12:53 p.m. EDT
MR RATHKE: Good afternoon, everybody. You’re holding down the front row today.
QUESTION: Looks like it’s just me.
MR RATHKE: Great, so I have a few things at the start. The first: the Secretary’s travel. The Secretary is still in Africa and this morning in Nairobi he met with Kenyan civil society leaders. He then traveled to Mogadishu to reinforce the United States commitment to supporting Somalia’s ongoing transition to a peaceful democracy, and this was the first-ever visit by a Secretary of State to Somalia. Secretary Kerry met with Somali President Hassan Sheikh and Prime Minister Sharmarke. They discussed security cooperation and Somalia’s progress towards meeting its reform and the development benchmarks in view of its 2016 elections. Before returning to Nairobi, Secretary Kerry also met with Somali civil society leaders and discussed the importance of a vibrant NGO sector. He also thanked African Union troops for their role in stabilizing Somalia.
Second item: Ukraine. We are deeply disturbed by the Russian Government’s callous and outrageous extension by six months of the detention of Ukrainian member of parliament Nadia Savchenko. We reiterate our serious concerns over her treatment in detention and reports that she is gravely ill while she remains a hostage to Russian authorities. We call on Russia to release Nadia Savchenko and all other Ukrainian hostages immediately, a commitment Russia made when it signed the Minsk agreements in September of last year and again on February 12th of this year when it signed the Minsk implementation plan.
Third item: Nepal. USAID Acting Administrator Alfonso Lenhardt wrapped up his visit to Nepal today with an announcement of an additional $11 million in assistance for Nepal earthquake response and recovery efforts. This brings total U.S. humanitarian assistance for this disaster to nearly $26 million. This includes 2.2 million of logistical support from the Department of Defense. Acting Director Lenhardt, Ambassador Bodde, and Lieutenant General Wissler met with Prime Minister Sushil Koirala to discuss use of the U.S. military’s air – excuse me – air capabilities and the broader disaster response effort. Our Disaster Assistance Response Team and U.S. military conducted aerial assessments of earthquake-affected districts and they are also working with the Government of Nepal on how best to streamline airfield operations, speed up cargo flow, and improve efficiency at the airport. The United States in coordination with Nepal flew three missions to a region 80 miles east of Kathmandu to deliver urgently needed emergency shelter kits. And more than one week after the April 25th earthquake, international foreign rescue teams are starting to leave Nepal as the country shifts from the rescue phase to relief and recovery efforts. USAID is demobilizing the urban search and rescue members of its Disaster Assistance Response Team and preparing for their return to Fairfax County, Virginia and Los Angeles County, California in the coming days.
And the last thing to note at the start – we have visitors here with us today. They are George Washington University students studying international affairs and global media, visiting the department to see how this theory plays out in reality, to which we turn to you, Matt, for the opening contribution.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Under the – it’s my understanding that under the Minsk accords, both sides or all three sides or all sides that are party to it, agreed to release what you refer to as hostages, but I think is referred to as prisoners or detainees in the agreements. Is it your understanding that Ms. Savchenko is the only person who has – covered by this in your —
MR RATHKE: By the Minsk agreements?
QUESTION: — in your opinion who has not been released, or do – are there others? And not just others held by the Russians or the separatists, but by the Government of Ukraine?
MR RATHKE: Well, the —
QUESTION: And if there are, would you also call for their immediate release?
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm, okay. Well, a couple of points in that respect. First of all, just to go back to the commitments in Minsk, this includes the release of all hostages, which includes Nadia Savchenko. I’m happy to check and see if there are any other outstanding known cases of individuals who have not been returned. I would say that the case of Nadia Savchenko is unique in that she is being subjected to a legal proceeding and has been held in detention for quite some time, and that’s why we’ve been drawing attention to that particular case.
QUESTION: You’re not aware of anyone else that’s subject to legal proceedings that has been held for quite some time, who may or may not be ill?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, I think our view of this is that her case is unique. She’s a member of parliament, I would remind, and she’s been taken —
MR RATHKE: — she’s been taken back to Russia and is being held there.
