Press briefing on Libya

by the NATO Spokesperson and Brigadier General Mark van Uhm, Chief of Allied Operations, Allied Command Operations (SHAPE)

  • 19 Apr. 2011
  • |
  • Last updated: 20 Apr. 2011 23:28

Good afternoon and welcome to NATO headquarters.

It's now just over a month since the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973, calling on the international community to take all necessary action to protect civilians in Libya. NATO has been in full command of operations to enforce that historic resolution for almost three weeks. And we are fulfilling our UN mandate.

NATO has kept up a high operational tempo. Allied aircraft have flown well over 2, 800 missions -- an average of just over 1,000 a week. Almost half of them strikes. We have struck a broad range of targets -- tanks and rocket launchers, armoured vehicles and ammunition sites. We are keeping up the pressure on the Gaddafi regime forces to stop their brutal onslaught against civilians. It's a challenging task -- but we are making significant progress in weakening Gaddafi's ability to use his military machine against his own people.      
That operational tempo has been matched by a high political tempo. Last week, as you know, NATO foreign ministers met in Berlin with our operational partners and reinforced the political impetus behind Operation Unified Protector.  They re-stated  full support for the mission. They committed to providing all the resources needed to do the job. And they agreed that they will do so until all attacks on civilians have stopped; until all of Gaddafi's forces, including his snipers, mercenaries and  paramilitary forces have returned to bases; and until there is full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to all people in need of assistance.
There was also wide consensus on the role of the Contact Group in finding a political solution to the crisis. The  ministers strongly endorsed the outcome of the first meeting of the Contact Group in Doha, in particular the call for Gaddafi to leave power. And they stressed the need to continue to coordinate closely with other international actors. As you know, the EU was represented in Berlin by the High Representative Cathy Ashton and her staff. 

So NATO and its partners are united, we are determined, and we are focused. We are doing what the UN has mandated -- and we will continue to do so, for as long as it takes.

I will now hand over to General Mark Van Uhm, the Director of the Strategic Operations Centre SHAPE, who will give you a more detailed picture of recent operations, in Misrata and acrosss Libya.  

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM (Chief of Allied Operations, Allied Command Operations, SHAPE): Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Let me start with a short overview of the arms embargo and the No-Fly Zone.

The arms embargo is proving to be comprehensive and effective. As far as naval support is concerned there still are 18 vessels in the command of the Allied Maritime Command in Naples. Complemented by fighter jets and radar aircraft, these ships actively patrol the Central Mediterranean.

Since the operation started 422 vessels have been hailed and ten boardings have been conducted. No violation of the arms embargo has been reported.

The No-Fly Zone is still in effect. We have continued enforcing the No-Fly Zone and we have not seen any violation by fixed-wing aircraft since last week.

Now I would like to update you on NATO operations to protect the civilian population and the impact NATO is having on the ground.

In most parts of Libya the situation on the ground is still fluid, dynamic and changing constantly. NATO's actions are part of a concerted campaign to degrade Qadhafi's regime's capability to harm civilians. Not only now in Misrata and Ajdabiya, but in the long-run across the whole country.

We are steadily degrading his command and control capability and his ability to sustain forces on the ground. We are maintaining a high operational tempo and we adjust our operations on a daily basis against what is clearly a rapidly changing environment on the ground.

You will now see a video sequence to illustrate what I'm about to describe.

Over the last few days our aircraft destroyed many ammunition bunkers, tanks, defence radars, rocket launchers and other military equipment. Most of these targets destroyed were targets deployed around Misrata, Zintan and Ajdabiya. Last night we conducted deliberate multiple strikes against command and control facilities of the Qadhafi regime, including communications infrastructure and the 32nd Brigade Headquarters located 10 kilometres south of Tripoli.

Over the last 36 hours, beginning on Sunday evening, these communication notes were the focus of a coordinated series of strikes aimed at degrading Qadhafi's ability to command and direct his forces. The effectiveness of the strikes is shown in these three video clips.


And as you can see on the video that we take out the command and control facilities and the antenna is still there.

So that's precision.

Still, nothing indicates that Qadhafi has any intention of disengaging from operations. His forces continue to engage and continue to use heavy weapons in civilian areas. Therefore, we, NATO, will continue to mount offensive strike missions until we have a clear signal that civilians are no longer under threat.

Now, to watch the situation in Misrata.

We have been watching the situation in Misrata closely over the past ten days and the fighting between the Qadhafi regime and opposition forces has been intense. In Misrata the situation on the ground is also fluid; the ground being won and lost by both sides ultimately.

Qadhafi's forces have shelled and rocketed Misrata indiscriminately, causing death and injury and widespread damage to homes. In addition, the sea port has effectively been closed a few times due to repeated shelling by regime forces and fighting in the area.

