Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–December 30, 2014.
12:25 p.m. EST
MR. RATHKE: Good afternoon, everybody. So I have nothing for you at the top, so Matt, we’ll just turn over to you.
QUESTION: Happy New Year’s Eve eve.
MR. RATHKE: Thank you.
QUESTION: I don’t really have anything huge to start with, so let’s just start with the question you were asked yesterday about the visit to Turkey of the Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. Do you – have you looked into this? Do you – have you expressed any concern to the Turks about this – his meeting with Prime Minister Davutoglu?
MR. RATHKE: Yes, we have looked into it. And first, let me say our position on Hamas has not changed. Hamas is a designated foreign terrorist organization. Hamas continues to engage in terrorist activity and demonstrated its intentions, among other times, during this summer’s conflict with Israel. And we continue to raise our concerns about the relationship between Hamas and Turkey with senior Turkish officials, including after learning of Khaled Mashaal’s recent visit there.
QUESTION: Well, I mean, is that the extent of it? You just say we’re concerned? I mean, this is a NATO ally hosting an avowed enemy of one of your biggest allies.
MR. RATHKE: Well, we have urged the Government of Turkey to press Hamas to reduce tensions and prevent violence. We raise this at senior levels with our Turkish counterparts and —
QUESTION: Well, do you think that an invitation to him and the prime minister of that – of Turkey receiving him and welcoming him is an indication that your concerns are being addressed?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think you can draw your own conclusions from that. But certainly, we take Hamas as a terrorist organization very seriously. That’s why they’re a designated FTO.
QUESTION: Well —
MR. RATHKE: And that’s why we express our concerns to Turkey when things such as this happen.
QUESTION: Well, did you ask for them not to allow him to visit?
MR. RATHKE: Well, the – we’ve raised this most recently after learning of his visit, so it was after the visit had occurred. We remain in – continue in contact though about Hamas with Turkey.
MR. RATHKE: And I think they’re not in any – that they understand our views.
QUESTION: You said that I should draw my own conclusion about whether your concern – whether the Turks are addressing your concerns. Can I ask you to draw a conclusion based on the fact that you expressed concerns to them —
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, we have concerns about Turkey’s relationship with Hamas. We make those clear. We’ve raised them at senior levels, including just recently.
QUESTION: Do you know if it was raised with the prime minister?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have the —
QUESTION: Or the foreign minister?
MR. RATHKE: — exact, but we’ve raised it at senior levels with Turkey.
QUESTION: All right. And then on the resolution at the UN Security Council —
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: — what’s your understanding of the situation with that right now?
MR. RATHKE: Well, it’s a fluid situation with regard to the resolution and whether a vote will take place. I can give you an update though on the Secretary’s engagement in this regard. In the last 24 to 48 hours the Secretary has made a number of calls to counterparts. Let me give you a list of them. He has spoken with President Kagame of Rwanda; he has spoken on a few occasions with Jordanian Foreign Minister Judeh; he has spoken with the Saudi foreign minister, the Egyptian foreign minister, with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, with the UK foreign secretary, with the EU high representative, Chilean Foreign Minister Munoz, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linkevicius. The – he has spoken, as I mentioned yesterday, with PA President Abbas. He has spoken with the Luxembourg foreign minister, with German Foreign Minister Steinmeier, and with French Foreign Minister Fabius.
So by my count, that’s 13 different individuals. Some of them he’s spoken with more than once, so more than 13 calls over the last day or two. And our position on the resolution has not changed, and I would also add that there are a number of countries that have indicated they cannot support this resolution. And even among countries that are longstanding supporters of the Palestinians and that have indicated they would vote in favor of the resolution, many of them have also acknowledged that it is an unconstructive and poorly timed resolution.
Now, everyone that the Secretary talks to on every side of this issue is deeply concerned about the situation on the ground, and in the last months the Secretary has traveled to the region multiple times to help restore calm. Everyone’s concerns about the situation also make clear why the Secretary spent nine months promoting talks between the parties. And it’s because we support peace and a two-state solution that we believe this is the wrong resolution at the wrong time. We would also add that every month that goes by without constructive engagement between the parties just increases polarization and allows more space for destabilizing efforts.