QUESTION: I mean, a member of parliament is one thing, but there are other people who are not elected, people who are not members of parliament, who are also —
MR RATHKE: Well, we certainly call for the release of all hostages.
QUESTION: Thank you. Okay.
MR RATHKE: That’s – we’re not trying to suggest that she’s the only one.
MR RATHKE: But we’re drawing particular attention —
QUESTION: Well, she’s the only one you talk about, so —
MR RATHKE: No. As I said in my statement, we call for the release of all hostages. I don’t – I haven’t named —
QUESTION: Sorry, held by whom?
MR RATHKE: All hostages back to —
QUESTION: No, no. Go back to your statement. All —
MR RATHKE: The statement? We certainly call for the release of everyone who has been —
QUESTION: What does the statement say?
MR RATHKE: — detained, in particular, in this case – I’ll go back. We call on Russia to release Nadia Savchenko and all other Ukrainian hostages immediately. Certainly – and certainly we —
QUESTION: All right. I’m missing the bit in the statement about Ukraine releasing any hostages —
MR RATHKE: Certainly we urge all parties to implement all parts of Minsk. And —
QUESTION: Okay. Can I just —
QUESTION: May I – just a quick follow-up on this? Can you share with us the circumstances of her arrest? Where was she arrested? Was – I mean —
MR RATHKE: Said, we’ve been over this many, many times. I’m not going to rehash this.
QUESTION: I understand, but just refresh my – but was she detained —
MR RATHKE: You can do the research if you want to research that.
QUESTION: Okay. She – I mean, just a simple question: Was she detained in eastern Ukraine, or was she taken? Because you said she was taken back to Moscow and so on. I just want to know what are the circumstances under which she was —
MR RATHKE: We’re happy to get that for you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR RATHKE: Go ahead.
MR RATHKE: Go ahead.
QUESTION: I’m wondering what – if the U.S. has a position on whether he should or should not be released.
MR RATHKE: Well —
QUESTION: The Canadian Government is trying to keep him in. Do you think that’s a – what do you think about that?
MR RATHKE: This is a – this is an internal Canadian proceeding. We’ll leave it to Canadian authorities and the Canadian judicial system to make their decision.
QUESTION: So you don’t have any opinion one way or another about what happens to a former Guantanamo —
MR RATHKE: We’re not going to express a view on that. We leave this to the Canadian judicial system.
QUESTION: In Uruguay, former Guantanamo residents – detainees, shall we say – have been – were protesting and calling for assistance. You had a position on them. You certainly have a position on the five detainees who were released in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl and sent to Qatar. Why is it that you have no opinion one way or another about whether this guy should be released or should be held?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, this is – there – he was transferred to Canada. We can go back and update with some of the details from that time. If you’d like, we can come back to you with more on that. But we see this as an issue that the Canadian judicial system and the Canadian Government are dealing with. We don’t have a comment on it.
QUESTION: So you’re going to be happy with whatever the court decides?
MR RATHKE: We’ll leave it to the court to make its decision.
QUESTION: Well, that’s not my question. I’m wondering what you’re —
MR RATHKE: Well, as I said, we’re —
QUESTION: Do you not have a – you don’t have any position on whether he should be freed or whether he should remain in prison? So you’re happy with whatever the court decides?
MR RATHKE: The Canadian Government and the Canadian judicial system are dealing with this issue, and we don’t have any further comment on it.
QUESTION: Change of subject?
QUESTION: I doubt it, but – (laughter). You may not have anything you want to say from the podium, but I cannot believe – wouldn’t it be irresponsible of this government not to have a position on whether this guy should be freed or held, continued to be held?
MR RATHKE: Look, I don’t have anything more to say on this case right now.
QUESTION: Clearly. Okay.
MR RATHKE: Yep.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR RATHKE: Okay. Said.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Okay. The Israelis announced plans to build 1,500 housing units in the occupied West Bank. Do you have any comment on that?
MR RATHKE: Which —
QUESTION: It’s a new settlement. The Israelis announced on Sunday that they are – they have approved – the Israeli Government has approved the building of 1,500 housing units in occupied Palestinian territory. Do you have any comment on that?
MR RATHKE: I haven’t seen that specific report. I think our position on construction is well known.
QUESTION: Have you – to the best of your knowledge, has anyone contacted the Israeli Government to express displeasure?
MR RATHKE: Well, as I said in response to your first question, I was not aware of that press report, so I don’t have the details of it.
QUESTION: Okay. And yesterday a group of Israeli veterans released a report in which they documented in last summer’s war on Gaza, they documented severe human rights and war crimes, as a matter of fact – like killing people on the highway, demolishing homes knowing that they – exactly they were civilian areas, and so on. Are you aware of the report?
MR RATHKE: I’ve seen reports that they’ve —
QUESTION: Do you have any comment on this report?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think the United States has made – we made our views at the time of the conflict in Gaza known —
MR RATHKE: — and I think those were well reported on. I remember discussing them with you back then.
QUESTION: If you find these abuses as severe as they are alleged to be in the report, would you have something to say about this particular report?
MR RATHKE: Well, we’re —
QUESTION: Would you issue a —
MR RATHKE: — aware of the report. I don’t have further comment to offer —
QUESTION: So you have no further comment?
MR RATHKE: — on it. I think again, Said, at the time of the conflict in Gaza, we, the United States, made our views quite clear.
QUESTION: So would you depend on the Israelis to – the Israeli military to investigate itself if it comes to you or if it’s —
MR RATHKE: I think the – I think Israeli authorities are —
QUESTION: Okay, all right. And since you —
MR RATHKE: — going to investigate that.
QUESTION: — spoke about Ms. Nadia Savchenko —
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: I believe that’s the proper pronunciation. There’s also a Palestinian parliament member, a legislator that has been detained by the Israelis, forced to be exiled from one part of the West Bank to another of West Bank, Khalida Jarrar. I asked about her in this room before. Have you found anything about it?
MR RATHKE: I don’t have anything for you —
QUESTION: Would you please —
MR RATHKE: — on that case. I’m not drawing a connection between those two cases. I’m not familiar with —
QUESTION: Well, she’s —
MR RATHKE: I’m not familiar with the details of that one, Said.
QUESTION: She was illegally detained, I mean, for belonging to a political organization and placed under arrest. I mean, you are calling on —
MR RATHKE: Again, I’m not drawing a link between —
QUESTION: You’re calling on the Ukrainian Government to release Ms. Savchenko.
MR RATHKE: No, it’s the Russian —
QUESTION: Right? I mean, you’re calling —
QUESTION: I’m sorry, I take it back. You’re calling on the Russians to release a Ukrainian parliament member. Do you call on the Israelis to release a Palestinian parliament member?
MR RATHKE: Again, I’m not drawing a connection between these two cases. I’m happy to look into the details of that one and come back to you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR RATHKE: All right. New topic? Yes, go ahead.
MR RATHKE: For what? For what? I’m sorry, I didn’t hear. For what?
QUESTION: For recent city poll, the three-city poll in Bangladesh.
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: So Mr. H.T. Imam, the advisor of Prime Minister Hasina, accused U.S. Ambassador Bernicat in Dhaka for disturbing the election. And also he blamed U.S. embassy officials as well. What is your comment on that?
MR RATHKE: Well, I haven’t seen those comments. I’m happy to look into that and come back to you with a comment.
QUESTION: Thank you, please.
MR RATHKE: But I haven’t seen those, so I’d like to look at them first before offering a response.
MR RATHKE: So this investigation remains in its early stages. Law enforcement authorities are looking into all aspects of it, and so we from here will refer you to law enforcement authorities for any information about their investigation and the circumstances surrounding the attack.
MR RATHKE: Well, our understanding, President Hollande was in the region and then joined the meeting. I don’t have any specific comment about that. He’s been traveling there. I don’t have any further analysis to do of that for you.
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry will be in the region and will be in Saudi Arabia tomorrow, and the summit will be there too. Is he invited?
