Press briefing on Libya

by the NATO Deputy Spokesperson, Carmen Romero and Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini, Chief Operations Officer, Operation Unified Protector and Commander Peter Clarke

  • 10 May. 2011
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  • Last updated: 10 May. 2011 20:33

Carmen Romero (NATO Deputy Spokesperson): Welcome back everyone to our regular Tuesday Operations update on Libya.  As you know the NATO Secretary General is in the United States meeting with Government officials, US troops and National guardsmen – today in Austin, Texas. He is there to express his appreciation to US service personnel who have contributed to NATO-led operations, including in Afghanistan and Libya. In a speech at the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, Georgia yesterday, he stressed that time is running out for the Qadhafi regime.

In the Secretary General's absence, the Deputy Secretary General, Ambassador Bisogniero will chair the NAC tomorrow  with our operational partners to exchange views on our operations in Libya. This  meeting is part of our regular discussions amongst Ambassadors that take place every week to asses progress in our mission.   

Before I hand over to Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini, the chief operations officer for Operation Unified Protector, I would like to address one other issue.

We have seen a number of reports in recent days of migrants from Libya dying at sea. These are tragic stories, and they show the desperation to which people in Libya have been reduced by the Qadhafi regime. The humanitarian crisis is the direct result of the regime’s violence. It is still more proof that Qadhafi and his followers have lost all claim to legitimacy.

In particular, we are deeply concerned by reports that Qadhafi regime gunmen forced migrants into at least one boat, which sank soon afterwards. If confirmed, this would be just another proof of the regime’ss disregard for human safety and human life. NATO condemns this kind of actions utterly.

We have also been asked what action NATO is taking to protect such migrant ships at sea. Let me be clear: NATO’s mission is to prevent attacks on civilians and civilian populated areas in Libya. That is what the United Nations Security Council mandated.

But while they are carrying out that mandate, ships under NATO command will always respond to calls from ships in distress. This is their duty under the law of the sea, and to suggest that our ships’ captains would do otherwise is unfair and disrespectful.

For example, on the 26th of March NATO ships responded to information that two migrant ships, with over 500 people on board were in difficulty, who were then provided direct assistance by the Italian authorities. That included a NATO ship using its helicopter to airlift two women and a newborn child to medical help.

So NATO is doing what it can to render assistance to those in distress at sea. We will continue to do so.

And we will continue to do everything we can on land to prevent attacks on civilians and civilian populated areas.

With that, I will hand you over to Brigadier General Gabellini in Naples.

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini (Chief Operations Officer, Operation Unified Protector): Good afternoon. I am Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini and I work in operations planning as part of the Operation Unified Protector located her in Naples. It's my pleasure to provide you with a quick operational update today.

In recent briefings you have heard about the maritime component, and today I will focus on the air campaign perspective.

(Speaking in Italian)

And now back to English. In the past week alone we have engaged multiple rocket-launcher systems, command-and-control facilities, anti-aircraft weapons, military bunkers and ammo facilities, tanks and armoured fighting vehicles. We are having an effect and we are diminishing Qadhafi's capacity to issue orders, to field troops and to fly regime jets.

And at sea we have cleared sea mines laid by pro-Qadhafi forces in the approaches to the port of Misrata on April the 29th. Two of the mines were destroyed by NATO mine countermeasures vessels and the third, which has not been found, is no longer considered a serious threat.

We've also swept the approaches of Misrata harbour and consider that there is no immediate mine threat for the timing being. Our maritime forces are prepared to respond to any similar threat.

We fully recognize how important the port is to the citizens of Misrata. While the decision to open and close the port rests clearly with Misrata port control, we note that since NATO vessels destroyed the mines and cleared the areas more than 15 vessels have entered the port.

Staying with Misrata, we reported on April 29th that we have pushed pro-Qadhafi forces back and that the anti-Qadhafi forces had taken control of most of the city. Since then pro-Qadhafi forces have continued to shell the citizens of Misrata with longer-range artillery, mortars and rockets indiscriminately firing high-explosive rounds into the city.

Although it's a real challenge for us to strike military targets in and around population centres like Misrata, while minimizing the risk to innocent civilians, we've been working hard to prevent attacks by pro-Qadhafi forces.