So that’s the way that the Secretary and the Department view the resolution and a rundown on some of his engagement in the last day or so.
QUESTION: If —
MR. RATHKE: Yeah, Brad.
QUESTION: If you feel that a lot of countries are also concerned and don’t support this, what’s the problem with letting it go to a vote? Surely if there’s so much —
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to —
QUESTION: If there’s so much – so little support for it, wouldn’t it surely be overwhelmingly knocked down?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we don’t have an indication of when a vote might happen at this stage, so I would refer you to the Jordanians or to the Palestinians on that. But our view on the resolution is clear.
QUESTION: But you don’t want a vote; is that correct? You don’t want a vote on this?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m – we don’t support the resolution. As far as the – all of the negotiations and tactics surrounding the resolution text itself and the procedure at the UN, I would refer you to our colleagues up there. But our position on the resolution is clear. And as I said, the Secretary’s sense from talking to his counterparts is that there is a lot of recognition that this particular resolution is unconstructive and ill-timed.
QUESTION: But there’s recognition that it’s unconstructive. Does that mean these people will vote against it? That doesn’t mean much unless – if you still vote for it, then it doesn’t matter.
MR. RATHKE: Well, as I said, there are a number of countries that have indicated they will not support the resolution, and that among countries that have said they will even some of those acknowledge that they don’t consider the resolution to be constructive.
QUESTION: Where do your key allies stand, like France or —
MR. RATHKE: I’m not going to characterize the individual conversations —
QUESTION: Just the number —
MR. RATHKE: — that he’s had. I’m going simply to say that there – that those are the sentiments he’s heard in his conversations.
QUESTION: Jeff, you know because there are six votes, the Palestinians claim that they have six votes – and actually, when this is called upon for a vote it could be done in the consultation round, so to speak. And the head of the council says who’s with this resolution, and then six will raise their hands, sparing the United States a vote. Why would that be objectionable?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to get into the —
MR. RATHKE: I’m not going to get into vote counting from the podium, and I’m also not going to get into UN Security Council procedure from the podium either. So our view on the resolution is as I stated it, but as far as questions of that nature, I think those are best directed to my colleagues up in New York.
QUESTION: But wouldn’t it be that better today or tomorrow, because the first minute of January 1 you will have Rwanda, Luxembourg, Lithuania – they’re all – they will leave the council, then other members will come in that are more supportive of the Palestinian. You will, in that case, get nine people, as a matter of fact, and then the United States will be forced to vote no.
MR. RATHKE: Again, I’m not going to characterize the views of countries that are not yet members of the Security Council on their behalf.
QUESTION: Okay. If you just indulge me a little bit. Now, you said that this is the wrong time. Why is this the wrong time? Why is it a wrong time to submit anything to have this issue resolved, considering that we spent nine months without having this thing resolved?
MR. RATHKE: Well, there were nine months spent with the parties involved, and again, we see this as something that has to come from the agreement and participation of the parties concerned.
QUESTION: Alternatively and conceivably, in the absence of any UN effort and before the Israeli election, do you expect any kind of negotiations that could take place between now and March, when the Israeli elections are supposed to take —
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to predict anything along those lines. I’m not going to issue a prediction. But as I said, our view is that for days and weeks and months that go by without constructive process, then that opens the field for destabilizing efforts. So we clearly consider it important.
QUESTION: And if you’ll allow me just one last one —
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: — on the Hamas issue. Now, the head of Hamas actually resides in one of your – in – your country’s allies, in Qatar, most of the time. So why is that not objectionable, and it is – could be – conceivably be objectionable for him to go to Turkey?
MR. RATHKE: I think our allies and partners are under no —
MR. RATHKE: You said one last question, so I’m giving you one last answer.