MR RATHKE: Well, Secretary Kerry is going to Riyadh to have discussions with our Saudi partners on a wide range of issues, as I announced yesterday from here, and I think we put out a statement on it as well. And that will cover the range of our partnership with Saudi Arabia, but also important regional issues.
QUESTION: Do you think that this participation reflects a mistrust in the U.S. from the GCC leaders?
MR RATHKE: I’m not drawing any conclusion from his participation there.
QUESTION: Yeah. It looks like they are concerned about the upcoming nuclear deal with Iran and they talked about the threat that Iran pose on the region. What can you tell them, especially that they are coming next week to the U.S.?
MR RATHKE: Well, as you said, the Secretary will be meeting with his GCC foreign minister counterparts in the next few days in Paris and then, of course, next week. So the upcoming summit is, from the United States point of view, an important opportunity to enhance our partnership with the GCC countries, to deepen security cooperation, and also to discuss ways to address many conflicts that have caused hardship and instability throughout the Middle East. If you look at some of the particular things that will be on the agenda, it reflects the breadth of our partnership. We’ll be talking about common approaches to resolving the conflicts in Yemen, in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria. And this is also an opportunity to reaffirm our strategic partnership with the Gulf states, as well as our shared concern about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region and our mutual commitment to take the steps necessary to enhance stability in the Gulf and to de-escalate tensions.
QUESTION: And their statements today reflect that they are concerned about the impact of the nuclear deal with Iran on the GCC countries. What guarantees can you give them before getting to this deal or before getting this deal done?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think we’ll leave that to the Secretary to discuss with his counterparts and to the President as well. I’m not going to get ahead of the meetings that we’ll be having at high levels with GCC partners in the coming days. But clearly, we’ve remained in close contact with the Gulf countries to talk about the Iran negotiations, to talk about the importance of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and how that benefits the security of the entire region if Iran is prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon. So I think our commitment in that regard as well as our security partnership with the countries in question is a key aspect of our diplomacy in the region.
QUESTION: Yes, Jeff, would you say —
MR RATHKE: Same topic?
QUESTION: Yes. No, no, same topic. Would you say that the Secretary’s meetings in Riyadh on Wednesday and Thursday, they will focus on the Camp David summit that is coming up next week? Is that the thrust of his visit?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think I just laid out some of the issues that they will be talking about. I would refer you to the White House for what they will have on the agenda for the meetings here. But clearly, we have a broad range of shared interests, including regional crises, as well as our security partnership with them.
QUESTION: Mm-hmm. As Michel mentioned, the GCC countries are worried what might happen as a result of the Iran deal, and there are either rumors or whatever you want to call them – reports – that suggest that perhaps you have some suggestions on new security arrangements with these countries. You already have it with Kuwait and Bahrain as non-NATO allies, special security arrangement with non-NATO allies with Kuwait and Bahrain – that you would extend this to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Is that something in —
MR RATHKE: Well, this is, I think, the same question that Michel just asked and that I answered. I don’t have anything to announce at this time.
QUESTION: But that —
MR RATHKE: Of course, our security partnership with the Gulf countries is important to us, and we see the upcoming meetings as a way to talk about issues of mutual security interest. But I don’t have any announcement to make.
QUESTION: And my last question on this: Do you know who is attending? I mean, will King Salman, for instance, be attending the summit next week in Camp David?
MR RATHKE: I’m happy to come back to you with any information, but I would refer you to the White House for information on participation in a presidential event.
Did you have something, Matt?
QUESTION: I just wanted to shift gears —
MR RATHKE: Yes.
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you have any thoughts on the latest developments in Burundi, specifically the ruling by the constitutional court on the president’s candidacy?
MR RATHKE: Yes. Well, the ruling of the constitutional court does not impact the United States position on President Nkurunziza’s third term. The United States has consistently maintained that the only way to respect both the terms of the Burundian constitution and the Arusha agreement is for President Nkurunziza not to seek a third term. And the Arusha agreement – Arusha agreement, excuse me, continues to be an important foundation to maintaining the still-fragile stability in Burundi only 10 years after a civil war that resulted in thousands of deaths.
