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Sudan's "White Plane" Was Bought From Russia, Despite UN's Borat-like Kazakh Diversion

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, April 18 -- The UN dissembles, in written reports and then in the gloss thereon. On Darfur at the UN on Wednesday, first there was a photograph in a report leaked to The Times, then there was the spin, delivered on the condition that the spinner only be identified as "a senior UN official."

    This individual said repeatedly that the plane at issue, mis-using the UN's initials, was from Kazakhstan. But rudimentary research by Inner City Press suggests that the plane at issue, with 26563 on its wing, was sold by Russian airline Sibir Airlines" (based in Novosibirsk, Russia) in 2004. Click here for that report, at, see page 5, "An-26 35 06 RA-26563 Sibir canx 12mar04 as sold to Sudan." That airlines is now known as S7, and over the past 3 years has traded in their ex-Soviet fleet of propeller-driven Antonovs for modern jet aircraft. 

Zee plane, from UN report via NYT.

            The UN report leaked to the New York Times, just before George W. Bush's get-tough-on-Sudan speech, says coyly that the aircraft came from "Eastern Europe." Arguably that includes Russia. But the "senior UN official" spun the UN press corps on Wednesday that it was Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan. That country might have a more serious beef with UN Peacekeeping than with Borat.

     Why would the UN be trying to mystify the origin of the plane? Why did another group of UN "experts" posit that there were 700 Somalis in Lebanon in 2006? Until the UN is more transparent we'll never know. We'll just report what we see -- which is more and more dissembling, the higher one goes in UN Headquarters.  And we'll report because now we must that the "senior UN official" who protected Russia and fingered Kazakhstan on Wednesday is... Russian.  To paraphrase New York icon Cindy Adams, only at the UN, kids, only at the UN....

The backdrop to all this is the leaked report's disclosure of what the UN knew for more than a month. From the report:

"96. The Panel observed a white Antonov AN-26 aircraft parked on the military apron at El Fasher airport on 7 March 2007, next to what is believed, on the basis of photographic and expert analysis and comparison to field evidence from earlier bombings, to be rows of bombs guarded by SAF soldiers. This is the same aircraft reported by the Panel to the Committee on 10 March 2007 (reference: 1591P/M4-3/0307) as having 'UN' stenciled/painted on the upper port side wing. The number 26563 with the country prefix deleted is believed to have originated in Eastern Europe. The number 7705 located on the forward fuselage and tail is the Government of the Sudan registration number."

            Since the United Nations was informed about the use of its initials to disguise this plane, whatever its origin, Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson was asked at Wednesday's UN noon briefing if Mr. Ban had raised the issue in his discussion with Sudan's president al-Bashir.  "No," the spokesperson said. Developing.

Full disclosure: Last week, during its coverage of the Security Council's consideration of a resolution on Abkhazia, Georgia, Inner City Press was accused of being "pro-Russian," because it asked Georgia for its position on Kosovo, and asked the same question to Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. As Cindy Adams might say, this is another week...

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Plight of Sudan's Children, Like Accountability for their Abuse, Runs Up Against Sovereignty

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, April 18 -- As Ban Ki-moon announced another agreement with the Sudanese government on Monday, Sudan's mission to the UN was being presented with a 66-page report about the "Urgent Need for Protection" of children in Sudan. Wednesday the report was presented to the press, in Nairobi and New York. Strategically, the report was issued by a network of groups called the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict. Presenter Kate Hunt said the report "does not represent the views of any one organization." This makes sense because several participant groups, as providers of on-the-ground services, would prefer not to directly take on the Sudanese government. (Rather like the UN, one couldn't help noting.)

            The report, available online here, focuses not only on Darfur, but also on South Sudan. Another of the three presenters in New York, Doctor Francis Deng of Johns Hopkins University, praises this dual focus. He spoke of the responsibility to protect. When asked by Inner City Press how the UN could proceed if Sudan declines to consent to protection of civilians, Doctor Deng replied that "nobody would want to go into Darfur without the consent of the government... We do have examples elsewhere to tell us" this doesn't work. One assumes the reference was to Iraq, but also wonders what the responsibility to protect means, if sovereignty always trumps it.

            The third panelist, Jenny Robinson of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, spoke movingly about the plight of young students in Sudan: long walks to schools, if they exist, exclusion by expensive school fees, lack of teachers and lack of money to pay those who are willing and able to teach. Former UN envoy to Sudan Jan Pronk, before he was thrown out of the country ostensibly for blogging, alleged that the oil money promised by Khartoum for use in South Sudan has not arrived. The World Food Program provides in some schools two meals a day. But if children can't afford to attend the schools, there's a problem.

            After the presentation, Inner City Press asked three questions to the speakers. Video here, Minute 30:40 to 40:08. The first involved the UN's investigation into sexual abuse of children by UN peacekeepers in South Sudan. The issue hit the news in April 2006 and  January 2007, and is mentioned in the Watchlist report. In response to a request for an update on the investigation, Ms. Hunt said the cut-off date for the report was January 5, 2007 and that "we did pursue follow-up and did not come up with any." Wednesday afternoon Inner City Press asked the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations for an update; eight hours later no update had been provided.

Water must be carried

            The Watchlist report recites that "four peacekeepers were repatriated as a result of findings from an investigation conducted by the UN's Office for Internal Oversight Services." Inner City Press asked the speakers for their views on the efficacy of the UN's policy of "zero tolerance" for sexual abuse and exploitation, if the only ramification of abuse is being sent back to one's home country. Ms. Hunt was cautious, saying that since the Watchlist is "a vast coalition... it's hard to make a statement." Doctor Deng asked, do we know what happens to the soldiers who are sent back? Very little, two separate reporters answered.

            Turning with a final question to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on which Watchlist has reported and where militia leader Peter Karim recently turned in over 100 child soldiers, according to UNICEF's count, Inner City Press asked if the Watchlist groups believe that child soldier recruiters like Mr. Karim should be prosecuted, or should be given positions in the national army, as Mr. Karim has. Ms. Hunt was again cautious, perhaps understandably. Her colleague Julie Freedson answered by saying that Watchlist, where she is staff director, has fought to make the UN be more careful to weed out potential peacekeepers who have violated human rights in their own countries.

            Later Inner City Press asked about the UN's chameleon-like position on accepting peacekeepers from post-coup Fiji. A case was pointed out where three prospective peacekeepers from Nepal were turned away. These are topics to which we will return.

UN-Marked Plane in Darfur Triggers Briefing on Peacekeeping Delays, Silence on Old Ammo in Kosovo

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, April 18 -- On Darfur at the UN on Wednesday, first there was a paragraph in a report leaked to The Times, then there was a briefing, for nearly the whole press corps. At the end of it what did we know? For one thing, that it will take "months" to put in place the so-called "heavy support package" the agreement for which was announced on Monday.

   In a damage-control briefing Wednesday afternoon, a "senior UN official" said the package would cost $290 million, and that assurances would have to be obtained from the al-Bashir government for land, access to water, and easier passage of equipment through customer and ports. Previously it was reported that helicopters sent to the African Union force in Darfur were sabotaged upon entry to Port Sudan. Will things be different now?

            Two African countries have offered battalions: Rwanda and Nigeria. (That the Nigerian elections have descended into not only chaos but violence was not mentioned. Then again, the UN continues using and rotating peacekeepers from post-coup Fiji, see below.)

            For the projected heavy support package, the senior UN official said beyond the UN's "traditional troop contributors in Asia," two Nordic countries have offered an innovative hybrid force (to coin a phrase) including engineers. The backdrop to all this happy talk, however, was the leaked report's disclosure of what the UN knew for more than a month. From the report:

"96. The Panel observed a white Antonov AN-26 aircraft parked on the military apron at El Fasher airport on 7 March 2007, next to what is believed, on the basis of photographic and expert analysis and comparison to field evidence from earlier bombings, to be rows of bombs guarded by SAF soldiers. This is the same aircraft reported by the Panel to the Committee on 10 March 2007 (reference: 1591P/M4-3/0307) as having 'UN' stenciled/painted on the upper port side wing. The number 26563 with the country prefix deleted is believed to have originated in Eastern Europe. The number 7705 located on the forward fuselage and tail is the Government of the Sudan registration number."

            Since the United Nations was informed about the use of its initials to disguise this plane in Darfur, Ban Ki-moon's spokesman was asked if he had raised the issue in his discussion with Sudan's president al-Bashir.  "No," the spokesperson said. Some now wonder about the timing of the leak, just as the Bush administration prepares to beat the drum for sanctions on Sudan.

In Sudan, transportation can be slow. At DPKO, some answers are slow or never come at all

     A background briefing was announced, at the 37th floor office of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, by an individual who, it was said, could only be identified as "a senior UN official." He said the plane at issue is from Kazakhstan, then said repeatedly, "I don't know, it may be." In terms of defense of the UN's name and logo, he offered the example for the "Nations Diner" on 49th Street and Second Avenue -- "it used to be called the 'United Nations Diner,'" he said. If only al-Basher were so accommodating.

            This same individual offered a briefing last year, on this same basis, about the UN's Mission to the Congo. At that time, the person discussed an less-high-profile scandal in Eastern Congo, involving the UN: the burning of the village of Kazana and reported killing of civilians. DPKO issued a report claiming that no civilians died, and specifically denying that troop contributing countries, like the South African battalion at Kazana, are allowed to bring old and defective ammunition on UN missions. Wednesday it was reported that just this happened, by Romanian peacekeepers in the UN's Mission in Kosovo, click here for that story. The senior official had no time to give a Kazana update; his spokespeople have been asked, in writing:

Given that the Romanian peacekeepers came with and used rubber bullets that were 13-years out of date, see below, has the UN system raised the old-ammo issue to Romanian authorities? If so, to whom, and what has been the response? Does the UN reimburse troop contributing countries for ammo as if it were new / serviceable, even if it is not, and is not checked?

  Who in the Romanian forces made the decision to use the out of date ammo? Why was DPKO / UNMIK unaware that the ammo brought by Romanian forces was out of date? Is it checked?

   It is noted that a similar issue arose in the DRC, the burning of the village of Kazana, alleged use by South African peacekeepers of old / out of date ordnance. Please state whether the ammo used in Kazana was new, if it was checked, and any update on Kazana.

 Please provide an update on the investigation of allegations of sexual abuse of children in UNMIS, a topic in the report presented in room 226 earlier today, when the topic came up (the January 2007 as well as April 2006 British press reports).

   In the use of Fijian peacekeepers, on which I've previously send you questions, in light of this article please answer: is the entire Fijian contingent being rotated? Or is the Fijian force size growing? What is, today, the Fijian force size, what was it on November 1, 2006?

            As of press time, only this last question has been answered, by the office of Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson, and not by peacekeeping's flacks. The answer:

Subj: Re: Qs re old rubber bullets in Kosovo, re Kazana/DRC, re Fijians & for UNMIS update 

From: [OSSG at]

To: Matthew Russell Lee

Date: 4/18/2007 3:05:05 PM Eastern Standard Time

Regarding the Fijians: Fiji currently contributes with 223 guards (UNAMI), and 37 police officers and 8 military observers (in UNMIL, UNMIS and UNMIT). There has been no increase in Fijian troops or police numbers since December 2006, nor has Fiji contributed to any new missions since then. Three Fijian contingent members were being rotated into Iraq as part of the normal troop rotation between April and May. Any new contribution will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

            Press reports from Asia speak of a rotation larger than three. But at least it's an answer. On the rest, we'll just keep waiting, like the UN's Heavy Support Package.

On Darfur, Sudan and UN Speak Two Different Hybrid Languages, Arguing in the Hall

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, April 16 -- Following an afternoon of meetings about Darfur, the head of UN Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guehenno stood before the cameras with Sudan's Permanent Representative to the UN, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem.

   Mr. Guehenno made everything sound fine. The so-called "Heavy Support Package" had been agreed to, and he implied that Sudan will accept non-African peacekeeping troops if not enough Africans can be found.

            But minutes earlier, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem had told reporters that it is Sudan's position that the Darfur Peace Agreement that it has signed prohibits the introduction of non-African Union peacekeepers. Speaking exclusively to Inner City Press by the espresso bar of the UN's Vienna Cafe, Amb. Abdalhaleem complained that Sudan's experience with the UN has been "bureaucratic and unforthcoming." Asked if the purpose of his letter to Ban Ki-moon was only to trigger funding, Amb. Abdalhaleem said that the Security Council has to come forth with funding "or we will withdraw our offer."

            Having heard this real politik, it was not surprising when the meeting and interviews broke up that Amb. Abdalhaleem and Jean-Marie Guehenno were openly arguing as they walked in the hallway from the Vienna Cafe to the UN's Conference Building. The happy talk of earlier in the day gave way to acrimony. UN insiders tell Inner City Press that Ban Ki-moon so much wants to declare success in Darfur that he convinces himself, and then others, that Sudan's commitments and motives are not what they are. For his part, Sudanese Amb. Abdalhaleem accused some reporters who asked, as Inner City Press did, "who will fly the helicopters" which have been agreed to purportedly without strings, of only looking for problems, of trying to cast Sudan in a negative light. Under the camera lights after the meeting, it was the UN that tried to hold to two positions at once, a balancing act that broken down later in the hallways when it was thought no reporters were around. But we are everywhere...         

            Ban Ki-moon had praised Amb. Abdalhaleem's letter, telling reporters:

"This morning, I have received an official communication from the Sudanese Government through their Permanent Representative in New York, informing me that they agreed on the heavy support package in its entirety, including the helicopter component. This is a very positive sign, and I and the African Union intend to move quickly to prepare for the deployment of the heavy support package and the hybrid force."

            But Permanent Representative Abdalhaleem said again and again that given Sudan's position that the Darfur Peace Agreement prohibits UN peacekeepers, a force would be hybrid only in that the UN could provide a "backstop," and funding.

Peacekeepers: still in the bullpen, still on ice

   African Union Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare, speaking in French, told reporters that the AU peacekeepers have been doing their job, they are just underfunded.  When Inner City Press tried to ask Jean-Marie Guehenno what has happened on Senegal's threat to pull its troops from Darfur, Mr. Guehenno said, "I think I'll stop answering now." Minutes later, he was arguing in the hallway with Amb. Abdalhaleem. Heavy Support Package indeed...

At the UN, Mayor Bloomberg Talks Global Warming While Fire Department Inspection Is Discussed

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, April 11 -- As the UN moves toward fixing its headquarters building, while New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg announces a rare municipal climate change plan, Ban Ki-moon and Bloomberg met Wednesday surrounded by issues, surrounded by aides. UN spokeswoman Marie Okabe after the meeting said that among the topics covered were how the UN's fix-up, called the Capital Master Plan, could harmonize with the City's goal of reducing carbon emissions. Inner City Press asked about the attendance of NYC Fire Department officials.

            "There was a Fire Department inspection" of UN Headquarters, Ms. Okabe said, specifying that the inspection took place in late 2006. Now, she said, UN Under Secretary General for Management Alicia Barcena will be following up with the Fire Commissioner. Because the UN's campus is international territory, longstanding issues of immunity have more recently flared into tabloid Press stories earlier this year about rats and eels in the UN and no NYC inspections.

            Ms. Barcena has told Inner City Press not to expect the Capital Master Plan to be changed from the current version, involving the construction of a temporary "swing space" on the UN's North Lawn, to larger plan for a new tower south of 42nd Street. Marie Okabe repeated this on-camera on Wednesday, click here for video.

Messrs. Bloomberg and Ban on April 11: can carbon emissions be reduced?