QUESTION: Well, I wanted to ask you about the construction —
MR. RATHKE: So I think our partners and allies are under no illusions as to our views about Hamas.
On the same topic? Same topic?
QUESTION: Same topic, yes.
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Same topic, Palestinian issue. Following the same issue, the Palestinian press just reporting this morning, just a couple of hours ago, that when Secretary Kerry called Abbas – I am quoting the Arabic sources very close to the PLO there – that he threatened – Kerry threatened Abbas with economic and political sanctions, and even an Arab Spring in the Palestinian lands, end of quote. Is this true?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to characterize the details of the Secretary’s conversation with his counterparts, but he did not issue a threat in his conversation with Palestinian President Abbas. So that’s —
QUESTION: Just pressuring him?
MR. RATHKE: Well, he explained the United States view of the resolution, which is as I described it.
QUESTION: The threat of sanctions. So the U.S. support economic sanctions, political sanctions, and what is being quoted as an Arab Spring, which in the local understanding would be —
MR. RATHKE: Again, I’ve said that that’s not an accurate representation.
Same topic, Pam? Ilhan – okay. We’ll switch topics. Go ahead, Pam.
QUESTION: Well, wait. I just have one more.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Is it the position of the Administration that when you say now is not the right time, or this is the wrong resolution at the wrong time, that short of an actual peace deal being done, it will never be the right time? Is that correct?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to make an open-ended blanket statement about that.
QUESTION: So you’re open to a – you’re open to the possibility of a UN Security Council resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before there is a negotiated settlement?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I don’t have a comment on that as a possibility. That’s a hypothetical possibility I’m not going to speculate about. But certainly —
QUESTION: Well, is there an answer to the question, “When would be the right time?”
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, the – our concerns about this are multiple ones. There’s concern about the timing. That is the – this sets arbitrary deadlines. We think this would not help negotiations between the parties concerned. We think – we have concerns about Israel’s legitimate security needs, and so we think this has been rushed, and that’s why we both – we support it – we do not support it, neither on substantive nor on the grounds of timing. So there are multiple considerations.
QUESTION: Right. But the short answer, I think, is what you’re saying, is that there is never going to be a right time unless there’s a negotiated settlement.
MR. RATHKE: Well, we of course support a two-state solution achieved through negotiations between the parties. That’s clear and our longstanding policy.
QUESTION: Can I just – sorry, Pam. Did you want to do the same subject? I just want to do the same subject. I just want to be clear. So the U.S. would prefer that it didn’t go to a vote. Is that what you’re trying to prevent? Or are you saying, well, if it goes to the vote, we’re going to veto it?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again – this is similar to Said’s question – I’m not going to get into the tactics and whether – and our view on a vote. Our view on the resolution is we do not support it, and the Secretary’s been actively engaged to exchange views with his counterparts and with influential voices in the region.
Yes, Pam. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I just want one more.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: The British said today that they don’t back it. Does – is that at all influential in how the way the UN would look at this?
MR. RATHKE: Well —
QUESTION: I mean, given those two large —
MR. RATHKE: We’re of one view, then, but as far as the situation in New York, I would defer to my colleagues up there, where there are active discussions ongoing.
QUESTION: I have questions, Jeff, on two Russia-related issues. First is a Russian court has given political activism Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny a three-and-a-half-year suspended prison sentence. He was convicted on fraud. And the court at the same time convicted his brother Oleg of fraud and sentenced him to serve three and a half years in jail. So my first question is: What is your reaction to the sentence? And then secondly, does State believe that the court’s decision to give his brother the jail time is an attempt to stifle his activism?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we are troubled by the guilty verdict handed down in the latest action against Alexei and Oleg Navalny. The decision is a disturbing development in our view, and it appears to be designed to further punish and deter political activism. This appears to be another example of the Russian Government’s growing crackdown on independent voices. We also continue to be concerned about increasing restrictions on independent media, civil society, minority groups, and the political opposition. We believe that the Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law, and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution.
