Press Conferences

Press conference on the hostage crisis in Algeria

Victor Ponta, Prime Minister of Romania; Titus Corlăţean, Minister of Foreign Affairs
MFA, Gafencu Room

Victor Ponta: Hello. Together with the Foreign Minister and, surely, after having consulted with all the members of the Crisis Cell that has been operational here, at the Foreign Ministry, these last few days, we want to come with several statements, this time with confirmed data, doubtless data the Romanian authorities have received in connection with the situation in Algeria, the situation of Romanian citizens involved in the terrorist attack.

We have just received confirmation, through the diplomatic structures, that a Romanian citizen died in those events. I would like to extend condolences and sympathy, personally and on behalf of the Government, to the family of the one who perished in such tragic circumstances, to assure them that we will do in the next days all that lies within what the Romanian Government can do at this moment, the support to be granted to the family, repatriation of the body, and all the rest – I repeat, nothing much we can do but we will do it in the next days. We have fulfilled the duty of announcing first of all the family; I wouldn’t have forgiven myself or my colleagues if the family had learned the news from you, from the media. We have ensured specialized help as necessary and I want to extend once again my compassion and support to the family of the victim. At the same time, however, I wish to convey, and we will convey through diplomatic channels, the same solidarity and compassion to the families of the other victims; unfortunately, there are more victims, Europeans and other nationals. Other European countries, too, suffered losses, the same as Romania, and I wish to offer compassion and moral support on behalf of the Government of Romania. That was the bad news.

The good news, confirmed again through diplomatic channels, refers to the last of the five Romanian citizens in the conflict zone: he has been freed by the Algerian army and is currently in the custody and in the care of the Algerian armed forces, and the Romanian authorities are doing their best and all it takes to get to know his condition, and obviously to have him arrive at the Embassy and then, along with the other three Romanians rescued at an earlier stage, repatriated in the best possible conditions.

I would like to mention that I have been kept abreast and I have been in contact during this time, but the work has been done by the Foreign Minister, the representatives of the intelligence services, of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who have worked round the clock, and who asked you, the media, to be supportive and stick to a certain level of information inasmuch as possible. Actually, three of the Romanian citizens were in that area, they had not been taken hostage directly, and any additional information we would have made public could have endangered their lives. Fortunately, the three Romanian citizens freed previously are in the custody of the Romanian authorities and will be repatriated, they will be back in the country as soon as possible, with their families, and their condition is very good. About the fourth, we are getting information these very moments, and he will follow the same procedure. I would also like to provide specifics, and Minister Corlăţean can provide the necessary details, obviously insofar as that can be done. The Romanian authorities have collaborated, first of all, with our diplomatic missions in the area, but also in other countries and, moreover, with our international partners, with the Algerian government and the companies that employed the 5 persons, doing, in my opinion, all that could really be done to help, to inform the families and now to inform you.

I must tell you, of course, that the President of Romania has been informed all the time. I talked to the President a few moments ago in order to provide the latest information and practically I, as Prime Minister, consider that the Romanian authorities as a whole have fulfilled their duty and are ready to cope with difficult situations like this one. Next, I would like to do one more thing and ask the Minister, if he has additional details that can be offered, to specify that last year, right after the terrorist attack in neighbouring Bulgaria, within the Supreme Defence Council (CSAT) we took measures to finance, as it is this way that the Government can help, to support the intelligence services, the antiterrorist structures. We will do the same in 2013 and in the years to come – and I want to make this clear so as to prevent misinterpretation – at this moment there is no specific information to attest there is any danger to the territory of Romania, but we are living in a world rife with violence and dangers, a world which, at least in the coming years, is not likely to change for the better, and therefore the Romanian authorities need to take all the measures, to make sure they have the logistic, coordination and intelligence support required in order to prevent and combat any action of this kind in the territory of Romania and to provide support, whenever situations like Algeria now occur, for saving the lives of Romanian citizens abroad. I wish to convey a message of responsibility, we need to address seriously these threats that exist in the world, that exist in various conflict zones, we need to earnestly undertake all efforts a modern European state must make in order to preclude the occurrence of such tragic situations in its territory, and I wish to say it again that this time, too, those who have been part of the Crisis Cell have fulfilled their duty, but that we will put conditions in place for all the structures of the Romanian State involved in fighting such a phenomenon to benefit by all the logistic, financial and human resources they need to be as efficient as possible. I wish to extend thanks to Minister Corlăţean, to those who have worked in this period and whom you will not know, those whose merits we seldom have the opportunity to present publicly, to let the families of the four Romanian survivors know that we did and will further do all that lies within the power of the Romanian State. And I must say again that I am terribly sorry for the loss suffered by the family of the deceased person, and that we will further do, in the ensuing period, what can be done. Mr. Minister, your turn.

