Press briefing on Libya

by the NATO Spokesperson, Oana Lungescu and Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, Commander of the NATO military operation Unified Protector

  • Last updated: 27 May. 2011 18:37

OANA LUNGESCU (NATO Spokesperson): Good morning. And welcome to Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, the commander of NATO’s Operation Unified Protector , who joins us  from Naples. General Bouchard will  give us an operational overview in a moment.

The North Atlantic Council is meeting this morning with our contributing partners for a regular progress report on the mission.  And there is considerable progress. Our operations are having a visible effect on the ground. We have loosened the regime's grip over Misrata. We have made the east of Libya much more stable and secure. We are saving lives -- by preventing large-scale attacks and making it safer for humanitarian aid deliveries.

Qadhafi's regime is considerably weaker, but he still poses a threat to his own people.  We remain determined to fulfil the three clear goals set by NATO allies and partners -- an end to all attacks against civilians; a withdrawal of his troops and mercenaries to thier barracks and bases; and full and unhindered access for humanitarian aid. And we  continue to keep up  the pressure to create the conditions for a political settlement that allows the people of Libya to shape their own future .

Now you may have seen press reports of a letter from the Qadhafi regime  proposing a ceasefire. It was not sent to NATO.  And anyway, words are not enough. The regime has made similar statements before and then continued shelling residential areas and attacking civilians. So what matters are actions, not words. And those actions should be credible and verifiable.

With that, I hand over to General Bouchard.  

Oana Lungescu (NATO Spokesperson): We are expecting Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, the commander of NATO's Operation Unified Protector to join us from Naples in a few minutes, and to give us an operational overview.

Just a few words from me. The North Atlantic Council is meeting this morning with our contributing partners for a regular progress report on the mission. And there is considerable progress. Our operations are having a visible effect on the ground. We have loosened the regime's grip over Misrata. We have made the east of Libya much more stable and secure. And we are saving lives. We're preventing large-scale attacks and making it safer for humanitarian aid deliveries.

Qadhafi's regime is getting considerably weaker, but it still poses a threat to its own people. And NATO and its partners remain determined to fulfil the goals set by allies and partners in Berlin. We'll continue to keep up the pressure to contribute to a political settlement that allows the people of Libya to shape their own future. Because obviously there is no military solution to this crisis, as we have been saying from the start.

Now you may have seen press reports about a letter from the Qadhafi regime proposing a ceasefire. It was not sent to NATO. And anyway, words are not enough. The regime has made similar statements before. We've then seen them continuing to shell residential areas, continuing to attack civilians. So what matters are actions, not words. And those actions should be credible and verifiable.

And with that, I'm pleased to go to Naples and to Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard. General, you have the floor.

Lieutenant Commander Charles Bouchard (Commander of the NATO Military Operation "Unified Protector"): Thank you very much, Oana. Good morning, Brussels and good morning ladies and gentlemen here in Naples.

It's been a few weeks since I've had a chance to address you and to provide you an update from my perspective, and this is what I'd like to do this morning.

I think what we'll do is, using the map that is to my right here, we'll take a look at the various areas, but the approach I want to talk about today is where we were on the 31st of March this year, to where we are today.

Benghazi area. On the 31st of March anti-Qadhafi regime... correction, anti-Qadhafi forces command-and-control structure was fractured and ineffectual. The anti-Qadhafi forces were outgunned and were running and the population was under direct threat of attack.

Today militarily the command-and-control structure is improving. Anti-Qadhafi forces are better trained, and regular humanitarian assistance flights are moving in and out of Benghazi by air and by sea. And the people of Benghazi are safe.

Going down towards Ajdabiya area, on the 31st of March the regime forces were attacking Ajdabiya, directly shelling the population, and in fact we were concerned at the time that Ajdabiya was under severe threat of pro-Qadhafi regime forces. They were threatening by advancing towards Ajdabiya and, in fact, they made it inside the city.

Today pro-Qadhafi forces have been pushed out into the Brega area and anti-Qadhafi forces in Ajdabiya have settled, and in fact, there's no shelling conducted. And here, again, the civilian population is safe.

All along the route from Brega to Sirte and Misrata, though, we continue to see logistic efforts to reinforce the forces that are left in Brega. And they remain an active concern in that they have the capabilities and they have the intent and the will to continue to inflict casualties to the civilian population. But we have removed their ability to significantly affect the eastern region at this time.