QUESTION: And what about the second part? Do you think the fact that his brother received a jail sentence is an effort to stifle dissent?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to parse the individual sentences, but I would stand by our characterization that we see this as a disturbing development designed to punish and deter political activism.
QUESTION: And, Jeff, also yesterday, of course, the Magnitsky list came out and there were four more Russian individuals added to the list. There’s reaction from the foreign ministry which says the U.S. has a double standard on human rights and it – the statement also said that while the U.S. is criticizing Russia, it’s “closing its eyes to practices such as medieval torture” methods by intelligence services. So what is State’s reaction?
MR. RATHKE: Our reaction to what specifically?
QUESTION: Your reaction to what the Russian foreign ministry is saying about the U.S. release of the new list, in light of what it says are human rights abuses in the United States.
MR. RATHKE: Well, we stand by the Magnitsky law and by our submission to Congress, which was transmitted yesterday. And the reasons for the listings of people, I would remind these four names were people determined to have been involved in the detention, abuse, or death of Sergei Magnitsky, or in the criminal conspiracy he uncovered, or people who participated in subsequent cover-up efforts or other gross human rights violations. So the basis in the law and its connection to Russia’s international human rights obligations is pretty clear, in our view.
QUESTION: The question is: Does the United States have a double-standard when it comes to human rights abuses?
MR. RATHKE: Well, no, and I think we would put our record up against anybody, not only in terms of practices, but our addressing problems when they arise.
QUESTION: You just cited abuses that occurred in the detention and treatment of prisoners, and are you saying that the United States does not know of any actions that are similar that have happened by U.S. personnel in the last decade?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think we’ve talked about that in this room as well as more broadly in recent weeks and in recent months, and the U.S., in terms of our commitment to transparency and to addressing problems, is unparalleled.
QUESTION: So why not would the Russians stick to the same principle of transparency that they – you can talk about it, but you don’t punish anyone? Because you’re not punishing any American personnel.
MR. RATHKE: Well, these are totally different situations.
QUESTION: How are they totally different? You just mentioned detention and treatment of prisoners. Isn’t that the same exact thing we’re talking about?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we’re talking about a law that’s focused on the case of Magnitsky and the targeted actions that flow from it.
QUESTION: Well, let me maybe make this easier.
MR. RATHKE: Yep.
QUESTION: Are you aware of any – or can you name or cite a single example where the United States Government has held someone accountable for abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody? Can you identify a prosecution, a criminal case?
MR. RATHKE: Well, there are clearly – clearly have been going back some time, and we can come back with more detail on those. Those were not people under – these were people who were accused of abuses in detention facilities and were dealt with through military justice and other procedures. But we can come back with more on that.
Anything more on this topic? No? Ilhan.
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Today, there was a Turkish journalist was detained whose house was raided by police, then taken to court for a tweet she tweeted. It seems kind of – it’s becoming a pattern in Turkey to detain journalists or dissidents. Would you agree with that, or do you have any concern with this recent detention?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I don’t have any specific details to confirm about that particular case that you’ve mentioned, so I can’t speak to that. But clearly, from this podium and through our engagement with Turkish authorities, we have made clear our concerns about the treatment of journalists and the importance of free media and free expression of political and other views. So that’s certainly something we take seriously and we’ve raised with Turkish officials.
QUESTION: So you have not seen this most recent detention today, it is what you are —
MR. RATHKE: I’m not able to confirm any details about that particular incident. But our – as a principle, our overall concerns and concerns we’ve raised with Turkey remain.
QUESTION: Last time we talk about freedom of press in Turkey, it was couple weeks ago when several other journalists got arrested. And one of those has been still in jail. Have you been talking to Turkish authorities since then over recent developments?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have any new updates on that specific case to raise, but again, we’ve raised our concerns about —
QUESTION: One —
MR. RATHKE: — freedom of the press with Turkey.
QUESTION: One last one.