QUESTION: Do you think that the constitutional court in its current composition – the deputy of it having fled the country – is capable or able to make such a determination?
MR RATHKE: Well —
QUESTION: Whether or not you – whether or not you agree with it or not, do you think that it is, in fact, a functioning and credible court?
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Well, we are deeply concerned by reports that the vice president of the constitutional court fled to Rwanda yesterday, claiming that he and other members of the court were pressured to rule in favor of the constitutionality of a third term. Judicial impartiality, of course, is a key element of a healthy democracy, and so we urge the Burundian Government to quickly and fully investigate these claims of undue influence and of intimidation.
QUESTION: The government of the current president?
MR RATHKE: That’s —
MR RATHKE: Yeah, that’s correct.
QUESTION: What do you think the chances are of that happening?
MR RATHKE: I’m not going to affix a percentage term to it.
QUESTION: And are there any consequences for Burundi should this continue the way that it appears to be continuing, or appears that it will continue?
MR RATHKE: Well, I don’t have any announcements to make. We remain in contact —
QUESTION: I’m not asking you to. I’m just asking —
MR RATHKE: No.
QUESTION: — if there’s going to be any – I mean, are you going to do anything or are you just going to say that you think this is bad?
MR RATHKE: Well, we remain in contact with Burundian authorities, and I’m not going to spell out any specifics —
QUESTION: Well, can they expect something other than a nasty remark from the podium if, in fact, the president does run for a third term?
MR RATHKE: Again, we remain in dialogue with the Burundian authorities. I don’t have anything more to say on that at this point.
Yeah, we’ll go back to – go to the back. Cindy.
MR RATHKE: Well, the Secretary spoke to this when he was in Mogadishu today. After meeting with the president and the prime minister and also talking with civil society leaders, the Secretary in his remarks said that the department would begin the process to re-establish diplomatic premises in Mogadishu. There’s no fixed timeline for re-establishing an embassy, but this would mean that U.S. Government officials would have a more enduring presence there.
I think with respect to Somalia and the changes that have happened there, I think his – he went into some detail in his remarks about this as well. He talked about the resiliency of the people in Somalia and their determination to reclaim their country and their future from terrorists and pirates and militias who have been attempting to steal it; that Somalia has made progress in turning things around, including a new provisional constitution that was adopted and a new parliament; the critical role played by AMISOM, the AU mission; the forces that have pushed out al-Shabaab and put the pirates out of business.
So clearly, there has been – there have been a lot of positive developments, and so the United States remains committed to Somalia, and we are taking the steps he mentioned. We’ll be – so this is the start of upgrading our diplomatic representation. Of course, we’ve nominated an ambassador that is before the Senate, and then – originally when that announcement was made, that was to be based out of our embassy in Nairobi, and until diplomatic premises were established, that would still remain the arrangement. But the Secretary was clearly describing a stepped-up commitment on the part of the United States to Somalia.
QUESTION: One more on that, if I may.
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: How would you characterize the current status of al-Shabaab?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, I think, as the Secretary said, the Somali forces with international help have pushed al-Shabaab out of major population centers. Al-Shabaab remains a dangerous terrorist organization. They’ve carried out attacks in Kenya most recently, and so that is an issue of continued vigilance and concern by the United States, by Somalia, and by our international partners. But clearly, we see the people in Somalia rejecting al-Shabaab’s vision, if you want to call it that, and taking steps to push them out.
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: I had a question on – you mentioned that’s the first time a Secretary has been to Somalia. Is there any reason why now, or do you have any comment on what’s taken so long?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think, in response to the last question, we’ve talked about the positive developments that have happened in Somalia. And I think that was a recognition by the Secretary that we want to keep that momentum going, we want to show our support for Somali authorities, and for the Somali people. And yes, it is the first visit by a secretary of state, but I think that’s another reason to be proud of this visit. I’m not going to judge decisions about where secretaries have gone or not gone in the past.
QUESTION: Change topic?
MR RATHKE: Yeah. Go ahead, Said.
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. First of all, what is your assessment of the current status of the Bashar al-Assad regime? There is a lot of reports that say that he’s finally losing his grip. Do you agree with that assessment?
