USIS Washington File
TRANSCRIPT: STATE DEPARTMENT NOON BRIEFING, OCT. 29, 1998
(Gaza, Kosovo, Colombia, China/rights, Iran/Bahai) (4760)
State Department Deputy Spokesman James Foley briefed.
GAZA ATTACK/WYE -- Foley said the United States welcomes the fact that Palestinian and Israeli˙20security officials "are working closely together on the ground" in response to the attempted suicide bombing of an Israeli school bus in Gaza October 28, and that Chairman Arafat has condemned the attack "in the strongest terms." Foley said both parties "must remain firm in their refusal to give in to these enemies of peace." The deputy spokesman said that if news reports are accurate, the reported house arrest of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who is head of the Islamic militant group Hamas, "would illustrate the seriousness" with which the Palestinians are dealing with the matter.
KOSOVO -- Julia Taft, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, will visit Serbia-Montenegro October 31-November 3 to assess what can be done to improve delivery of humanitarian aid to refugees in Kosovo, Foley said. She will also urge Belgrade authorities to keep their commitments to expedite relief efforts. Foley said that the ethnic Albanian KLA forces have been checking out Kosovar villages abandoned by Serb forces and performing such "helpful" functions as disarming booby traps. "Our assessment to this point," Foley said, "is that the KLA is not interfering in the process of Serbian withdrawal," and is also encouraging refugees to return home.
COLOMBIA -- Secretary of State Albright and Colombian President Pastrana discussed a number of issues during his October 28 visit, including his efforts to end Colombia's 40-year-old civil conflict, human rights and counter-narcotics efforts. In response to a question, Foley said helping to organize an international donors conference concerned with such matters as finding alternative crops for farmers to grow instead of narcotics would be one of a number of ways in which the United States could offer support to Colombia's peace and stabilization efforts.
CHINA/HUMAN RIGHTS -- Foley said the US Embassy in Beijing has discussed the arrest by Chinese authorities of a Chinese physicist who teaches at Stanford University on charges of betraying state secrets. The physicist had returned to his homeland for a visit a few months ago and was arrested while there. Foley also condemned reports that 49 elderly Tibetan monks have been forced to retire by the Chinese government, an action which, he said "raises questions about China's commitment to respect freedom of religion." He called "particularly troublesome" efforts of the Chinese government to curb the growth of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and to enforce strict limits on the numbers of Buddhist monks and nuns. Foley said the United States also has called on China to stop the "reeducation" campaign targeting Tibetan monks and nuns.
IRAN/BAHA'I -- The deputy spokesman said the United States has denounced Iranian government raids on homes and offices associated with the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education and the arrest of faculty members of the institution. Foley said the Institute was founded in 1987 as a result of the "virtual banning" of followers of the minority Baha'i faith from Iranian universities.
Foley said the United States has publicly called on the government of Iran to protect the lives of all Baha'is, to eliminate restrictions on the practice of religion "and to recognize and uphold the fundamental right of freedom of conscience." He also said the United States has urged Iran not to carry out death sentences imposed on two current Baha'i prisoners.
Following is the State Department transcript:
DEPARTMENT OF STATE
DAILY PRESS BRIEFING INDEX
October 29, l998
Briefer: James B. Foley
1 Assistant Secretary Julia Taft to visit Serbia-Montenegro, Oct. 31-Nov.
MIDDLE EAST PEACE PROCESS
1 US strongly condemns today's terrorist attack.
1 Parties must remain strong in refusing to give in to enemies of peace.
1 US cannot confirm report of Sheik Yassin's house arrest.
2,3 US expects Palestinian security plan to be done by tomorrow.
