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US Department Of State Daily Press Briefing

US Department Of State Daily Press Briefing – Monday December 6

Questions and answers on Cuba, Iraq, Greece, Russia, Grozny, Nicaragua, China. Briefer: James B. Foley.


MR. FOLEY: Good afternoon. Welcome to the State Department. Welcome back, Jonathan. I haven't done this in quite a while, and I'm sure you'll take full advantage of that fact. I have no announcements. George, let me go to your questions.

QUESTION: In Havana, bleachers are being constructed for the apparent purpose of protesting the continued presence in the United States of Elian and Castro's talking about not knowing whether the emotions of the people can be contained. Is there any concern about security at the US interest section?

MR. FOLEY: In terms of what happens in Cuba, clearly Fidel Castro has a lot to say about what actually happens on the streets of Cuba. But in terms of the humanitarian case, though that is at the heart of this issue, I would like to make a few points. But I think it's important, though, to note in response to your specific question about the threat of demonstrations in the vicinity of the US interest section in Havana that we expect the government of Cuba to fulfill its obligation to protect international diplomatic missions and their personnel.

We hold the Cuban Government responsible for any harm to US citizens or to our interest section that may come from the public protest called for by the Cuban Government. This is a cardinal principle of international diplomatic law. It is the responsibility of the host government to ensure the sanctity and the safety of diplomatic premises and personnel, and we expect the Cuban Government to respect those minimum obligations.

In terms of the humanitarian case, though, that is at the heart of this matter, as in the case of any unaccompanied minor who arrives on US shores, our concern is for the welfare of the child and we would like to see a decision on the case consistent with that goal. We do not accept the ultimatum issued by Fidel Castro through the press on Saturday night. This is not conducive to resolving this case in the appropriate humanitarian way.

We are committed to working with the family of the boy, including the father and all appropriate officials to achieve an appropriate resolution to this case.

QUESTION: Until the case is resolved, does the US have some legal right to keep the young boy here? And then a second question on the same topic - I think it was Alarcon who said this weekend that Cuba may now boycott the migration talks scheduled for later this month if the boy is not returned by, I think, it's next week. Any comments on that?

MR. FOLEY: I'm not aware of what the Cuban Government position is officially. We regard those migration talks, which occur periodically to review implementation of the migration accords which exist between the United States and Cuba, as useful, but useful not only to the United States but to Cuba. And so we think it's in our mutual interest to continue with that forum.

In terms of your first question, I really would have to refer any sort of follow-up questions on the details of the situation to the Justice Department, in particular to the INS.

QUESTION: Has there been any contact between the US facility in Havana with --

MR. FOLEY: The US facility where?

QUESTION: The interest section of the US in Havana with the father of the boy - a direct contact?

MR. FOLEY: I'm not aware of any contact. As you know, last week there was a press report that claimed that the father had written to US authorities or to the interest section which was not true. He had apparently written to the Cuban Government and we received - and we've stated this - a diplomatic note from the Cuban Government on the matter.

QUESTION: Jim, why are you calling this a humanitarian case?

MR. FOLEY: As I indicated, our priority has to be - in any case, not only this one - but when an unaccompanied minor arrives in the United States, it has to be for the welfare of that child. That's why I refer to it as a humanitarian issue, because we believe that the case should be determined on the basis of what's in the interest of the young boy.

QUESTION: Don't the parents of any unaccompanied minor that arrives at the US have some rights to him even though he's not - he or she is in the US?

MR. FOLEY: As I indicated - perhaps you missed what I stated - that we are committed to working with the family of the boy, including the father, and all appropriate officials to achieve an appropriate resolution to the case.

QUESTION: My understanding was that in this case state courts take precedence so it's not really a matter for the State Department to decide.

MR. FOLEY: It's not a matter for the State Department to decide. I never indicated otherwise. As I responded to another question by saying that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is the primary authority here, I believe it can become a matter for state courts if there's any challenge that arises in state courts. But my understanding is that this is within the hands of the INS.

QUESTION: There is a real threat for the US diplomats in Cuba or the facilities in Cuba?

