Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–April 22, 2013.
- World Press Freedom Day on May 3 / South Sudan’s Isaiah Diing Abraham Chan Awuol
- Discussions between Secretary Kerry and President Putin
- Prime Minister Ergodan Visit to Gaza
- Violence in Rakhine State
- Keystone XL Public Hearing / Comments
- Violence in Damascus Suburb / Intensification of U.S. Efforts
- Condolences for Earthquake
- Mr. Wu Dawei’s Visit
- Missing Activist Sombath Somphone
- Violence in Baga Borno State
- UN Investigation
1:00 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Good afternoon and welcome to the State Department. Happy Monday indeed. I have a couple things at the top and then I’ll turn it over to all of you.
As you all know, World Press Freedom Day is approaching next Friday, May 3rd. You might remember that last year, we launched our first Free the Press campaign to commemorate World Press Freedom Day, where we highlighted cases of journalists on humanrights.gov, profiling those targeted by governments as a result of their free expression. We’re going to continue that practice again this year in that campaign leading up to World Press Freedom Day, and we’re going to highlight not only journalists who have been murdered, imprisoned, or exiled, but also media outlets that have been forced to shut down due to growing restrictions on freedom of expression.
So to launch the campaign, today we’re highlighting the case of Isaiah Diing Abraham Chan Awuol, a journalist who was shot and killed in December 2012 outside his home in Juba, South Sudan. Civil society and journalists in South Sudan continue to face intimidation and reprisals when their reporting is considered unflattering by the – to the government. The United States calls on South Sudanese authorities to demonstrate their commitment to rule of law and freedom of expression by conducting thorough investigations of all killings of journalists and bringing the perpetrators to justice.
And also, just to let you know that we have – later this week, we’ll have a briefing with our Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and our Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. They’ll be launching this campaign at the Foreign Press Center later this week on Thursday.
Speaking of journalists, we have some Egyptian journalists visiting here, visiting the United States, so welcome to them, to the briefing room. And also, we have some diplomats from Spain here, so welcome to our Spanish friends.
And having said that, I will turn it over to all of you. Arshad.
QUESTION: Just one quick one.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Can you read the spelling of the journalist whose —
MR. VENTRELL: I’d be happy to.
QUESTION: — case you just highlighted?
MR. VENTRELL: Yes. Isaiah, I-s-a-i-a-h, Diing, D-i-i-n-g, Abraham, A-b-r-a-h-a-m, Chan, C-h-a-n, Awuol, A-w-u-o-l. That’s his full name.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Thank you.
QUESTION: Can I —
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Starting with Egypt, if I may?
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: There are reports that the Egyptian authorities have reached an agreement to cooperate on civil-nuclear work with the Russian Government. When the Mubarak government originally announced its plans to do this, I think back in 2006, the U.S. Government had some misgivings, as I recall, about the spread of nuclear technology even though this was, even when they originally announced it, meant to be an entirely civilian program.
What does the government – does the U.S. Government think about Egypt working with Russia on this?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, thanks for the question, Arshad. And indeed, I saw the news reports on your news service, on your news wire. I have to admit that we’re still looking at this and I’ll have to get back to you later today, but we are getting to the bottom of this and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.
Jill, go ahead.
QUESTION: Patrick, on Boston, can you tell us what the State Department – what, if anything, the State Department is doing in terms or coordinating/communicating with Moscow on this is?
MR. VENTRELL: Jill, I really don’t have a lot to share one way or another, other than to say that communication is being done in law enforcement channels, so this has been principally a law enforcement communication issue.
QUESTION: And excuse me, the parents of one of the suspects are in Russia, we understand, and planning on coming back. Is the State Department going to facilitate in any way their return, be involved in their return?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any information one way or another on that. I’m happy to look into it, but I don’t have any information on those individuals.
QUESTION: Would be very interested if there’s anything.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Are you able to confirm that the Russian authorities had contacted the United States about the older brother in 2011 and asked them to investigate his links to Islamists?
MR. VENTRELL: I really refer you to the FBI and the Department of Justice on that.
MR. VENTRELL: Samir.
QUESTION: Any reaction to the Iraqi elections?
MR. VENTRELL: Yes.
QUESTION: Oh, can we do one more on Boston, please?
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Go ahead, Jill.
QUESTION: It’s been reported, of course, that the older brother, Tamerlan, was in Russia for about six and a half months. Is – when Americans go abroad, is there any, I don’t know, limit on the time that they can be in other countries, or is it mainly the visa for that given country that limits the amount of time that they can be there?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, American citizens are free to travel, from our perspective, at their own will. In terms of legal permanent residence, there are some other requirements, but I refer you to the Department of Homeland Security on those requirements.