Our forces have conducted numerous strikes against Qadhafi forces in and around Misrata. We have destroyed over 40 tanks and several armoured fighting vehicles. In additional several anti-aircraft weapons systems have been destroyed, enabling our aircraft to operate more effectively in the Misrata area.

Just last night our pilots observed mobile rocket launchers firing on Misrata and they destroyed them. In the same night our pilots also struck advancing armoured vehicles. But there is a limit to what can be achieved with air power to stop fighting in a city. We are taking every precaution to avoid causing civilian casualties by our own air operations. What we are doing is attacking the regime's ability to supply and sustain these attacks in the long run, not just in the area of Misrata, but across the country.

Since the beginning of the operation NATO and its partners have flown more than 2,800 sorties, including almost 1,200 strike missions, which represents over 40 percent of the total sorties flown. So there's a good balance between, on the one hand, enforcing the No-Fly Zone, and on the other hand, interdicting the forces which threaten the civilian population in Libya.

Finally, something about humanitarian assistance. We have established procedures to ease the passage of humanitarian flights and shipping. And we have seen a steady increase in the level of humanitarian assistance activity into Libya. We are keeping track of the United Nations' efforts to minimize the problematic humanitarian situation in Misrata.

Since the beginning of the operation a total of 73 movements of humanitarian assistance have been executed or are momentarily in execution. Thirty-seven via the air, 22 via sea and 14 via ground. Of the 22 maritime movements, 19 ships went to Misrata to deliver humanitarian assistance.

Momentarily ten maritime and three ground movements are in execution. This includes six ships that are busy evacuating people out of Misrata.

This ends my opening statements and I'm happy to take any questions you may have.

OANA LUNGESCU (NATO Spokesperson): I'd be grateful if you could switch any mobile devices to silence and please don't forget to introduce yourselves and your organization.


Q: Brigadier General, thank you for sparing us some time. Can I just pick up a couple of points? First of all, you talked about the close fighting in Misrata. We've had statements from NATO over the past 24 hours that you've seen fighters firing on civilians from the roofs of mosques and in hospitals. The government in Libya has challenged you to provide evidence of that and they say you're spinning. So do you have surveillance of that?

And if I could just ask you a further question to that... you said in the past week or so, I think, that you could do with between eight and twelve ground attack aircraft to supplement what is happening. Why has there not been a request for the Warthogs and the AC-130s, which obviously are much more effective at hitting ground forces within city and built-up areas?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: With regards to your first question, I know that the commander in theatre, General Bouchard, has made the statement about the close fighting in Misrata. I myself, I have not seen the evidence of this, but I'm sure that if General Bouchard makes the statement it's a true statement. So I'm convinced he's saying what's been happening on the ground. But I've not seen footage or whatever evidence of that myself.

Q: That's come from your surveillance, not from the rebels?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: I don't know where he got the information from.

So with regards to the assets, I would like to say that overall we have the necessary assets to carry out the mission. And our requirements are altered by changes in the situation on the ground and the tactics of the regime forces. We have aircraft over Libya at all times, day and night, gathering intelligence and targeting forces threatening civilians.

We have the ability to respond to the changing picture on the ground as the situation demands, within the scope of the current mission. And the availability of aircraft is dealt with by individual nations contributing to our operations, of course, but I'm confident that we can sustain the current base of operations for as long as necessary to protect the people of Libya. And the additional aircraft that have been asked for, that will give us more flexibility in dynamic targeting. So...

Q: The A-10 and the AC-130s, they are coming?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: I don't want to go into details about which assets are coming, but I can say that we already have more assets than we had Friday.


 Q: Yes, David Brunnstrom from Reuters. I was just wondering why no helicopters have been used in this operation and why no naval gunfire has been used, for instance in the area of Misrata? Is there anything stopping that from happening? Would it be useful to the operation to use such capabilities which NATO does have?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: Well, for operational reasons I think it's not the moment and the place to go into these details, and I would like to refer to my previous statements, answering the previous question, that in general terms we have the necessary assets to execute the mission.

OANA LUNGESCU: Guardian. Q: Ian Traynor of the Guardian. Brigadier General, two points. A couple of weeks ago at your first briefing here you put a figure of 30 percent on the Alliance's degrading of the regime's military facilities. Since you seem to be summarizing a month of... since Resolution 1973, could you give us an idea of what you reckon is the state of play of Qadhafi's military as a result of a month of activity?

And secondly, while the Alliance itself would probably not be tasked with securing humanitarian aid deliveries, is it NATO's view that armed escorts for aid delivery are indeed necessary, or not?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: Two weeks ago General Bouchard himself said that his assessment was that 30 percent of the regime's military capacity was destroyed. You've seen the reports since then and since then numerous military assets of the Qadhafi regime forces have been additionally destroyed. So I think it's safe to say that now more than 30 percent has been destroyed. But there is no updated percentage that I can give you so I can't say what it is at the moment.

