Press briefing on Libya

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

  • Last updated: 24 Oct. 2011 20:54

Oana Lungescu (NATO Spokesperson): Good afternoon, everybody. I'm glad to see that at least some of you have recovered from the EU Summit. Good afternoon to everybody here in Brussels, and of course, in Naples, as you can see, we've just been joined by Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, the Commander of Operation Unified Protector who's taking time to join us this afternoon to give us a preliminary assessment of our NATO-led mission for Libya and details of the current overwatch period.

Let me say just a few words before I give the floor to General Bouchard. Unfortunately, as you've seen the death toll of yesterday's terrible earthquake in Turkey is rising. The Secretary General issued a statement expressing his sadness. On behalf of NATO he conveyed his sympathy and solidarity to all those who were and continue to be affected by the earthquake to the Turkish people and the Turkish government. Of course, NATO stands ready to assist our Ally Turkey if needed.

On a very different note, yesterday we'll all have seen the celebrations in Benghazi and across Libya as the National Transitional Council declared the full liberation of Libya. A momentous day for Libyans and for the whole region.

As I'm sure you heard, the chairman of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, in his address singled out NATO for what he called the effectiveness and great professionalism with which we implemented the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 to protect civilians in Libya against the threat of attack.

The Secretary General warmly welcomed the announcement of liberation as a great victory for the people of Libya. Their courage and determination in the cause of freedom has inspired the world. As they embark on the challenging journey from dictatorship to democracy the Secretary General calls on all Libyans to put aside their differences and build a new inclusive Libya based on reconciliation and full respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Our NATO-led operation to protect the people of Libya, under the historic mandate of the UN, is very close to completion. As you know, the North Atlantic Council took a preliminary decision to end Operation Unified Protector on October the 31st, and will take a formal decision in the next few days.

Meanwhile, the Secretary General is closely consulting with the United Nations and the National Transitional Council. As we wind down the operation, together with our partners, we'll monitor the situation, retain the capacity to respond to threats to civilians if needed. And that remains the very important mission led by Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard in Naples.

General, the floor is yours.

Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard (Commander, Operation Unified Protector): Merci beaucoup, Oana. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. As we near the end of our mission Operation Unified Protector I think it's important from my perspective as well, to put things in perspective and provide you an overview of how we saw these last seven months.

If we look back to March at the onset of the mission there were gross and systematic violation of human rights, the repression of peaceful demonstrators, arbitrary detentions and forced disappearance, torture and summary executions. We have seen several times over and over again remnants and remains of such action.

And finally, the reaction was so strong that the international community, led by the United Nations Resolutions 1970 and 1973, authorized member states to take the necessary measure to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack, enforce a No-Fly Zone and implement an arms embargo from the air and at sea.

The NATO response was rapid. Six days from the time we were given the order to... that we would take on the mission under OUP to the time we began the operation. This could not have been done without the great work from the air and land... correction, air and maritime component, as well as other participating organizations.

The operational concept was a simple one—protecting the civilian population from Qadhafi forces, and in doing so, ensuring no civilian casualties. We did that through very careful targeting process and precision munitions and courageous restraints, in some ways, by everybody to ensure that only when we had a clear shot would we take it. It showed the professionalism of the air crew and the men and women at sea.

We focused on stopping direct and indirect attacks against the civilian population and also by removing the capabilities of fielded military concentrations, logistic and ammunition facilities, and finally, command-and-control nodes.

Throughout we stayed focused on the mandate, to protect the population, to ensure a No-Fly Zone and to conduct the embargo.

We did not get involved in anything beyond what was our legal mandate and we remain well within the mandate assigned to us by the North Atlantic Council.

The No-Fly Zone was a balance between deterrence and actions. We ensured that approved non-NATO flight activities remained unimpeded and in many ways ensure that humanitarian assistance flow would continue.

From an embargo perspective we intercepted and interdicted maritime shipping to ensure that only approved and authorized humanitarian aid and essential commodities would continue.

I may add that never once did we impede or stop the movement or the flow of humanitarian assistance, but rather that our maritime component ensured that the sea lanes of communication would stay open and that we would remain able to ensure that humanitarian assistance would flow into the country.