2 Each side must fulfill responsibilities reciprocally.
3 Ambassador Ross plans to travel to region after entry into force of Wye
3 KLA is moving about more freely than before.
3 US continues to have contact with the KLA, presses them to maintain
4 US looks toward creation of more ethnically representative police force
4 Serb police (MUP) forces are estimated to have returned to their
4 Serb army (VJ) units put into Kosovo in February have now been
4-5 Secretary Albright pledged support for peace process to President
5 Narcotics, civil insurgency part of our bilateral agenda.
5 Head scarf issue is an internal matter; US takes no position.
9 US view of PKK as a terrorist organization is well-known.
5-6 US Embassy has discussed case of arrest of physicist Hua Di with Chinese
6,7 US is aware of and concerned about report of forced retirement of
7 Attempts to restrict fundamental freedoms are steps in wrong direction.
7 Secretary Albright raised human rights issues during President's trip.
8 US not prepared to negotiate this violation of Vienna Convention.
8 Ambassador Speckhard is here in the US.
8 President Yeltsin's health problems must be addressed by Russian
8 US looks to Prime Minister Primakov to implement needed economic
9 US denounces persecution and imprisonment of Baha'is for their religious
beliefs. US urges Iran to protect the lives of all Baha'is.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
OFF-CAMERA DAILY PRESS BRIEFING
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 29, 1998
(ON THE RECORD UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED)
FOLEY: Welcome to the State Department, our daily briefing. I understand that we're at T- minus, I don't know, 30 minutes, 25 minutes. So for those of you interested in wanting to watch someone launch other than myself today anyway, the duration of the briefing is, as usual, in your hands.
Just one announcement Julia Taft, our Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, will visit Serbia-Montenegro Saturday through Tuesday. The primary purpose of her visit will be to assess the humanitarian situation in Kosovo and Montenegro and determine what can be done to improve the delivery of humanitarian aid.
In addition, she will urge FRY officials to continue to work to comply fully with their government's commitment to facilitate such relief efforts. I have more information in this statement that we'll post after the briefing.
Q: Any comment on the developments in the Middle East, including the supposed arrest of Sheikh Yasin?
FOLEY: First of all, the United States strongly condemns this act of terrorism. We are well aware that extremists will seek to destroy the hope for peace and security. We understand that security officials of both parties Israel and the Palestinian Authority are working closely together on the ground in response to this attack, and we welcome that. We also understand that Chairman Arafat has condemned the attack in the strongest terms
We believe that the parties must remain firm in their refusal to give in to these enemies of peace and continue working toward a lasting peace.
Insofar as Sheikh Yasin is concerned, we are not at this time able to confirm the news reports of his house arrest. We've seen those reports, obviously. As we have said in the past, we believe it is in the Palestinians' interest to maintain security in the areas they control. It's their decision how best to do so. But clearly, if the reports are true about the house arrest, that would illustrate the seriousness with which they're dealing with this matter.
Q: Does house arrest mean for a quadriplegic?
FOLEY: House arrest look, Sid, I can't confirm the report; so you're asking a hypothetical question about house arrest. Under any circumstances, I understand from a layman's perspective that house arrest means that one has to remain inside one's house. The gentleman in question, though, as you note, handicapped, presumably is, through various means, able to travel. That would obviously not be the case if he is subject to house arrest. But again, I can't confirm the report.
Q: Wouldn't it be more meaningful if they, perhaps, cut off his telephone line or something other than a symbolic gesture of putting a quadriplegic under house arrest?
FOLEY: A, I'm not sure that it's true; I've just commented on a press report. B, we'd have to await more information to understand the amplitude of the measure and why it was taken and what information was at the disposal of the Palestinian Authority that took this reported action.
The key is, a terrorist act has occurred. The Palestinians have committed, at Wye, as well as previously, to root out those responsible for such terrorist acts. We would welcome this move if that's a step in that direction. But obviously, there are direct perpetrators of this act. We don't know who they are at this point, but we trust that the Palestinian Authority is actively pursuing leads in the matter.
Q: Could this be one of those cases where the CIA would become involved?
FOLEY: Well, of course the agreement is yet to enter into force. Upon entry into force, as you know, a number of mechanisms are activated, including a trilateral security committee on which the United States sits and a bilateral committee with the Palestinians, again on which we sit. So the United States will play the role that was prescribed at Wye.
As to this specific incident, I couldn't comment. We will have to see. Those mechanisms are not yet in place.
Q: Have the Palestinians produced a security work plan yet?
FOLEY: My understanding is that we are expecting that the necessary work will be done tomorrow, Friday, in that regard.
I would add, though, in regard to questions about timing, the security plan, entry into force and things of that nature, that these questions point to the larger issue of mistrust between the parties. Resolving the crisis of confidence between Israelis and Palestinians requires each side to fulfill a set of responsibilities based on the concept of reciprocity. That is the essence of the Wye Accords. Both sides must carry out their respective obligations in accordance with the Wye River Memorandum. These obligations will be implemented or carried out in a parallel- phased approach in accordance with the mutually agreed time line.
Q: (Inaudible; about Amb Ross.)
FOLEY: I just spoke to him a few minutes ago, and what he told me is that his intention is to travel to the region following entry into force of the Wye Memorandum.
Q: That's Monday, is it?
FOLEY: Yes, that's Monday. I am not giving you a specific day for his travel. He said following entry into force.