We continue our effort along the logistics routes to stop the movement of weapons, the movement of fuel and other logistic supplies that continue to reinforce in the Brega area.

Misrata. On the 31st of March this city was under siege. The port was constantly being shelled and humanitarian effort was in dire need and ships were not able to enter the port of Misrata, and several casualties were being taken.

Today NATO air strikes have been able to stop and in fact, anti-Qadhafi forces have been able to retake the air field, establish themselves in the south of Misrata and in the west, and in fact, we are seeing signs of return to normalcy in Misrata today.

On the 31st of March and throughout the early weeks Misrata was under the threat with no water, no electricity, no fuel, no food. The Qadhafi regime had stopped these, had stopped also the sewage system. Hospital and medical assistance was not reachable. Today we are in control of the situation. The shelling has all but stopped, and we continue to see advances in the Misrata area and some return to normalcy in the Misrata area.

Anti-Qadhafi forces continue to push along both axes, in the south and in the west, but it is clear that we're also seeing movement from various areas, either from the west or the south, moving and providing further assistance to the Qadhafi regime forces. And here again, there is a clear and present danger to the people of Misrata and it is clear to us that the intent of the regime forces is to retake back the city and inflict further casualties.

We have seen not only what I've just said earlier on, but we've also seen mines being laid in the port, and this morning's report showed us that a minefield was laid in the Misrata area. Anti-personnel mines in contravention to international law have been laid in the Misrata area to prevent the population from moving. Mines do not make the difference, whether it is a child or an adult, and we are dealing with that today as we're looking to the situation, attempting to define the minefield and to start the clean-up program, which will not be us, of course, as we do not have troops on the ground, but also we're monitoring the development as we look at it.

In the Zintan-Yafran area we now have where on the 31st of March troops were being shelled in both Yafran-Zintan area, and lines of communication were cut from Tunisia to allow humanitarian assistance effort from moving in.

Today we have clear lines of communication which allow the movement of humanitarian assistance throughout that southern part.

Finally, in Tripoli, on the 31st of March the population was oppressed. The Qadhafi regime continued to give direct orders to its forces to continue harm to population and to continue their illegal and immoral action.

Today we've been very successful in significantly impacting their ability to send these orders through our continued pressure on the command-and-control centres throughout the Tripoli area.

But of note, it's also important to understand that we have also ensured that the road from Tunisia into Tripoli is available for the movement of humanitarian assistance. We have ships carrying humanitarian aid that have entered the port of Tripoli, and humanitarian aid is moving. NATO and Unified Protector forces do not hamper the movement of humanitarian assistance.

Therefore, as I see it today we have significantly removed the ability of regime forces to inflict mass casualties, but the intent and the capability remains, and we remain committed to that.

On the No-Fly Zone side we've been very successful in stopping the use of fighter aircraft and helicopters and as late as yesterday we destroyed another helicopter on the ground in this area.

I am satisfied that we are meeting our mission in the No-Fly Zone, as we are on all fronts.

Finally, the embargo continues to be most successful in removing and preventing the movement of illegal arms and weapons that will continue to provide weapons to the regime and then follow on to be used against the population.

Overall, we've done significant improvement and I believe today Libya is a much safer place than it was on the 31st of March, for the population.

But there is still much work to do and we remain committed on our mission to bring to an end the situation and to bring to an end the violence against the people.

That is my view of the situation, and I'll open up for questions at this time. Mike?

Moderator: Oana, if you'd like to go first, take three from Brussels and then we'll see if there's any questions here, and then back to you.

Oana Lungescu: We'll start in Brussels with Europa Press.

Q: Thank you, Commander. Ana Pisonero from the Spanish News Agency Europa Press. Can you confirm that you already have at least eight helicopters that could be for your disposal; four from France and four from U.K.? Can we get a confirmation if they are or not under NATO command? And what kind of operation, attack operations, precise attack operations are you going to use these helicopters for? Thank you so much.

Lieutenant Commander Charles Bouchard: Thank you very much for your question. I am pleased to receive, and I welcome the efforts of both France and United Kingdom in providing us additional assets to continue our campaign.