            Mayor Bloomberg's public schedule for Wednesday, distributed to City Hall reporters at 7 on Tuesday night, included stops at Public School 61 in Queens and at Columbia University, with no mention of the United Nations. Inner City Press and others asked the UN press office if Mayor Bloomberg would stop and answer a few questions. The response was, "Ask City Hall."

            Wednesday afternoon, after having escorted take-no-questions Mayor Bloomberg to his waiting SUV, Ms. Barcena mentioned the Bloomberg-convened climate change summit announced earlier in the day. It is slated for May 14-17 and according to City Hall's press release will involved "mayors from more than 30 of the world's largest cities, including London, Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Moscow and Istanbul.  Private sector companies will also be represented through sponsorship of sessions and events, and having CEOs in attendance.  These companies include: JP Morgan Chase & Co., Alcoa, Deutsche Bank, the Hearst Corporation, the Shell Oil Company, Siemens, Time Warner, BSKYB, Citigroup, Con Edison, Federated Department Stores, General Electric, Keyspan, KPMG LLP, Swiss Re, and Tishman Speyer." 

            This litany is not unlike the UN's Global Compact, in which large companies sign on to high-minded principles without necessarily changing their practices. Musing reporters asked Ms. Barcena what another item on the agenda, the City's help with Peacekeeping, could possibly have met. Marie Okabe had referenced New York's "diverse" police force. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has been involved in security in Haiti, and Bernard Kerik in other places, including for profit. It seems those topics did not come up, nor the UN's allowance of smoking in Mayor Bloomberg's smokeless city.

            One wonders if the UN will have a role in Mayor Bloomberg's climate summit, given Ban Ki-moon's on-again, off-again position on holding his own global warming summit. In this case, the warming appears to be more local and concrete, and to involve the fall-out from the Fire Department inspection. Developing...

Among the UN correspondents waiting in the lobby, to try to ask Mayor Bloomberg questions, a story emerged of a more recent rodent sighting in the Delegates' Dining Room, reportedly photographed by a visiting Brazilian judge. The same was heard later from diplomatic sources, which in the UN makes the story true, or as good as true. We will have more on this.

With Abkhazia at the UN, Breakaway Republics' Club is Waiting, Disputes on Visas, Kosovo and Exhibitions

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, April 10, updated 8 pm -- As the UN Security Council on Tuesday discussed the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, Georgia, the U.S. and Russian Ambassadors traded diplomatic barbs about a man who wasn't there.

    The Abkhaz foreign minister Sergei Shamba, it having been made clear that no U.S. visa would be granted, appeared by written text and, it was said, a compact disk that would be given to all Council members. Inner City Press asked U.S. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff if he had the c.d. and would watch it. [It is in Russian with English subtitles; its final line is that "the recognition of independence of Abkhazia and other republics such as South Ossetia and Transdniestria would be a logical conclusion of this process." Click here to see Mr. Shamba himself.]

    Amb. Wolff said that Russian Ambassador Churkin was being "mischievous" and making "theater," by ignoring speakers in chamber and walking out of the Council.

            Amb. Churkin laughed when told of this characterization. "I have to be very careful walking around this building," he said, recounting that he left to deliver a speech in the First Committee of the General Assembly, about disarmament, pursuant to Russia's "important political and intellectual role" on the issue.

   There was a momentary opening to bring several UN issues together, and Inner City Press took it, asking Amb. Churkin if he had seen a photo exhibition about Abkhazia that is up on the walls in the UN's basement by the Vienna Cafe. The exhibit includes photos of Georgians being shot and killed in the streets of the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi in 1993, and includes not-entirely-clear quotes about genocide and ethnic cleansing.

            "Yes," Amb. Churkin replied. "It's one-sided. It's unhelpful... One side is engaged in a massive campaign. But they chose to do it."

            "But you don't think that countries should block each other's exhibition," asked Inner City Press, referring to Turkey's blocking earlier in the week of a memorial to the Rwandan genocide, due to a reference to "one million Armenians murdered in Turkey."

            "I don't want to generalize," Amb. Churkin said. He again called the Georgian exhibit "unhelpful" and "bad propaganda," but said Russia had "decided it was not the situation we should shake the tree."

            One observer noted that Russia should be given credit for not trying to have the exhibition cancelled. China, for example, did try to cancel an exhibition sponsored by a non-governmental organization from Taiwan, and more recently got a Taiwanese presentation removed from a UN web cast, click here for that story.

    Some analogize between China's position on Taiwan and Turkey's activism in opposing any characterization of Armenians' deaths just before and during World War I as a genocide. The same word, applied in Georgia's exhibition about Abkhazia, does not draw the same vehemence from Russia. Perhaps it is because Russia has a handful of such issues, from Chechnya (which it wants to keep) to Kosovo (which it wants Serbia to be able to keep) to South Ossentia (which, like Abkhazia, Russia would like to see break away from Georgia).

            U.S. Ambassador Wolff disputed Russia's analogy between Abkhazia and Kosovo. Amb. Churkin had said, Imagine the Security Council considering Kosovo while only hearing from the Serbian side. Last week the Council heard the Kosovar position, albeit in a non-formal Arria style proceeding.

  Some wonder: what is the distinction in barring the Abkhaz side, other than the foreign policy of the host country?  And what is the difference between Georgia's Abkhazia exhibition's use of graphic photos, for example of a dozen men shot dead and bleeding on the ground in September 1993, and of the word genocide and the unceremoniously postponed Rwanda exhibit, with its inclusion of "one million Armenians murdered in Turkey" on a display headed, "Genocide: whose responsibility"?

UN doctors try to heal in Gali (more graphic photos on display in UN hallway)

            For the record, the mandate of the UN's Mission to Georgia is set to expire on April 15, so a vote to extend it is expected on Friday, April 13. In town to do Russia's heavy lifting is their specialist on Abkhazia, Vladislav Chernov. In New York on Tuesday, Mr. Chernov told reporters to expect the investigative report on the Kodori Gorge military incidents -- which include alleged Russian use of helicopter gunships -- in two weeks.

   The thumbnail background is that Abkhazia de facto broke away from Georgia in September 1993. The Georgian exhibition currently on display at the UN states that "under threat of death the local inhabitants were expelled from the territory of Abkhazia," and puts the number of expellees at 250,000 Georgians and 100,000 others, listing "Russians, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Ukrainians and Estonians." With the mixing of territories and religions, one wag wonders if there is not some double-counting. One exhibit mis-spells the word "seazure" (for seizure), calling into question the statement that all such exhibition are reviewed by the UN Department of Public Information, click here for video of that statement.

[Update 8 p.m. -- subsequent to the statement(s) that DPI had reviewed Georgia's exhibition about Abkhazia, the statement was amended that the exhibition had not be reviewed. The event took place, wine glassed clinked; a "read out" has been promised of Georgia's Prime Minister's meeting with the Secretary General.]

            The Georgian exhibition includes a 1993 quote attributed to Russia's then-foreign minister, that "Everything, that is happening  in Sukhumi is ethnic cleansing." Given that it is Georgia, and not Russia, which states that votes held in Abkhazia are illegitimate because of the ethnic cleansing of ethnic Georgians, the quote seems strange, purportedly having come for a Russian foreign minister.

   Inner City Press asked the Russian mission's spokeswoman, who in turn asked rhetorically, ethnic cleansing of whom, by whom? "That's what you should ask him," she said. But Georgian Prime Minister Mr. Zurab Nogaideli spoke only very briefing to reporters outside the Security Council. Inner City Press asked about Georgia's lawsuit against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights. The Georgia Prime Minister refused to comment on the case. Click here to view; click here for the Court's Registrar's release  on the "Inter-state application brought by Georgia against the Russian Federation."

