Press briefing on Libya

by the NATO Spokesperson, Oana Lungescu and Wing Commander Mike Bracken, Operation Unified Protector military spokesperson

  • Last updated: 31 May. 2011 19:06

Oana Lungescu (NATO Spokesperson): Good afternoon. As you can see Wing Commander Mike Bracken is already standing by Naples to give us an operational update.

Libya continues to be high on NATO's political agenda. NATO Ambassadors and our operational partners are focusing on the preparations for next week's Defence Ministers Meeting. They will have discussions on Libya next Wednesday at the start of a two-day ministerial here in Brussels.

I expect Ministers will take stock and assess our operations. They will stress their strong commitment to keep up the military pressure on the Qadhafi regime for as long as necessary.

Ministers will also make clear that Operation Unified Protector is only one element of a comprehensive effort to find a solution for the crisis in Libya. You will have seen, for instance, the very clear statement of the G8 summit at the weekend, which stressed that Qadhafi must go.

The Contact Group will also meet in Abu Dhabi next week -- next Wednesday, in fact, and NATO will be represented by the Deputy Secretary General, Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero.

The Secretary General is meeting this afternoon the Chairperson of the African Union Commission Jean Ping. And Libya was one of the key items discussed during the Secretary General's trip to Bulgaria yesterday, with the president, the prime minister, the foreign minister and other senior officials.

He also he shared with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Varna his views about some of the first lessons learnt from the conflict and from the operation in support of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 --the right concept, the right capabilities and the necessary commitment.

He talked about the importance of effective decisions and early political consultations with partners; of the need for the Alliance to have at its disposal the whole range of military capabilities; and the political commitment to see the mission through.

As the Secretary General said, our operation is achieving its objectives and we are preventing Qadhafi from fulfilling his. Qadhafi's reign of terror is coming to an end. Even the ones closest to him are departing, defecting and deserting. And we saw a confirmation of that yesterday, with the defection of senior military officers, including five generals.

So it's becoming increasingly clear to people inside and outside Libya that there's no future for a regime that uses violence against its own people.

And with that, over to Wing Commander Mike Bracken in Naples. Mike.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken (Military Spokesman for Operation Unified Protector): Thank you, Oana and good afternoon.

Let me start this operational update by following on from Lieutenant General Bouchard's brief on Friday. In the east Brega has remained quiet with both pro- and anti-Qadhafi forces in the region dug into defensive positions and mounting few, if any, assaults.

However, NATO continues to strike a number of significant military targets in the area, which continue to pose a threat to the civilian population.

In Misrata the situation continues to gradually improve for the people who live there. Life is getting better. There are still occasional reports of shellings, but these are becoming less frequent. The port is open. Humanitarian shipments are arriving unhindered by the actions of pro-Qadhafi forces, and anti-Qadhafi forces are pushing further out from the city.

Moving west, the front line between Zlintan and Misrata is currently the most fluid and volatile in Libya. Pro-Qadhafi forces have several times indiscriminately shelled the town of Dafniyah and there are indications that the pro-Qadhafi forces have suppressed a number of popular anti-Qadhafi uprisings in Zlintan.

In the western Berber mountain region brutal and indiscriminate shelling by pro-Qadhafi forces is making life extremely difficult and dangerous for the population of Yafran. However, we believe the situation is somewhat improved in other areas of the Berber Highlands where people are less endangered by the pro-Qadhafi forces for this moment in time.

Finally, in Tripoli we have clear indications that the population is being threatened by pro-Qadhafi forces during patrols and at checkpoints. Universities have been closed with the intent of preventing peaceful demonstrations being organized and any hint of anti-Qadhafi sentiment being developed into social unrest.

NATO air operations have maintained an intense tempo in Tripoli. Precision strikes continue on pro-Qadhafi forces and facilities which threaten the civilian population. So far NATO's carried out over 9,000 sorties, of which about 3,500 have been strike sorties. In summary, pro-Qadhafi forces are on the back foot in many parts of Libya.

Today I would like to highlight the outstanding work done to support the air campaign by the air-to-air refuelling community. Video.

The success of our air campaign is due in no small part to the teamwork that goes unseen high above the Mediterranean where NATO and contributing nations conduct air-to-air refuelling operations around the clock.

NATO rarely speaks of this effort, but it plays a vital role in keeping over 100 aircraft flying over Libya everyday.

Roughly a quarter of the sorties flown in this mission so far have been by refuelling tanker aircraft. And of note, nearly every sortie not flown by a tanker has to get fuel in flight in order to accomplish its assigned mission.

Aerial refuelling is known in military jargon as a force multiplier as it extends the range of aircraft coming from distant bases and extends the time that fighters can spend on task once over Libya.

This is the most diverse and extensive air-to-air refuelling operation in the history of aviation and is a clear example of the strength and cohesiveness of NATO. In other words, it is a linchpin of the operation.

To meet our refuelling needs seven nations have provided over 40 tanker aircraft to support Operation Unified Protector under the command of NATO and this effort is made up of six different aircraft types.

Aerial refuellers or tankers are in simple terms fuel stations in the air. They provide around-the-clock service for NATO and its partners, thus enabling the strike aircraft to patrol the skies over Libya, engaging with pro-Qadhafi forces and providing protection to the civilian population.

Tankers under NATO control are providing fuel to 23 different aircraft types from 13 nations. The receivers of this fuel span the full range of the air campaign, from fighters to reconnaissance and command-and-control aircraft.

An air campaign of this size and scope would be severely hindered without a robust air-to-air refuelling operations and ours involve between 35 and 40 sorties every day.

It is challenging to orchestrate the multi-national tanker aircraft to refuel the multi-national receiver aircraft, but NATO and its partners are doing it daily. Recently, the United States offered additional tanker aircraft to NATO, allowing NATO to effectively increase its on-station times for strike aircraft by about 30 percent.

While the tanker contribution is mostly invisible to the outside world, it is, in fact, one of the single most important aspects of the air campaign. The ability to deliver fuel in the air has allowed our strike aircraft to engage more pre-planned targets and to remain on station longer to strike targets of opportunity, gather intelligence, or enhance our overall command-and-control of the operation.

In sum, air-to-air refuelling is a force multiplier and the entire team should take great pride in knowing that the fuel they provide is contributing directly to the success of the mission.

Now during the clips that you will have just seen, you will have seen a number of different tanker aircraft: an Airbus 320 taking off, a Boeing C-135 refuelling a Mirage 2000, an Airbus 310 refuelling an F-18, a tornado and a Mirage 2000.

Moving out to sea. To enforce the maritime embargo NATO ships and airborne surveillance aircraft are keeping around-the-clock watch on shipping off the Libyan coast. In fact, our maritime forces have conducted over 1,000 hailings. NATO is stopping pro-Qadhafi regime forces using the sea as a covert highway for moving people and weapons to where they can be used against the population.

NATO and its partners are challenging any suspicious vessels and we've denied some ships from entering Libyan ports because their cargo could be used to help launch attacks on civilians.

At the same time, NATO is doing all it can to ensure the Libyan people get food, essential supplies and medical help by keeping the commercial and humanitarian shipping lanes from deliberate attacks and the danger of sea mines.

In the past week 74 commercial ships have entered Libyan ports, of which 25 have been carrying humanitarian assistance. Today shipping flows freely into Benghazi, Misrata, Tripoli and other Libyan ports. In fact, our reports indicate that a total of 266 humanitarian aid ships have entered Libyan ports in the last seven weeks.

However, NATO remains deeply concerned about the worsening humanitarian situation in other parts of Libya and saddened, but not surprised that pro-Qadhafi forces continue to go to such lengths to make ordinary men, women and children suffer through violence, hunger and fear.

We are doing all we can to avert a humanitarian crisis and are working closely with the United Nations and aid organizations to improve access to the suffering population.

NATO's actions have meant that some parts of the country, particularly in the east, are now safe enough for aid organizations to safely move essential supplies by road.

As my commander said on Friday, this campaign is about more than just kinetic activity. Through leaflet drops and radio broadcasts we continue to encourage pro-Qadhafi forces to abandon the fight, go home to their families and focus on creating a peaceful future for themselves and their country.

A number of pro-Qadhafi units have shown signs of wavering loyalty and yesterday a number of senior pro-Qadhafi officers defected. The cracks in the Qadhafi regime are now clearly visible.

NATO will continue to keep up the pressure on pro-Qadhafi forces in Tripoli, the Highlands, around Misrata, around Brega. In fact, anywhere that threatens the civilian population.

That concludes my statement. I'm happy to take questions.

Oana Lungescu: If there are any questions. Europa Press.