QUESTION: Iraqi election reaction?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Sure. Thanks for the question, Samir. We do congratulate the people of Iraq on holding provincial elections this past Saturday. In the face of security threats, millions of Iraqi citizens cast their ballots in 12 provinces across the country to choose new provincial councils. This is an important step forward for Iraq’s democratic future, including preparations for its spring 2014 national elections. So it’s now essential that the councils be seated, select new governors, and begin work on behalf of the Iraqi people.
Scott, go ahead.
QUESTION: South Korea, Japan?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Two of your biggest allies in the region central to working out North Korea, yet the South Korea Foreign Minister has canceled a trip to Japan because of the Japanese cabinet minister’s visit to a controversial war shrine. Does that canceled trip concern you? Is the United States doing anything to try to solve, soothe relations between these two allies?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we hope the countries in the region can work together to resolve their differences in an amicable way through dialogue. We believe that strong and constructive relations between the countries in the region, particularly our allies of South Korea and Japan, promote peace and stability and are in the interests of those countries and, indeed, of the United States. So that’s really what we encourage there.
QUESTION: One more on Boston. (Laughter.)
MR. VENTRELL: Sure, Jill.
QUESTION: I just want to make sure (inaudible). The Secretary is going to be meeting with Minister Lavrov on his trip. Will they be talking about Boston?
MR. VENTRELL: So, Jill, you’re correct, as you all know, that Secretary Kerry and his Russian counterpart are both at – in Brussels at the foreign ministerial. They were able to connect on Saturday on the phone, principally to discuss Syria, and they also discussed issues of mutual interest, including Iran and D.P.R.K., and we anticipate that will be the focus of their meeting tomorrow. I can’t really predict what the issues will be that are described, but this is primarily an FBI-led investigation, and that’s where we’ve been coordinating in law enforcement channels.
QUESTION: Right, but Saturday, in other words, they did not talk about Boston?
MR. VENTRELL: The Secretary thanked him for his concerns expressed by President Putin about the tragedy in Boston and they discussed, as I said, principally, the ongoing crisis in Syria.
QUESTION: So just to make sure I understand, tomorrow, you do or you do not expect that they will be speaking about Boston?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I can’t predict everything that will come up in the course of a bilateral exchange, but principally, it’s to deal with the issues that we discussed. And law enforcement officials will be dealt with in law enforcement channels, but again, I can’t predict every issue that’ll come up.
QUESTION: When you say principally it’ll be the issues that we discussed, did you mean Syria, as was the case on Saturday, or did you mean Iran and D.P.R.K., North Korea?
MR. VENTRELL: Certainly Syria, certainly Iran and D.P.R.K. They’re also meeting, of course, in the context of the NATO-Russia ministerial as well. So those issues in Afghanistan, I imagine, will come up. But we’ll see if we can get you a full readout after the meeting occurs.
Jo, go ahead.
QUESTION: I’m going to stay with the Secretary’s trip.
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: The Turkish authorities are reacting a bit angrily to the plea from the Secretary that Prime Minister Erdogan should not go to Gaza yet. They’re saying it’s a bit – it’s undiplomatic of him to say that and it’s really up to the Turkish authorities to decide when and where they should make any international visits.
Can I ask what – I obviously saw the statements that – it was the Secretary who said that it was – felt that the timing was not right. When would the timing be right for such a visit, in your assessment?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, look, as Secretary Kerry said in Istanbul on Sunday, we’ve expressed to Prime Minister Erdogan that we believe it would be better if his visit did not take place at this time, and we’d like to see the parties begin the peace process with as little outside distraction as possible. I’m not going to sort of do a hypothetical of when would be a good time. We oppose engagement with Hamas, but the Secretary’s point is, particularly, at this moment, we want to see the parties begin the peace process with as little outside distraction as possible. And so that’s really his concern with the timing.
QUESTION: But I’m not quite – I don’t quite understand why Palestinian reconciliation would be a distraction to the peace process. If perhaps you could explain the thinking behind that?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, we’re trying to get the two parties back at the table, and I think you’ve heard President Abbas express his opinion, and so – they’re the legitimate leadership of the Palestinian people and they’ve expressed their opinion as well, which was negative in this regard.
QUESTION: But, I mean, on the Gaza Strip, the residents of the Gaza Strip are Palestinians, and their voice should also be heard.