If we take a look in the generality of the conduct of the mission. In April the situation was dire and for us the mission was to stop the movement of forces, of Qadhafi forces. Benghazi was stable. We ensured that Ajdabiya was protected, and in fact, Qadhafi regime forces moved back to the Brega area.

Times were very stressful in the area of Misrata and we made sure that the situation would not worsen in that place. Likewise in the Jebel Nefoussa area we made sure that attacks against civilians would stop or attempted to stop.

In May and June we saw stabilization where Qadhafi was no longer able to advance, which became our first objective thus had been met, and then we witnessed essentially the anti-Qadhafi forces come together and we watched them from the air and at sea come together and show some signs of movement forward.

In July Jebel Nefoussa arose and pushed Qadhafi forces. We saw the same in Misrata. Misrata finally was out of danger and the daily shelling stopped.

In August, a critical time, Tripoli was freed. It took very few days, surprisingly very few days. But we still saw towards the end aggressive scud launchers and continued inflammatory speeches from Qadhafi to continue to fight.

In September remaining pockets of resistance were taken, especially in the Sabha area, the Jufra area, and finally, towards the end of September and early October, Bani Walid was freed and Sirte was freed.

Essentially today all areas have been freed and the coastal areas of Libya are under the control of the NTC.

The threat of organized attacks from Qadhafi regime remnants is essentially gone. At this time there are no remaining command-and-control capability which would lead to the return of the regime. And finally, as stated by Oana, Libya has been declared liberated by the NTC leadership.

From our perspective then, the objectives that were assigned to Unified Protector have been met.

At the end of the day it is a success for NATO, but more importantly, it is a Libyan victory. For us this has been a team effort and I extend my appreciation to the 28 nations who took part, the three Arab partners - Qatar amongst them - and our Scandinavian partners as well. All played a role in this mission, whether contributing assets that were directly involved, to supporting, to providing basing or to provide NATO personnel.

Indeed, I've mentioned basing, and I want to especially thank our host nations of Italy who provided the strategic bases and also of Greece. Thank you to those two nations.

And finally, I'd like to thank the NATO leadership for trusting the members of OUP to get on with this multinational command group.

Unified Protector was launched to protect the civilian population. Many nations joined together and provided this mission with the personnel, the assets and the clear directive to get on with it. I believe we were able to make a difference in the lives of Libyans and in the end, as I had stated in my first news conference, we shaped an environment where the people of Libya can now decide for themselves their future.

This completes my formal portion of this conference. Thank you very much.

Oana Lungescu: Merci, mon général. On est prêt à prendre des questions à Bruxelles; if there are any questions in English or in French.

Kuwait News Agency. AP.

Q: General, Slobo Lekic, from the Associated Press. You're certainly aware of the controversy surrounding the exact circumstances of Qadhafi's death. We've been told that NATO planes struck the convoy in which Qadhafi was fleeing, twice, and that the reason for what was because it presented a threat to civilians. Colonel Lavoie told us this.

Could you explain the exact threat that that convoy was posing, because when we saw the vehicles they didn't seem to be armed. They weren't carrying anti-aircraft guns or anything like that. So what was the exact nature of the threat that vehicles fleeing for Sirte would have posed?

Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard: I think first of all let me make it perfectly clear that we saw a convoy, and in fact, we had no idea that Qadhafi was onboard. In fact, I was surprised that Qadhafi was in the Sirte area that late in the conflict.

Second, the preparation of this convoy started with 175 vehicles in the Sirte area being lined up and ready to go. They started to make their way out and one of the potential outcomes of this was concern that forces from Sirte would join up with what were the remnants of forces from Bani Walid and that we could see movement into another built-up area where we would see another group of civilian... part of civilian population held hostage while efforts were made to build up and to continue to disrupt.

This was our judgment, and then we went on from there to, first of all, attempt to break down the convoy, to break it into manageable chunks and to slow it down and that's what we did. And we put our weapons systems on the convoy twice, and with the aim of stopping the convoy and slowing it down.

There were rocket and machine guns on some of the pickup trucks and it was for us, in our assessment, a clear threat, potential threat, to the population.

Oana Lungescu: Kuwait News Agency.

Q: Nawab Khan from the Kuwait News Agency KUNA. General, how significant, or how decisive was the contribution of the Arab countries in achieving this victory? I mean, in the NATO campaign? Thank you.

Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard: Thank you very much for your question.