These helicopters... it is our intention that these helicopters will be operated under Unified Protector mandate and therefore under NATO command-and-control. I will exercise command of those forces.

We're still in the process of developing their capabilities, and they will be brought into action as soon as they are ready, as soon as I'm satisfied that we have done all of what we need to do to ensure an effective and aggressive, yet safe mission for the population as well, and truly focused on attacking those forces that are dedicated to bringing violence.

Thank you.

Oana Lungescu: DPA.

Q: Thank you, Alvise Armellini for DPA, the German Press Agency. The aim of Unified Protector is to protect civilians as you said. I was wondering, do you keep a tally of how many civilians were accidentally killed during the operation, and also I think one of the previous times you talked to the press you said that you had taken out 30 percent of the Qadhafi forces. I wonder, do you have an updated figure for that? Thank you.

Lieutenant Commander Charles Bouchard: The action of Unified Protector have definitely severely impacted the regime's ability to bring threat to the population. And we continue with that.

As far as numbers, I will let my team provide you the numbers after, as far as these counts, but I really must caution against doing such numbers analysis in and of themselves. A force have got capability, it has got command-and-control to bring them... give them the directions they require, but also there's the will of the people that are actually doing the killing. And I look at all of those areas when I look at the force. So in terms of numbers we've significantly attrited the force, and I will provide you the numbers through our own team here in Naples.

But let me remind you that while this campaign started with some 900 tanks and thousands of air defence and artillery pieces and armoured vehicles, and this is not whether 50 percent, 20 percent or 80 percent is left, as much as five tanks in the Misrata area, against unarmed civilians can do the damage. So at the end of the day I'm more concerned about the effects and the effect is to bring an end to the population... to violence against the population.

But on that note, as well, we have taken kinetic activities on those that has been ably reported by your teams, but on that note as well it's important to understand that our campaign here, which is a comprehensive campaign, to get us to the... to accomplish the mission we've been given, but also include non-kinetic means. Methods through which we want to encourage those troops who I strongly believe do not want to bring anymore violence on their people and to encourage them to put their arms down.

We have dropped leaflets in the Brega area, and earlier this week we also dropped leaflets in the area of Tripoli, aimed at the troops that are causing that to encourage them to drop their weapons and to leave the area and to stop the violence. Because our aim is to bring a total solution that brings kinetic activity, but also non-kinetic activities.

I believe that those pamphlets have been made available to you and it's certainly the... they are straight forward and they were seen by the population and also by the military in the Tripoli area. So that's the part I understand.

With regards to your first question, as to the number of people, one life is too many lives lost from my perspective, so at the end of the day these statistics here again, the way I look at it, is the suffering that's taking place, because it's not only in terms of casualty, in terms of deaths, but also casualties in terms of the psychological impact and the damage that has been brought to the population, to women and children, who will be affected for years against this violence.

I do not have exact numbers of the casualties in the area, because, in fact, our main source of information in terms of casualties in the area are provided by the media that is present in those areas.

Oana Lungescu: Italian Press Agency.

Q: Yes, hi, Marie Sole Tognazzi from ANSA Italian News Agency. Just two days ago the Italian premier Mr. Berlusconi said that according to some information that Italy has the son of Qadhafi was not killed as reported. I am wondering if NATO has some independent report, some confirmation of this piece of news. Thanks.

Lieutenant Commander Charles Bouchard: I do not know the status of Qadhafi, of his family, because this is not of my area. My focus in on the command-and-control, the logistics, the supply chain, those troops that are directly involved in killing civilians, both directly and through indiscriminate fires, laying mines, both at sea and on land and oppressing the population.

Our mission is to put a stop to that. Our mission is to bring some space for diplomacy to take place for political intercourse and create a situation that will enable the people of Libya to decide their own future.

Oana Lungescu: Mike, we'll go over to you in Naples for the next questions.

Q: Back to the helicopter, Apache and Tigers that you will have under your control from British and French forces. If you can say something more about how much time you need to get them ready and where they will go. To Misrata?

Lieutenant Commander Charles Bouchard: You're asking for a few details that... I have provided you an outlook... a look into my campaign, but as far as the future activities, for security reasons, which you will understand, I will retain the right not to share this at this time.