MR RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to analyze the regime’s stability from here. There have certainly been reports of gains by some opposition elements. We are – and we are also concerned about the role that Nusrah has played in much of the combat in northern Syria. They have an extremist ideology that’s at odds with Syrians’ desire for a safe and prosperous future. But also the – as we’ve said many times, the situation in Syria is a result of the actions of the Assad regime, which has not met the desires of the Syrian people for a greater voice. And that’s why we’re supporters of the Geneva principles and supporters of the UN special envoy.
QUESTION: Now today there were announcements by the Syrian regime forces and Hizballah forces that they are ready to battle al-Nusrah in an area called al-Qalamoun. Do you have any comment on that, or do you find that these are two bad groups fighting each other?
MR RATHKE: I don’t have a comment on battlefield developments.
QUESTION: Right. But you —
MR RATHKE: So again our views on the Assad regime, our views on Hizballah and its negative role, I think, are quite clear.
QUESTION: But you don’t have a feeling either to argue what would that outcome is likely to be between two —
MR RATHKE: No, I’m not going to make predictions about developments on the battlefield.
QUESTION: Okay. Do you have any comment on Mr. de Mistura’s points on Geneva? He suggested some points – he said these are points of for talks, not for negotiations. Do you have any comment on that?
MR RATHKE: Well, as you mentioned, Special Envoy de Mistura began yesterday a period of consultations in Geneva on Syria. These are expected to last several weeks, and the special envoy has invited as many of the parties as possible, as well as regional and international stakeholders and the purpose is to discuss individually with the special envoy. These are not negotiations, these are —
MR RATHKE: — not talks together. These are individual consultations to discuss the situation in Syria today, and to see where we stand about implementation of the Geneva communique, which was concluded about three years ago.
QUESTION: Is the United States meeting with Mr. de Mistura as part of the international community?
MR RATHKE: Yeah. The United States will participate in these UN-led consultations.
QUESTION: Okay. And —
QUESTION: Jeff, will this – sorry, Said – do you have any reservation that Iran will be part of these consultations or not?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, we’ve talked about this recently. We are aware that Iran has been invited to attend these discussions. We’ll let the special envoy’s office speak about any particular details in that regard. If Iran wants to play a constructive role in peacefully ending the Syrian conflict, we think the way to do so is clear: immediately to cease support for the Assad regime and Hizballah’s activities in Syria, and also to endorse the principles of the Geneva communique.
QUESTION: But nothing happened since the Geneva II and the Montreux meeting – or Geneva I, too. At that time, you were against the participation of Iran in these two conferences. What’s the difference now? And Iran is still supporting the Syrian regime and Hizballah.
MR RATHKE: Well, I think Marie spoke to this in a fair amount of detail last week, so I’d refer you back to her comments about the specific question of Iran. But again, I think, as I’ve said, our point of view is if Iran wants to play a constructive role in Syria, the way to do so is clear. We’ve been quite clear about that.
QUESTION: Mr. de Mistura is quoted by a report by Reuters suggesting or calling for the – for an update to the Geneva communique, because the situation on the ground changed after the appearance of ISIL/Daesh. Do you agree with that?
MR RATHKE: Well, I don’t think that’s what he said, so I would refer you first of all back to the special envoy to – for exactly what he said. The reports that I’m aware of talked about the special envoy talking about the implementation of Geneva and not talking about any kind of repudiation or change to it. So I would refer you back to him for clarity on that. But our understanding is that that was not – that he did not refer to that. So that’s what I’m aware of.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Could I get – clarify on this point: For Iran to participate they would have to announce their agreement with the principles, right? Not any particular interpretation of those principles. They can say that we agree with the statement that came out on June whatever, 2012?
