Thursday, October 9, 2008

U.N. faults 7 in Algeria bombing

Betsy Pisik


UNITED NATIONS | An internal report assigns blame to at least seven U.N. officials for one of the organization's greatest security breakdowns ever — the Dec. 11 bombing of U.N. headquarters in Algeria in which 17 staffers died.

The report, slated for release Wednesday, also criticizes the Algerian government, according to multiple sources who have been briefed on its contents.

It says Algerian officials ignored requests by the Algiers-based U.N. staff for additional security barriers and other preventive measures, even after a local al Qaeda group publicly demonized the presence of international organizations in the city.

The assessment — the organization's third on the bombing — was written by a five-member panel led by former U.N. legal adviser Ralph Zacklin.

The Zacklin report, unlike the two previous U.N. inquiries, was intended to assign responsibility within the U.N. security system for the failure to prevent or prepare for the attack, in which an explosives-laden truck rammed into the U.N. office in a residential area, killing 17 U.N. staffers, most of them Algerian. Seven bystanders also were killed.

Those named in the report include Diana Russler, second in command of the U.N. Department of Safety and Security (DSS); Gerard Martinez, director of regional affairs; and U.N. Development Program Resident Representative Marc Destanne de Bernis, who was the senior U.N. official in Algiers at the time.

The two earlier U.N. investigations found that Mr. de Bernis may not have believed in the severity or likelihood of an attack, and did not press the Algerian authorities hard enough to act on those concerns.

Sources said six of those named are DSS staffers and that three of them could receive disciplinary action, including dismissal, as ordered by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Mr. de Bernis and any others named who work for the UNDP or other independent U.N. agency will be subject to their own executives' authority.

The United Nations declined to comment ahead of the release of the closely held report, as did two of those named who were contacted by The Washington Times.

But the organization has been taking to heart the lessons of the Algerian attack and a 2003 bombing in Baghdad.

Last week, DSS increased the risk assessment for its Pakistan operations to Phase III from Phase I, sending home the families of international staff. It also has begun moving its Islamabad offices inside the capital's heavily fortified "diplomatic zone."

The Algerian government has made sweeps and arrested people suspected of having ties to the group Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, or AQIM, which claimed responsibility for the Dec. 11 attack and many other bombings since.

At the time, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem called off a Cabinet meeting to visit hospitals where the injured were being treated.

"These are crimes that targeted innocent people," he told the BBC then. "Nothing can justify the crime."

In the first internal U.N. investigation, released in January, U.N. security chief David Veness said the Algerian Interior Ministry had conceded it had knowledge of an impending attack after finding a diagram of the U.N. compound on a cell phone seized after an earlier bombing.

Under the U.N. Charter and other agreements, the host country bears primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of U.N. staff and premises. Nonetheless, it is unusual for a U.N. report to single out a member country for fault.

"The hostile intent against the United Nations in Algeria was present and well known before the attack," wrote Mr. Veness, who tendered his resignation after completing his report.

Mr. Veness, who is still on the job despite the resignation offer, noted in his report that Algiers-based security officer Babacar Ndiaye, who died in the blast, had been reporting his concerns to headquarters as early as April 2007.

Despite those warnings, the U.N. office was listed as a Phase I low security risk at the time of the bombing, in large part because the Algerian government did not want its reputation tarnished among the corporations and governments with which it seeks to do business.

Mr. Ndiaye had argued for raising the threat level, which would call for extra barricades and enhanced surveillance.

A second report on DSS, released in June by veteran U.N. diplomat and former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi, confirmed that the U.N. headquarters had received Mr. Ndiaye's warnings as well as public source information of an impending attack.

Mr. Brahimi found that the department had not treated those pleas for support and advice as urgent.

He also faulted an operation he described as rigidly hierarchical, riven by turf wars and unwilling to pass along bad news.

No comments: