other procedures first?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, I mean, just broadly speaking you know where we are with Burma. This has been an example of a country that’s been willing to make bold steps for change. We’ve matched that with reciprocal steps from the U.S. But we’ve always been clear that there’s a certain fragility and that we need to be very vigilant, and some of these issues, in terms of establishing rule of law, freedom of the press, there are some changes that are happening. And so we’re going to be closely monitoring those and sharing our views with Burmese authorities about the best way to establish rule of law and order and deal with some of these ethnic tensions.
So we’re very concerned about the ethnic tensions. It’s something that we’re going to continue to raise consistently.
QUESTION: Have they actually asked you for any help with this case?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware that – I imagine that we discussed this $100,000 with them before, but I’m not sure exactly what the discussion was on the ground. But I’d be happy to check with our embassy overnight and see if they have any information about how we came to decide on this particular package of assistance.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up on --
MR. VENTRELL: Sure. Go ahead, Goyal.
QUESTION: The United Nations special representative or Special Envoy went to Burma and he investigated, and he has released a report on Burma. What he’s saying is that it will be too late for the UN and the international community unless, dramatically, steps are being taken now, because there is so much tension between the two communities, Buddhists and Muslims in Burma. And the military government has not done much to prevent all those violations, violence and also the enmity going on between the two communities. So he calls on the UN, also the U.S., that the international community must do now before it’s too late.
MR. VENTRELL: I saw that Mr. Nambiar was traveling in Burma. I haven’t seen his report yet. But just to say again, Goyal, we urge the authorities to restore order and maintain peace in a manner that respects human rights and due process of law and provide all necessary assistance to internally displaced persons and others affected by violence. And so there have been changes in the way that this government runs and the way that law and order is maintained, and so we’re continuing to work with them through this transition.
QUESTION: Just one more quickly. Opposition parties are also calling on the same thing as part of the monks in Burma, that time is now to step in. Has anybody been talking with the military government now or with this Aung San Suu Kyi and opposition leaders now, what is to be done immediately?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I think I just talked about the dialogue we’re in with the Burmese authorities including the civilian authorities who are leading the country.
QUESTION: Palestinian and Israeli peace process?
QUESTION: It was quite a busy weekend. Could you update us on the status and the aftermath of the shuttle diplomacy over the past few days? Where do we stand now?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, as you know, Said, Secretary Kerry had a useful – had useful follow-up discussions in the region. These discussions were the natural next steps to President Obama’s meetings. And I think you saw his press conference in Baghdad, where he said – he described them as open, candid, and a good beginning.
So we’ll continue to listen and assess to determine how we can best get working quickly on these issues. But I really don’t have a further characterization beyond what the Secretary already said.
QUESTION: Okay. With envoy David Hale moving on, is there a replacement in the offing? Are we --
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any personnel decisions for you.
QUESTION: Okay. And lastly, it has been rumored that you guys favor – that Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni will take over the negotiation portfolio, which she’d have to spend, I guess, a great deal of time in Washington. Is that something that you would favor?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I don’t think – that would be an internal Israeli decision about who is going to negotiate on their behalf.
QUESTION: But because she does have a good rapport, and she’s had the experience of, let’s say, talks that you’ve chaperoned in the past between the Palestinians and --
MR. VENTRELL: Look, she’s someone we’ve worked with in the past, but I really wouldn’t comment on an internal Israeli decision.
QUESTION: A follow-up on the Palestinian issue?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Two days ago, the Egyptian Foreign Minister announced in Doha, when he was meeting Arab foreign ministers, that there is a possibility to come to Washington and New York to discuss the peace process and all this. Is there anything from your side about this?
MR. VENTRELL: I’d have to look into that. I’m not aware.
QUESTION: A follow-up?
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan stated that he plans to visit Gaza and West Bank in coming days, early April. What’s your stance on that? Do you support his visit?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, look, you saw over the weekend obviously the steps that were made on some of the reconciliation between Israel and Turkey. Really don’t have anything for you on his particular travel other than we’re encouraged that the relationship is getting back on track, and in terms of assistance to Palestinians, both in Gaza and the West Bank, that’s part of the discussion about how to best work through the free flow of humanitarian goods. But I really don’t have anything further for you.
QUESTION: So you think this visit might be helpful or otherwise for this?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I’m not going to characterize it one way or another until it’s gone forward.
In the back?
QUESTION: Sorry, I just have a quick question about the Arab League summit.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: There is a photo of Muhammad Morsy appearing to be asleep during the proceedings at the summit that was making the rounds on some Middle Eastern outlets. And it sort of contributed to this impression that he’s sort of not serious at the summit, and I’m wondering if State has any opinion on that or any take on the way that he’s being perceived.