Q: Thank you. You've mentioned Dafniyah in the west of Misrata. We could see that yesterday Al Jazeera showed some images of what appear to be six British military, although in civilian clothes, most of them were armed, apparently giving counsel to the opposition forces on how to proceed in operational terms against military objectives of the regime. I understand that NATO has no troops on the ground for the mission, but does the NATO consider the fact that some allies, particularly France and Britain, to have these kind of troops on the ground, violate the mandate of the Resolution under which you're operating in Libya?

Thank you so much.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, with regard to that question there is just one answer really to the first part of that question and that is that NATO does not have men, women or boots on the ground in Libya.

With regard to the second part, and I think you were referring to information, NATO is quite astute. It will take information from any source it can. The role of the intelligence officers and the personnel who work in Headquarters here and in the other NATO Headquarters is to fuse all of that information together and then provide the commander the best situation awareness he can be given.

So I also saw that piece on the television and I am not going to speculate who those people are, but let's be quite clear, NATO does not have boots on the ground.

Oana Lungescu: Are there any other questions in Brussels? Over there, Italian Press.

Q: Yes, Lorenzo (inaudible...) News. Can I ask please what happened to the helicopters? Have they started... have they arrived, are they ready? Are they operating?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Lorenzo, that's a very good question and I must admit I was expecting something about helicopters. There's been a lot of speculation in the media recently about helicopters being added to the commander's portfolio of assets. I can confirm that a number of helicopters have been offered by nations. They are under NATO command-and-control and when the commander feels it's fit, appropriate, he will use those assets. But as far as future operations are concerned, I'm not prepared to discuss any detail.

Thank you.

Oana Lungescu: Back to Ana.

Q: Yes, sorry, this is more a political question maybe for Oana. What will be the main message that the Secretary General will be transmitting today to Jean Ping? Will he touch upon the proposed cease-fire? I know NATO has always said in the past that it needs to be verifiable and Qadhafi troops have to go back to their barracks before there's any talk even of cease-fire from NATO side. So is this a bit... would Secretary General will transmit to Ping, or what can we expect from that meeting? Thank you.

Oana Lungescu: The meeting is part of a series of regular contacts that the Secretary General and NATO, as a whole, have with other key international actors and key regional actors involved in trying to find a solution to this crisis. We have said from the start that there can be no purely military solution and we have also made clear that NATO's operations are fully in line with our United Nations Security Council mandate.

We are acting in accordance with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 to prevent attacks and threat against civilians in Libya and we will continue doing that until the mandate is fulfilled.

The African Union, of course, has a very important role to play in conflict resolution in Libya and we welcome all efforts to find a political solution to the conflict. And I can only quote what I see President Zuma of South Africa said: We call on all leaders in Libya to exercise decisive leadership to find a solution to the crisis in the country and to put the interests of their country first. We can only second that call.

Q: Yes, Gerard Gaudin, Belgium News Agency. A question for Naples. Could you tell us how many tonnes of ammunitions have been dropped since the start of the operation?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Thank you for that. As I think I've said, and I know the commander said last Friday. We don't track statistics of that type. It is not a factor in our operational planning. The commander will use whatever assets are available to him to carry out his mission. If you would like to come back to us in writing we will see what we can find out in the way of detail, but from my perspective we do not carry out the collection of that sort of statistics.

Oana Lungescu: We have Agata over there.

Q: Agata Byczewska, Agence Europe. Just two questions. On the refuelling aircraft. Could you just elaborate more on what types... or how many different types of aircrafts are there and what types are those? And the second question is as you know the EU was thinking about some kind of evacuation. Just technical question, if the Unified Protector is able to conduct the tasks of the evacuation or should you launch some... should you plan for some other operation in order to assume to assure the evacuation of some of the people from the ground?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: The first question I can answer you. Air-to-air refuelling is a force multiplier. We use a number of assets from different countries. The Boeing 707, the KC-10, the KC-130, the KC-135, the KC-150 and the VC10. That's the first question.

The second one, I'm slightly confused to what you're asking me. If you're asking if we would help evacuate people from Libya we don't have boots on the ground to carry out that sort of task, it's not within our current mandate to carry out such a task, but the Commander would carry out the instructions as directed by higher command.

Oana, would you like to take further the second question?

Oana Lungescu: If I understand the question correctly, Agata, we have been planning, as part of our prudent planning, there are plans in place for a humanitarian support mission. We stand ready to assist if there is a request from the United Nations to that end. Until now, to my knowledge, there has been no such request.

And I now need to give the floor to journalists in Naples, who, I'm afraid, I have not taken into account until now. So Mike, over to you in Naples.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Thank you.