Q: You say on Friday you are expecting the Palestinians to submit that. How firm is that, because I've seen reports it might be Monday. What is the basis for saying Friday?
FOLEY: Assurances that we have received. I can't comment specifically, but that is my understanding.
Q: It was unclear to me, again on this Friday issue. Did you say that they are actually going to hand over the security plan or that work would be done?
FOLEY: The words that I used were that work would be done by Friday. I believe that there is an expectation that we may receive that on Friday, as well.
Q: Is that firm or not?
FOLEY: That's my understanding.
Q: They expect it?
Q: Different subject in Kosovo, the KLA is apparently not acting the way you all had asked them to act in light of Yugoslav withdrawal. Do you have any comment on that?
FOLEY: Sid, that is not my information. Clearly, the KLA is moving more freely about Kosovo than it had previously. For example, we have seen KLA personnel checking out villages before the return of civilians; and in so doing, they have actually been very helpful in providing services such as disarming booby traps that were left by departing Serb forces.
Our assessment to this point is that the KLA is not interfering in the process of Serbian withdrawal. KLA commanders in Kosovo are, indeed, encouraging the internally displaced persons to return to their homes in areas being vacated by the Serbian forces. We continue to have contact with KLA representatives, and we continue to press them to maintain the cease-fire, to guarantee the safety of international personnel and to cooperate in efforts to gain Serb compliance with Security Council Resolution 1199.
Q: For what it's worth, the Serb information center in Pristina claims that the KLA is responsible for at least one assassination in the last two days of a Serbian civilian.
FOLEY: Well, if that's true, that would be a matter of utmost concern to the United States and to the international community. That would be wholly unacceptable behavior.
What we're looking towards, and what President Milosevic has committed himself to in his meetings with Ambassador Holbrooke, is, among other concessions on the Serb part, the constitution of a police force in Kosovo that will be much more responsive to the needs of the people of Kosovo. So we would look to that force, which would be more representative of the ethnic composition of Kosovo, to ensure the safety and security of all the people of Kosovo. That includes the large majority of Kosovar Albanians, but it most certainly also includes the roughly 10 percent of ethnic Serbs who are in the province.
FOLEY: I can't confirm that; I have not heard that report, Sid.
Q: On the issue of compliance, do you have anything on the level of Serb police forces that -- (inaudible) --
FOLEY: Yes, if you bear with me for a second, I have different pieces of information on that. We estimate that there were about 10,000 MUPP what we call MUPP, the special and regular police in Kosovo in February, prior to the conflict. Over 4,000 special police reinforcements were sent in; and roughly that number have been withdrawn. So that's for the police forces.
We estimate that there were between 11,000 and 12,000 V-J Yugoslav Army forces in Kosovo in February. About 5,000 additional V-J personnel were introduced in new units deployed from outside Kosovo and to augment units already in Kosovo. We estimate that the number of V-J forces has been drawn down to around the 13,000 level. Now, that is, at this point, not yet a scientific number.
What we can confirm is that the units that were sent in in February have been withdrawn. The exact, scientific number of army personnel in the units that remain and that were there before February is subject to ongoing assessment.
Q: (Inaudible) Kosovo?
Q: President Pastrana said this morning that the Secretary told him yesterday that the United States was willing to work with Colombia to organize an aid donors' conference to help them find alternatives to narcotics plants. Do you know anything about that?
FOLEY: Well, Secretary Albright and President Pastrana met yesterday for approximately 45 minutes, just prior to the lunch hosted by Vice President Gore at the State Department. Their discussion was wide-ranging, substantive and, of course, very cordial.
Among the issues discussed were President Pastrana's efforts to resolve Colombia's 40- year-old civil conflict, the issue of human rights, of counter-narcotics, and the new opportunities for US-Colombian economic engagement. They certainly shared a convergence of views on all of these issues.
Now, in terms of your specific question, both the Secretary in her meeting with President Pastrana and President Clinton in his welcoming address yesterday pledged US support to the Colombian peace process. An international donors' conference would be one of a number of ways in which we could offer support. We want to be as helpful as we can in this respect.
I don't believe that on either side they've gotten down to the nuts and bolts of specific initiatives that would be undertaken; but that's obviously one that is going to be looked at.
Q: You (inaudible) donors' conference to the peace process, and he said it would be both peace process and the search for alternative crops to replace narcotics plants.
