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1:06 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Good afternoon. I have one thing at the top. On a somber note, I would like to provide an update on the State Department personnel who were injured in Saturday’s attack in Qalat, Afghanistan. In addition to those tragically killed, four Department employees were injured as the party was moving on foot a short distance to a school, wearing personal protection gear and under escort of U.S. soldiers.
With the family’s permission, I can confirm that Kelly Hunt, who was a Public Affairs officer with Kandahar Airfield Regional Platform-South in southern Afghanistan, was wounded and has been medevaced to Germany, where she is receiving the best possible medical care. Secretary Kerry spoke with Kelly’s father on Saturday and with her mother yesterday and conveyed his sympathy to the family during this difficult time.
Two employees with less serious wounds are receiving ongoing treatment at NATO-ISAF medical facilities in Afghanistan. The fourth employee was treated for more minor injuries and has been released. Out of respect for these employees and their families’ privacies, those are all the details we can offer on the injured.
And just to reiterate what Kelly and her colleagues were doing in Zabul Province on that day, it was – they were going to bring children’s books in Dari and Pashto to a school as part of an Embassy-funded program in cooperation with the Afghan Ministry of Education to promote literacy and provide teacher training. Afghanistan’s literacy rate is one of the lowest in the world, and through a cooperation with the Government of Afghanistan, the U.S. Embassy has distributed 1.9 million books to 27 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and provided training for their use in classrooms. So, as Secretary Kerry noted in Istanbul, this team was helping the children and educators of Afghanistan build a better future.
So having said that, I will turn it over to all of you.
QUESTION: I don’t really have anything huge, but do you have any updates on the situation with the North Koreans, at least in terms of whether you’re thinking about telling people to be extra careful?
MR. VENTRELL: So thanks for the question, Matt. We have seen reports that the DPRK may be making preparations to launch a missile. We’re monitoring the situation closely and closely coordinating with our allies and partners. You know that a ballistic – as we’ve said many times before, a ballistic missile launch would be a clear violation of North Korea’s obligations under numerous Security Council resolutions. It would only further isolate North Korea, undermine its goal of economic development.
So we urge the DPRK to refrain from taking further provocative actions. And of course, we’re always taking a range of prudent measures, including on missile defense, to enhance our homeland security and our allied security. So we’re fully capable of deterring, defending against, and responding to the threat posed to our allies and to the United States by North Korea.
QUESTION: But you still don’t see any reason to update your guidance to Americans in South Korea?
MR. VENTRELL: I have no update from what we said yesterday.
QUESTION: But you don’t see – does that mean that you don’t see any reason to change it?
MR. VENTRELL: Our guidance is consistent. We don’t have a recommendation for American citizens to take any particular precautions at this time.
QUESTION: Right. So nothing. Okay. So dare I just say – can you just say that nothing you have seen in the last 24 hours would make you change your advice to Americans?
MR. VENTRELL: Nothing in the last 24 hours changes our advice.
Thank you. Elise.
QUESTION: Can we move to Cuba?
MR. VENTRELL: Do we have anything else on DPRK?
QUESTION: I was wondering – we understand that these children have been returned home to their legal guardian, their grandmother. I was wondering if you could talk in general about the negotiations that went on with the Cubans. It seems as if the cooperation, as you’ve said in your statements, was very good.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we do appreciate the Cuban authorities’ extensive cooperation to resolve this situation quickly. Elise, as we talked about yesterday, one of the Department’s highest priorities is the welfare of U.S. citizens, and particularly children, who are our most vulnerable citizens. So thanks to a joint effort by the Department of State, FBI, U.S. Coast Guard, the two U.S. citizen children are safely back at their home.
So last night, late last night, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana facilitated the handover of custody of the two children from Cuban authorities to U.S. law enforcement.
QUESTION: But specifically about the negotiations with the Cubans, I mean, why do you think that they were willing to extradite these children? I mean, they – the Cubans have even said there are, like, 70 other American fugitives in the country they’ve been not willing to extradite.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I can’t speculate or speak for them or their motivations, but we have a U.S. Interests Section in Havana, and it’s precisely there to deal with cooperation on cases like this, to facilitate cooperation in emergencies, and we did have extensive cooperation with Cuban authorities.