With regards to your second question, the United Nations, of course, they are responsible for the humanitarian assistance. What we do as NATO is to deconflict and make sure that all the flights and ships coming into Libya can do their humanitarian assistance in a safe way. Until now we see that humanitarian assistance can come in by air, by ground and by sea and there is no need for armed escorts until now.

OANA LUNGESCU: And obviously, the best way to relieve the humanitarian situation in Misrata would be for Qadhafi forces to stop their indiscriminate attacks on the men, women and children of Misrata.

Kuwaiti Press Agency.

Q: Nawab Khan, the Kuwait News Agency. Brigadier General, can you tell us which Arab countries are participating in these operations which are going on now in Libya? And can you tell us which are the nationalities of the ten ships that you boarded? Thank you.

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: Yes, you can take that one.

OANA LUNGESCU: I can tell you our operational partners who were invited to the meeting of the Foreign Ministers in Berlin and who took part in that meeting are Qatar, the UAE, Jordan, Morocco, Sweden and Ukraine.

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: To answer your second question, I don't have the details of the nations of the ships in my head, but we have that information so we could provide you the information afterwards.


Q: Laurent Thomet with Agence France-Presse. General, you mentioned that you have more assets than you had Friday. Can you be precise about the number and what countries have contributed more? And also, it's been now a month since the air campaign has started and there doesn't seem any end in sight to it. Do you believe it's going to last several weeks, several months, a year or two?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: With regards to the increased number of assets it's up to the nations to make statements about their contributions. I just wanted to share with you that we have more than we had Friday and it's not for me to say how much more and which nation has done what because that's not the way we do business within NATO.

With regards to the end of the conflict, I think that last Friday it has been made perfectly clear what the situation has to be on the ground in Libya in order to end this operation and it was said in the opening statement by the NATO spokeswoman, the three conditions that have to be met. And those are pretty clear in the declaration of last Friday.


Q: Thank you. It's David Charter from London Times. You talk about having enough... sufficient assets to carry out your tasks, but you also talk about a limit of what you can achieve with air power. Are we to understand from that that you can't actually fulfil your mission, your UN mission from air power alone, so then can you expand on what you would need to be able to completely fulfil your mission in an unlimited way?

And am I also to assume from what was said yesterday that you feel prohibited from attacking targets which are very close to say a mosque? You simply cannot fire on that target. It's prohibited in the rules of engagement. Thanks.

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: Yes, as I said in general terms we have the assets to execute our mission. But within the current mandate and the way we operate... are allowed to operate, using air power to protect Libyan civilians on the ground, that, of course, has limitations. As you said yourself, if as we have seen that pro-regime forces have changed their tactics, hiding their tanks, using civilians as human shields, then of course we cannot and we will not attack those targets because that could cause collateral damage and could cause civilian casualties, which we don't want to do.

And therefore, there are limitations with what you can do with air power, especially in an urban area. And that's what I mean with limitations.

Q: (Inaudible...) and the way to fulfil your mission in an unlimited way would therefore be what? What do you need to do... to get around that?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: Well, the way we are executing the campaign is that we're not only targeting those assets from pro-Qadhafi forces that are in direct contact with the opposition forces, we also at the same time attack his... what we call, in military terms, second echelon forces, so forces that are further away from the population, that are gathering, that are massing, that are starting to move towards a civilian area. And as you have seen on the video clips, we're also attacking his command and control so that he is not able to direct his forces.

And that's why we say it's not only about attacking tanks or armoured vehicles in Misrata itself. No, we are attacking throughout the country.

OANA LUNGESCU: Daily Telegraph.

Q: Bruno Waterfield, Daily Telegraph. A couple of weeks ago you set a very high benchmark for yourself in terms of some of the figures that you gave us and you told us that the figures on that... in the proceeding 24 hours, you told us the number of strike sorties and you told us the number of those sorties which had resulted in the discharge of munitions. Are you able to tell us that out of that almost 1,200 strikes just how many of those sorties actually led to the discharge of munitions?

You also said that armed escorts for humanitarian assistance were not required until now. Can you spell out a little bit more about what has now changed that means that armed escorts are required, or is that not what you meant?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: I have not understood the second question. Can you repeat that? The second part of the question.

Q: You said that armed escorts had not been required for humanitarian assistance up until now. And I was just a bit confused as to whether you were saying they still weren't required, or they were now required?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: Oh, okay. The first part of your question, how many of those 1,200 strikes used or released their munitions. We don't have a number of that.

What is of interest if, of course, the effect we're having on the ground. Not the number of ammunition being used. And I think on a daily basis we report about the effects we're having on the ground, how many targets we hit and I think that's more important.