FOLEY: Well, as I enumerated, the issues on our bilateral agenda narcotics and the insurgency or the civil conflict there are part and parcel of our agenda with Colombia. No one can argue that there are links between them. I can't argue with your point that a donors' conference which would be looked at could help deal on both of these issues. As I noted also, we have a very strong interest in Colombia's economic development and engaging on that subject with them.
Q: In Turkey, several extreme religious groups used the head scarf as some kind of political issue. I know the US supports the Turkish secular democratic system. On this subject, do you have any comment?
FOLEY: Well, not to make light of it, but we don't have a head scarf position in the State Department. This is an internal matter for a friendly, allied country Turkey to resolve. We don't have a position on it.
Q: (Inaudible) necessarily consider the wearing of a head scarf a sign of an extremist person?
FOLEY: The United States does not have a position. I think you can have your own personal opinions all of us can on a personal question of that nature. But that's not a policy issue as far as the United States is concerned. I recognize that in some countries, it is; not only in Turkey, but in European countries such as France, it has become a political issue. But it's not one for the United States.
Q: The Stanford University has gone public on the arrest of the Chinese scholar, Hua Di, who's a green card holder. They say the State Department has also been protesting to the Chinese authorities on this. Do you know anything?
FOLEY: I don't have a lot of information for you on that today. What I can tell you is that we're certainly aware of the arrest in China of physicist Hua Di on charges of revealing state secrets. Mr. Hua is a Chinese citizen who has lived in the United States or had lived in the United States since 1989 and worked at Stanford University, as you say.
Our embassy in Beijing has discussed his case with Chinese officials and has also been in touch with Stanford University regarding the matter. We are concerned about reports of health problems that Mr. Hua has had. We do not know the exact basis of the Chinese Government's charges against him, and we're seeking further information about the situation. I don't have more information myself to share with you at this point.
Q: Do you have any comment on the reports that the Chinese are asking several dozen Tibetan monks to retire?
FOLEY: Yes, I've seen that report, if you'll bear with me one moment. We've read reports alleging that 49 Tibetan monks over the age of 60 have been forced into retirement in Qinhai province. We don't have independent information about these forced retirements at this time. But I would note that traditionally, Tibetan monks have not retired, but rather have lived out their lives as monks at their home monasteries. Senior monks often play a crucial role in the transmission of religious teaching; and their forced retirement raises questions about China's commitment to respect freedom of religion.
We are concerned about the human rights situation in China overall. Government efforts to curb the growth of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and to strictly enforce limits on the number of monks and nuns are particularly troublesome. We have expressed our concern to Chinese authorities about the human rights situations for Tibetans, and in particular urged China to bring a stop to the re-education campaign aimed at monks and nuns in Tibet.
Q: Do you have anything to say about the deterioration in the human rights situation in China since they signed that UN covenant?
FOLEY: Well, what I can say is that promoting increased respect for internationally recognized fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of expression and association, is one of the US Government's top priorities in China. We noted a greater degree of tolerance that was exhibited on the part of Chinese authorities toward political debate over the past year.
But as your question rightly points out, recent actions by the authorities demonstrate that sharp limits on what is permissible continue to exist, and that organized opposition to the Communist Party is not being tolerated.
We are disturbed by the detentions of the past few days and others that have occurred in recent months, plus recent moves to limit political debate in China that indicate, as you questioned, that Chinese authorities seem to be moving to tighten these recently loosened restrictions on these fundamental freedoms.
It is the strongly held view of the United States that attempts to restrict internationally recognized fundamental freedoms are, indeed, steps in the wrong direction. We will continue to make that view clear to our Chinese counterparts.
Q: How has the United States been demonstrating its displeasure? How have you been communicating this?
FOLEY: Well, I can tell you in meetings where I've been present that Secretary Albright has had with her Chinese counterparts -- during the summit in Manila, for example -- that Secretary Albright has always made human rights issues and questions front and center of her dialogue.
I think President Clinton made clear when he was in China that while we have been very encouraged about the overall direction of US-Chinese relations in the past few years and our ability to engage with China in positive ways on issues of critical national security importance to the American people, that the quality of the relationship, the ability of the two sides to move to closer ties of friendship really will not be fulfilled as long as we remain troubled about the denial of basic freedoms in China. That's merely a reflection of what we stand for as a country and the values we believe in -- that there are inherent limits -- while we continue to struggle with these differences.
Q: What about the last several weeks? What about most recently?
FOLEY: I'm not aware that Secretary Albright has been in touch with Foreign Minister Tang in recent weeks. I can't rule it out, but I have not checked on that before coming out here so I can't speak to that. I would expect, however, that in Kuala Lumpur that the Secretary will undoubtedly have an opportunity to meet with her Chinese counterpart and issues such as these would undoubtedly come up.