MR. VENTRELL: And we’re very – and Jo, we’re very focused on their well-being as well, and there are established channels for aid, and we’ll continue to press to make sure that their needs are being met as well. But in terms of this, we’ve expressed, given the delicate moment, that this is not the time to be doing this.
QUESTION: So the feeling is that the Palestinians in Gaza don’t have a right to be at the negotiating table with Israel?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, Jo, I think we’ve been pretty clear that the legitimate leadership of the Palestinian people, expressed by President Abbas – they’ve already expressed their opinion on this. And so we want the two parties, again, President Abbas and his leadership and the Israelis, sitting down at the table and proceeding.
QUESTION: So when would be the right time, then? When would be the right time for Prime Minister Erdogan to make his visit to Turkey? Because presumably, at some point, you are going to have to bring the Palestinians in Gaza into this whole process.
MR. VENTRELL: Again, now is not the time. I’m not going to sort of express a hypothetical about when that might be, but now is certainly not the time.
QUESTION: Is there – just one more on this. I mean, given that, as you just said, the U.S. Government opposes engagement with Hamas, isn’t the right time, from your point of view, never?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, if there’s some hypothetical where they’re going to have a different position and a new outlook and there’s a potential for reconciliation where they’re going to recognize the right of Israel to exist and are going to participate peacefully in the process, again, those are some of the baseline issues that we’ve always laid out, and continue to believe are the key standard.
QUESTION: And what do you say to the Turkish authorities’ kind of indignation that really, the United States is – it’s none of your business when the Turkish leader makes a trip to another territory or another country?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, Jo, I hadn’t seen the full context of those comments. I saw a brief newswire report on them just coming down, but I haven’t seen the full context of the remarks, so it’s hard for me to respond to something that just happened moments ago.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Camille.
QUESTION: On Paraguay.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: The election. Do you have – what’s your guys’ reaction to the election of Horacio Cartes, who’s got so many allegations of drug trafficking, money laundering, and smuggling, et cetera, et cetera?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Camille, we congratulate President-elect Horacio Cartes on his victory in Sunday’s elections. We applaud the efforts of Paraguay’s electoral tribunal, the strong participation of Paraguay’s electorate, and the respect political parties showed for the democratic process. The United States values its relationship with Paraguay and looks forward to working with the President-elect, with President-elect Cartes, on many of our shared interests, such as defending and promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and expanding trade and economic opportunities.
QUESTION: But do you think you can work with him, I mean, considering his – the long history he’s had with criminal allegations?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, I’m not aware of specific allegations one way or another, but we do congratulate him on his electoral victory. And I think I just was clear about working with him going forward.
QUESTION: On Burma.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Have you had a chance to take a look at the report just released by Human Rights Watch, which asserts that Burmese authorities in Rakhine state aided in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims last year? Among other things, the report says that security forces disarmed some of the Muslims and then either stood by or, in fact, took part in attacks and killings of them.
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks, Arshad, for the question. We are aware of the newly released Human Rights Watch report. Let me say what we’ve consistently said, and you’ve heard me say this from the podium before: The United States remains deeply concerned about the situation facing minority populations affected by violence in Burma. We remain concerned about instances of mob violence and violence directed against religious and ethnic minorities in Burma, and we continue to call on the Government of Burma to take appropriate steps to prevent further outbreaks of violence, provide protection and support to victims of violence, and facilitate regular, unhindered, and timely humanitarian access to all internally displaced persons and others in need. And we’ve stressed to the government, religious leaders, and representatives of civil society that respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, along with reintegration, redress and reconciliation, are the path forward to lasting peace in Burma.
QUESTION: Is there any view in the U.S. Government that the outreach to the Burmese authorities should, perhaps, be curtailed in light of these kinds of allegations?
MR. VENTRELL: We continue our engagement with Burmese authorities and we also continue to urge the government to bring justice to affected communities, to address the root causes of this violence, and put in place mechanisms to prevent future outbreaks so that ethnic groups in Burma can coexist. So it’s very much part of our engagement with Burmese authorities.
My understanding is that they, themselves, are conducting an independent investigatory commission into violence in Rakhine state, for instance, and are going to have a report soon. So we continue to engage vigorously with the Government of – the Burmese Government on this issue, and will continue to urge at every step and with all audiences the importance of lasting peace and the end of any sectarian or communal violence in Burma.
QUESTION: But there are no consequences to this?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, we’re aware of the allegations in the Human Rights Watch report. We’re looking into them, and we’ll continue to raise our concerns with the government. But again, this report just came out, and we’re still reviewing at this time.
