- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2007

NEW YORK — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday urged the United States to shut down the Guantanamo Bay military prison, setting up a potential conflict with the Bush administration ahead of a visit to Washington next week.

“I understand today is the fifth anniversary of Guantanamo prison,” Mr. Ban said at his first press conference since replacing Kofi Annan as secretary-general on Jan. 1. “Like my predecessor, I think Guantanamo should be closed. And I remember that President Bush himself said he would like to close it.”

As he spoke, about a dozen peace activists led by Cindy Sheehan marched in protest outside the fence surrounding U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The protesters, who traveled to Cuba in spite of tight U.S. restrictions on travel to the island by American citizens, reportedly walked from the Cuban city of Guantanamo to the prison, where they tied flowers to the barbed wire fence.

U.S. officials were unable to say last night whether the marchers had violated any U.S. law by traveling to Cuba. Several other small protests were reported both in the United States and outside U.S. diplomatic missions abroad.

At his press conference in New York, Mr. Ban defended his early appointments to high-level U.N. posts and urged skeptics to judge the people on their merits and performance, rather than gossip.

He expressed desire for greater global involvement in conflicts in Somalia and Darfur and promised to work closely with the five nations that have been negotiating with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Ban appointed longtime U.N. staffers as chief of staff and head of U.N. administration and management. Some staff members and U.N. observers expressed dismay that Mr. Ban did not choose new faces.

A third appointee, Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiri of Tanzania, enthusiastically told reporters that she barely knew Mr. Ban and was surprised by his call.

Mr. Ban stressed that he had made the decisions with deliberation, and expressed confidence in his choices. He said he had become acquainted with Mrs. Migiri during a six-hour plane trip to Tanzania.

“To tell you frankly why, during the election campaign process I have been meeting any number of foreign ministers and senior people around the world. I was interviewed by all of them as one of the candidates,” he said. “And maybe at the time they had not known that I was also interviewing them.”

Mr. Ban touched briefly on the organization’s role in Iraq, which has been largely confined to assisting the government’s efforts to reconstitute itself.

“We will continue to participate in that process as much as we can,” he said. “But our participation and contribution at this time is largely dictated by the security situations on the ground.”

He also clarified his position on the death penalty, urging member states that use capital punishment to begin “phasing out” the practice.

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