MR RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to get so proscriptive, Said. I would refer you again to de Mistura’s office for questions about the nature of Iran’s participation. What I’ve laid out for you, though, is our view of how Iran can play a constructive role if Iran wants to play a constructive role, and that’s quite clear: Support for the Assad regime should stop, support for Hizballah’s destabilizing activities in Syria should stop, as well as support for the Geneva principles.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: As you know, the South Korean President Park criticized yesterday on Prime Minister Abe’s speech on joint session of Congress with regards to historical issues because there was no apology. And she also mentioned United States also share this thought and criticism. Is it true, or are you sharing this thought?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think we talked – during the very successful visit of Prime Minister Abe last week, we talked a lot here. Also, my colleagues at the White House talked quite a bit about the importance of that visit. We thought it was a great visit. We appreciated Prime Minister Abe’s constructive message about reconciliation, and we’ve also talked about the important achievements during that visit: the revised defense guidelines, the reaffirmation of the U.S.-Japan alliance, the joint vision statement that was issued by the prime minister and the President. So I think we’ve been pretty clear about that.
MR RATHKE: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: The president – or Yemeni president has announced yesterday that the talks or the peace talks between the Yemenis will resume in Riyadh on May 17th. Houthis have refused to participate in these talks. How do you view these talks without the participation of the Houthis?
MR RATHKE: Well, President Hadi, with the support of the Gulf Cooperation Council, has organized, as you said, a conference in Riyadh to support the political transition in Yemen. I would recall that UN Security Council resolution 2216 urged all Yemeni parties to respond positively to President Hadi’s request for them to participate in a conference in Riyadh that would complement and support the UN-brokered negotiations. We continue to put great importance on the – on rapidly shifting from military conflict to UN-brokered all-party negotiations. We don’t see this as supplanting the UN-led effort; we see this as complementary to it, and indeed, it’s envisioned in Security Council resolution 2216.
QUESTION: Do you mean that you call the Houthis to participate in these talks?
MR RATHKE: Well, the UN Security Council called on all parties to participate in a conference that would be arranged by President Hadi at his request.
QUESTION: But they already said that they won’t participate.
MR RATHKE: Well, again, we’ve been quite clear that the Houthis need to cease their unilateral, aggressive actions that have caused so much instability in recent weeks in Yemen. And if they intend to get back to negotiations, as they’ve said on a couple of occasions, that they need to demonstrate that through stopping the aggressive actions and then getting back to the table for negotiations. So that path is open to them, and they need to follow it.
QUESTION: One more on this. Saudi Arabia has been talking about creating security zones inside Yemen to provide humanitarian aids to the Yemenis. Do you have any reaction to that?
MR RATHKE: Well, I’d refer you back to the Saudis for details about those reports.
QUESTION: Would you support such —
MR RATHKE: We’re aware of those reports. We support initiatives to facilitate the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian assistance to Yemen, including humanitarian pauses to allow badly needed food, medicine, and other supplies to enter the country and to be delivered safely consistent with UN Security Council resolution 2216. But on the particulars or the specifics of those plans, I’d refer you back to the Saudis.
QUESTION: Jeff, as most —
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: — humanitarian deliveries were conducted via air, by airplanes and so on, and the Saudis – or the Saudi-led coalition bombed the airports and depriving flights from landing, do you have any comment on that? I mean, how would you get humanitarian aid if the Saudis keep bombing these airports where these humanitarian flights (inaudible)?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think you’re referring to one specific instance at one airport, if I’m not mistaken. Is that —
QUESTION: No, I think most airports are inoperable today.
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Well, again, we take seriously the humanitarian situation in Saudi Arabia. We urge all steps to facilitate deliveries. I don’t have more specific details to offer you than that.
QUESTION: The Saudis also announced that they want to conduct limited land incursions. Do you have any comment on that (inaudible)?
MR RATHKE: Well, I’m not aware of that. Is that a recent announcement you’re referring to?
QUESTION: Yesterday. Yesterday they said they want to conduct – perhaps conduct limited land – or boots-on-the-ground kind of incursions into Yemen.
MR RATHKE: Is this question different from the one Michel just asked me?
QUESTION: I think it is. I think that this has military purpose. They said they want to attack Houthi positions, not to secure any kind of humanitarian or safety zones.
MR RATHKE: Okay. Well, I’m not familiar with that announcement, so I don’t have a comment on it.