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Turkish President Erdogan stated couple days ago that nowhere in the world press is freer than Turkey, and you are saying that you conveying – and you have been conveying your concerns over media freedom. How do you communicate with Turkey while the Turkish president says the best freedom and the most free country is Turkey while you are raising concerns over the issue?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’d encourage you to raise that with Turkish authorities. Our concerns are as I have stated them, and we certainly make no secret about them.
Go ahead, Lesley.
QUESTION: Change subject?
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Do you have any comment on Israel – the Israeli Government’s indication that it could withdraw the rights against – sorry, the rights granted to Noble and Delek to develop the offshore gas fields? Israel said they were looking – antitrust body said they were looking into it and branding this group a cartel. Any comment on this?
MR. RATHKE: Well, you’re referring to Noble Energy and its involvement in gas in Israel. We – this is something that was signed a couple of months ago, I believe. We continue to engage and we support all parties to move forward with the natural gas deal signed between Noble Energy and entities in Jordan and Egypt. We strongly believe that these deals would enhance energy security in the region.
Now, there is a legal debate ongoing in Israel. The U.S. is not involved in that legal debate, but we think it is important for all countries to have a strong investment climate, including a consistent and predictable regulatory framework. We also think energy discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean can and should be used for strengthening collaboration and cooperation.
Secretary Kerry discussed these issues with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and he asked Special Envoy Hochstein to continue to engage Israeli and regional government officials on this topic. The special envoy was in Israel this week. He met with the minister of energy, Silvan Shalom; with officials in the prime minister’s office; as well as with other officials in the Israeli Government.
QUESTION: I mean, if they pulled it, you – would you consider this a potential expropriation?
MR. RATHKE: I’m not going to characterize anything in advance, but we certainly think it’s important for all countries to have a strong investment climate, and as I said, a consistent and predictable regulatory framework.
Different topic? Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: South Korea has proposed to hold high-level talks with North Korea sometime next month to break the deadlock in their relations. Do you have any readout or comment on this?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we support improved inter-Korean relations, but I don’t have any specific comment on that proposal. I’d refer you to the Government of South Korea in that respect.
QUESTION: Do you support this proposal?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we support improved inter-Korean relations, as I said.
QUESTION: This proposal came —
MR. RATHKE: So I’d refer you to them for details.
QUESTION: Yeah. I’m asking this question because this proposal was made as the United States is trying to punish North Korea for the Sony hack.
MR. RATHKE: Well, I – again, I’m not drawing a – I’m not drawing any connection between those two things. We support improved inter-Korean relations, but this is an initiative of the Republic of Korea, so would refer you to them for more details about their – the goals and the particulars of it.
QUESTION: One more question on the Sony hack.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: There’s been a report, a news report today – a cyber security firm has briefed the FBI on the result of its own investigation into the Sony hack; that it was not North Korea, but laid-off Sony staff that launched this attack. I’m wondering if FBI is still investigating this case and if there’s any chance of the agency overturning its decision, its finding after further investigation.
MR. RATHKE: Well, of course, for details of the FBI’s discussions and activities, I would refer you to them. But in general, and referring to our conversation yesterday, the United States Government has concluded that the North Korean Government is responsible for this attack, and we stand by that conclusion. And so of course, as – if I refer you back to the FBI’s most recent statement on this, they also made clear that it remains an ongoing investigation, but they – but the attribution and the conclusion of DPRK’s responsibility is clear. So I don’t see a contradiction between their continuing to discuss that while the conclusion remains.
Yes, go ahead. We’ll – and we’ll come back.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Israel-Palestinian —
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on Korea?
MR. RATHKE: On that one, yes?
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, because there are reports that says Korea depended on other groups like Guardians of Peace or someone else, some high-tech group that is doing this from outside the country. Are you aware of these reports?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we’re aware of these reports, which Matt also brought up yesterday. Again, our conclusion is that the North Korean Government is responsible for the attack. Now, it’s possible that some assets outside of the DPRK might have been involved, but that doesn’t change the conclusion about the DPRK’s responsibility.