Since the 2nd of May we have destroyed over 30 military targets in the Misrata area, including a dozen main battle tanks, three rocket-launcher systems, three self-propelled artillery pieces, and 15 ammunition storage sites. And multiple strikes against command-and-control buildings in both Misrata and Tripoli were conducted.

Last night we engaged a command-and-control facility in downtown Tripoli.

I would now like to show you an example of dynamic targeting. In this video you will see an air strike on a building that was identified as a location where pro-Qadhafi forces were shelling and engaging the civilian population from this building.

The aircraft identified the target and I would ask you to note the precision of the strike. Go with the video, please.


Okay, you can clearly see the buildings engaged. That's the blast, and you can see exactly the end point. That's exactly at the building where people were shooting at the civilians.

Here's another example, and you've noticed that the buildings behind the building were we were looking after have not been touched. So this is a good example of the accuracy and the precision of the strikes we carry on, protecting the civilians from being hurt by pro-Qadhafi regime forces.

Again, you will see now the two buildings right in the middle of the screen. From those buildings there were snipers firing at people and the buildings were empty. In a couple of seconds you'll see the impact of the weapons. First building on the right and the second building on the left. The other buildings around it, despite the smoke, were untouched.

Yes, okay, thank you.

And also, I can show you this afternoon, some sophisticated photos taken from within the aircraft, and these photos are directly showing you which is the precision of the precision-guided munitions. We're talking about smart bombs. I'll come to that later on. And could you please now show the pictures, please.

No. Okay. Look at the building, and look at the yellow circle on the right on the screen. It's written crater behind that. You can see two holes. This is exactly the part of the building we wanted to hit.

So, again, we're not talking about a building. We're talking about the part of the building which was of interest for the attack. So you can also see that there are no other damages to the building. Again, this is another building and you see the exact precision of the hole right in the middle of the roof of the building. And I'm talking, of course, about military targets.

Next picture, please.

Okay, I want to point out here the point that look at the debris on the right of the screen. There should be a red circle around that. Difficult to see from here because of the light. But you will see all the debris had stopped before passing the road and after the road you could find some civilian buildings.

So the debris have not gone far away. They stayed within the perimeter of the military site we were attacking.

Next slide, please.

Yes. Here you can see a couple of bunkers' heat and you can see the holes right in the middle of the bunkers, and again, you can exactly see that we were not just hitting bunkers, we were looking for some specific bunkers and that’s the result. And you can also see, apart from the hole in the roof, that no damages have been carried out in the surroundings of the bunkers.

Next slide. I think we've got one more. No. Okay.

Okay, since... Let's go. Since March 31st NATO and partner aircraft have been conducting an average of 150 sorties a day, all aimed at protecting Libyan civilians from the violence by Qadhafi regime forces. And since the beginning of the operations nearly 6,000 sorties have been conducted. Over 2,300 of them were strike missions on approved targets.

Every day we observe a changing situation on the ground, and we make adjustments to our operations to ensure that our effort has the maximum effect.

All NATO targets are military in nature and have been clearly linked to the Qadhafi regime's systematic attacks on the Libyan population and populated areas.

Every strike conducted by NATO and partner forces is necessary, legal, moral and executed in a manner in which civilian casualties are minimized to the fullest possible extent.

Target sets have been chosen by the North Atlantic Council, the NAC, and they're all engaged when strictly necessary to achieve the required strategic campaign effect.

All these targets, again, are directly linked to attacks or threats of attack against civilians and populated centres, and these targets have been engaged in the most professional way, using state-of-the-art precision-guided munitions. Well, are there challenges and complexities associated with this aspect of the missions? Absolutely, and let me tell you that NATO takes all the measures to ensure that our operations are conducted with the utmost precision and respect for the law.

Consider that at every level from the commander down to the aircraft crew targets are thorough analyzed, constantly assessed and carefully verified until the very last minute.

Our goal in planning and executing all operations is to minimize civilian casualties to the fullest possible extent. And I can say with the highest degree of confidence that the equipment and technology used by the NATO and partner aircraft and air crew are some of the most sophisticated and precise in the world. We use the most accurate systems and professional crew and we only use smart weapons. They are all precision-guided munitions with very excellent guidance systems.