But as soon as they are brought in they will make sure that... and as soon as the strikes have taken place we will keep you informed, as we have done with all of our air strikes and other maritime activities as well. Thank you.

Moderator: Back to you, Oana.

Oana Lungescu: Reuters.

Q: David Brunnstrom from Reuters. I've actually got a question really for the Brussels end of things and it's in the context of the arrest of Mladic. I wondered, and also in the context of the current mission in Libya, I just wondered what lessons have been learned by NATO from Srebrenica and whether it's fair to judge that NATO failed in its responsibility in Srebrenica to protect civilians, or was that the responsibility of individual member states or the United Nations?

Oana Lungescu: David, that was a United Nations mission at the time, but I think what happened in Srebrenica, the worst atrocity in Europe after World War II, shows us how important it is to protect civilians who are under attack by their own authorities. And that is exactly what the mission is today and NATO has acted much, much faster than it was able to in the 1990s to rally consensus and to start this operation under the mandate of the United Nations to protect civilians in Libya.

In the 1990s it took NATO months to decide to intervene in the Balkans. This year it took NATO days to set up Operation Unified Protector in support of the people of Libya and of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.

So that is one clear lesson that timely action is effective action. Yesterday when we heard the news of the long overdue arrest of Ratko Mladic in Serbia the Secretary General strongly welcomed that news. It puts an end to one of the bloodiest and darkest chapters in the history of the Balkans and in the history of Europe. It allows for justice to be done and it also allows the whole region to move forward towards Euro-Atlantic integration, which is what we all want to see. And of course, NATO as a guarantor of peace and security in the Balkans for the best part of the last two decades, strongly endorses that goal and supports it.

Finally, you could say that the arrest of Ratko Mladic also sends a broader message, an important message, that international justice will be done. And it is a message for others who may be attacking or planning to attack their own people, to think twice.

Wall Street Journal.

Q: Stephen Fidler from the Wall Street Journal. General, I'd like to ask about the helicopters, whether the fact that they have been sent in was at your request, or whether it was an initiative of the member states concerned, what capabilities they provide that you can't field at the moment, and whether there are other assets that you'd like to see in the nearer term to further help you in the campaign?

Lieutenant Commander Charles Bouchard: Very good. Well, initially the request... there was always a request for helicopters. I don't think you will ever meet a commander that will not ask for all the possible capabilities that are available. This... I consider their arrival now being timely, and to help us to continue the targets that we're engaging and soon we will have more pictorial representation of the challenge that we are facing, is an additional capability to pinpoint exactly these vehicles that are much more difficult to see from high altitude, from the aircraft of high altitude.

And these helicopters are under NATO command-and-control and we will be working together. This is not about just working with helicopters, but also working and bringing synergy between maritime activities, the air activities and aviation helicopter activities, that is brought together and really bring more synergy, or continues to bring more synergy to the situation and to enable to complete the mission.

So I'm quite pleased with the support that we're receiving and I look forward to see these helicopters joining us to complete this work. They have a specific capabilities, but their capability will be used in a comprehensive manner with our entire campaign plan.

If I may, Oana, if you'll allow me, one point on the lessons learned from my perspective. We have, indeed, learned many lessons from the other places that NATO have been operating, and we have used these lessons—the lessons from the Balkans, the lessons in Afghanistan, the lessons in the Med. We are using all of these, and learning these lessons, in fact, has enabled us today to respond in the manner that we have, and to bring the success that we have reached.

So we are building on previous success. We are learning from others, and we're applying those in every way that we do, and therefore, and I have no doubt that such lessons were learned at a strategic level, but also at the operational and a tactical level and they are being applied daily.

Thank you.

Oana Lungescu: German Television.

Q: Kai Niklasch, German Television, ZDF. General Bouchard, are there any situations thinkable where these helicopters will be able to put troops on the ground? Do you think there might be situations like this and that are covered by the mandate? Because well, it is known that these helicopters normally also provide the ability to put boots on the ground.

Lieutenant Commander Charles Bouchard: My mandate is very clear—my mandate, which is provided by the NAC, and through SACEUR, at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe and in JFC Naples—no boots on the ground. In fact, the helicopters that are being provided to us are armed and attack helicopters and they are not the type that do mass movement of troops on the ground, and it is not my intention to put boots on the ground. These are helicopters that will be used as another tool in the tool box to continue to allow us to meet our mission.