The contribution of every nation was critical to the success of this mission. For the Arab countries they helped us understand the culture. They helped us understand what was going on on the ground. They provided assistance in plans and in targeting and in various other, and in fact, some of them completed air activities, be it air patrolling or provision or bombing missions in the area.

But throughout to me the best advice was the knowledge of the culture and their advice to me as to how to continue with this mission and how to interpret what we saw on the ground. Most helpful.

But all of the 28 nations plus the four partners, all played a role together and this is what makes this mission a success is the fact that all of the nations came together with their partners with one goal in mind. That's all.

Oana Lungescu: El País.

Q: Martinez de Rituerto, with El País from Spain. Lieutenant General, one question dealing with the threats to the people. You've said that the pro-Qadhafi forces have no command-and-control capabilities right now, but is there any chance that there could be some pockets of resistance in the country, we don't know yet in which areas? And since NATO has to... is planning to leave next month, the 1st of November, is for the NTC to keep order and to attack these forces should they produce any attacks or they intend to do anything? Thank you.

Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard: It's a very good question, thank you very much. And this goes back to our mission, which is protection of the civilian population. Our assessment is that the threat of organized attack against the population has been stopped. This is a very large country, 1,300 kilometres frontage by another 800 kilometres depth. It's very likely that there will be individuals left out there. But from our perspective what we're really considering here is the threat such that it can be handled by NTC forces.

And our assessment at this point is that it is so. And therefore as we consider that Libya now is liberated, as offered and declared by the NTC, we're also witnessing police forces being created, graduation of a first course of recruit for the army, that a command-and-control structure is in existence for the NTC forces.

So we are seeing that they're able to deal with these problems and the combination of our assessment that these problems can be dealt with the NTC and that the NTC has, indeed, the capability to do so, lead us to the reflection that for us it's quite appropriate to terminate the mission.

Oana Lungescu: General, we can go to Naples if there are any questions there. If not we've got quite a few others in Brussels.

Q: Thank you, General. Jeff Schogol with the Stars and Stripes. In the past NATO's been criticized as kind of a two-tier organization where only certain member states have done the so-called heavy lifting when it comes to combat. You know, do you see the operation in Libya as confirming that perception or has this changed the internal dynamic in reference to the states who have kind of taken the lead, so to speak, or is there still an imbalance within NATO member states in terms of what they can and will do in operations?

Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard: First of all, I will limit my observation to our own mission, Operational Unified Protector and therefore the first point I will say is that everybody played a role, and in this case some people provided kinetic activity, bombing; others provided ships and others helped in the system, either being on the staff, the airborne early warning and others made some action that on other fronts and other theatre which enabled the freeing of individuals for the mission itself. So to me everybody played a role.

Second, I think when we look at NATO we should not look at NATO for seven months, we should look at NATO for the last 20 years and for the next 20 years and what we're seeing is that capabilities continue to improve and each nation has the sovereign right to decide how much it will bring to this Alliance, but it's certainly, from what I saw in my perspective, from my perspective right now, is that all nations played a role in it, albeit at different levels. But then again, others played a more important role in other theatres.

So it's a matter of balancing and looking at the whole spectrum of operations of NATO over a long period of time, not just seven months.

Q: Good morning, I'm Paolo (inaudible) from Associated Press. You and the Secretary General wished a peaceful coexistence to the people of Libya, but  according to your information what are the risks of a tribal war in Libya after the end of this part of the conflict? And which are the risks... the weapons that were left by Qadhafi loyalists could fall in the hands of terrorists, or anyway go out of control? Thank you.

Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard: Thank you very much for your question. First of all, with regards to the internal relationships within the nations I believe that this question should be best answered by the NTC. From our perspective, and it was clear in the announcement by Mr. Jalil yesterday that one Libya is what they want, a unified Libya together.

We've seen them unified under the goal of seeking their freedom and I'm confident that they'll be able to find their way as well, to find a unified Libya as they develop themselves and find their way.

Obviously there will be challenges along the way, but obviously it's certainly, in my opinion, a workable outcome.

The second point with regards to weapons, there are a great deal of weapons out there. I am very confident that very few of those weapons, if any, if any, left by sea or air, which was our mission.