Our mission is clear. We are committed to protecting the citizens of Libya until there is no longer a threat of violence towards them. Our mission will be completed when three military objectives have been met. First, all attacks and threats against civilians have ended. Second, all regime forces have returned to their bases. And last, but not least, full and unhindered access to humanitarian aid is granted.

Until these objectives are met NATO will continue to keep up the pressure on the Qadhafi regime and it forces. Our preference for the sake of the Libyan people, who are enduring hardship and suffering, is that these objectives are met sooner rather than later. There should be no doubt in anyone's mind that our mission is an important one, and we're protecting the people of Libya daily. We've been very clear from the start that our mission is to protect the civilian population and every day, every strike we conduct, makes the difference.

And with that I'm happy to take your questions. Thank you.

Carmen Romero (NATO Deputy Spokesperson): The first thing we will move on to Naples and then we will come back to Brussels. So first, in Brussels, please.

Q: (Inaudible...)?

Carmen Romero: Yes.

Q: Thank you very much. General, the weekend we heard about some news that there were some planes, aeroplanes, in the air, aeroplanes from Qadhafi regime signed with a red cross. How is it possible that there will be almost some aeroplanes in the air? We know Qadhafi has no more aeroplanes.

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: Thank you for the question. As a matter of fact, I read the reports, we have lots of reports talking about helicopters wearing the red cross on them, but we have no, absolutely we have no evidence at all. What I can say it's been five days since we last had the last report talking about helicopters overflying Libya. We know for sure that the Libyan jets are not flying their skies anymore. And let me (inaudible...)...

Carmen Romero: Please identify yourself because the General...

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: ...the red cross military aircraft is breaching the international laws, and will not be accepted.

Q: Kai Niklasch, from German Television ZDF. We had reports that governmental buildings in Tripoli were bombed. Can you give us some more information about which buildings were bombed, and whether Qadhafi was in this area too, or whether he was in (inaudible) too?

That's the first part of my question, and if you allow a second one, Carmen just introduced that there were reports in The Guardian, La Monde and some other important newspapers that there was a ship between Lampedusa and Libya and there was a helicopter above that ship and the refugees said it just dropped some bottles of water and some food, but then was never seen again. There was no help from NATO. Can you give us some more information about that?

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: Okay, I will start from answering the second part of the question. I've read the reports too talking about this affair, but I can say that there is no absolute evidence of NATO ships being involved in such events.

What I can tell you for sure, that in case NATO ships were directly involved in such events the NATO captains of the ship will do everything in their power to ensure that their behaviour is according to the international maritime laws and traditions.

Now let's go back to the first part. I'm not sure I catch the exact meaning of the question. Could you please repeat it?

Q: I'll repeat it. It's just that we had reports that governmental buildings, buildings of President Qadhafi were attacked. Can you give us some information, which kind of buildings these were and what the NATO goals were?

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: Okay, well, all the targets, as I said before during my speech, all NATO targets are military targets. Which means that the targets we've been hitting, and it happened also last night in Tripoli, are command-and-control bunkers. And again, just to make clear the stuff that NATO is not targeting individuals. It's not in our mandate. Our mandate is to protect civilian population from attacks or from the threat of attacks by Qadhafi regime forces.

Carmen Romero: Next question there.

Q: It's a follow-up question. Those reports about the buildings bombed in Tripoli last night, the Libyan government said one of those buildings was a children's centre. Could you comment on that, please?

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: Well, again, I've read the reports and I can tell you again that we have no evidence at all. We have no people on the ground so we cannot confirm or deny the information which has been released by the Libyan government.

What I can assure you is that the targets we're after are only command-and-control military sites and those command-and-control sites are being targeted because they are direct links with the violence being given to the Libyan population.

Carmen Romero: Now the next questions go to Naples, please.

Q: (Speaking In Italian)

Carmen Romero: And the answer was... maybe you want to repeat the answer in English, General?

Moderator: First and the second, just say that there's no... you have not people on the ground, so how can you be sure that you are just targeting military objects, not others? Thank you.

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: Okay, talking about the situation in Benghazi and while I would say in the eastern part of the country the situation is relatively stable and calm and NATO has succeeded in the last four to five weeks to stabilize the situation.

I remind you that when NATO took over the operation... I'm talking about the beginning of April, the end of March, the situation in Ajdabiya, Brega and Benghazi was highly critical and people... civilian people were being slaughtered by regime forces.