So yes, Israel —
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: You said the wrong resolution, the wrong time. Just to understand the U.S. policy here, what would be the best time for a resolution from the Palestinians to end the occupation? We’re talking about ending the occupation from the other point of view. So what would be the best timing for President Abbas and the Arab world to present a resolution that would end the situation? What would be the best timing?
MR. RATHKE: This is quite similar to Matt’s question, which I think I’ve addressed. I’m not going to get into prescribing a timing.
Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hold on.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: There is going to be a vote today at the Council at 5 o’clock, apparently.
MR. RATHKE: Okay.
QUESTION: Do you have anything new to say or different to say —
MR. RATHKE: No.
QUESTION: — knowing that there is going to be a vote?
MR. RATHKE: No, and our position remains —
QUESTION: So that means that if it comes to a vote, the U.S. will veto it when it comes to a vote this afternoon.
MR. RATHKE: Well again, I’m not going to prejudge – we don’t support the resolution. Now, the —
QUESTION: Well, you could abstain.
MR. RATHKE: Well again, that will be up to our colleagues at USUN, how —
QUESTION: They make their own – they’re allowed to make their own decision on how to vote?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m – what I’m saying is that the vote that will be cast will be cast by our representative at the UN, so —
QUESTION: No, I understand that. But when you say – now that there is going to be a vote, a vote has been scheduled for 5 o’clock this afternoon, will the United States vote no and veto it or will the United States abstain or will the United States vote yes?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we don’t support the resolution.
QUESTION: So you —
MR. RATHKE: I’m not going to say more about whether – about how exactly our vote will come down.
QUESTION: So you might not vote at all?
MR. RATHKE: I am not going to say anything about the vote.
QUESTION: You might walk out of the room?
MR. RATHKE: That will be the responsibility of our representation at the UN.
QUESTION: I’m a little confused on your answer to his question. You said you wouldn’t prescribe a strategy?
MR. RATHKE: No, I said timing.
QUESTION: Prescribe —
MR. RATHKE: Because the question was about timing.
QUESTION: Why not? I mean, isn’t it the U.S. policy —
MR. RATHKE: Well, we support a two-state solution —
MR. RATHKE: — in the context that’s reached by the parties concerned.
QUESTION: But he said from the Palestinian standpoint their goal is to end the occupation. I think that’s U.S. policy too, is that there is an occupation and that should come to an end, correct?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, we support a two-state solution, so we don’t – we’re not going to divide up individual issues that will be the part – will be part of a —
QUESTION: But that has nothing to do with timing.
MR. RATHKE: — two-state solution and an agreement between the parties.
QUESTION: That has to do – well, okay. You made clear that you have problems with elements in this resolution. But his question was pertaining to the timing. Why wouldn’t you prescribe the best timing forward if your goal is the same, which is to get to a two-state solution?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, we think a two-state solution has to be arrived at through negotiations between the parties.
QUESTION: So —
MR. RATHKE: And I’m not going to speculate about timing for action in the Security Council.
QUESTION: So then you are opposed to Security Council action in principle if you can’t propose any timing whatsoever?
MR. RATHKE: No, I wouldn’t draw that conclusion. I’ve said that we are —
QUESTION: How could I not? You said that —
MR. RATHKE: What I said is I’m not going to speculate about timing. And I’ve outlined our position on this resolution. I don’t have anything further to say about that.
QUESTION: I am changing the topic.
MR. RATHKE: Okay.
QUESTION: I want to recall my yesterday’s question. You said that you will try to get more information.
MR. RATHKE: Right.
QUESTION: Azerbaijan have two hostage in Armenia from July, Dilgam Asgarov and Shahbaz Guliyev. Yesterday in Armenia was held illegal trial, and Dilgam Asgarov was sentenced to life, Shahbaz Guliyev to 22 years in prison. I’d like to know your say opinion about it. What do you think about this?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we don’t have a comment on that specific case, but we do encourage the sides to take constructive steps to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. And the sides, we believe, can build on the momentum that was generated by the presidents’ three meetings this year, and they can do so by adopting measures that build trust and confidence. And Secretary Kerry urged the presidents to do this in Wales, and they can also enter into a genuine negotiation process to advance a peaceful and lasting settlement to the conflict. We believe that’s what the people of the region deserve, and that’s how we view the situation.