MR. VENTRELL: I hadn’t seen that. I’m just not aware.
QUESTION: Caffeine’s not in the assistance program? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Who is representing the United States of America at the summit? I – they normally attend the opening.
MR. VENTRELL: Usually we have an observer. Sometimes it’s the local ambassador. Sometimes we do send somebody. But I can check on that.
MR. VENTRELL: Jo, go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Lots of Africa questions.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
MR. VENTRELL: We did.
QUESTION: -- and the fact that at the moment the United States is not characterizing what’s happening as a coup, and let’s wait and see what happens. So over night the rebel leader – and excuse me – Djotodia suspended the constitution, saying that he --
QUESTION: -- thank you – suspended the constitution and has said that he’s going to rule by decree, and holding out the possibility of elections in 2016. So how do we characterize what happened over the weekend in the Central African Republic now?
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Well, let me be – thanks for the question, Jo – let me be very clear. We strongly condemn the illegitimate seizure of power by the Seleka rebel alliance, the ouster of President Bozize, Michel Djotodia’s self-appointment as president, and the announcement of the suspension of the C.A.R. constitution and parliament. So we strongly condemn these actions.
The Seleka leadership must account for a trail of destruction left by its forces throughout C.A.R. during the months of fighting. We have credible reports of extensive looting of the interior of the Central African Republic and Bangui by Seleka forces. This is unacceptable and the perpetrators must be held accountable.
So again, we believe that this was a forceful, extrajudicial, constitutional seize of power, and we’re actively and carefully reviewing the events to see what their foreign assistance implications may be in terms of a determination about a coup.
QUESTION: That’s – so wait, what is the difference then between a forceful, extrajudicial seizure of power and a coup?
MR. VENTRELL: There’s a legal analysis that has to go in --
QUESTION: It always is it seems. (Laughter.)
MR. VENTRELL: I know. There always is, Brad, and --
QUESTION: I think that’s a synonym, if you look in the dictionary.
MR. VENTRELL: In terms of what it means for U.S. assistance and the legal definitions provided in legislation, our lawyers do have to do analysis of that. But, I mean, we’ve been pretty clear that this is an illegitimate seizure of power. We condemn it. This obviously gets us off track and away from the Libreville accords, and so both sides weren’t carrying out the agreement but this is a negative outcome, and we want these rebels to step aside and let Prime Minister Tiangaye and his government lead the country. They’re the ones that should be in charge and actually governing the country.
QUESTION: Well, yesterday you said nothing about President Bozize. Do you think he should be returned as well, or allowed to return?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, look --
QUESTION: Now that you have his whereabouts --
MR. VENTRELL: We know he’s in Cameroon.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Obviously, that’s been confirmed by all sides. But we’re not aware that that’s what he’s seeking to do. Part of what --
QUESTION: Well, he hasn’t resigned yet. So --
MR. VENTRELL: Well, listen, Brad. Let me finish. Let me finish. Part of what was being determined in the accords here was what his role was going to be. That was one of the outstanding concerns. And as I mentioned yesterday, it’s the Prime Minister who really was going to be governing day to day. The President had not brought in some of these rebels in a manner consistent with the accords, and that’s part of why we’ve seen this action. But I don’t think we’re in a place where we’re necessarily calling for anything beyond the Prime Minister being allowed to govern the country instead of you have these rebels declaring a President, nullifying the constitution; these are regrettable actions and we condemn them.
QUESTION: So the ouster of the President in itself is not worrying. That’s okay as long as the rest of the democratic --
MR. VENTRELL: We condemn that as well, but --
QUESTION: You condemn that but you don’t think it should be reversed.
MR. VENTRELL: We condemn it as well, but what I am saying is that both sides were not implementing their side of the accords and both were failing.
QUESTION: But I still – I just don’t understand why, if you want this agreement respected, and it clearly delineated this President was the President and he would have some power until a certain time, why is that part separate from the agreement?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I’m not sure that – it’s possible at this point that he either wants to come back or would come back, but the only way that the Libreville Agreement can still stand is if the Prime Minister is allowed to govern the country and the constitution is restored. So that’s what we’re urging today, and we’ll continue to do so, and we’ll continue to strongly condemn these actions over the weekend.