Titus Corlăţean: Thank you. I will only make a few brief comments. First of all I, as Minister of Foreign Affairs, would like to express my compassion, my grief and my regret over the death of a Romanian citizen, my deepest sympathy to the grieving family. Secondly, half an hour ago we had the fourth, I think, or the fifth telephone conversation with Algeria’s Foreign Minister, with whom we have equally kept in touch by the other channels, by diplomatic channels, the intelligence services, contacts with the employers there and with our international, European and Euro-Atlantic partners. The last conversation with the Algerian Foreign Minister has unfortunately provided, as a final information, the bad news that has been made public, information about what is known from the Algerian armed forces about the operation of freeing a large group of foreigners that included the Romanian citizen, and the fact that the operation in Algeria is virtually finished.

I have appreciated the cooperation at the highest level of foreign ministers manifested by the Algerian side and, beyond other international discussions, the fact that, as now, we work together at crucial moments. At the end, with your permission, Prime Minister, I will briefly comment on fighting international terrorism. Moreover, I would like to say that the Crisis Cell – set up from the very beginning, with the Prime Minister and the President being informed thereof – having the institutional membership you are aware of, I mean the MFA, the intelligence services, other relevant state institutions, have entirely fulfilled their duty. I am telling that in full respect for the media, which, unlike on other occasions, have generally understood our message, our call for restraint in connection with public comments. The Prime Minister has mentioned an important element, as we wanted the fact that one Romanian citizen was involved, a figure maintained for some time, to stay the same, for the mere reason that, from the data we actually had from the start, obtained through official, diplomatic channels, the channels of the intelligence services and of the Western employers, in the conflict zone there were five Romanian citizens, of whom three may have been not yet  under the control of the terrorists, but hiding in the area. Any information on a number other than one, if made public, would have jeopardized the life and escape chances of those citizens. Now you know why we were reserved in our public comments throughout this period and I extend thanks for the reserve generally shown at your level as well.

The last comment,  and we also extend thanks to the colleagues of the Crisis Cell, refers to fighting international terrorism. Therefore, what has happened now, in a zone far from Romania, what is happening in Mali is actually affecting all of us. And it can affect the lives of Romanian citizens abroad, too. That provides additional reason – and I am telling this as a foreign minister who attended a European meeting just two days ago – I think it is the duty of Romania, within the EU and as part of the cooperation with international partners, to further contribute, in a very committed way, to fighting international terrorism. It is a duty of Romania, because it is in our interest to fight international terrorism, wherever it manifests, even beyond the country’s borders, instead of allowing it to get closer to us. Thank you.

Victor Ponta: Very importantly, you can now realize that very many details related to the names of the persons cannot be made public at this moment, I wanted to be proactive about possible reproaches,  and I did not agree to any final communication before we had confirmation of the death and that the last Romanian citizen had been rescued, and before we had confirmation one hour ago that the family had been informed and specialized psychological help was provided to them. I am trying to imagine how anyone of you,  one cannot learn such tragic news from the media, it is the authorities of the State that must break the news, and that happened one hour ago, and right after that we informed you and implicitly the public. Questions?

Reporter: Prime Minister, Minister, I would like to ask you whether there are chances information may surface about other Romanians or is the situation clear from this point of view and there are only five of them? And I would like to ask, if you can tell us, how did the Romanian held hostage die, because I understood that several hostages died following the forceful intervention of the Algerian army.

