Press briefing on Libya

by NATO Deputy Spokesperson Carmen Romero and Brig. Rob Weighill, Operations Director of Operation Unified Protector

  • 29 Apr. 2011
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  • Last updated: 03 May. 2011 13:50

Welcome to NATO headquarters, and welcome to our colleagues and media joining us from Naples.

It is now a month since NATO took command of all military operations to protect civilians in Libya under UN mandate, and today Brigadier Weighill in Naples will give you an overview of what we have achieved in the most recent operations. 

Before that, I will give you a short political update

This week, the NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has provided his first report to the Secretary General of the United Nations. The report, part of our co-ordination with the United Nations, makes clear that our campaign has stopped large scale attacks on civilians in Libya, and has allowed humanitarian missions access to the city of Misrata.

It is a very fluid situation on the ground but the actions of NATO forces have saved many, many lives and will continue to do so.

It is clear that there must be a political solution in Libya, but we are determined to keep up the military pressure until all attacks and threats of attack against civilians have ended; the regime has withdrawn all military and paramilitary forces to their basis; and full humanitarian access is guaranteed.

This is what Foreign Ministers agreed in Berlin. And this is what we will continue to do, for as long as it takes to achieve those goals.

NATO’s resolve to see this campaign through remains strong and our capabilities continue to grow. So NATO  welcomes the additional capabilities provided by the United States and Italy recently.  

NATO’s operations are part of the overall international effort.

Therefore, the NATO Secretary General looks forward to the upcoming meeting of the international Contact Group next Thursday in Rome, which will work towards a political solution.    

Now I hand over to Brigadier Rob Weighill, the Operations Director for Unified Protector.  Thank you Brigadier for being with us today. You have the floor.

Brigadier Rob Weighill (Operations Director for Unified Protector): Good afternoon and whether you are joining us in person or by video link, welcome to Naples.

I have to say that I am sad not to be able to either attend or watch the Royal wedding in London today. However, since the commander last spoke to you a few days ago, our efforts to relieve some of the violence and consequent suffering brought by pro-Qadhafi forces to the population of Misratah have continued and reporting indicates NATO has had a clear impact. We have pushed pro-Qadhafi forces back and anti-Qadhafi forces basically control most of the city. Due in large part to NATO's mission successes to date, Qadhafi's forces have not taken the city.

But pro-Qadhafi forces continue to shell the citizens of Misratah with longer range artillery, mortars and rockets, indiscriminately firing high explosive rounds into the city. . It is both illegal and morally wrong to indiscriminately shell cities and the innocent people who reside therein and we will continue to strike those who do so.

We are also successfully degrading the pro-Qadhafi forces' ability to coordinate their attacks by hitting their command and control centres, and we continue to attack ammunition storage sites in depth. While these efforts may not be visible as they are often far from urban centres, their impact is obvious near the front where the regime's troops are having a harder time fighting.

And of course, we continue to destroy tanks, rocket launchers and other equipment that is used both directly or indirectly to inflict casualties on the civilian population (when we see and can engage them.)

It is important to remember that ours is a deliberate campaign, and campaigns do take time and require patience. Fortunately we have halted the advance of troops threatening civilian populations and population centres, we have seriously degraded command and control and logistics capabilities, and we have attacked troops and equipment directly involved in fighting that bring harm to innocent civilians.

And our campaign will now shift targets to hit more pro-Qadhafi troops pressuring civilian centres. You will understand that we cannot and will not disclose the plans; however you will see results in the next few days.

Since assuming control of the mission in Libya, NATO has flown over 4000 sorties, more than 1700 of them airstrikes. As I said earlier, we know these airstrikes are having a very serious impact on Qadhafi's ability to harm his own people, and our attacks are having the desired effect in many areas across Libya.

By means of our airstrikes we have damaged or destroyed some 600 targets including some 220 tanks and armored vehicles, 70 surface to air missiles systems, and 200 ammunition facilities.

The maritime embargo is also seeing real effect. Our 19 ships have hailed nearly 700 vessels, boarded 20 and denied access to 6 due to the nature of the cargo they were carrying. And, despite pro-Qadhafi shelling of the port of Misratah, ships continue their humanitarian movements unimpeded by NATO.

So, as you can see, NATO is working hard to try and reduce the level of violence against civilians. But let me tell you a bit about what the pro-Qadhafi forces are doing at the same time.

We have all seen in the media that they are using banned cluster munitions in Misratah. We know they have damaged the sewage system in that city, fouling the living conditions of the population. Also in Misratah, they have disabled a desalination plant cutting off fresh water. And as I said earlier, Qadhafi regime troops continue to hit civilian population centres with indiscriminate artillery and rocket attacks. He does so while hiding behind women and children.