QUESTION: Patrick —
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Matt.
QUESTION: I want to follow up on that.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. Government think that ethnic cleansing has happened in Rakhine state? And are you aware that security forces have been complicit in crimes associated with —
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we’re aware of the reports. We’re aware of the reports, and the United States will continue to carefully monitor the situation and consider information as it becomes available. So we’re looking at the entire, broad body of information available and looking into any allegations when they arise.
QUESTION: Patrick, unless I’m mistaken, today is the last day for the public comment period of the – this Department’s latest environmental survey on the proposed Keystone Pipeline project. Could you tell us how many public comments there were and what the foreseeable next step is?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I can’t tell you how many yet, Guy, because the comment period ends at midnight Eastern Standard Time. So —
QUESTION: How about up to this point or before you walked in?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have a full calculation. I can tell you that we are going to make available the entire — not just summaries — but the full text of all the comments after the comment period is over. So —
QUESTION: At 12:01?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t know about 12:01, but we will make an effort to do it as expeditiously as possible.
QUESTION: When do you plan to do that? I mean, agencies like the Federal Communications Commission are very good at almost providing real-time access to comments as they’re filed. I mean, do you have a date by which you’ll commit to make these public?
MR. VENTRELL: Let me look into that, Arshad. You know we had about a thousand attendees also at the public meeting last Thursday in Grand Island, Nebraska, so we have comments there to transcribe and enter into the record as well. But let me check into that and see when we have additional information. And also, of course, now after we pass the – this comment period and the draft SEIS will go into final form, then we’ll have a national interest determination and there will be further opportunity for the public to comment during that national interest determination period as well.
QUESTION: How long is that period, Patrick?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure that there’s a numerical date affixed to that, because we’re consulting broadly in the interagency on the national interest determination.
QUESTION: Do you have a timeframe by which the final decision might be made by the State Department?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have a specific date. I know that we’re doing this in a rigorous, transparent and efficient manner, but I don’t have a specific date.
QUESTION: But are we talking weeks or are we more likely talking months?
MR. VENTRELL: Let me check on that. I’m not sure that I have an answer one way or another.
QUESTION: On Syria, Syrian opposition is talking about 450 people killed in a city close to Damascus, on the hands of the regime. Do you have any information about what they call the massacre?
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks, Michel, a very pertinent question. We are appalled by the horrific reports that hundreds of Syrians were killed over the weekend in a Damascus suburb. As the regime’s violence against civilians continues to escalate while the Assad regime clings to power, we cannot lose sight of the men, women, and children whose lives are being so brutally cut short. So we reinforce our solidarity with the Syrian people, even as we strongly condemn this massacre. And as we’ve long said, all responsible actors in Syria should speak out against the perpetration of unlawful killings, and those who are guilty of these atrocious crimes must be held accountable.
QUESTION: Patrick, I mean, if you’re appalled by what you describe as horrific events, why isn’t the Administration doing more than increasing its nonlethal assistance to the fighters in Syria as was announced over the weekend? Why aren’t you doing more if this is appalling and horrific?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we’re doing a lot. As you know, Arshad, the Secretary was in Istanbul over the weekend. It was an important opportunity to meet not only with our allies and partners, but also with the Syrian opposition themselves, and there were – I really commend to you, we – there were a number of documents released over the weekend that are really noteworthy and worth careful study in terms of not only the opposition releasing their statement and their pledge to protect minorities, reject extremism, pledging not to use chemical weapons, and really a pluralistic pledge for the future of Syria, and that combined with our statement among the Group of 11 to route all of our aid to the SMC and the SOC directly. And so really this is an intensification of our efforts. And not only do we have our $250 million of nonlethal assistance, $409 million of humanitarian aid, and really the goal now is a billion dollars in total international support for the opposition, with the goal of changing the regime’s calculation about protecting Assad and his cronies and moving into a political process as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: And do you think that the increase in the nonlethal assistance is going to change his calculus?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, we think that our assistance is important, but we also think it’s in the context of the wider assistance of the full 11 and indeed many other – dozens and dozens of other countries who continue to support the aspirations of the Syrian people for a free, unified, prosperous, democratic Syria. So it’s really in the context of that whole and unified effort.