QUESTION: About Somalia?
MR. RATHKE: Okay.
QUESTION: Over the weekend – excuse me – Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi surrendered and there was the – I believe there’s a $3 million bounty. Will anybody be collecting that?
MR. RATHKE: Right. We have seen reports that former al-Shabaab official Zakariya Ahmed Ismail Hersi surrendered to Somali forces. Al-Shabaab continues to discredit itself throughout Somalia with its brutal and oppressive tactics, while African Union forces and the Somali national security forces are making significant progress to regain territory. We continue to work closely with the Somali Government.
And with respect to the reward, any reward payment would depend on the specific circumstances involved in bringing an individual to justice. I’m not going to speak to that, though, from the podium.
QUESTION: Did any intelligence from his surrender lead to the airstrikes?
MR. RATHKE: Again, I’m not going to comment on any operational matters.
QUESTION: I have questions on two topics, first Iran. Amir Hekmati, the U.S. Marine with dual citizenship who went to Iran and ended up being arrested for spying in 2012 – VOA spoke to his lawyer and the lawyer says that the State Department asked through the Swiss Embassy that Hekmati be exchanged for Iranians who are imprisoned in the United States. Can you confirm these reports?
MR. RATHKE: Those reports are not accurate. The U.S. Government has not proposed a prisoner exchange for Mr. Hekmati. It’s not true. We do, however, call on the Iranian Government to release Amir Hekmati immediately as well as detained U.S. citizens Saeed Abedini and Jason Razaian, and to assist us in locating Robert Levinson so that they all can be returned to their families as soon as possible.
QUESTION: Has the U.S. had any outreach in general to Hekmati here lately to – on his behalf to secure his relief?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I don’t have anything new to read out on that. But of course we take every opportunity to urge that he be released.
QUESTION: And this is on —
QUESTION: Can we just stay with that, on the —
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Was there some kind of a communication, though, that went to the interest section – not interest section – through your protecting power, the Swiss, to the Iranian Government, something recent that they might have – I don’t know – misunderstood as a proposal for an exchange?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, this is coming from his attorney and not even from Iranian authorities, but I can look and see if there’s anything to share. But I think the key point from our perspective is that we have not made any such proposal for an exchange.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, are you aware of any recent contact with the Swiss about these individuals?
MR. RATHKE: Yeah, that I’d have to check on. I’m not certain.
Okay. Yes, Pam.
QUESTION: In Gambia, do you have any information from U.S. diplomats who are in that country about today’s shooting at the presidential palace? There were some talks that it might have been an attempted coup. Has the State Department heard anything from officials in the region? And also, has the United States had any contact with Gambia’s president since this incident?
MR. RATHKE: We are aware of reports of a coup attempt overnight in the Gambia. We strongly condemn any attempt to seize power through extra-constitutional means and we call for calm and for all parties to refrain from further violence. Our – we are, of course, in touch with our Embassy in Banjul. The Embassy remains open, and it’s currently led by a charge d’affaires George Staples, a diplomat with decades of experience in the region and worldwide. All U.S. Embassy officials are safe and accounted for, and so our Embassy, of course, will continue to monitor the situation as it unfolds.
In addition to that, the Embassy released an emergency message for U.S. citizens, strongly advising U.S. citizens to avoid Banjul and the area near Denton Bridge, which leads into the city. So with regard to any contact with the president, I don’t have any contact to read out.
QUESTION: Jeff, can you confirm – the Iranians are saying that the Iran nuclear talks are resuming on January 15. Can you confirm that?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have any dates or announcements to make about that.
Okay. Thanks, everyone.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:01 p.m.)