We’ll find the terrorists soon, predicts outgoing US Ambassador Charles Ries

Washington is concerned about the sometimes illegal passage of Islamic extremists through Greece, outgoing US Ambassador Charles Ries told Kathimerini in an interview last Friday. He also expressed confidence that those responsible for the rocket attack on the embassy in January would soon be arrested. He said the USA understands Greek sensibilities regarding the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), and that Washington would not take unilateral action on Kosovo. Ries is leaving Athens after two-and-a-half years for Baghdad, where he will undertake economic planning for the reconstruction of Iraq. You will be going to Iraq. There is a huge buildup of Turkish troops on the border. What would the US response be if Ankara invaded northern Iraq to pursue the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)? We understand the Turkish concern with Kurdish troops just over the border that are oriented toward terrorist acts against Turkey and how upsetting that is to them; that is why General [Joseph] Ralston has taken on the job that he has [as special US envoy for countering the PKK]. He has been working intensively with both the Iraqi and Turkish governments to try to address the substance of their concern and try to give Turkish authorities confidence that those making terrorist attacks will not have sanctuary just over the border. You are not worried by the Turkish army’s or even the government’s comments. I didn’t say that. We’ve been in close contact with the Turkish government for more than a year on the substance of their concerns. We would think an incursion by Turkish military forces would be an unfortunate development. We are trying to address the matter in such a way that they do not feel it necessary to do this. The USA is pushing for the adoption of the [Martti] Ahtisaari plan for an independent Kosovo. Russia is adamantly opposed to it. From the perspective of regional stability and US-Russia cooperation, how wise would it be to go ahead with a unilateral recognition of an independent Kosovo? We think an extended period of status quo with respect to the situation in Kosovo has considerable risks, that is why over the last year we supported, as a member of the contact group – which includes Russia – the appointment of Ahtisaari, his being in touch with the parties and his plan. The US, along with other members of the contact group, have put forward a resolution in the UN Security Council that would provide UN acceptance of the elements of the Ahtisaari plan. What we are to do in Kosovo is move to a period of supervised independence, with a large international component, considerable guarantees for religious sites and minority rights, and guarantees that this new entity could not join with any neighboring states. Those are the key elements of the Ahtisaari plan, which continue to be good ideas. We have approached this problem as the last unresolved major piece toward creating a prosperous Balkans, as a multilateral measure. We have not approached it in a unilateral way. Every step of the way we’ve consulted with friends and allies, including the Russians. What do you think the Albanians expect from President George W. Bush’s visit? It’s a very big visit for the Albanians because it’s the first visit by an American president. Albania is a country in transition with great affection for the USA. It might be the one country with an Islamic majority in terms of population where there is the most affection for the USA in the entire world. The second part of the visit is that Albanians, along with the Macedonians and the Croatians, are very much interested in joining NATO. The president understands that decisions about NATO enlargement are those of the alliance as whole, and he will encourage the countries to address the issues still outstanding in the Membership Action Plan in order to be the best possible candidate to join the alliance. The US recognized FYROM as «Macedonia» and it’s a very close ally of that country. What will the USA do if Greece blocks or delays FYROM’s entry to NATO if there is no final settlement to the name issue? I don’t want to get speculative about hypotheticals. It’s obvious that the alliance proceeds on the basis of consensus to take in new member states which is indeed one of the most serious decisions any alliance can make because in the NATO alliance you are accepting a reciprocal obligation to defend another nation state. It requires not only consensus among governments but also ratifications by parliaments. How does the US view Greek sensitivity on the issue? This issue has been going on since 1991. We understand and had many conversations with Greeks about it. We understand Greek sensibilities. The US used to be very critical of Greece. Your embassy was hit in a rocket attack in January. What is your assessment of the level of cooperation and do you expect the people responsible to be apprehended? I have said a number of times that we have been very pleased with the degree and extent of cooperation from the Ministry of Public Order from the first hours after the rocket attack, which was an incredibly stupid act with the possibility of harming people. It was only luck that no one was at the office at that hour. We have worked very closely with the police in the investigation in following leads. The FBI laboratories have analyzed some of the forensic evidence. We have looked at a variety of different information sources. The US and Greece have announced dual rewards for justice, offering substantial monetary awards for information that leads to the conviction of those responsible. Personally I am leaving Greece, but I am confident that in time those responsible will be found. I do not think it’s completely unknown. November 17 took a very long time to apprehend. I am confident that given the resources and the continual effort put into this investigation, we will find and be able to make a case against those responsible for this and other unsolved bombings and other such acts here in town before too long. You may have noticed that the police recently apprehended three individuals who were placing a gas canister bomb under a patrol car in Faliron. They were able to do so due to a very aggressive program of surveillance. So I leave Greece optimistic that before too long, we’ll get a break in this case. What is your assessment of Islamic terrorism in Greece, and the cooperation with Greece on that level, not the domestic but the international? Our cooperation is good. That doesn’t mean there is no risk. Sadly, there are many Islamic extremists traveling in the region, for one reason or another. And some of them may have, or are, passing through Greece, or even spending time in Greece. We are on the alert. We are collaborating with the Greek government border control and other authorities to share information as we get it about individuals and about groups. The Greek government has successfully captured a number of human traffickers in recent months, which is a good thing. Some of the trafficking is of women for sexual services but some is also of those who seek to enter the EU Schengen area, either for work or potentially to be in position to cause terrorist acts. The traffickers do not have compunctions about who they move or not. The actions that one takes to improve border control measures and be able to assess accurately the intentions of those seeking political asylum and other kinds of entry all improve the security of the Schengen area and, beyond that, of the entire alliance. Will we see these positive trends in the State Department Report on Human Trafficking coming out this week? I wouldn’t want to comment before the report is out. I would say that the cooperation is good and getting better but the problem is big and maybe getting bigger. So, it’s hard to draw that assessment. How worried is the US by close cooperation with Moscow in the energy sector? We have no problem with the idea of world pipelines, passing through Greece or through other countries, with the participation of Russian energy enterprises. That makes commercial sense. They add to the diversity of a secure international oil market. With respect to gas, we also are not trying to tell Greece, or Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, or any other country that you should not buy Russian gas. Russia is a large and quite competitive supplier of gas to many countries in the region. It has been for many years. What we are interested in doing, though, is helping build a supply corridor to allow gas from the Caspian Sea to come to the Western markets in a way that is outside the control of Gazprom. This is not an anti-Gazprom thing but is in order to give consumers in Europe a choice of suppliers, and more competition is good for energy security, as well as for the economic interests of suppliers. This is a large task. The most important building block of where we are now was the agreement four years ago between Turkey and Greece to interlink their gas infrastructures. And that link is just about completed. Greece and Italy have agreed to build an underwater link. With those pieces in place, plus the pipeline bringing Caspian gas into Turkey, it would possible to contract Caspian gas into Italy and Greece in a way that does not have Gazprom as intermediary. That is good for consumers and energy security. The interview concluded with Ries’s comments about his experience in Athens. He said he was impressed by the seriousness of government and opposition politicians in discussion and by the people of Greece in general. He loved the landscape and sea of Greece, he said, but its greatest advantage was its people.

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