QUESTION: But how high up did the negotiations go? I mean, Secretary Kerry wasn’t involved or anything like that, was he?
MR. VENTRELL: This was primarily managed out of our Interests Section in Havana and the leadership down there. Clearly, also, as I mentioned, this is an interagency effort, so we were in contact with FBI, the Coast Guard, and domestic law enforcement, because it was Florida local law enforcement that was involved on their end. So it was a joint effort, but managed as we do in these crises.
QUESTION: And the Cubans weren’t offered anything or any suspects in this country in exchange?
MR. VENTRELL: That’s not what happened here. This was law enforcement cooperation, and we’re pleased that it was so extensive, and we were able to resolve this quickly.
QUESTION: Just one more: Do you think this presents some kind of opening for the U.S. to engage Cuba?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure I would read into it one way or another. I mean, this was cooperation on a specific law enforcement matter.
QUESTION: Can I just ask, the word that was used in the question – in several of the questions was “negotiations.” Is that an accurate characterization of what – of the interchange between U.S. and Cuban officials on this? Were there negotiations or was it --
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure that’s a word I’ve used. I think it was law enforcement.
QUESTION: No. I know you didn’t use it, but you also didn’t correct it, so I just want to – I mean, was there a negotiation over the handover of either the parents or the children?
MR. VENTRELL: I’d probably reference it as – law enforcement cooperation would probably be the term I’d used.
QUESTION: You would not characterize it as a negotiation?
MR. VENTRELL: Law enforcement cooperation.
QUESTION: In other words, you would not characterize it as a negotiation?
MR. VENTRELL: That’s not our characterization, no, Matt.
QUESTION: All right. Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Thank you.
Go ahead, Michel.
QUESTION: Do you have any --
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we have two Michels, but – why don’t we have Michel in the front and then Michele in the back. Go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, just to say that, as you know, the Secretary is in London today, Michel, where he’s meeting today and tomorrow with key partners and members of the Syrian opposition to further explore ways in which the international community can have a stronger impact on changing Assad’s calculations. So that meeting just happened. I don’t have a specific readout on how the meeting happened, as it wrapped just recently, but if we have a further readout, we’ll be sure to get it to you.
QUESTION: And what about his meeting with Lavrov?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have a readout of that either. That just occurred. The traveling party will provide the first readout.
QUESTION: Can you confirm that Secretary Kerry is going to Istanbul on the 20th of this month to participation in the opposition’s hearing, opposition meeting there?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Thanks for the question, Michel. I can confirm that on the 20th of April the Secretary will be in Istanbul meeting with key partners continue our conversation on the support.
QUESTION: The FSA is criticizing Ghassan Hitto, the Syrian Prime Minister, and they said that they won’t support or protect him in the Syrian territories where the FSA is. How do you view these statements?
MR. VENTRELL: I haven’t seen the statement you’re referring to. Prime Minister Hitto is somebody that we’ve worked well with in the past, and I believe there have been positive statements about him made by the FSA. So I’m not sure who this particular individual is you’re referring to who may or may not have said something negative, but what we’ve seen are positive statements from FSA leadership in the past.
Can you tell me your name?
QUESTION: Yeah. My name is Laura Haim and I’m working for Canal+, French television.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Al-Qaida in Iraq was saying two days ago that they will join militants’ groups in Syria. What’s your reaction to that?
MR. VENTRELL: Are you talking to the announcement that al-Qaida in Iraq and al-Nusrah are one and the same?
QUESTION: Yeah. They did. I mean, on several websites, on the – I mean, it was in many news in Europe.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Al-Qaida in Iraq.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I talked about this yesterday. The bottom line is, as we’ve long said, they’re all part of the same family. So I think we addressed this yesterday.
QUESTION: And what’s the latest you can tell us about the use of chemical weapons in Syria? Because you have several reporters on site who are saying that they were used in December in some villages.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Just to recall where we are, is that the UN is investigating. As we’ve said, we support an investigation that pursues any and all credible allegations of possible use of chemical weapons in Syria. We’ve been equally clear in demanding the full cooperation of the Assad regime, including full and unfettered access for the investigation. So I refer you to the UN for more details, but that’s the course right now.
I know Michel and – no, go ahead, Samir.
QUESTION: The UN team didn’t go to Syria. The Syrian Government is not making it easy. They are putting conditions on their visit.
MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is they haven’t departed yet. I’d refer you to the UN for more details about where they are in their deployment. But we’ve been clear, as I just said, reiterating that the Syrian authorities must cooperate with the investigation.
Michele, in the back.
QUESTION: I don’t want to – this is not Syria, though, so I don’t know if there’s --
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Given how Assad is behaving, do you have any reason to believe that the UN will receive that full cooperation?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, we’re – we in the UN and the Secretary General have been very clear that we demand this cooperation. I can’t speculate on how the Syrians are going to respond, but we urge them to immediately cooperate.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- because the initial reports about this incident were that they were in a convoy, and now, as you said, it’s clear they were on foot. What can you tell us about the circumstances of the actual attack and why the story’s changed?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: And then also, was this – is this changing the way that you guys are thinking about operating in Afghanistan in general?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Thanks for the question, Michele. I think part of the initial confusion came about because there were reports in the media about the local governor and his convoy. And so some of our initial reporting also indicated that, and that’s why we weren’t able to clarify right away. So our initial read on it was different, and we’re now able to say that it was a convoy and they were walking.
In terms of all the rest of what happened that day, it’s still under investigation, so I don’t have a lot of other details to provide. But we are able to clarify at this point that they were in a walking movement from the PRT down to the school down the road. It appears that this convoy of the governor was right there at approximately the same spot when it occurred, but again, this remains under investigation.
In terms of our security for our personnel in Afghanistan, I’d really refer you to the Embassy for their posture, but obviously, we continually review our security. We don’t necessarily advertise exactly what precautions we’re taking, but when there’s a serious incident of this nature we review all of our procedures.
QUESTION: But does it make you think twice about doing – I mean, this is a public diplomacy thing.
MR. VENTRELL: Right.
QUESTION: You could’ve delivered books quietly and not with a big show like this.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we’re --
QUESTION: Does it make you think twice about doing that?
MR. VENTRELL: We’re going to continue our mission and assisting the Afghan people. I can’t specifically say how we’ll change any of our programming based on this incident. But the Secretary was clear, we’re going to continue in our mission in Afghanistan to help the people of Afghanistan. And this clearly, helping them in their literacy programs, is a vital program that will continue.
QUESTION: But it would be fair to say that you’re reviewing your security procedures and how you do the – implement these type of programs as a result?
MR. VENTRELL: We’ve absolutely reviewing after this incident.
QUESTION: Sorry. You said they were walking from the PRT to the school?
MR. VENTRELL: Right.
QUESTION: And what kind of distance was that?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t know the exact distance, but we’re – this is in yards, not – it was a short distance down the road. So it happened very close to the PRT.
QUESTION: And then it was characterized as it was a big show. Was there some kind of ceremony that was going on?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t know the whole details of how that day’s book presentation was going to go, but I do believe we had Afghan media.
QUESTION: Is that why the governor was there?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure about the governor’s participation. I’m not sure if he was going at the same moment to go – again, this is all under investigation. These are just some of the information that we’re able to share at this time.
QUESTION: Could you confirm there were two suicide bombers?
MR. VENTRELL: I cannot confirm at this time any other further information, only that they were walking when the attack occurred.
Okay. Go ahead.
QUESTION: On 2014 budget, Secretary Kerry tells the Congress that it’s a reflection of the rebalancing toward Asia, a 7 percent of budget increase regarding assistance to that region. Could you provide more details on that?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, thank you for the question. That’s a perfect segue. As soon as we’re done with this briefing here, we’re going to have a follow-on background briefing with our budget experts, and so you’re invited to come and hear very directly about these topics. I’ll really leave it to the budget experts. So as soon as you all liberate me here, we’ll go and do that budget briefing.
