Press briefing on Libya
by Oana Lungescu, the NATO Spokesperson and Colonel Roland Lavoie, Operation ‘’Unified Protector’’ military spokesperson
Oana Lungescu (NATO Spokesperson): Good afternoon everybody here in Brussels, on the internet, and of course in Naples, where I can see Roland Lavoie is already waiting. Colonel Lavoie will give us an operational briefing on Libya in a few minutes.
As you know, the Secretary General was in Bucharest yesterday where he thanked President Basescu and members of the government and parliament of Romania for the country's significant contribution to all our operations, and they discussed the way ahead to the Chicago Summit.
He also gave a keynote speech at the autumn session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly where he focused on how to maintain an Alliance that can provide the best security for a cost we can afford.
The Secretary General made the point that we're conducting Operation Unified Protector against the backdrop of an economic crisis and we're doing so successfully. Parliamentarians, like Defence Ministers here last week, agreed that our operation to protect the people of Libya has been a great success. We're pretty close to the end, but we're not there yet.
We did the right thing, we saved countless lives, we did it in the right way, fast, with flexibility, involving Partners from the start, and we did it for the right reasons; to fully implement the mandate of the United Nations Security Council. Now we will make sure the end of the operation will come when the time is right. We will not leave the job half done.
Our mission, as you know, is to prevent attacks and threats against civilians, so we will terminate the mission once we assess that there is no longer a systematic and significant threat and, of course, there are various factors to be taken into account, including the situation on the ground, which is moving fast, and the ability of the National Transitional Council forces to protect civilians themselves.
Ultimately, like the launch of this operation, the end of the operation will be a political situation. It's for the North Atlantic Council to take that political decision as soon as conditions permit based on the assessment of our military authorities, and we'll coordinate the decision with the United Nations, which mandated our mission, and with the legitimate Libyan authorities.
As fighting is coming to an end in many areas it must do so in a way that respects the calls from the international community and the National Transitional Council to show restraint and avoid reprisals and revenge. We expect the new Libya to be founded on reconciliation and human rights, on democracy and the rule of law. And the National Transitional Council has a great responsibility for a smooth and peaceful transition to democracy.
As the Secretary General said in Bucharest, his hope is that by our Chicago Summit in May a new democratic Libya will be among our partners if, of course, it so wishes.
Finally, a date for your diaries. Lieutenant General William Caldwell, the Commander of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan will be in Brussels on Thursday to brief on what NATO's doing to improve the quality and the quantity of Afghan Security Forces and the briefing will take place at ten o'clock at Résidence Palace and if you're unable to attend you can, of course, send your questions by e-mail.
And with that over to Roland for the operational update on Libya from Naples. Roland.
Colonel Roland Lavoie (Spokesperson for the Operation Unified Protector): Thank you, Oana. Bonjour. Over the last week we have witnessed a significant evolution of the situation in Libya, in the two remaining small pockets under pro-Qadhafi influence, Sirte and Bani Walid.
Sirte is now heavily contested. NTC forces have made a significant advance, reaching the core of the city. Now that Qadhafi forces have been dislodged from the university, the conference centre and the main hospital, they have lost key positions and cannot effectively control the city or be reinforced or resupplied.
Most importantly, humanitarian aid can now reach core city areas, including the hospital. And the population can now more easily escape the few remaining contested areas.
The significance of these developments should not be underestimated, due to the symbolic meaning that Sirte once had as a Qadhafi stronghold - which is not the case anymore. Sirte is also the last city with a seaport under Qadhafi control, which means that soon the entire coast of Libya will be controlled by the NTC.
In Bani Walid now, where the situation was static until last weekend, NTC forces have started to move towards the outskirts of the small town from which a significant proportion of the population has already left. We have no evidence of significant pro-Qadhafi presence or activity in the rest of the country.
In light of this assessment NATO is continuously monitoring the situation in Libya and remains vigilant. NATO is maintaining a constant presence, conducting mainly surveillance operations from air and sea to keep the required situational awareness, identifying acts of aggression against the civilian population and intervening as necessary.
Given the close quarter fierce fighting in parts of Sirte, NATO has been and will continue to be extremely careful to avoid harming the population or causing collateral damage. Simply put, there are limitations to what NATO aircraft can do from high altitude to protect civilians in an uncertain, cluttered urban-combat environment where civilians still reside.
NATO is exercising air power only when necessary and always with caution, discernment and precision.
A few air strikes were conducted in Bani Walid over the last week to remove weapons, vehicles and military command or staging facilities, thus further eroding remaining Qadhafi forces' capabilities to sustain combat operations, threaten the civilian population or trigger bloodshed. So Unified Protector is pursuing its mandate to protect the civilians in Libya. Since the start of the operation NATO has been very careful to fulfil its mandate and avoid causing harm to civilians.