With regards to the armed escorts until now means that until now we haven't been necessary... it has not been necessary to do armed escorts, and as the port in Misrata is still open we don't foresee that it's to be used. But as I said, the situation on the ground is fluid, is dynamic, is changing constantly, and tomorrow it could be something else.

OANA LUNGESCU: Obviously we remain in constant contact with the United Nations. It is for the United Nations to take the lead in humanitarian operations. NATO has conducted all prudent planning for humanitarian operations should it be required to be of assistance.


Q: Yes, Slobo Lekic, Associated Press. Libya's Deputy Prime Minister has said that your strikes on communications facilities around Brega and Ajdabiya are actually aimed at helping the rebel forces, that they have nothing to do with attacks on civilians, or protecting civilians; that since the rebels have received new communications equipment this gives them now an advantage on the ground, while you are destroying the government's communications potentials. So you seem to be overstepping your mandate there and taking sides in the fighting.

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: Well, I think it's pretty clear that the pro-regime forces are the threat to the civilian population. In order to counter that threat we take out the military communication notes in order to make it more difficult for Qadhafi to direct his forces. And that's what we're doing.


Q: Yes, Brooks Tigner, Jane's Defence. Several of the European allies involved in the operations are close to depleting their air-to-ground missiles, so I was wondering, are they borrowing from each other, or from the United States, or are they handing over ops to those with bigger stocks? Thank you.

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: As the question of military aircraft is an issue of nations, the availability of military munitions is also dealt with by the individual nations, contributing to our operations. So...

Q: (Inaudible...).

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: Yes, but we have not had a report or any report that they are limited or constrained in the execution of their operations. So I think there's no problem.

OANA LUNGESCU: The Observer.

Q: (Inaudible...) from the Observer. The EU Ministers and the EU as such has finished planning for this EUFOR operation for humanitarian assistance in Libya and I was wondering if there's any consultation with NATO on that, especially since it would involve the deployment of troops on the ground? Thank you.

OANA LUNGESCU: As you know the High Representative Cathy Ashton was in Berlin and so were senior members of her staff, and this is just part of an ongoing process of consultation with the EU. I think there's actually unprecedented levels of consultations and information between the EU and NATO as concerns Libya. There will be an informal meeting on Libya of NATO and EU ambassadors in the next few weeks, so there is a constant consultation between the two organizations on an operation and a mission that is clearly of great concern to us all.

Any other questions? I can see two follow-ups, but... Okay, very good, let's get to the Times.

Q: Thanks for the second bite at the cherry. It's a slightly different thing. So some of our reporters have been picking up frustration about a sort of time delay at targets being identified and final approval coming through for them to be hit. Is it possible just to tell us what is the procedure? Is there a bureaucratic procedure, or is it a case that the pilots, they know their rules of engagement and if they identify a target it's simply a matter of, if it's within the rules of engagement that they understand of taking out that target, or does it have to be referred back to Naples for some kind of procedure, which you may tell us about, before that target can be hit? Bearing in mind how fluid the situation is, where a tank or a launcher may appear and then disappear quite quickly. Thanks very much.

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: Well, not to go in too much detail, but normally when we do deliberate strikes a target package is prepared so a pilot knows where he's heading for. But of course, we also have a lot of what we call dynamic targeting where, for example, as last night happened, that a pilot is above Libya and sees that a rocket launcher is actually firing. And of course, that's an immediate threat to the civilian population and that instantly gives him the right to take out that threat. So it can be done very quickly.

OANA LUNGESCU: (Inaudible...).


OANA LUNGESCU: Yes, by the way, that was near Misrata and I think you've already seen press reports quoting sources on the ground that the targets that were hit last night were part of a column of reinforcements of pro-Qadhafi forces moving in to continue attacking the civilians of Misrata. One last follow-up...

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: One addition to make is that before they actually engage the pilot has to do what we call a collateral damage estimate, in which he has to make sure that there are, for example, no objects or persons in an area that can be hit if he engages the target. So that's part of the procedure.

OANA LUNGESCU: Final question to the Guardian.

Q: Just a broad question, General. Since you've been presenting an overview of a month of operations, and you're talking about a battlefield that's highly fluid and changing, can you just give us your overall assessment of the state of play in the war in Libya in terms of who has the advantage, what is your just broad assessment of the conflict right now in terms of who's winning and who's losing?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: It's hard to say because I think what we have achieved is that Qadhafi is not able to use his forces as he wants. He's not able to fight the way he wants. So I think we have seriously degraded his capacity to attack or be a threat to the civilian population. And we continue to degrade his ability to do that. Until the situation is there with the three parts of the end situation and it's not in terms of losing or winning, we just work deliberately, constantly towards that end state. That there is no threat to the civilian population, that all his forces are back in the barracks and that there is a way forward to get a solution in this crisis.

OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you very much indeed.