So the first concern with NATO operations during the first week have been to stabilize the situation. And now the situation there is more than calm and stable.

And what was the second part of the question, please?

Moderator: You just said that there's no people on the ground in Tripoli so how can you confirm that there's been no (inaudible) civilian targets? How can you assure?

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: We have the best information possible that we have. We know exactly which are the military sites and we know for sure which are military sites and which are not and we only are after the command-and-control structure, because as I said before, the first part of the operation has been dedicated to count down the situation, to stabilize the situation and to stop the slaughtering of the civilians. And once done that in a broader campaign design, now NATO is taking care about... I mean, taking out of the capacity of Mr. Qadhafi to give orders to his troops to slaughter civilians. That's why we're after command-and-control centres and, of course, they're all military command-and-control centres.

Q: Good morning, I'm Paolo (inaudible) from Associated Press. Let me go back to a question that has been already posed, but to have a little bit more details about these migrant ships, because we had the chance to do an interview this morning with an Eritrean Father who has been called by these migrants before they died and he said that they called the NATO command in Naples to alert the Naples command that there was this ship adrift. And there are other reports saying that also the Coast Guard, the Italian Coast Guard was aware of the position of this ship. So according to you how does it come that nobody knew about it and NATO didn't know about it?

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: Well, again, you're talking about some reports that I've read, but again, we have no evidence of NATO being directly involved in such operations. What I can tell you for sure that every time NATO has been directly involved in such events, and it happened at least a couple of times at the end of March, the NATO ship's captain did all he had to do according to the international maritime laws and traditions to rescue the people.

Q: So you didn't receive any alert on this ship?

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: I have no evidence of having received such alerts.

Q: Okay. Thank you.

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: You're welcome.

Carmen Romero: Now, we move back to Brussels. Please, here.

Q: Yes, Brooks Tigner, Jane's Defence. I wanted to come back to this incident of killing the snipers that you did. If you have no people on the ground then how do you know that the snipers you hit with precision bombs were not rebels or Misrata citizens taking revenge on Qadhafi forces and their civilian sympathizers?

Thank you.

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: Okay, we have... all our actions are based on solid information that we have. So to the best of our knowledge those troops... it was more than clear that those troops were attacking civilians downtown in Misrata.

Q: Yes, you said troops, but if you fire a bomb on a person inside a building you can't tell if he's wearing a uniform or not.

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: I remind you that the mandate we've been given by United Nations is to protect civilians from the attacks or from the threat of attacks and to the best of our knowledge those people up there on that roof were shelling at civilians and that's more than enough to fulfil the UN mandate.

Q: (Inaudible...) Swiss Radio Television … you please give us a bit of details about when you say we will behave according to the rules and the traditions if we meet migrants? When you say rescue you mean you give them food and water, or do they stand a chance to board a NATO ship if their ship is in distress? Do they have any chance to do that?

If they get on a ship do they have a chance to apply for... declare that they want to apply for asylum? And finally, do you have any legal base or anything to bring people back to Tunisia, as allegedly some of these groups were offered to by NATO ships?

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: Well, that's an excellent question, but as we realize from my dressing I'm not an expert in maritime rules and laws, so what I can tell you that the NATO captains know exactly what to do in such situations and, again, we should base all the assumptions on real facts and not so on those report.

I mean, we've heard many... lots of reports, so first it's a good idea to double-check them. But again, when NATO has been directly involved nobody has complained about that.

Carmen Romero: As the General just said, are fully aware of the responsibilities under the international maritime law, and we will continue doing everything in line with the international maritime law. So this needs to be clear.


Q: David Brunnstrom from Reuters. I wonder if we could just follow up on the question that was asked earlier in Italy, because we didn't actually hear the response to it, which was, I think, do you have any evidence to suggest whether Qadhafi is alive or dead at this stage?

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: Well, I say again, we have no evidence about what Mr. Qadhafi's doing right now. And I tell you the truth, we're not really interested in what he is doing. Our mandate is to protect civilians from the attacks and from the threat of attacks so we're not looking after individuals.

Carmen Romero: To add that we are not targeting specific individuals, but solely military targets. Solely military targets. Next question, please, at the end.