Q: (Inaudible...) other news about the 80 mines in Misrata that General Bouchard told us last week.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: I'm very sorry, can you just say the first part of that question again?

Q: General Bouchard told us that you know that in Misrata the pro-Qadhafi forces put 80 mines on the ground.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Yes. Okay, yes on Friday the Commander informed the audience that an anti-personnel mine field had been found on the outskirts of Misrata. We do not have boots on the ground to investigate that and to substantiate that information. All I would understand, and I have to be careful here, is that that area would be avoided by people and in a post conflict scenario I would imagine that the international community would do everything they could to make that area safe.

But at the moment we don't have boots on the ground and we're not able to assist on a ground situation such as a mine field.

Q: Hello, (inaudible...) News Agency (inaudible). I would like to know in which part of the country and which city are you focusing in particular your attention as bombing and air strikes and if you are going to change your strategy from high atmosphere bombings, droppings, than low in.

Thank you.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, I think that's quite easy. I think I've said at the end of my statement, we will continue, or the Commander will continue to focus on operations from Tripoli through the mountains, around Misrata, around Brega and across the whole country wherever there is a risk to the civilian population.

So beyond that tactically I'm not prepared to discuss where any current focus is now or would be in the future.

Thanks.

Moderator: Okay, back to Brussels.

Oana Lungescu: Okay, we have Kuwaiti News Agency here.

Q: Nawab Khan from Kuwait News Agency in Brussels. We are getting a daily update from NATO on the military assets of the Qadhafi regime being destroyed. Now taking into consideration these daily updates for the last one month will it be safe to assume that over 50 percent of the military capabilities of the Qadhafi regime have been destroyed? Thank you.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: I think really that goes straight back to the question I said earlier. I and the Commander... well, the Commander and I do not run any form of statistics tally. We release to the public the target sets or the results that have been carried out in the night before. I don't run a running tally and so I'm not able to give you an answer to that.

Oana Lungescu: Nawab, I think we won't go into the numbers game, but what you can see is the effect on the ground. And Mike has been briefing on the effect on the ground and you also saw yesterday's press conference in Rome of a significant number of senior military officials who have defected, including, as I said, five generals.

Now, they were saying that regime forces are at 20 percent of their strength. That is their assessment. What I think is clear is that people are defecting in droves. It's a significant loss of the regime's senior leadership and it doesn't come as a surprise, because NATO strikes have largely paralyzed the command-and-control of the Qadhafi regime forces, so they are not able to order senior military officers as they would want to.

So when they can't get their orders they are losing their faith in their leadership and that is exactly what we are seeing.

But as Mike has also briefed, we still see indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas from Dafniyah to the Berber mountains. So there is still a clear danger posed by the regime to its own people.

I think AP had a question there.

Q: Yes, Don Melvin, Associated Press. If I can return to the helicopters for a moment. Not asking about any future operations, but what are the reasons they have not been used yet?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Like any commander, when he has a certain number of assets at his disposal, he will use the best asset to carry out the task that he has in front of him. So when the best asset becomes a helicopter he will use a helicopter. Whilst the best asset to carry out the task he requires to be conducted is a fast jet or a strike aircraft he will use that.

So it will be for the Commander to decide when he has the right requirement on the ground to use an asset and at that stage he will deploy that asset.

Oana Lungescu: Are there any other questions in Brussels, or indeed, in Naples? One last one, I think, to AFP.

Q: Laurent Thomet with Agence France-Presse. Regarding the refuelling planes, last week or recently there were some French planes that had to land in Malta because they ran out of fuel. Are you short of refuelling planes. Is that why you showed this presentation? Are you asking nations to contribute more planes?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: A very good question. I think in sum not at all is the answer to that. We have been incredibly well supported by nations for the very important role of air-to-air refuelling. If anything it was an opportunity for me, on behalf of the Commander, to thank all of those in the air-to-air refuelling role, who behind the scenes carry out such a vital task to enable the operation to carry on at the current pace it is continuing. And, in fact, it was quite a while ago, but only today that I've announced it, that we had an additional uplift from the United States which has enabled us to increase our tempo by some 30 percent on our strike sorties.

So, no, we certainly aren't putting any cap out for more assets regarding air-to-air refuelling. Thank you.

Oana Lungescu: And with that I think we will conclude our briefing. Thank you very much, Mike, and thank you to the colleagues in Naples. Thank you for coming.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Thank you.