MR. FOLEY: That's impossible to speculate upon. I think anywhere in the world, when a host government fails to abide by its obligations under the Geneva Convention, under diplomatic agreements to protect the safety and the premises of diplomats and their installations, it's a grave matter indeed. And breeches of those conventions are fortunately rare because of the seriousness of the implications of such a breech.

So I wouldn't want to speculate as to what's going to happen, but we believe it's very important to make it crystal clear to the Cuban authorities right now - before any further demonstrations - that they must, under international law, assure the sanctity and the safety of diplomatic personnel and installations.

QUESTION: Has there been any formal demarches from the Cuban Government since the demarche on, I believe it was November 27, on this issue?

MR. FOLEY: I am aware, as I indicated, that there was a diplomatic note that we received from the Cuban Government. I'm not aware of further official or formal diplomatic intervention by the Cuban authorities. I can check that for you though.

QUESTION: Do you have anything on the Cubans that arrived in Florida today?

MR. FOLEY: I just heard a report -- I don't know if there's been any arrivals, but I heard a report of some ongoing incident that I don't have details on. So I'll have to take your question and see if we can get some information.

QUESTION: Some Cuban-American groups tell me they are fearful the United States will be intimidated by Fidel Castro into releasing Elian Hernandez. How does the State Department respond to their concerns?

MR. FOLEY: Well the premise is completely unfounded. We're not intimidated by Fidel Castro. He obviously exercises considerable intimidation over his own people, but not over the Government of the United States. What we will be guided by - what the United States Government will be guided by - is the interest of the child.

QUESTION: Is it the policy generally of the US that whenever an unaccompanied minor shows up here that his ultimate status should be resolved by the family court system, or are there cases when administratively the US would just return him?

MR. FOLEY: My understanding --

QUESTION: For example, say this kid came from France.

MR. FOLEY: My understanding is that the courts come into play or can come into play when there is a challenge. It is not a matter of court adjudication in the first instance. You had another question on Cuba?

QUESTION: Apart from speaking on the subject now, have you contacted the Cuban authorities on the responsibility they have for protecting --

MR. FOLEY: I'm certain that our interest section has been in contact with Cuban authorities, if only on a security basis. But I don't think that the Cuban Government necessarily needs reminding of its obligation under international conventions. I'm taking the opportunity though to state our view in this public manner in case there are any misunderstandings on that score. We will hold Cuba responsible for the safety and the sanctity of our diplomatic personnel and installations.

QUESTION: You say if the US is going to be guided by the interest of the child. The United States Government believes that he will be living better with relatives like an uncle or whatever better than his father?

MR. FOLEY: Of course I know that you would like to draw me out on this subject. It's not a matter for me to decide, nor is it a matter that has been decided. It's a matter that will be considered and decided on the basis, we believe, of the interest of the child.

QUESTION: New subject?

MR. FOLEY: Sure.

QUESTION: Iraq. It's almost a year now since Operation Desert Fox and there's been no arms inspections in Iraq since then, and the Pentagon last week was saying that it really doesn't know what is going on in Iraq now vis-a-vis weapons of mass destruction. I wonder if you could assess from this distance the success of that strike a year ago given what's happened since and the fact that the stated goal, which was to potentially bring Iraq back into the fold in terms of allowing unfettered inspections, has not been achieved?

MR. FOLEY: I'd have to disagree with quite a number of things that you said there. The goal of the Operation Desert Fox was not to bring Iraq back into compliance or to persuade Iraq to resume or allow the resumption of inspections. It was in the absence of inspections that we took the action we took to degrade Iraq's capabilities in the weapons of mass destruction area.

And if you're asking for an assessment one year removed for the efficacy of those strikes, I would challenge the premise or the nature of the question. We made an assessment at the time of the strikes. We believe that we did succeed in significantly degrading Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction capabilities, but we were very honest at the time in stating - and have stated ever since - that the only way to be - the best way, rather, to continue to ensure that Saddam Hussein is not reconstituting his weapons of mass destruction is to have inspectors on the ground.