QUESTION: Okay. It’s just that your policy on this going back more than two years now has not, at least thus far, succeeded in either creating a path to a political negotiation to end the violence, nor in tipping the scales of the military conflict, which continues to unfold with the kind of violence that you just condemned. And therefore I think it’s fair to ask what else you are thinking about doing that might hold some hope of tipping the scales on the ground, and therefore persuading Assad and his allies to come to the negotiating table on terms that would be acceptable to the opposition and the rebels.
MR. VENTRELL: Our efforts are geared toward changing the calculation on the ground, and this is a significant ramping-up of assistance, not only on our part but on the part of all these other countries. And so we’re constantly examining what more we can do – what more we can do to help the situation, and certainly we think that this new assistance will be helpful, and that’s why we’re doing it, and that’s why we’re consulting closely with the Syrian opposition about their needs as well.
So it’s in that context that we continue. Really, this is an upward trajectory of support, and a really significant upward trajectory of support in not only dollar numbers, but in terms of the type of materials that we’re going to be consulting with the SMC about their needs, with the SOC. So we’re working very hard to change the calculus. You’ve heard the Secretary, since the day he came into office, speak very forcefully and eloquently about the need to change this regime’s calculation, and we’re doing everything we can to assist our Syrian partners in this effort.
QUESTION: What kind of (inaudible) are you prepared to offer?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I don’t have an extensive list right now. Part of it is that we’re consulting with the Syrians about their needs, and that was part of the need for the meeting with the Syrian opposition, was to hear about their – what will best help them in their efforts. But we also have to consult with the Congress about what we can use within this newly announced assistance and what will best meet the needs both of what we’re able to offer and what the Syrians are looking for.
QUESTION: One more on Syria.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: France and Britain have conveyed to Ban Ki-moon that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons in Aleppo and Damascus. Are you aware of these reports, and what’s your reaction to them?
MR. VENTRELL: We are aware of these press reports and have no new information to share at this time. I do refer you to the U.K. and France about that specifically. But what the Assad regime can do, and what they should do, the Assad regime and its supporters, to prove that their request for an investigation was not just some sort of diversionary tactic, is to let the UN team in. And the UN has said that they can get them in within a matter of days to begin their full and thorough and credible investigation. So that’s really what the regime needs to do in the face of these allegations instead of continuing to sort of divert attention away.
QUESTION: How much evidence is actually left now? Isn’t part of the problem that sort of the evidence of chemical weapons degrades pretty quickly, and it’s been, what, about a month, five weeks now since the allegations were first made?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I don’t have any technical information one way or another. But we think it’s very important to gather the evidence. We’ve wanted the team in going back now a ways back. And so we’re going to continue to push for that, but obviously these are difficult things to investigate, and we understand the UN has special expertise. But they need to get into the country.
QUESTION: Can I go back to the top and to the Free the Press day?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Could you give us a little bit more about the case of this gentleman in South Sudan that you decided to kick the campaign off with?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have a lot more information than what I said at the top, about him being murdered, but I’d be happy to have one of our experts find out in terms of what news outlet he worked for and if we have any more information about the circumstances of his death. But what’s really important is that all such deaths be thoroughly and credibly investigated, and that’s what our real concern is here. But I don’t have any more information about his news outlet.
QUESTION: I just wondered what guided your choice to use this particular example for the start of the campaign given that in Honduras, last year, was the worst place for journalists to work because – I can’t remember the figures, but there were more people – more journalists killed in Honduras than any other country. Turkey imprisons more journalists than any other country. I just wondered why the choice of South Sudan came up.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Jo, we’re going to have about 10 days of these, so we’ve picked a number of really compelling cases, and this is one of those, and you’ll continue to see some more compelling cases at the top of our briefings over the next few days, and certainly highlighted by our briefers at the Foreign Press Center as well.
QUESTION: On China.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: I noticed over the weekend, Secretary Kerry expressed his condolence to the victims of the earthquake in Sichuan province. Is there any kind of assistance you are going to provide?
MR. VENTRELL: Thank you for the question. You’re right, the Secretary did issue a statement and let me just reiterate that the United States expresses its sincere condolences for the loss of life, injuries and devastation caused by the earthquake that took place Saturday in Sichuan province. The United States stands ready to support the international response to this disaster. We’re supportive of the International Red Cross and other international relief organizations’ efforts to respond to the earthquake. But the Chinese have not requested our assistance at this time.
QUESTION: On China?
MR. VENTRELL: Thank you. One more.
QUESTION: Mr. Wu Dawei from the Chinese Foreign Ministry is in the building today visiting with Ambassador Glyn Davies, presumably on North Korea. I’m wondering what you can tell us about that.