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure about the release of information in terms of any public messages that we may have released from Embassy Beijing. I’ll have to check on that. I do know that China has notified the World Health Organization of, going back to March 31st, of the first cases and has now confirmed 28 cases. But this is something that the CDC is following very closely, and we post all of our public information both on the CDC website and on the U.S. Embassy Beijing website. So I’d have to check if there’s been an update.
QUESTION: Finally, a human rights-related issue. Do you have anything regarding the blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng’s call to release his exile document? And do you have any update on the status of his nephew?
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. So thank you for the question. Promoting greater respect for human rights is among our top foreign policy objectives, including with regard to China. We’re deeply concerned by reports that prison officials abused Chen Kegui, the nephew of prominent human rights advocate Chen Guangcheng, during his ongoing imprisonment and that local authorities continue to harass his family members. So we urge the Chinese Government to treat all of its citizens, including Chen Kegui, fairly and with dignity. But in terms of any of our diplomatic conversations, we’re – I’m not in a position to further characterize our diplomatic discussions, nor at the time, nor our current discussions.
QUESTION: But do you consider releasing the document of Chen’s exile, I mean, back to last May the negotiation between U.S. and China?
MR. VENTRELL: We characterized that negotiation at the time, and our public characterization of it stands. We’re not in a position to go beyond what we said previously.
QUESTION: Well, is there some kind of secret document that you’re aware of?
MR. VENTRELL: Not that I’m aware of. I mean, certainly we have records of our diplomatic interactions, but --
QUESTION: No, no, no. But I mean something that would be – that maybe Secretary Clinton or Ambassador Locke or someone signed with the Chinese. Is there something in writing about the – which provides guarantees from the Chinese side about how his family would be treated? Or was it all done verbally?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure on that question one way or another. We characterized publicly what we could about the negotiation at the time.
QUESTION: Well, he yesterday testified that there was such a – there is such a document out there. So if you could – I’m not suggesting, although I would like it if you would – if there is one, if you would release it, but I’m not asking for it to be released at the moment. I’d just like to know if there is one.
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware one way or another.
QUESTION: Well, can you ask?
MR. VENTRELL: I’d be happy to look into it, but I’m not aware one way or another.
Nicole, you’ve been patient. Welcome back.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have an Israeli-Palestinian question.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: A little over a year ago, the IDF entered Ramallah and seized equipment from an independent Palestinian TV station.
MR. VENTRELL: Mm-hmm. I remember the case.
QUESTION: Watan TV. Yeah. Some of the representatives of that TV station have been in Washington. I know they’ve been talking to State and USAID and Congress. I’m just wondering if it’s possible, could you tell us what you’ve been telling them about their equipment? And if not, could you tell me what State has been doing over the last year-plus to get it back? Because I understand that they only got some back and what they did get back was damaged, and that equipment was purchased with U.S. taxpayer dollars.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. I am aware of the case and I do remember it from last year. I’d have to look in for details about – look into details about what they may have done in their visit here to Washington. So let me look into that and get back to you.
QUESTION: Okay. I’m not so much interested in what they have done as what State has been doing over the past year and why that equipment still isn’t all back.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Let me take the question and get you a fulsome response.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Can we stay in the same area?
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: I’m wondering if you’re aware of the case of a 14-year-old Palestinian-American who has been detained by the Israelis for the last five days --
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of the case, Matt.
QUESTION: -- for allegedly throwing rocks. I have his name; I can give it to you.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Yeah, could you look into it and see if there’s been – if there’s anything that you all are doing on this kid’s behalf?
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Happy to do so. Not aware. Okay?
One last thing I forgot to mention at the top: Welcome to our visitors from Argentina. So thank you all for coming. Bienvenidos, and have a good afternoon.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:23 p.m.)