I see George sort of nodding off since he's heard this many times before, but it remains our view that having inspectors on the ground is the best insurance. Nevertheless, we maintain robust national capabilities to monitor as best we can what Saddam Hussein may be up to in this area and we identified very clearly last December certain red lines that, if crossed, could provoke further military action on our part. We're watching it vigilantly, but when all is said and done we firmly believe that it is important to have inspectors back inside Iraq, not only to monitor what may have happened in the last year, to monitor the current state of Iraqi programs, but indeed to proceed to the actual work of disarmament, of disarming Iraq's programs of weapons of mass destruction such as they remain. And to do that, you have to have inspectors on the ground.

What we are not prepared to contemplate, though, is some kind of a Potemkin inspection regime, one that is unable to actually do its job of monitoring and disarming Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. I think that precisely is the problem that Iraq has with the proposal currently before the Security Council and that it is a credible and legitimate effort to have credible and legitimate inspections resumed, and that's what we are insisting upon.

QUESTION: I have some information from Greece according to which the Greek Foreign Minister, Mr. Papandreou --

MR. FOLEY: We still have another question on Iraq. I'll come back to you.

QUESTION: Is there any change in the status of attempts to pass a resolution in the Security Council? Are you aware of any progress towards the agreement on --

MR. FOLEY: As you know, there was a vote by the Security Council last Friday to extend the current phase of the Oil for Food Program by one week, through December 11. Our hope is that in this time in the days leading up to December 11th that the Council will make progress on the Omnibus Resolution, which does quite a number of things. It allows for the resumption of inspections under new organization, it holds out the possibility of suspension of sanctions in the event of Iraqi compliance with its disarmament obligations in a period of testing, and it significantly enhances the Oil for Food Program and allows greater resources to be devoted towards providing food and medicine to the Iraqi people.

We note Iraq's rejection of any extension of the Oil for Food Program short of six months. That was Iraq's position. However, if Iraq does reject the extension, it will show again that it is the Security Council, not the Iraqi Government, that cares about the welfare of its people.

Now, we believe discussions among the Permanent Five members in the Security Council have made a good deal of progress in recent weeks. We also believe that a Security Council vote on the omnibus draft is likely this week. We would like to see this draft adopted with the broadest possible support among Council members. I can't predict the exact time for the vote or, indeed, what the vote count will be, but there is an increasing view that the time has come to vote and to resolve this matter clearly.

QUESTION: What would you say to the contention that the United States will simply find any way to continue to declare Iraq to be in noncompliance in some way as long as Saddam is in power and that, you know, no chain of events could bring Saddam and his regime back into the fold so long as he remains the leader of Iraq.

MR. FOLEY: I don't think we've ever disguised our feeling that given Saddam Hussein's track record and given the way he has signaled his intentions over the years that it is perhaps unlikely that he's actually willing to part with his weapons of mass destruction programs. However, I reject categorically the idea though that we foreclosed that possibility. We're willing to see Iraq comply with the Security Council Resolutions and to receive the benefits of actually meeting its commitments,.

But that means one thing: It means disarming Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction programs and, on that, we're not willing to compromise. That is the bottom line given Saddam's track record in using weapons of mass destruction even against his own people, against his neighbors.

And given that Iraq has suffered significant isolation internationally in the last almost ten years and the political and economic costs to Iraq of its isolation, I think one can only conclude that these programs of weapons of mass destruction are very important to Saddam Hussein because it was the judgment of the Security Council and the international community at the time that the Gulf War ended in 1991 that Iraq could conceivably comply with its disarmament obligations in a matter of weeks. And, of course, this is unfinished business, to say the least, now eight, nine, years after the fact.

So I would really flip the question that you pose. I think the question is will Saddam every be willing to part with his programs of weapons of mass destruction. I think that is where I think one can ask skeptical questions.

So, are we moving to another subject? Dimitris, you had a question?