And we've just seen Gaddafi's lay floating anti-ship mines outside Misratah harbor today. Our ships intercepted the small boats that were laying them and we are disposing of the mines that we found. We will provide more info as they become available but it again shows his complete disregard for international law and his willingness to attack humanitarian delivery efforts.

It is essential that we remain mindful that this crisis will not be solved by military means alone. NATO will nonetheless keep up the pressure until all attacks and threats of attack against civilians have ended, the regime has verifiably withdrawn (to bases) all military and paramilitary forces, and that full, safe and unhindered humanitarian aid access is guaranteed to all the people in Libya in need of assistance.

I would be happy to take your questions.

· German television

Q. You said that because of your actions you will see the results in the next few days. Can you give us an idea which results will be seen. If you will allow a second question, we've read about thirteen opponents that were killed by NATO. Can you confirm this or would you say it's not true?

A. On your first point. Obviously I'm not at liberty to disclose the plans we are preparing at the moment and therefore it's very difficult to predict the nature of the outcome. But what I can say is that NATO has already demonstrated the extent to which it is versatile and able to switch focus depending on where the major threat to civilians and civilian populations prevails . And what I can say is that we can see that there's a lot of offensive operations being conducted by pro-Qadhafi forces in the area of Zintan and-IIfram and clearly that's going to be a focus for us. Beyond that, I wouldn't wish to forecast any outcome of plans we intend to undertake-.

With regard to the alleged deaths that have appeared in the press what I can tell you is that we have no independent means of verifying or otherwise those individuals, whether they were pro or anti Qadhafi, who may have lost their lives in that particular action in Misratah. What I can say is that clearly we regret any loss of life, particularly if it's those forces that are protecting civilians.

· The Guardian

Q Brigadier, just picking up on one of the things you said there. I think last week in this room here in Brussels Gen Von Ulm was giving a summary of operations so far and he indicated that in the maritime blockade, the arms embargo, no ships had been found to be carrying anything suspicious at that point. You just said that 6 ships had been denied entry because of the cargo they were carrying. Can one rightly assume from that that this has all happened in the past week? And can you give us some details on what they were carrying, where they were coming from?

A. I'll answer the second bit first. The first thing is I'm not prepared to go into exact details regarding the nature of the incidents with regard to those six ships. What I can tell you is that where we receive clear intelligence that there is a linkage between either the vessel or the cargo or both to the delivery of munitions or materiel which may support the pro-Qadhafi regime and his threat against civilians we will hail, we will board and if, upon discovery and as a consequence of boarding, we find such material, those vessels will be returned either to their home port or to another port. Which is what's happened. And I'm afraid I'm not in a position to answer your first question. All I can say is that according to our information six vessels have been prevented from entering into Libyan territorial waters.

· Financial Times

Q. One question about clarifying the maritime embargo. Are ships allowed to carry weapons from one port in Libya to another port? The second question – you said the actions of these pro-Qadhafi forces … they show Qadhafi's complete disregard of humanitarian law, so he' s one of the main persons if not the main person responsible for this violence against civilians. Would this justify NATO attacks against Qadhafi himself or against his personal installation?. Thanks.

A. Answering your second question first. There is no intent by NATO to either target or to kill individuals. So the answer to that second question is no. We do target his command and control. There's clear linkage between his ability to build command forces, particularly field forces, through communications systems and command and control centers. So that's a legitimate target and C2 centres are really where our focus has been, particularly in Tripoli in the past week or so. With regard to the movement of weapons. Clearly, it is not in anybody's interest for the movement of weapons either from one port in Libya to another port in Libya and certainly NATO has been monitoring, observing, and accruing information intelligence about any arms, materiel or associated items coming into Libya. And it will prevent entry into Libya as a consequence. I'm not aware to date of any vessels that have been stopped because they were carrying arms or explosives or associated materials going from one port in Libya to another.

No vessels have been stopped yet but NATO would do so if, say, the rebel or pro Qadhafi forces were carrying weapons, let's say from Misratah to Benghazi or….

I can assure you that irrespective of whether it is pro Qadhafi or indeed anti-Qadhafi, if the suspicion was that those weapons were likely to be used against innocent civilians then those vessels would not be allowed to proceed into Libyan territorial waters and to a port.

We will now take three questions from journalists in Naples please

· Reuters

Q, Can you tell us how many and which targets the Italian Air Force bombed? And what about effects?.