QUESTION: What kind of aid do you have to Central Africa, and what level – what does it go towards?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Thanks, Jo, for the question. We have $115,000 in military professionalization activities, funds for that; we have $1.5 million that go to a property rights funding that has to do with a diamond field in the Central African Republic; we have $600,000 in anti-trafficking. And so those are the things that are being reviewed as part of this legal determination. We also have – hold on one second – we also have $22 million of humanitarian assistance programming for Fiscal Year 2012, and that’s not part of the aid that we review. Humanitarian assistance, as long as it’s not going through the government, continues to flow.
QUESTION: So potentially you’re talking about something just over 200 million – $2 million, sorry, that could be in play?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, you add 1.5 million plus 600,000 plus 115,000.
QUESTION: And have you been in touch with whatever authorities you can talk to in Central Africa? Has there been some kind of liaison between – or you don’t have – the embassy’s closed there?
MR. VENTRELL: The embassy is closed. I should check on the status of our ambassador. I believe he has been doing diplomacy in the region and talking to regional partners. But I’ll be happy to check and see.
QUESTION: But he’s in Washington, though, is he?
MR. VENTRELL: He’s been in Washington, but he’s also done some regional diplomacy out with some of the neighbors and partners. So I’ll check and see if he’s been in touch with anybody since these events have occurred.
QUESTION: Yesterday, I asked you about military trainers --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- involved in the LRA operations. You said you believed there were about 70 to 80 in the country. Is that for Central African Republic or is that for the entire mission, which also includes South Sudan and --
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I really do have to refer to DOD to get any final numbers. But we have a small number of forces operating in southeastern Central African Republic to advise and assist regional efforts to end the threat posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army. That’s just funded by the Department of Defense.
MR. VENTRELL: And we’re evaluating the impact of the illegitimate seizure of power by Seleka on the counter-LRA effort and our ability to continue working with regional forces in C.A.R. So that’s also under review.
QUESTION: Because the 70 to 80, is that not the total amount? Or you don’t know?
MR. VENTRELL: Really, I’m not sure. I’d have to refer to DOD.
QUESTION: And so when you say you’re examining how this would affect their mission, they had an agreement with the previous government that no longer exists. So they’re not really legally sanctioned as such to be in the country, right?
MR. VENTRELL: Brad, again, events are unfolding. But we hope that they’ll continue to fulfill their commitments to work with Uganda and other governments in the region as part of this regional taskforce. But again, events are still unfolding.
QUESTION: How detrimental would that be to the anti-LRA efforts if they couldn’t actually pursue LRA inside the Central African Republic (inaudible)?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure that I can give a strategic analysis of the difference between --
QUESTION: Wouldn’t that be --
MR. VENTRELL: -- who is in Uganda and who is in Central African Republic and the neighboring countries there. So I’m not sure I can give that sort of analysis.
QUESTION: But if you have forces there, they obviously have been a presence there.
MR. VENTRELL: They’ve been a presence. I’m just not sure what the impact will be.
Okay. Let’s take a couple more.
MR. VENTRELL: Egypt, go ahead.
QUESTION: The public prosecutor yesterday ordered the arrest of five political activists on the charges of using social media to incite violence. And this decision, or the order, came after one day from President Morsy warning that he was going to take special measures and procedures to stop this anti-government or anti-Islamist attitude. What – do you have anything to say about this?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we are following closely reports that arrest warrants were issued for Egyptian political activists. We do not know the specifics of the charges or the evidence against them. We will say that we’ve noted the substantial violence and condemned it. It’s a great concern to the Egyptian people. And what we’ve said, more broadly speaking, about not only the protesters we’ve had but also the response from the security forces is that we believe that all protesters have a right – all political actors have a right to make their voice heard in Egypt and to do so freely. But they also have to do so in a way that’s nonviolent. And in terms of when there is violence, we urge the government to thoroughly and credibly and independently investigate all claims of violence and to bring perpetrators to justice in a way consistent with international standards for the rule of law.
So we have some concerns on both sides. We want to make sure that people can express themselves, but that they do so peacefully, and if they’re not doing so peacefully, that the government responds in a way that corresponds to the rule of law.
QUESTION: Can I follow up? I mean, in the – regarding these generalities, which is, like, the last two weeks we are hearing it – beside that, is this a lack of information that is coming from Cairo, or what is this? How you explain it, or I am wrong in my characterization?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I think you’re trying to ask me about very specific cases that have happened overnight. There’s been reports overnight of these arrest warrants, and so the expectation here in a couple of hours that we’re going to have a full reporting on it I don’t think is realistic.
But our point here has been to make broad expressions of where we think this should go. I’m not sure we can comment on every single case one way or another, but we’re following the situation very closely. Our post, Embassy Cairo, is following the situation very closely, and so we’ll continue to make our concerns known directly to the Government of Egypt when we have them, and we’ll continue to make our concerns very public to the protesters as well when they’re not peaceful.
