- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

UNITED NATIONS, Jan. 14 (UPI) — U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, despite threats of famine, conflicts and nuclear proliferation, was optimistic Tuesday at his first 2003 news conference, saying, "We should not see this as an age of threats, but as one of many new opportunities."

In his opening remarks Annan expressed the belief "peace is possible — in Iraq, in Korea, and even between Israel and Palestine — if states work together on all these problems, with patience and firmness." He added, "terror can be defeated, too — if 191 member states of the United Nations pull together to deny terrorists refuge and cut off their funding."

Continuing his optimism, the secretary-general said, "We are within striking distance of reuniting Cyprus, ending the long civil war in Sudan, and pacifying the Democratic Republic of the Congo — the battleground of what some have called Africa's world war."

However, he admitted the year began with anxiety, "anxiety over the prospect of war in Iraq, over nuclear proliferation in the Korean peninsula, and over what seems like violence without end in the Middle East."

The Secretary-General also pointed to the threat of famine in Africa and the crisis in Venezuela as two issues that needed urgent worldwide attention.

"At the heart of the problem (in Africa) is the crisis in Zimbabwe — a country which used to be the region's breadbasket, but is now wracked by hunger and HIV/AIDS," he said. "This tragic situation is caused partly by the forces of nature, and partly by mismanagement. The challenge now is for all Zimbabweans to work with each other, and with the international community, to find solutions before it's too late."

Noting his meeting Thursday with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Annan said that for the past 20 years, Latin America had been embracing democracy and turning its back on autocratic forms of government.

"I hope to discuss with him the developments in Venezuela and how one can intensify the mediation efforts to calm the situation and bring it to normalcy," the secretary-general said. "I've spoken to him on the phone, and he knows one should use constitutional and democratic means and that's my message to resolve the crisis, also my message to the opposition." He reminded reporters of the deadly toll from the AIDS epidemic and consequences of climate change.

"And yet, I am still an optimist," Annan said, pointing out the threats were not the first to face the globe. "I believe in the last 10 years or so we have been learning how to cope with them better."

While he did not think, despite the rhetoric, war was imminent in Iraq, he said there were still reports to be had from inspectors and for the council to decide on any possible further action.

"I think that Security Council Resolution 1441 is quite clear that the council will have to meet based on reports from the inspectors to determine what action the council should take," he said. "I would expect that if the inspectors find anything, they will report to the council and the council will take a decision. And depending on that decision, we will all see where we go from there."

However, the secretary-general said the world organization was going ahead with contingency planning in case of a military conflict.

"We are extremely worried about the humanitarian fallout and consequences of any such military action," he said. "Obviously we do not want to be caught unprepared. So we have gone ahead and made contingency plans, and we are in touch with governments that can provide some financial assistance for us to move our preparedness to the next level. But we are worried."

Asked about Iraqi cooperation with inspectors, the secretary-general replied, "in their own analysis of the Iraqi declaration, they have determined that there are major gaps which need to be filled. They have indicated that they would prefer — and they would expect — Iraq to be proactive in its cooperation."

He expected that to be at the top of the agenda when chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and International Atomic Energy Agency Executive chairman Mohammed ElBaradei visit Baghdad next week, prior to the Jan. 27 update to the council.

"They will press for the gaps to be filled in; they will press for Iraq to be more proactive in its cooperation; and they will do whatever needs to be done for them to fulfill their mandate," said Annan.

On the Middle East, he said "I think it is a tragedy that the bloodshed is continuing. That is why the Quartet (of the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States) has been very active in trying to work out a road map," which he expected to be put on the table "as soon as possible — perhaps in the next month or so."

He did not think the Iraqi problem undermined efforts for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement but "underscored" the need for one.

"I think it is even more important today than ever that the international community energetically tackle the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that is what I hope the Quartet will do in the coming months." Annan said.

He also said "the Israeli decision was unfortunate" to bar Palestinian delegates from a London conference on Palestinian reform.

"I believe the Palestinian delegates should have been allowed to attend the conference to hear from others what is expected of them and to be given support for the reform of the Palestinian Authority, which the international community has been working with them for a while to assure," said Annan. "So I personally wish they had been allowed to go."

The secretary-general called North Korea's withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty a grave threat to international peace and security.

"North Korea is the first country ever to withdraw from the treaty, and I hope that it will come back into compliance," he said. "The IAEA Board has met to discuss it, and they have given it a bit more time to come into compliance before they decide what the next step should be, including bringing it to the (Security) Council. But they are not going to bring it to the Council immediately. They have given it time to come into compliance."

The secretary-general noted that his envoy Maurice Strong was in North Korea.

"He will be there for a few days having discussions with the leaders," said Annan. "He will focus mainly on the humanitarian issues, but of course he is also available and prepared to listen to any other issues they may want to discuss with him."

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