A. I'm not at liberty to discuss any specific targets with regard to the nations participating. What I can say is that NATO is hugely grateful to the contribution that Italy has made.. Not only since the start of the embargo operation but also since the start of the no fly zone. And in the past couple of days as you know Italian aircraft have become involved in strike operations as well and that's hugely beneficial to the campaign.

· Spanish news agency – Europapress

Q. In the past few days, we've heard of combat between both sides in a frontier town between Libya and Tunis and I think the latest information is that it is back under the control of the rebels. I don't know if you can confirm this and if you expect that NATO operations will have to increase its scope to help this new front that's now apparently severely affecting Tunis, as well. Thank you.

A. I have very little information on the nature of the operations that have been conducted on the Libyan-Tunisian border and I suspect that probably the media have more information. One of the reason for that is clearly, so close to another country's border, operating in that area is difficult. And least of all the possible violation of sovereign integrity by NATO aircraft. And so NATO is exercising due caution in that area. What I can tell you is that NATO aircraft are operating both in terms of seeking and finding those forces that are fighting against civilians and civilian populations in the area of Zintan and Iafram and indeed over the past 3-4 days a number of vehicles , armoured vehicles and systems have been identified and struck by NATO aircraft.

Carmen ROMERO:

I would like to add that NATO is concerned about reports of close border incidents into the territory of Tunisia. As you know Tunisia is a partner country, is a country member of the Mediterranean Dialogue and of course we would condemn any violation of territorial integrity of another sovereign nation and call for restraint.

Back to the journalists here in Brussels…

· The Guardian

Q. I seem to gather from your initial comments that the rebels are winning the battle for Misratah. Is that correct?

A. No. the rebels, the anti Qadhafi forces, have expanded the perimeter significantly over the past week. To suggest that they are winning would perhaps be over optimistic. They are putting up a very spirited fight. They are being supported on a daily, I'd argue almost hourly, basis by NATO forces that are providing aircraft to strike principally the forces that are closest to civilian populations and are also trying to identify missile launchers and indirect fire. So really we are supporting those anti-Qadhafi forces in Misratah that are trying to protect populations. And I think also critically, facilitating the movement of humanitarian assistance into the harbour. And I would suggest that without NATO's support as it is at the moment, the anti-Qadhafi forces would have struggled to maintain that perimeter and to have taken as much ground as they have. Certainly the degree to which humanitarian assistance has come into the harbor and the evacuation of many people would not have been able to take place

· Associated Press

Q. Brigadier you mentioned that there was an effort to mine Misratah harbor by some of the regime's forces. Can you give us some more details on that?

A. What I would say is that…it was only this morning and only a matter of hours ago that an incident took place in which it became apparent that some vessels which we assume were pro Qadhafi were laying mines in the harbor indiscriminately. This is another clear demonstration of Qadhafi's regime to completely ignore international law and also an effort, it must be seen, to prevent humanitarian assistance going into the port of Misratah to help the beleaguered population and those that need to be brought out. I have no further details on this. It really is, as you said, breaking news but I am sure that more will become clear in the next few hours.

· German television

Q. You have described the crimes of Qadhafi against humanity. One could read this morning that rape is part of these crimes. Could you confirm that?

A. I'm afraid I can' t confirm that at all. And I would be reading the same newspaper articles and looking at the same television clips. I'm not in a position to either confirm or deny.

· France Presse

Q. This might be a question more for Carmen. And another one for you brigadier.

Yesterday one of the rebel military leaders Abdulfatah Yunis was at NATO to meet with NATO officials. Can you tell us more about the meeting, who he met with, what was discussed. He said he wanted NATO to do more. Did he mention anything about more strikes? And for you Brigadier, yesterday the same rebel leader mentioned that he wanted NATO to strike pro Qadhafi forces stationed on the outskirts of Misratah, about three locations between 20 and 27 kilometers. Is NATO striking them or is there any reason why they're not being hit

As you said, Abdulfatah Yunis was yesterday in Brussels and he requested a meeting with NATO officials and there was an exchange of views about the current situation in Libya. That's all I can tell you

Back to Naples.

A. Yes. To answer that question... In any complex environment, which is the urban environment as we see in Misratah, it's very difficult to identify specific targets that are threatening civilians. But what I can say is that NATO for the past three weeks has been using certain types of weapons systems to differentiate between anti and pro-Qadhafi forces and these have been very successful in supporting anti Qadhafi forces and in pushing that perimeter out. And indeed we are on a daily basis striking targets such as BM 21s , multiple rocket launchers and other weapons systems beyond and just inside, and indeed in certain parts of the city where we can discriminate between anti and pro Qadhafi forces."