MR. VENTRELL: You’re right; he is indeed here in the building today. I understand he’ll be meeting with Glyn Davies as well as Acting Assistant Secretary Yun and Under Secretary Wendy Sherman over the next two days. So I don’t have a specific readout, but those are the officials that he’s meeting with here in the next couple of days.
QUESTION: When was the last time Mr. Wu made a visit to the United States?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure. He’s certainly an interlocutor, and he’s Glyn Davies’ counterpart. But in terms of his prior visits to the United States, I’m not certain one way or another. I’d have to refer you to the Chinese for his travel.
QUESTION: Are they going to discuss about possibility of the trilateral meeting during China, U.S., and North Korea?
MR. VENTRELL: I really don’t have any details on exactly the content of our diplomacy. These are ongoing meetings.
Oh, one additional person: He’ll be meeting with our coordinator for sanctions, Dan Fried, as well. So really a number of meetings. But what I will say is that the U.S. and China, we both agree on the fundamental importance of a denuclearized North Korea. So that’s the broad agreement on our policy. And if I have any more to read out on these meetings, we’ll get them to you – get ready to get them to you.
QUESTION: On Laos, has the United States suspended $30 million in assistance for unexploded ordnance over the case of the missing activist Sombath Somphone?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, first of all, you remember that the Secretary issued a strong statement on this case and the U.S. Government remains deeply concerned about the fate of Lao civil society leader Mr. Sombath Somphone, who disappeared after being stopped by traffic police back on December 15th of last year. He’s not been seen or heard of since. So we’ve engaged intensively with Lao authorities and impressed on them the need to do everything in its power to ensure his immediate and safe return home to his family.
But this particular funding is for – is $59 million for – let me take a step back. Since 1993, we’ve provided $59 million of assistance for the removal of unexploded ordnance, risk education and victims’ assistance in Laos, and we have no intention of reducing that important funding in that program there. The two things are not connected.
QUESTION: Just one more on Africa. I know there was a question earlier, and I came in a few seconds late, so sorry if I missed something on this. But 200 people have been killed in an attack in Nigeria, and this is really the latest in a string of recent attacks related to Boko Haram. Are you concerned that there’s been really an uptick in violence in recent months? And is the U.S. still supportive of President Jonathan’s posture that Boko Haram is a group that can be negotiated with?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, thanks for the question, Guy. The United States does condemn the violence that took the lives of so many innocent civilians in Baga Borno state. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of those who died or were injured as a result of these attacks. We support the Nigerian authorities in their efforts to bring the perpetrators of violent acts to justice, and stress the importance of respecting human rights and protecting civilians in all security responses. So we urge all parties to refrain from reprisal attacks.
But really the context, Guy, here is that we’ve been very clear that we want them to respond – Nigerian authorities – but want them to do so respecting human rights and in that broader context. So they have to address these vulnerable communities’ concerns. They have to do so in not necessarily a heavy-handed way, but in one that is effective and focused on their legitimate economic and political needs in the north as well.
QUESTION: In the last year and a half, that has coincided – the Nigerian Government’s attempt to reach out to this group, to create some sort of a relationship and a communication. And I’m wondering whether that’s a policy that is supported in this Department.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, our response is that violent extremism requires more than just a security response. So the group as – Boko Haram exploits legitimate northern grievances to attract recruits and public sympathy. So the response should be to address some of those legitimate needs and concerns of the people in the north so that that’s not being exploited by this group, who clearly has perpetrated some very awful violence.
Michel. Oh, I guess Scott has a follow-up.
QUESTION: The reported use of rocket-propelled grenades by Boko Haram in this violence is an escalation for them. Is there any concern on the part of the State Department that this might indicate what – a fear that you have expressed before, that Boko Haram may be integrated more with this threat of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb across the Sahel?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any particular information on the munitions that were used. But clearly we’re concerned about the context of them trying to have deeper ties with other violent extremists throughout the region, and that’s something that we’re very focused on and watching very closely.
QUESTION: One more on Syria. How can you verify the Syrian regime has crossed the red line in case the UN groups or observers were not allowed to get into Syria?
MR. VENTRELL: The bottom line is that we’re using all available means to make sure that we get as much information as we can about what may or may not have been used inside of Syria. The UN investigation is one of those means. Obviously, I can’t get in to intelligence here from this podium, but we’ll continue to watch very carefully, and we’ve been long and consistently clear in our response that the Syrian Government should not use these munitions, that that would be a horrible mistake, and anybody who does will be held accountable.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Thank you all.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:32 p.m.)