Titus Corlăţean: We did provide, I believe, two important explanations in that communication. We said that after the outbreak of the crisis, virtually from the very beginning, through official channels, of a diplomatic nature, and from the employers, several companies and subcontractors, too, and through the intelligence services, all data converged on the idea that there were five Romanians there. All that time we have not had any, on those /grounds/, that it might be different, but the information came from different sources of this /…/. There are other Romanians in an altogether different zone, they have nothing to do with the area attacked by the terrorists, currently several workers are getting out of Algeria, Romanians included, who, however, were in no way connected to the area under attack. /…/

We have no data on how that happened, not only in the case of the Romanian but also of the others, the operation has been secured by the direct leaders of the Algerian troops and, for the time being, we do not have access to such data. But I would like to comment on this, since you asked. I believe that we all need to draw a conclusion from what has happened and I suggest that, when it is all over, we should have a less formal discussion with the media people, to establish, if possible, certain rules for the management of such situations. I do respect the right to information the media must enjoy for the sake of public opinion. Nevertheless, in such situations, there are elements on which maybe we manage to agree and which we should try to observe, while also observing the right of the media to information.

Reporter: /…/ we would like to know whether the families of the Romanians held hostage have been announced /…/?

Titus Corlăţean: I assure you that the families of the Romanians have been permanently in touch with MFA headquarters, with the people of the Crisis Cell, with the Embassy of Romania in Algiers, both the head of mission and the consul, with the Romanian representatives and, in certain cases, with international representatives of the employer companies, and that permanently we have tried to impart confidence, the fact that we have been taking action and that at the right moment they will have all the data. Thank you!

Victor Ponta: I want to make this clear once again: Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Cameron and Mr. Hollande are applying exactly the same procedures as the Romanian State. The Romanian State and our specialized services, both the intelligence services and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are exactly at the same level, the same standard and the same capacity, and have a communication procedure. That is why we had the information one hour and a half ago, the confirmation of the death and confirmation that the last hostage had been freed. We followed the procedure for announcing the family and immediately the procedure of breaking the news to you. No government in any democratic country follows different procedures than this one.

Reporter: /…/ RomaniaTV. Prime Minister, you have said you talked to the President and I would ask you whether you also talked about a meeting of the Supreme Defence Council (CSAT) concerning the military intervention in Mali and…

Victor Ponta: It has nothing to do with the topic today, but… Wait a minute, the CSAT meeting has been confirmed, I hope to… I have talked to the President, it has been confirmed for the fifth, therefore very soon. Yes, the 5th of February.

Reporter: For the Prime Minister, could you tell us how many Romanians are in Algeria, at this moment and whether they may possibly be in danger.

Titus Corlăţean: Those who are working in Algeria and not only there, but let us stick to Algeria, have direct contracts with firms, international companies, corporations, or subcontractors. I will not name those big companies. There is a direct relationship, there is no direct contact. We can only infer, from the entries and exits. I can tell you, for instance, so we may understand what it is all about, that based on that SMS alert system we have launched, which you are aware of, when someone enters a zone of danger, they receive a warning from the MFA, containing data about the embassy, the consulate, the telephone number to call in case they have trouble. We have a certain dynamic, reports of several hundred having entered Algeria in October, several hundred in November, but this goes on both ways, entries and exists, so it’s very difficult. Anyway, the other ones who are leaving now, including several Romanians, are safe, and that is also the evaluation I can offer you now. Thank you!

Reporter: In connection with the four Romanians who have just been freed, when are they likely to be repatriated?

Titus Corlăţean: It is important, in the case of the first three … who were freed at different moments, about whom I informed you yesterday, when everything was clearly confirmed, are in the custody, as the colleagues on the Crisis Cell use to, in direct contact with the Romanian authorities and the repatriation procedures are being fulfilled.  Allow me to respect the right to privacy of persons who have experienced difficult moments, and to respect the right of their families to enjoy the return of the three in tranquility.

The fourth citizen, as I said we are still expecting the latest data, to be able to take action, and I hope we have direct contact as soon as possible, as well as confirmation so we can go on with all the procedures, and grant consular support with a view to repatriation. In certain cases, repatriation was done with the involvement of employers, the transnational companies, in one case with a military aircraft of a major ally, the USA, and then they are to be taken over, from where they land, by consults, by representatives of the Romanian embassies.