            While the Security Council was meeting on Tuesday, the foreign ministers of South Ossentia, Abkhazia and Transdniestria -- Murad Dzhioyev, Sergei Shamba and Valeri Litskai, respectively -- were slated to meet in Sukhumi, forming their Association For Democracy and Peoples Rights, a/k/a Club of Breakaway Republics. Some wonder why Nagorno-Karabakh is not included. In any event for now the meeting was reportedly postponed, due both to the hospitalization of Abkhaz president Sergei Bagapsh and to a decision to wait for the Security Council slated Friday vote on its extension of the UN's Mission to Georgia. At deadline, the Abkhaz government's web site still called the breakaways' meeting "ongoing." We'll see.

U.S. Exclusion of Abkhazia Minister Explained, While Gunship Mystery Continues, Russia in the Wings

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, April 5 -- In the run up to next week's Security Council meeting on Abkhazia and Georgia, Inner City Press on Thursday asked U.S. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff about the host country's previous denial of a visa to Abkhazia's foreign minister. Amb. Wolff answered, in essence, we did it because we could. From the transcript:

Inner City Press: On Abkhazia, if the self-styled prime minister of Abkhazia sought to attend, would the host country grant him a visa, at this time?

Ambassador Wolff:  The issue hasn't come up.

Inner City Press: Could you say why in the past the U.S. didn't do it? Ambassador Churkin has said that last time, six months ago, when they met on the extension, that he was not allowed to attend.

Ambassador Wolff:  We have a political process underway through a group called the friends of Georgia, that's focusing on conflict resolution and negotiations with the parties, there are considerations related to that, and all members except the Russian Federation believe that the timing is not appropriate, that it would be counter productive, that it would not contribute to the efforts underway to try to deal with this issue through a conflict resolution process that the Friends are leading.

            With Friends like these... The just-issued Secretary General's report on Abkhazia mentions a Geneva meeting of the Group of Friends, chaired by UN Peacekeeping's Jean-Marie Guehenno, with the participation of Abkhazia's "de facto Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba."  So apparently, this "de facto" foreign minister can attended UN-chaired meetings in Geneva, but cannot enter the United States. At least not at this time.

            The Abkhazia report also recites that "late in the evening of 11 March... five helicopters has approached the upper Kodori valley from the north and fired rockets at the villages of Chkhalta and Adjara... The investigation is still in progress."

            The alleged motive is that the target was the seat of the pro-Georgia Abkhaz government-in-exile, which was commissioned by Georgian president Saakashvili.

Gov't-in-exile compound, fired on

  Note: while Abkhazia is a breakaway republic of Georgia, which some say broke away from the USSR, the Upper Kodori Gorge is a breakaway from the rest of Abkhazia: a three-fer, if you will.) The alleged culprit, deployer of gunship helicopters, is Russia. Ambassador Wolff was asked:

...there have been allegations in various things, that it was the Russians. But, how seriously is the U.S., but also the Security Council, taking this issue, if it does turn out that a permanent member of the Security Council might have been involved in firing helicopter gun ships in another country's territory, what kind of recourse might there be, what kind of discussions might we be seeing, you know, over the coming days?

Ambassador Wolff:  Well, I've not seen any conclusions from the report yet, I know there's an investigation either way.  Clearly, as you stated, any attack on a sovereign country is to be taken very seriously, we will evaluate the reports, we will be discussing it with the experts who conducted it, we have a meeting set up next week as you know on the renewal of UNOMIG, the Georgian prime minister will come, we'll hear from special representative Arnault, and I'm sure this will figure prominently in our exchanges to try to get to the bottom of this.

            But again, breakaway Abkhazia's "de facto" Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba will not be present, according to Amb. Wolff's response. "At least you got an answer," another correspondent whispered to Inner City Press. It was not so easy getting a quote from the UN about its follow-through on its statement, following the military coup in Fiji in late 2006, that it would not use more Fijian troops as peacekeepers until democracy was restored. Click here for that story. And while UK Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry stopped to take a question about the UK's policy on whether the UN, post-coup, should use Fijian peacekeepers, his answer was, "I won't know if we have a policy on that." Honest, at least.