MR RATHKE: On the – oh, you’re talking about the Maersk Tigris. No, I don’t have any update on that.
QUESTION: Is it still in Iran, do you know?
MR RATHKE: Yeah, the status remains as it was yesterday. It remains in – under – the Iranians have brought it into Iranian waters. It remains where it has been. No change, no development that I have to report.
QUESTION: Yeah, Sri Lanka. As I asked yesterday, it was the first visit by the U.S. Secretary of State in the last 10 years, I believe. And they discussed the regional – important regional issues, including maritime security. So could you clarify what the maritime security – is that the Indian Ocean? Or can you explain in a little bit more detail what they discussed?
MR RATHKE: Well, yeah. The United States supports efforts of the Indo-Pacific region countries to provide maritime security. That includes counter-piracy and counter-trafficking operations as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. This includes fundamental international principles such as freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, and other lawful uses of the sea and air space, as well as the peaceful resolution of territorial or maritime claims. So we support Sri Lanka’s efforts to contribute to maritime security and to fulfill its important role as a leading maritime nation in the Indo-Pacific region.
QUESTION: Discussed particularly about Indian Ocean issue or including the South China Sea or other ocean?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think if you look at the Secretary’s remarks, he talked about U.S. leadership on maritime security in the Indian Ocean, in association with our friends and allies across the region. And the United States and Sri Lanka are working together to oppose intimidation or the use of force to assert territorial or maritime claims. And we also are working – we support, sorry, the legal uses of sea and air space, and also the rights that are granted to all states, big states and small states. So I don’t have a geographic signifier to attach to that.
QUESTION: One thing. As you know, the Chinese submarines stopped by the port of Colombo last September. Are you – do you concern these kind of Chinese effort —
MR RATHKE: I don’t have any specific comment on that to offer. Any other – yes, go ahead, Cindy.
MR RATHKE: The United States is deeply concerned by the incarceration of all of those detained in connection with exercising their fundamental freedoms, including journalist Khadija Ismayilova, and we have called for their release. We urge the Government of Azerbaijan to respect the universal rights of its citizens to ensure they are afforded all the fair trial guarantees to which all citizens are entitled, and to allow them to freely express their views.
QUESTION: When was she detained?
MR RATHKE: That detail I don’t have. I’d have to check and come back to you.
QUESTION: Was it recent or is it somewhat old?
MR RATHKE: Not in the last few days.
MR RATHKE: This is – this case has been ongoing.
QUESTION: It’s not a new case?
MR RATHKE: Not – no, not a new case.
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: KRG president is in Washington. Are there any plans to – I know that the Secretary is not here, traveling, but —
MR RATHKE: The Secretary is not here, but he will meet with the Deputy Secretary tomorrow.
QUESTION: So he’s meeting – oh, tomorrow? Okay.
MR RATHKE: Yes, that’s right. Today, this afternoon, he’s having meetings at the White House.
MR RATHKE: Tomorrow, he will meet at the State Department with Deputy Secretary Blinken.
QUESTION: What time? Do we know (inaudible)?
MR RATHKE: I don’t know the time off the top of my head. I’m sure it’ll be in tomorrow’s schedule that we point out.
QUESTION: One more quick question —
MR RATHKE: Okay. Yeah.
QUESTION: — on North Korea. The South Korean diplomat, the director of the North Korean issue, Mr. Hwang Joon-kook, visited this town and had a meeting with Ambassador Sung Kim. Could you update what did they discuss yesterday, maybe today? I’m not sure, but —
MR RATHKE: Right. The – you mean – I’m sorry, you’re referring to the Republic of Korea’s special representative?
QUESTION: Yes, yes. (Inaudible) yes.
MR RATHKE: So the Special Representative for North Korea Policy Sung Kim met with Republic of Korea Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Hwang Joon-kook yesterday. They had a very productive discussion on a wide range of issues related to the DPRK. The United States and South Korea agree on the fundamental importance of a denuclearized North Korea. Special Representative Hwang’s visit reflects the close cooperation between our countries and our continued focus on pursuing the verifiable denuclearization of North Korea in a peaceful manner.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:34 p.m.)