Reporter: Given that they were there on contract, the deceased person included, will the repatriation costs be borne by the employer of by our institutions?

Titus Corlăţean: We sent very clear orders to Algiers, to our embassy, to the effect that we are to bear all the costs. In certain cases, as workers of several nationalities are involved, the companies may insist to take over the costs. But that is not so important, the important thing now is that they return home safely.

Reporter: I would like to ask whether there is any connection between the replacement of State Secretary Dan Petre and this crisis in Algeria, as I know this area was within his purview.

Victor Ponta: No, absolutely no connection.

Reporter: Is there anything you would reproach to those who have dealt with this matter?

Victor Ponta: As I came here I told them they probably will not get much praise. I came to praise them and thank them for their work round the clock in this interval. According to a first analysis I had, of course we will talk about this later on as well, the Crisis Cell coordinated by the Foreign Minister, which included all the other institutions, has done its duty beyond reproach.

Titus Corlăţean: Allow me a special word, since we mentioned the colleagues of the Crisis Cell, a special word about the colleagues in the field, in Algeria, at the Embassy. The head of mission, the colleagues from the consular sector and the two consuls we have sent over there for additional support, they have all done a good job.

Victor Ponta: One more question and then we go, if you don’t  mind.

Reporter: A question for both of you. Will the death of a Romanian in any way alter the policy, our presence and strategy in Mali and in the region? Is it possible we get involved even more in possible antiterrorist actions in that region? Thank you.

Victor Ponta: Politically, first of all, because as I understand at issue is a political strategy: the loss of one human life is a tragedy as big as the loss of 50 or 100 human lives. It is not quantity that matters, but the fact that an innocent Romanian worker was a casualty of that terrorist attack, losing his life, and that here, back home in Romania, his family right now – you can imagine in what a difficult situation they are. What the Minister has just told you, and I want to confirm, is a certain strategy – and not only of the Government, but of Romania as a whole; obviously, the CSAT will debate, and Parliament will analyze – namely that Romania should remain involved alongside its partners, the EU or the NATO structures, in the international efforts to combat terrorism. Terrorism is being fought also in theaters of operations like Afghanistan or Mali, terrorism is being fought also in such unexpected situations as that in Algeria, but terrorism is being fought day by day also through the efforts made by the Romanian structures, which are very well appreciated by all our European and transatlantic partners; again, it is about daily efforts at information, fighting, preventing, so that what has just happened in Algeria only confirms the fact that Romania must stay by its allies in fighting this very serious phenomenon in today’s world. I only wanted to convey a message of responsibility, not of panic – because it is not the case and we do not have any indication at this moment of any danger to Romania or to other Romanian citizens – yet a message of responsibility. We cannot fail to see that we live in such a world, we cannot ignore what is happening in the East, in Africa or in other countries, and then, in this respect the citizens can do very little. We have espoused a system of warning them, of sending them alerts. The five workers over there are not to blame, they could do nothing, poor them. But what the Romanian authorities can do, through all their structures, is to join in a most important though often invisible international effort, of which, fortunately, no one learns in the case of prevention, but only when bad things actually happen.

Reporter: And, related to the question I have asked, Minister Corlăţean recommended we be present alongside military trainers in Mali, when exactly /…/ or do we have national consensus?

Victor Ponta: Just a moment, let’s not put it all on the Minister. I, too, have discussed this with the President. We will discuss at the CSAT meeting in a few days and specific decisions will be made, but in principle the decision rests with all the political factors in Romania, the President, the Government. We will present, when and if this is necessary, a report to Parliament, to the effect of standing by our European partners in the case of Mali. That is not France’s conflict with someone, but an operation assumed by France and the European Union, to fight certain imminent dangers of extremism and terrorism.

Specific decisions, however, will be made in the CSAT. Yet I wanted to make it clear that Mr. Corlăţean did not speak only on his own behalf, as minister, but has our support and the agreement in principle of all relevant factors, to manifest publicly our solidarity with our European partners. What does this amount to? At the right moment and in the right circumstances, we will surely inform you. Thank you very much.