Q: (Inaudible...) News. My question is quite simple. Do you consider that Mr. Qadhafi is an objective as command-and-control, not as an individual, because if you say we are not targeting individuals I understand, but it's hard for me to understand that Qadhafi is not a command-and-control centre, even if it is an individual and not a site.

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: Right. No, again, our mandate is clear, to protect the population from the attacks. So we're not... NATO is not targeting individuals. No individuals are a target for NATO. We only look after command-and-control centre because we want the targets we're after is to stop Mr. Qadhafi to give orders to his troops to keep slaughtering the civilians and to prevent humanitarian aid to enter the country.

So, again, we don't really... we're not really interested in individuals, not in Mr. Qadhafi's life. We're after command-and-control centres. As a second part of the broad campaign I was talking about. First we had to stabilize the situation in most parts of the country and then we could move to the next step, which is preventing the regime forces to give orders to the troops on the field.

Carmen Romero: We have time for two more questions, one in Naples, one in Brussels. Naples, (inaudible).

Q: Thank you. I'm again, Paolo (inaudible...) from Associated Press. Last week in Rome there has been the Contact Group for Libya and the French Foreign Minister Juppé said that according to him the mission, Unified Protector, could last still a few months. Can you comment on this? Do you think is it just a matter of months?

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: Well... I'm not really bothered about that, but we say... we know perfectly which is our end state. Until the three main objectives are met, which means all attacks and threats against the civilian population has ended; all the regime forces have returned to their base; and full and unhindered access to humanitarian aid is granted the mission will keep on. So we'll keep the pressure on Qadhafi regime until these three objectives are met.

Of course, the sooner the better for the civilian population, that's for sure.

Q: Thank you.

Carmen Romero: (Inaudible) with the rest of the members of the Contact Group in the sense that we would like to see an end of this crisis as soon as possible, as the General just said. Last question.

Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini: Yes, Jean-Pierre (inaudible) of the French newspaper, La Monde. A last follow-up on this incident, these deaths of 62 migrants. We heard yesterday that NATO was opening an inquiry on the incident. What is the inquiry precisely going about? Is it to determine precisely what were the NATO vessels cruising in this zone? And was it also to determine the nationality of the planes or helicopters that flew over the small boat?

Carmen Romero: Well, if you may, I take this again. Well, as the General just said, NATO has reviewed all relevant information available, so we have already looked into that, and we can find no evidence whatsoever of any NATO ships being involved in this tragic incident reported by The Guardian. And the only aircraft carrier attached to the NATO mission at the time in question, which is the 29th and the 30th of March, was an aircraft carrier which was operating more than 100 nautical miles away from the possible location of the migrant vessel.

In addition to that, NATO units at sea neither saw nor heard any trace of distress calls from that area. This is all we have to say about this. We looked into this and there is no evidence. Basically, NATO was not involved because it had no signs, okay?

For the last question now?

Q: Maybe NATO was not involved, but does NATO have any evidence whether there were any other helicopters from other nations were involved? Because well, the people onboard must have seen something.

Carmen Romero: As I said, NATO units at sea neither saw nor heard any trace of distress calls from that area in the period of time described by the newspaper. That's all we have to say, thank you very much for coming. See you soon.

Presentation by Wing Commander Peter Clarke (Royal Air Force) accompanying photo slide show on rescue of refugees in Mediterranean Sea by NATO vessels

This selection of pictures provides an example of how NATO vessels fulfill their responsibilities under the International Maritime Law regarding Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS) and provide assistance to migrants attempting to escape the Gaddafi regime.
On the 26th March, the Italian ship ETNA, under NATO command in support of the arms embargo, assisted a vessel with around 150 people on board, including women and children.
The vessel had earlier been given food and water by another NATO ship, but after the vessel came into distress, with no power, the ETNA sent teams including medical professionals to assess the passengers.
The ETNA then provided sickbay care for a newborn baby and mother before flying them to Lampedusa for transfer to hospital.
The ETNA remained alongside  the vessel  as all passengers were evacuated   from the vessel by the Coast Guard.
The helicopter returned to ETNA before taking a second woman, undergoing contractions, to the Lampedusa for transfer to the same hospital.
Another similar incident occurred during that same period of time. In total those operations, which saved 283 people, were conducted rapidly and smoothly and demonstrates the commitment of all NATO vessels to any vessel in distress.