QUESTION: Actually, two questions. The first one is that, according to information from Athens, the Greek Foreign Minister, Mr. Papandreou, had a telephone conversation with Secretary Albright in which he asked for US assistance on the upcoming Helsinki conference on the issue of candidate status for Turkey.

On the same issue, according also to information from Athens, Assistant Secretary Grossman met with some key ambassadors from members of the European Union here in Washington to discuss this issue and the Cyprus issue. Can you say anything about that?

MR. FOLEY: Not really. I'm not going to be in a position to talk about the Secretary's or Assistant Secretary's diplomatic encounters or conversations with counterparts in that regard. What I can do is tell you what our position is, though, as has been stated from this podium in recent days. We acknowledge the obvious, which is that we're not a member of the EU. That said, though, as President Clinton indicated when he was in Greece, we strongly support the EU's decision to start accession talks with Cyprus. We also believe, as the President said, that Turkey should become a candidate for membership in the EU. That is our view. It's not a secret.

QUESTION: And the second question is on that, your position. On the upcoming Helsinki conference, Greece requests from the European Union, and in a way assistance from the US from that, for the European Union to secure the accession process of Cyprus without problems and despite any solution or not of the Cyprus problem, and also requests some kind of road map for Turkey that has to do with human rights issues, democracy issues, and the acceptance of Turkey for the jurisdiction of International Court of Justice to regulate Turkey's differences.

What is the US position on all of these issues?

MR. FOLEY: First of all, I'm not going to talk about our diplomatic conversations in reference to your first question. Secondly, I've stated what our broad view is on the questions. Namely, we support the EU's decision to start accession talks with Cyprus. We believe that Turkey should become a candidate for membership in the EU. Those are broad positions.

In terms of the particulars, the specifics, the details, the fact that we're not a member of the EU is even more relevant when you get down to the nitty-gritty. Those are matters for the EU to decide and it's not up to the United States to micro-manage those issues. In terms of what our views may or may not be, we're going to leave those private.

QUESTION: Many times you've stated your position, for example, on the ICJ issue and the Greek-Turkey --

MR. FOLEY: Yes, we have and the President did during his visit, but you're asking our views on those matters in connection with accession to the EU, whereas we've stated our positions in the past on those matters on their own merits. But I'm not going to get into those questions as they relate to EU accession or candidate status areas.

QUESTION: Has the US issued some new regulations or restrictions on contracting in Russia?

MR. FOLEY: I've not heard that. If you have any details after the briefing --

QUESTION: I realize the Secretary is about to arrive in the region, but --

MR. FOLEY: I should have indicated, actually, at the top of the briefing I'm not going to talk about Middle East peace process issues while she is in the region.

QUESTION: A question about Chechnya then?

MR. FOLEY: Sure.

QUESTION: How does the United States feel about the ultimatum which the Russian military have given to civilians in Grozny? Do you feel that - does this fall within the rules for waging war or not?

MR. FOLEY: You're talking about a reported ultimatum, not about what may or may not actually happen. But nevertheless, I can respond clearly though to the report that you allude to.

We are deeply disturbed by reports that the Russians have set a deadline urging residents of Grozny to leave by December 11. This deadline would threaten the old and infirm and others who cannot leave or are afraid to leave Grozny. Notwithstanding the dropping of warning leaflets, Russia still has the obligation to differentiate between lawful and unlawful targets in this conflict. We urge the Russians not to follow through with this ultimatum.

As we have consistently made clear, Russia's military offensive is causing substantial civilian casualties and very large flows of displaced persons. We have strongly and consistently urged all sides to seek a political solution. A purely military solution is not possible. And so we urge Russia to take meaningful steps toward a political solution, including a role for the OSCE. In that regard, let me say that we welcome Russia's invitation to OSCE Chairman- in-Office Vollebaek to visit the North Caucasus on December 14 and 15. We understand the details of the trip are being worked out between the Russian and Norwegian Governments, but we look for a visit that will act fully on the range of issues outlined in the Istanbul Summit Declaration, including support for the political process.

QUESTION: If I could just follow up.

MR. FOLEY: Yes.

QUESTION: If the Russians went ahead and bombarded Grozny in five days' time, would this be a war crime or a violation of the Geneva Conventions?

MR. FOLEY: You're asking me to comment on a hypothetical, you know that it's not our practice to do so. But nevertheless, I think you shouldn't underestimate the significance of the words that I've uttered here. We believe that the ultimatum carries very portentous possibilities if implemented because to implement that ultimatum could, as I said, threaten the old and infirm and others who cannot leave or are afraid to leave Grozny - in other words, innocent civilians - again, if implemented and it would risk subverting Russia's obligation to differentiate between lawful and unlawful targets in this conflict.

So I can't comment on what actually is going to happen. The ultimatum, however, for the reasons I've outlined, is deeply disturbing and so we are urging very strongly that Russia not follow through with the ultimatum.

QUESTION: Jim, what does the US propose insofar as negotiations are concerned? That the Russians should negotiate with the Maskhadov government in Grozny? Does the Maskhadov government represent the radical Islamic fighters? Who would they talk to?

MR. FOLEY: With all respect, you asked the same question to Jamie Rubin last week, and I'd refer you to his answer just in a nutshell, though. He stated that we're not in the business of picking Russia's interlocutors, nor are we urging Russia to negotiate with terrorists. We believe there are political figures; there are credible Chechens whom Russia can negotiate political solutions with.

QUESTION: Do you have anything to say on the territorial program between Nicaragua and the rest? And I want to know if the United States has been contacted to be a mediator in the dispute.

MR. FOLEY: I think we're not seeking a mediation role, but we have been in contact with the parties. We are monitoring the situation closely and encouraging the two governments to work together to resolve this issue as quickly and amicably as possible. Both governments have said - or assured us rather - that although it is certainly a contentious issue, they are looking for diplomatic solutions.

Our top priority, of course, for both countries continues to be recovery from Hurricane Mitch. We consider this a bilateral matter that the two countries need to resolve between themselves. Again, we're encouraging both of them to work together to resolve this dispute as quickly and amicably as possible in accordance with international laws and procedures.

QUESTION: There's a report in the current New Yorker magazine that Iraq has ordered a number of medical machines which contain a special high-speed switch which, as it happens, is the same kind of high-speed switch which is used to compress nuclear compounds in an atomic bomb. According to this report, the State Department vetoed the sale by Siemens, a German firm, but then it looks as if a French firm has stepped into the deal and is supplying these rapid precise switches.

Do you know anything about it and if not, could you look into it, please?

MR. FOLEY: First, I don't know anything about it. I've not heard of that. Second, without coming out on the specifics of this report but the idea that there can be dual-use imports that contribute to Iraq's ban or prohibited programs of weapons of mass destruction underscores the vigilance which, the United States at least, has brought to the work of the Sanctions Committee at the UN. You know we've been criticized for exercising this vigilance even though I think the numbers demonstrate that overwhelmingly requests for Iraqi imports have been approved when they are purely humanitarian in nature. But I've not heard this report. Any Iraqi imports though, be they from one country or another, however, would have to be approved by the Sanctions Committee. But I'd have to look into the question for you.

QUESTION: A question on China - last April, Secretary Albright asked the Chinese Government to release Mr. Hua Di, a researcher from Stanford University. Mr. Hua was sentenced to 15 years in China last week. Do you have anything to say on that issue?

MR. FOLEY: Yes, I do. Hua Di, I believe you're referring to. The researcher at Stanford University was arrested in January of 1998 while visiting relatives in China. We've seen reports of the sentencing and our embassy in Beijing has officially raised the case again and requested information about it from the Chinese Government.

Based on -- Mr. Hua is not a US citizen; he is a legal permanent resident of the United States, but based on what we know of his activities as an academic researcher in the US, we are aware of no reason to justify his detention and sentencing. We remain deeply concerned about Mr. Hua's reported health problems and need for medical treatment. We're concerned that his detention may have a chilling effect on academic exchanges between the US and China.

Anything else? Thank you.

(The briefing concluded at 1:50 P.M.)

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