Oana Lungescu: Mike, back to you in Naples for the next questions.

Moderator: We have no more questions here, thank you, Oana.

Oana Lungescu: We'll see if there are any more questions in Brussels. AFP.

Q: General, Pascal Mallet, Agence France-Presse. Who is in charge of demining Misrata area, because I thought there were some kind of NATO standing force... standing level force for demining British and Belgium ships, countermines ships. So can you explain to us who is in charge, and who has started and when?

Lieutenant Commander Charles Bouchard: There's two parts of the mining. One is the mines that we found this morning that were laid on the ground, anti-personnel mines. We do not have... NATO does not have troops on the ground and this situation is developing as we speak. The first part in demining is to find out where they are, cordon the area, and obviously appropriate people will deal with that, but this is not our mandate as we do not have troops on the ground.

With regards to the mines that were at sea, three of them were at sea, and these mines were dealt with by NATO maritime forces. From my perspective this is a NATO operation and we have a NATO team. And every member of this team provides actions and support to this point, and therefore, from my perspective, I'm more concerned that our team works under the NATO banner than the national banner, and therefore, I would suggest to you, sir, that NATO forces demine these maritime mines.

Oana Lungescu: AP.

Q: General, Don Melvin, Associated Press. Earlier this week the French Defence Secretary said that the will to continue was not infinite, and he expected the campaign to be successfully wrapped up in weeks rather than months. Do you share that assessment?

Lieutenant Commander Charles Bouchard: This is a difficult question. If I knew the answer to that I certainly would appreciate that very much. Really, the decision is to reach the effects and to meet the directions as have been provided in the... following the Berlin conference.

Violence has stopped. Forces, ground forces have been moved away from built-up area into containment area in a place where we can conduct a verifiable cease-fire and a verifiable monitoring of all military forces that have gone back. And finally, to ensure that there's unimpeded movement of humanitarian assistance.

The timeline of this effort from our perspective is we will continue, and I can assure you we are fully committed every day and every night and across the entire front in Libya, to bring this situation to an end as soon as possible. But the ultimate decision lies in the Qadhafi regime and their acceptance that democracy must take place, that it is not acceptable to use their military to harm their population and population centres.

So I remain optimistic that we will see a response soon, but when, I cannot tell you that. We are committed though.

Oana Lungescu: And I can also tell you that was very much the feeling around the council table this morning from allies and partners. They have been restating their commitment to the mission until the Berlin goals are fulfilled we will see this through, but obviously everybody would want to see this... this job done sooner rather than later. But it is not just a military mission. It is part of the broader international effort to find a political settlement to this crisis, because there can only ultimately be a political solution.

I think we have one last question in Brussels, and it's back to German Television. Thank you.

Q: Let me just pick up that point. Kai Niklasch, again, from Germany Television. There was an agreement when the mission started that it would last 90 days, three months, and do you think you could solve the problem or the military problems you have to solve in this framework? Do you have any signals, any reports that Qadhafi's getting nervous now that you have the east more or less under control and that you are progressing so well the way you have described?

Lieutenant Commander Charles Bouchard: There's no doubt in my mind that the regime is feeling the pressure of our successes, and we have reached some significant effect in reducing the violence against the population. But here, again, there remain a significant amount of forces, albeit much less than there was on the 31st of March, but there's a significant amount of forces.

As far as my timelines, my timelines are based on effects. To reach the objective that the NAC has given us. And this is what my timelines are and perhaps I will turn over to Oana for further comment with regards to the question of timing.

Oana Lungescu: Indeed, the standard planning format for this kind of operation is a 90-day template. This is the template that has been followed for Operation Unified Protector, and the North Atlantic Council needs to formally extend the mission.

As I was saying earlier, we are currently reviewing the effects of the operation and that's what allies and partners are doing and will continue to do. The review will go to the North Atlantic Council in good time. Allies will then decide how to go forward.

Thank you very much. Thank you very much to Naples. Thank you very much, General.

Lieutenant Commander Charles Bouchard: Thank you very much, Oana. Thank you very much, all. We remain committed to achieving our goals, our objective for a better future for Libya.

Thank you very much.