Sunday, 17 January 2010

FOREIGN PRESS CENTER BRIEFING WITH Deputy Public Affairs Spokesperson for Western Hemisphere Affairs Virginia Staab



FRIDAY, JANUARY 15, 2010 AT 3:00 P.M. EST

MODERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. Welcome to the Foreign Press Center. This afternoon, we continue with our series of daily briefs on Haiti and we are very happy to have to the deputy spokesperson for the Western Affairs Bureau. So I would like to introduce Ms. Virginia Staab.

MS. STAAB: Thank you, good afternoon. I have a couple comments and recent status reports, then I’m happy to take your questions.

President Obama spoke for about 30 minutes with President Preval today. The President underscored his commitment to supporting the government and people of Haiti through his team on the ground and team back here in Washington and abroad. He also said that we have a unique capacity to respond and to act to the events that are transpiring right now in Haiti, and we are acting accordingly.

Today as well, we have – between the Navy, the Puerto Rico National Guard, and the Coast Guard, we have 24 helicopters that are operating in Haiti today. And with the addition of the Carl Vinson that has arrived, we have the capability to land helicopters, to distribute aid, to work around some of the difficulties with the infrastructure that we’ve had with the airport. And we’re trying to – we have landing areas near the airport where these helicopters are landing, picking up aid and then distributing it to the population.

We have 265 Health and Human Services personnel that are now on the ground, including four disaster medical teams, one international medical surgical team, and one mortuary assessment team and logistical staff. And just this afternoon, the U.S. Government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Haitian Government to temporarily control air traffic within the Port-au-Prince area.

With that, I’ll take your questions.

MODERATOR: All right. We’ll start here at the top, please.

QUESTION: Jori Thamara (ph), Agence France Press. A couple of questions: Just some minutes ago, I think the French minister said that according to Haitian authorities, there might be already 10,000 dead counted, 10,000 bodies. I don’t know if you have any similar figure provided by Haitian Government or any other agency or someone on the ground. And the second question is on former President Aristide. He said in Johannesburg that he was ready to go back or he wanted to go back to his country. I don’t know if you have a position on that. Would you agree to that?

MS. STAAB: Sure, thank you. We have seen a wide variance in the number of fatalities at the moment. The Haitian Government to us is estimating that it’s 45- to 50,000, but again, these are estimates at the moment. Our mortuary assessment team is working with the individuals to make sure that the deceased persons are being moved to the appropriate areas so that there are no further spread of disease, things like that. So the estimates have varied quite widely, so we are reluctant to provide one from the U.S. Government. So those are Haitian estimates that we’re received.

And we did see the press reports with regards to President – former President Aristide, and at this moment, we have no comment on that, no further information. We will work through that. We saw the statement that was on his website which I believe said that he would – that several of his supporters were going to charter a plane to take him to Haiti and that he was ready to go, rather than his willingness was to go and to make specific flight plans.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) he gave a press conference – yeah, sorry. I (inaudible) he gave a press conference and he said he was willing to – he wanted to help. It’s not just a question of supporters.

MS. STAAB: Thank you. Yes, we are looking at those details and that conference right now, but to date, we have no USG position on that.

QUESTION: What’s the --

MODERATOR: Excuse me, can you --

QUESTION: What’s the updated number of U.S. casualties in Haiti?

MS. STAAB: Sure. We have one fatality. Secretary Clinton spoke with – this morning with the family of Victoria DeLong, who was our Cultural Affairs officer at the Embassy. And at the moment, we have four very seriously injured – this is U.S. Government personnel – and three unaccounted for. We have five confirmed American fatalities, 15 presumed fatalities of Americans, 19 are very serious at the moment, and dozens have been treated for less serious injuries.

MODERATOR: Yes, please.

QUESTION: Christophe (inaudible) from the German daily (inaudible). What are your informations about the standard* public order and security? Of course, there are a lot of rumors and a lot of people are afraid that – understanding how difficult the situation is. Of course, the risk of looting and everything rises, but do you have any reliable information on that?

MS. STAAB: Yes, we have seen those reports and there are UN personnel that are dealing with those. We also have several Marine divisions that are coming in to assist, because quite frankly, the UN is having difficulty getting people on the ground as well. So we are assisting temporarily. And we have seen reports of looting of sort of some isolated episodes of violence, and we’re working to make sure that those incidents are handled appropriately. We do have U.S. teams that – some of the military personnel that are working to ensure public safety at this present time.

MODERATOR: Yes, please, in the back.

QUESTION: Thank you. (Inaudible) with China Radio International. I’ve got three questions. The first one is: How many international teams are there in Port-au-Prince? And I saw a picture yesterday about the Chinese rescue – search-and-rescue teams on the front page of the News Yahoo!. So any comment about the international teams and the Chinese teams in particular? And that was the first one.

And the second one: The foreign aid is not distributed yet, so there were reports about fighting for food and water. So when was that supposed to happen? And the third one is: What are the major hardships, difficulties at this moment? Thank you.