At the UN, Kosovo Questions Glean Abkhaz Visa Answers, Arria-Style Then and Now

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, April 3 -- After a full day of positioning in the Security Council on resolving Kosovo's status, the question of what precedent independence for Kosovo would set inevitably arose. Inner City Press asked U.S. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff how, for example, Kosovo and Serbia could be distinguished from Abkhazia and Georgia, and secondarily, why the U.S. had denied a visa to the (self-styled) Foreign Minister of the (breakaway) Republic of Abkhazia. Amb. Wolff on-camera responded to the precedent question, while not explaining the visa denial.

            Amb. Wolff pointed out that Kosovo has been administered by the U.N. for seven to eight years. In response to a question of whether the U.S. believes that international law permits the Security Council to grant independence to a part of a previously sovereign country, Amb. Wolff said that the Security Council is international law. This is a statement that will need some follow-up.

            A skirmish earlier in the day concerned whether Kosovo's president could sit at the Council table. Russia objected -- resolution 1244 says that only the UN Special Representative can speak for Kosovo during this period -- and so a so-called Arria style proceeding was convened, not in the Council chamber, and not officially a Council meeting. (Pay attention, because this distinction will return.)

            Next up was Martti Ahtisaari, who joked that he hoped there were no questions left for him. There were, of course, questions, including from Inner City Press whether he deems productive Russia's two suggestions, that the Council members visit the region, and get a report on implementation of Resolution 1244. Mr. Ahtisaari answered diplomatically that it is entirely up to the Council.

            UK Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry, the Council's president this month, patiently took questions. He said the day had been productive. On the question, from Inner City Press, of Kosovo as precedent, Amb. Jones Parry went back to 1389 (the year, not the resolution), then said that in 1989 Milosevic "threw a bomb," leading to the next "twenty years" -- he corrected himself, "eighteen years." But what then of Nagorno-Karabakh?

Kosovo: Boys with bread

            After Amb. Wolff had ceded the stakeout microphone to Mr. Ahtisaari, a U.S. official who asked to be identified as such explained that the U.S. visa had been denied to the so-called Foreign Minister of Abkhazia without violating the U.S.'s obligations as UN host country. Abkhazia is not a country, he said, and the (non-) foreign minister wasn't seeking to travel to an official Security Council or UN meeting, but rather an Arria style meeting. (Yes, see foreshadowing above.) "For bilateral reasons, the visa was denied," he said.

   Back in October 2006, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said that the U.S. had offered to grant the visa if Russia would agree to certain U.S.-favored changes in the then-draft resolution to extend the U.N. mission in Georgia for another six months. That day, Inner City Press asked Amb. Churkin if he would file a complaint with the UN's Host Country Committee. Amb. Churkin said yes, but there's no evidence that he did, and now the U.S. argues that its duties as host country were not implicated, due in part because it was an Arria style meeting that he sought to attend. As another blast from the past -- though not all the way back to 1389 -- click here for the video as Inner City Press asked then-Ambassador John Bolton about the U.S.'s denial of visa. From the U.S. prepared transcript:

Inner City Press: On Georgia, Ambassador Churkin said that the Abkhaz foreign ministry called him, a person from Abkhazia.  Was the U.S. embassy in Moscow didn't give him a visa in exchange for somehow changing the language of the resolution on Georgia -- is that your understanding of what happened? He said it right here.

Ambassador Bolton: I have -- yeah, you know, I have no idea what that's about.

            Sources told Inner City Press, however, that not only had Amb. Churkin made his statement about the visa in a televised interview which the U.S. State Department presumably monitors, but also that the visa issue had been discussed in the Security Council consultations prior to Amb. Bolton's above-quoted answer.  Can what is said outside the chamber be entirely believed?

   Back in October 2006, the U.N. Mission in Georgia was extended for six months, which now run out mid-April. In the interim, there are allegations of Russian helicopter gunship firing in the area, and Georgia has filed suit in the European Court of Human Rights for Russia's round-up and deportation of Georgia. In the Council, and not only on Kosovo, expect fireworks.

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