QUESTION: I’m trying to – in order not to see that I am trying to get an answer for every event, because that’s not the case. But as we know in the case of politics, like crime, what is called the broken windows – when you leave the broken windows, other windows will be broken, all the other doors will be broken, too. That’s why I am raising this issue.
Regarding yesterday, I raised the issue of the press and media. Do you have any answer for that?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, my understanding is that there have been demonstrators who have been sporadically and illegally blocking entry to the media city in Cairo, including over the past few days. Our understanding is that public authorities have not intervened effectively to ensure free access for journalists and guests, and to our knowledge, there have not been any arrests made despite incidents of violence there. So that’s one of our concerns, and it’s something we’re raising with the government as well, in addition to more information about these arrest warrants.
QUESTION: Sorry, can I just ask you a follow-up?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: You talked about concerns on both sides. His question was particularly about a group of prominent bloggers and the like.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: They haven’t been, as far as I know, directly engaged in violence.
MR. VENTRELL: Right. Sorry. Thanks for letting me --
QUESTION: You’re talking about general principles of peaceful protest, or --
MR. VENTRELL: Right. Thanks for letting me clarify. First of all, on this case of the bloggers and the activists who have been arrested, we have seen the reports. We’re seeking more information. We don’t have the specifics yet. Once we get some more information, we can have a position. But then I was broadly pivoting to – not related to these particular individuals, but more broadly speaking, we do have concerns about the substantial violence that continues and about people not expressing themselves freely. That’s wholly and apart from these individuals who we’re still seeking more information about. I just don’t know.
QUESTION: But for a government to arrest bloggers and activists, you would agree that they have to have serious evidence of wrongdoing by these individuals. It can’t just be that they express opinions that are contrary to the government.
MR. VENTRELL: Which is why I think you heard me say so clearly yesterday that we support the freedom of expression, the freedom of journalists to do their jobs freely. I made that very clear yesterday. That’s absolutely vital and important to us, and that’s the kind of thing we raise directly with the government if we have specific evidence or concerns about a specific case. But --
QUESTION: So when you get more evidence about – or more details about what they’re doing here, we should expect you to respond appropriately if these are trumped-up charges.
MR. VENTRELL: We need to get more information, but absolutely anything to squelch the freedom of expression would be a deep concern for the United States.
QUESTION: Can I go to Rwanda?
MR. VENTRELL: Rwanda?
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: On last week’s drama about the DR Congo rebel leader, Bosco Ntaganda – sorry for the African names. He appeared in The Hague today, in court for the first time. And I think some of his version of what happened is somewhat different to – or slightly different from what we heard from the podium last week. Specifically, can you say whether he had in fact come into the Embassy to ask for asylum in exchange for giving information about what happened about the M23, rather than he came into the Embassy and asked to be surrendered and transferred to the ICC?
QUESTION: So there was no demand for asylum on his part?
MR. VENTRELL: Not that I’m aware of, and Toria was very clear about it last week.
QUESTION: And he was definitely a walk-in? He wasn’t brought to the Embassy by somebody else?
MR. VENTRELL: Our understanding is he just walked in and showed up and we didn’t have prior notice.
MR. VENTRELL: A couple more. Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Actually, I have two questions in the region. First, Afghanistan: the Secretary’s surprise visit. My question is that – I have seen the statements and all that. I understand that Secretary did – understood that what President Karzai was saying, and he accepted the apology and all those things. My question is that: Is President Karzai under pressure from the Talibans and extremists and also those who do not agree or do not on the same boat with the NATO or U.S.? And what do you think will be the future after Secretary will return and things will be the same in the future?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, you saw the very positive trip that the Secretary had. As you mentioned, we’ve put out extensive remarks and reactions from the traveling party and the Secretary himself, so I don’t really think I can improve on their words at all. It was a very successful visit, and we’ll continue to seek further progress with our Afghan partners.
QUESTION: Patrick --
QUESTION: And if I just --
MR. VENTRELL: Hold up. Brad, go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. So the United States is concerned by reports of an incident between a Chinese vessel and a Vietnamese fishing boat that resulted in the Vietnamese boat catching fire. As a Pacific nation, the U.S. has a national interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea. So we strongly oppose the threat or use of force or coercion by any claimant to advance its claims in the South China Sea. But --
QUESTION: Do you see this as an escalation --
MR. VENTRELL: Right now we’re --
QUESTION: -- to actually fire on a boat?