MS. STAAB: Thank you. With regards to the Chinese team, it’s been a concerted international effort. Specifically, China has sent a search-and-rescue team. Additionally, three experts that were so badly needed were DNA experts that have come from China, and they are working right now to identify individuals that were beyond recognition, to try to identify them with their family members, obviously. And so China has played a great part along with the entire international community in some of the rescue efforts.

Your second question with regards to foreign aid – thank you – that has been a logistical challenge, absolutely. That is why the Carl Vinson was brought in as well to provide an alternate landing strip. Much of the aid, as has been widely reported, is in the airport. The American teams are delivering that aid out to the population but, again, it takes time. The aid is tremendous. And with regards to the teams that are there on the ground, we have four U.S. search-and-rescue teams. This is just detailing the United States, obviously. And the UN has come out to say no new teams are needed because of the wealth of search-and-rescue teams at the moment. Our concentration today has been on medical personnel getting there, getting supplies there, and setting up hospitals and setting up clinics, getting medical supplies distributed to the hospitals and clinics that are already present there and getting the doctors out into the areas where they are most critically needed.

The foreign aid, the helicopters, that is basically all they have been doing today is delivering aid from the ships and from the airports out into the population, and it’s going to take time. I can tell you that they’re working around the clock. They’ll be working through the night. So while the search-and-rescue teams are busy looking for individuals that they can assist, the medical teams are busy treating those casualties, the Army and military are focused almost solely on distributing this aid.

QUESTION: Thanks. Lauren McGahee (phonetic) from the (inaudible). Just to piggyback on the question about security issues, these Marines that you say have been brought in today to help with security with the UN, do they have the right to make any arrests or to follow up on any disturbances, or is it more of a kind of corralling, keeping peace? What exactly are their rights in terms of doing that?

MS. STAAB: It is the Haitian Government, obviously, that is in charge of all Haitian territory. So we operate under their auspices. UN MINUSTAH as well has a large presence there and they have had the security mandate. We work within their boundaries, within their mandates. So the United States does not have any specific mandate to do any additional security other than through MINUSTAH and through the auspices of the Haitian Government.

QUESTION: Hi. I’m (inaudible). You said you already signed an agreement to control the air traffic in Haiti. But besides that, what other areas of Haitian public life are under, like, operational control of foreigners right now?

MS. STAAB: There aren’t any, actually. We – this memorandum of understanding was signed uniquely in order to get the aid down. Several flights have been diverted. It is now the Dominican Republic that is experiencing severe infrastructure difficulties ad their airport, et cetera. Many of our search teams have been diverted there or have been unable to leave Miami. So this memorandum of understanding that was signed is just a temporary measure in order to get people on the ground. As we are able to move our Naval assets into the area – obviously the ships can carry much more aid, carry much more – the helicopters, much more of the supplies that are required. And so we’re using (inaudible) as a platform now.

There are no – we work within the auspices of the Haitian Government, quite honestly. They are still in charge. And that was evident from our meeting today with President Preval and the phone call with President Obama.

QUESTION: Are you considering extending the mandate of the MINUSTAH, since, like, there are still many ministers who are unaccounted and the rear admiral of the Coast Guard said today that there seems to be, like, only 5,000 policemen who have survived the earthquake. So it might become, like, a real threatening situation for security not only for foreign aid workers but also for Haitians themselves.

MS. STAAB: Absolutely. We are moving more assets. The USS Higgins is due to arrive today. Many of their forces will be keeping the peace as well. The situation is desperate in Haiti and it has been. At the same time, the evidence of looting, et cetera, has been not as widespread. We anticipate that that will increase, obviously, as time goes on because the situation is more desperate, which is the need for us to act now. And I can tell you that the United States Government in working with the international community is doing everything they can to get that aid into the public because right now what happens is – we heard a press report of a gentleman that had a bag of rice on his shoulder and it was ripped apart by a thousand people. And so we are trying to react to that desperate situation and get the supplies where they are most needed.

MODERATOR: Last question.

QUESTION: I would to ask about a psychological mechanism which might be also a risk for the United States. On the first hand, everywhere we see the United States help is very, very visible. It’s a major, major, part of everything what is done. But in the TV, you can already also see because U.S. personnel is there, they are also the target of the complaints and of shortcomings and so on. Are you discussing that at the State Department, this risk? And President Clinton also said, I think, on Fox News today that there will be some very ugly pictures in the next days from looting from situations like you have described, and that might tarnish the picture of the United States actions. The first goal is to help the people.

MS. STAAB: Absolutely.

QUESTION: How are you dealing with it?

MS. STAAB: Our focus always has been on the Haitian people, and so the blowback with regards to press, et cetera, is to be expected, quite honestly. We work within the international community. There are many international partners there. But I think, as President Obama said, we are in a unique position, unique capacity to respond and to act. We are the largest country in the Western Hemisphere, we’re the closest, we’re able to get there faster than many other countries around the world who are able to offer the aid. And we’re acting accordingly. We are working on the situation. Our focus is on the rescue of the Haitian people, the delivery of aid, and the security situation. And we are taking all means – we are looking at all options in order to make sure that those three commitments are fulfilled.

MODERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for coming.

MS. STAAB: Thank you.