Q: (Inaudible) -- trigger the recently enacted Religious Freedom Act, any provisions in there for action by the United States?
FOLEY: On the religious question, we have seen the reports about the forced retirement of the Tibetan monks; and I am not sure we have had an opportunity, because these are very recent reports, to fully assess that. Also I would have to check to see whether, indeed, there is any assistance of that nature covered by the Act that would be triggered or other types of the mechanisms that are involved in the Act. I just don't have an answer for you right now. I am not aware of other recent instances that have come to our attention that were prominent such as this report of forced retirements of Tibetan monks.
Q: The Chinese Foreign Ministry today attacked the Defense appropriations bill, saying (inaudible) to extend the Theater Missile Defense System to Taiwan. Do you know anything about this?
FOLEY: No I don't. I haven't seen that report. I will be glad to take the question and look into it. I'm not aware, though, that that issue is a prominent one in our relationship with Taiwan at the moment; but I'd be glad to take the question.
Q: Do you have anything on Belarus and the diplomatic residence situation there? I understand that there was a mission from the EU there yesterday.
FOLEY: I had something the other day; I don't have it before me. I may be able to get it for you afterwards. But the report that I had seen indicated that they were inviting ambassadors whose residences, contrary to the Vienna Convention, had been, in effect, taken over to come back and, I think, negotiate, as I understood the report, over the question of the residences.
We're not prepared to do that. This is a clear-cut violation of the Vienna Convention and our ambassador would not be going back, absent assurances that his rights would be restored in that respect.
Q: (Inaudible) all the ambassadors except the American ambassador.
FOLEY: I can't speak to other nations, but I'm recalling what I had seen the other day about the United States' position. We'll get that for you after the briefing.
Q: Is Ambassador Speckhard here in the US or is he in a neighboring country?
FOLEY: I ran into maybe a week or two ago, so as of then, he was not only in this country but in this building.
Q: There's a report today quoting one of Yeltsin's aides saying Yeltsin no longer has the right to be distracted with day-to-day issues. How do you interpret that?
FOLEY: Clearly, President Yeltsin is facing health problems and he's taking a rest at the moment. We're aware of that; everyone is aware of that.
As to his function in office and the impact of his health situation on his ability to fulfill his responsibilities, I'd have to leave that to Russian spokesmen to comment on. We continue to work with the Russian Government. Prime Minister Primakov, obviously, has been charged with some heavy responsibilities, particularly in the economic field, and we're looking to him and his government to implement some policies in that regard.
Q: Does it seem like Yeltsin will live out his term, until the end of 2000?
FOLEY: I couldn't possibly answer that question. I'm not a doctor. We wish him well, certainly.
Q: Have you heard anything about an Iranian crackdown on the Baha'is and closing down of this informal university?
FOLEY: Yes, I have. We, of course, denounced the anti-Baha'i persecution in Iran upon the first reports that we received, I believe it was October 1st. We understand that more than 500 homes and office buildings owned or rented by Iranian Baha'is and associated with the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education were raided with at least 36 Baha'i faculty members arrested and materials confiscated.
Apparently all but four of these people have been released. However, the four faculty members who have not been released join 13 other Baha'is now in prison in Iran, six of whom are currently on death row.
We've read that the materials confiscated in the recent raid were neither religious nor political; instead, they were textbooks on subjects such as dentistry and accounting. Some laboratory equipment was also confiscated.
The persons arrested, again, are members of the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education, a university founded in 1987 in response to the virtual banning of Baha'i from public universities in Iran. We have publicly called on the government of Iran to protect the lives of all Baha'is. We continue to urge the government of Iran to eliminate restrictions on the practice of religion, and to recognize and uphold the fundamental human right to freedom of conscience and belief.
In July, the United States strongly condemned the Iranian Government's execution of Ruhollah Rowhani, who was a Baha'i charged with converting a Muslim to the Baha'i faith. We also understand two additional Baha'is are in imminent danger of execution; we spoke to that earlier in the month.
The United States urges the government of Iran to exercise restraint and not carry out these death sentences.
Q: Can you confirm the PKK terror organization's leader moved to Moscow? Also, when you have diplomatic contact with the Russian officials, did you urge them to extradite this terrorist in Turkey or something?
FOLEY: I'm really not aware of that person's whereabouts in any given particular country, so I couldn't comment on it. Our views on the PKK are well known; I don't need to repeat them for you.
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