With regards to movement on the ground, there's over 3,000 kilometres of border along this country, a borderline around this country, which borders on nations that are not necessarily the most supportive of reducing the movement of illegal weapons. So there will be challenges in the future, and here again we count on the NTC to establish as soon as possible a secure border area to minimize the movement of it.

And regrettably, from our perspective, we continue to ensure that no such weapons are moved from the air and at sea, but that the situation on the ground will remain a national responsibility for the NTC as a sovereign nation to take the action it requires to stop it.

There are no further Naples' questions, Oana. I'll return back to Brussels.

Oana Lungescu: Many thanks. Agence Belga, Belgium News Agency.

Q: It could be in French?

Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard: Yes, sir.

Q: Oui, Gérard Gaudin de Belga. Est-ce que, à côté des chiffres globaux du nombre de sorties, etc. Est-ce qu'il y a moyen d'avoir éventuellement des statistiques plus fines avec le nombre de sorties attribuées à chaque pays de façon à pouvoir mesurer l'effort de certains, peut être plus petits pays?

Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard: Merci pour votre question, monsieur. Les opérations sous Unified Protector, pour moi, c'est des opérations de l'OTAN. Il n'y a pas de questions si une nation ou une autre a donné plus ou moins. Alors les statistiques que vous demandez sont des statistiques que je ne tiens pas mais que chaque nation peut vous donner. Mais de ma perspective, il y a seulement une sorte, un type de sortie qui s'est passé et c'était la sortie de l'OTAN, pas une sortie d'un pays en particulier. Merci.

Q: (Inaudible...).

Oana Lungescu: Hold on, hold on, hold on.

Gérard, je crois qu'il faut aussi dire que la Belgique, comme tous les autres alliés ont joué un rôle très important par leur engagement, par leurs contributions du début à la fin de cette opération, qui bien sûr, n'est pas encore achevée. Le Conseil de l'Atlantique du Nord a pris une décision préliminaire, ce sera dans les prochains jours, pour une décision formelle, mais ce qui est clair, c'est que cela a été un gros travail d'équipe et que la Belgique a joué pleinement son rôle dans cette équipe qui a rempli le mandat de l'ONU.

Q: (Inaudible...) Newspaper. Rasmussen said NATO will leave at 31 of October, but at the same time he's discussing about this with UN and NTC, so is it possible that it will be later, and considering the problems you mentioned, is it possible that some NATO troops will stay on the grounds and were there any countries within NATO suggesting to stay any longer?

Oana Lungescu: As I said, and as you know, last Friday the North Atlantic Council took a preliminary decision regarding Operation Unified Protector. The decision is that it should end on October the 31st. The formal decision remains to be taken by the North Atlantic Council in the next few days. That is a political decision and I will not prejudge that decision.

But clearly an operation, a very complex operation such as Unified Protector, which has three different mandates enforcing the No-Fly Zone, the arms embargo and the protection of civilians, can't be turned on or off like a switch. This takes some time. But there is no intention of keeping armed forces in the neighbourhood of Libya after the end of the operation, which the North Atlantic Council has decided, in a preliminary fashion, that it should end on the 31st of October.

General, I don't know if you want to add to that?

Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard: I could not have said it better myself. We work under the direction of the North Atlantic Council and I await their direction this week. Thank you.

Oana Lungescu: ABC from Spain.  

Q: Good afternoon, General. There are some comments now saying that Libya could be the next Somalia. What do you think about that?

Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard: I disagree, it's that simple. There is the infrastructure still in place. That country produce... has the capability to bring back revenues. There's a great deal of potential in that country beyond oil and we have people who want peace, who want prosperity, who want stability. With all of these combined together I don't think that the comparison of Libya to the next Somalia is an appropriate comment at this time.

Oana Lungescu: I think these are all the questions we have from Brussels, General. I don't know if there are any more questions in Naples?

Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard: Any more questions here? No? I think this completes it, Oana.

Thank you very much for giving us some time. Thank you very much for your support. And once again, at the end of the day, this was 28 nations, four partners, who got involved to fulfil and to complete a task and wishes of the North Atlantic Council. We've met those objectives and today the people of Libya will benefit from it.

Thank you very much.

Oana Lungescu: Thank you very much, General Bouchard. And thank you very much to your very dedicated and hard-working team for getting the job done. It's not yet entirely done, but they're almost there. Thank you very much indeed.