When we absolutely need to intervene to protect the population we do so with utmost care, targeting only military assets and using precision-guided munitions to avoid civilian casualties. At this stage of the operation we essentially monitor the situation, but remain 100 percent ready to intervene where and when necessary.
This is all from me, Oana.
Oana Lungescu: Okay. Have we got any questions in Brussels? AP.
Q: Yes, Colonel, we had a report yesterday in the New York Times from Lieutenant General Ralph Jodice saying that NATO has actually been surprised by how fierce ... how resilient and fierce the pro-Qadhafi resistance has been. And he also said that the pro-Qadhafi forces have successfully sustained command-and-control and supply lines in their defence of Sirte and Bani Walid.
How would you comment on that, because that seems ... there seems to be a discrepancy between what you have been saying here and what General Jodice has been saying? Thanks.
Colonel Roland Lavoie: Thank you very much. On the first point, the posture of pro-Qadhafi forces at this stage just does not make sense. It is clear that they could not change or influence the outcome of this conflict, and they have refused opportunities to be part of a political solution, and basically they have opted to choose to inflict pain to the rest of the population in Libya. So from that perspective it just does not make sense to see what these few remaining forces are doing and this could certainly be qualified as surprising, both from a military and a from political point of view.
Regarding the command-and-control ability of remaining Qadhafi fighters, I think to understand the context you have to look at the specific situations in Sirte, but especially in Bani Walid. It is clear that if you look at the overall situation in Libya Qadhafi forces have no capability whatsoever to mobilize significant forces and to command-and-control these forces.
What we see in very specific areas, first, is in Sirte, Qadhafi forces had some command-and-control capabilities there for some time. We do believe that this ability is now lost. So the only remaining area where they exercise some command-and-control at the tactical level is within Bani Walid.
Oana Lungescu: AFP.
Q: Justement si Syrte chute rapidement, quelle est l'importance stratégique de Bani Walid?
Colonel Roland Lavoie: D'un point de vue stratégique, pas vraiment. Parce que Bani Walid représente une fraction très petite de la population en Libye. Surtout si on tient compte du fait qu'une large proportion de cette population a fui la ville. Pour nous, c'est davantage une question de protection de la population civile. Nous allons continuer à opérer aussi longtemps que requis de façon à protéger la population et à remplir les termes de notre mandat.
Oana Lungescu: AFP again.
Q: Laurent Thomet, Agence France-Presse. Last week there were various reports of missing missiles, surface-to-air missiles in Libya - between 5,000 according to the NTC, and 10,000 reported by a German paper citing Admiral di Paola. Is there any update on where these missiles are, and ... any updates on that?
Colonel Roland Lavoie: What I could say from an operational perspective is that it would be for the NTC, of course with the support of partner nations, to account for the munitions, would they be missiles or other kinds, on the ground in Libya. Of course, from a NATO Unified Protector perspective, we're not operating on the ground, and this is certainly something we could monitor and track to some extent, but the bulk of the effort would have to be assumed by the NTC and by supporting nations.
Oana Lungescu: Just to add, Laurent, as Roland was saying in Naples, this is something that's been specifically mentioned in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2009 as a responsibility of the National Transitional Council and we expect the NTC obviously to implement its international commitments.
NATO, as such, as received no specific request to deal with this issue of what you might call loose weapons. And certainly we cannot confirm any of the figures that you've seen in the press.
Q: Yes, Brooks Tigner, Jane's Defence Weekly. Somewhat along the same subject, though I'm not focused on the missiles, I'm wondering if the NTC has put out any feelers, formal or informal, to NATO about the post-conflict, or even as this little conflict to the side continues, as you call it, could NATO be called to do de-mining or disposal of armaments? Have they expressed any interest in that? I suppose this would go in your defence security drawer, security reform drawer. Thank you.
Oana Lungescu: Brooks, there's been no specific request along those lines as far as I know. Obviously we continue to implement our existing mandate. That mission is not over. Once that mission is terminated we stand ready to help the new Libyan authorities if they so wish, if they so request, and clearly, as you know, there is a remarkable expertise with transition among the Allies. Half of them have made their own transition from dictatorship to democracy, including in terms of reforming their security and defence sectors. So if there is a request, if there is a need, we stand ready to assist with security and defence sector reform, but so far, as I said, there's been no specific request.
Roland, we'll go over to you in Naples for any questions there.
Colonel Roland Lavoie: We have no questions from Naples.
Oana Lungescu: And I don't see any more raised hands in Brussels, so with that, thank you very much, Roland and everybody in Naples, thank you very much to everybody and good afternoon and hopefully see you on Thursday.