MR. VENTRELL: -- looking into it. Incidents like these underline the need for, as we’ve said, a code of conduct, so that these can be dealt with in a transparent and rules-based way. But at this point, we’re seeking more information.
QUESTION: From whom? From both sides?
MR. VENTRELL: We’re interested in more information from both sides.
QUESTION: You didn’t have any contact with Chinese Government about this issue?
MR. VENTRELL: I’ll have to check on that and see if we’ve had any direct contact. But at this point, we don’t have additional information.
QUESTION: Quick on Iraq. Last week I ask about this, a planned pipeline, gas pipeline, from Iran to Iraq. First of all, what’s your stance? And second, if Secretary Kerry raised this issue while he was meeting with Prime Minister Maliki?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I can’t give a specific readout of each of the Secretary’s meetings, which we do with the traveling party, but suffice it to say that this is an issue that routinely comes up with our Iraqi counterparts.
I’ll restate our position. This is a long-standing position on petroleum trade from Iraq. It’s consistent and remains unchanged. The U.S. supports a constitutional solution to disputes over the management of Iraq’s hydrocarbon resources, and so we do not support oil exports, whether or not such trade is in barter, from any parts of Iraq without the appropriate approval of the federal Iraqi Government. So we continue to urge the Iraqi Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government to reach agreement on hydrocarbons legislation in order to enhance Iraq’s investment climate --
QUESTION: My --
MR. VENTRELL: -- and – let me finish – and the prospect of greater prosperity for all Iraqis.
QUESTION: My specific question is to pipeline that planned between Iran to Iraq, exporting from Iran to Iraq, and the third leg is planned to Syria, but for now it is Iran to Iraq. What’s this?
MR. VENTRELL: I thought you were talking about relationship between Kurdistan --
MR. VENTRELL: I’ll have to check into it.
QUESTION: Patrick, (inaudible) Maliki.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Are you disappointed that Maliki rejected the Secretary’s appeal to stop or inspect over-flights to Syria from Iran?
MR. VENTRELL: Just to say – and you saw the Secretary’s very public comments on it – that we continue to urge the Iraqi Government to take every responsible measure to ensure its territory and airspace are not used to funnel foreign fighters, weapons, materiel to the Assad regime. So the Secretary raised it, and I’ll reject your characterization that the Iraqis are looking at it and --
QUESTION: Multiple secretaries have raised it now, correct?
MR. VENTRELL: We’re going to --
QUESTION: Well over a year.
MR. VENTRELL: We’re going to continue to raise it. And as the Secretary said, he pledged to seek what more we can do in terms of working with our Iraqi counterparts on this.
One more question.
MR. VENTRELL: Goyal.
QUESTION: Pakistan. Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Pakistan now has a caretaker government and election will be, of course, on May 11th. And what the big question now, Patrick, is that General Musharraf after four years in exile of living outside of Pakistan returns to Pakistan to come back. His reason that he was the best to run the country for 10 years during Bush Administration in Pakistan, I mean, and he said that Pakistan Government has failed for the last five years, even though it was a democratic government. But he ruled the country under military dictatorship. My question is that what do you see the future of Pakistan? Does U.S. – can work with him in the future?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Goyal, we missed you yesterday. I saw you were over at the White House and asked a similar question. I saw my colleague Josh Earnest responded. I also got the question yesterday from a different reporter, and it’s – our position is the same. It’s really up to the people of Pakistan to decide who their representative should be. We’re not going to comment on the internal politics.
Jo has a question here.
QUESTION: I have a question on BRICs, on BRICs nations.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: So the Chinese President Xi Jinping was in South Africa today. And the BRICs nations are setting up a development bank, which would have its own funds for infrastructure financing around the world, which would kind of seem to suggest it might challenge the role of the World Bank in which, obviously, the United States has quite a key role. I wondered if you felt this would be helpful or hindering or would hinder projects around the world and what would be the U.S. reaction to it?
MR. VENTRELL: We just saw the news reports overnight. I think it’s something we’re going to have to look at. You know our support, obviously, to the World Bank and other multilateral development institutions. But this is something we’re going to have to take a look at.
QUESTION: But if there’s more money washing around, would that not be a good thing? Because more people could then draw on it.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, again, it’s something they’ve just announced in the past couple of hours that they’re looking at. I’m not sure what – even what their planning stage is on this or what exactly they’re looking at. But we’ll endeavor to get you some information once we’ve had a chance to look at it.
QUESTION: Did you ever get an answer just to my question yesterday about U.S. aid to Honduras?
MR. VENTRELL: We are still working on that, Brad, but I will pledge an answer to you this afternoon. We will get it to you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Thanks.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:27 p.m.)