Press briefing on Libya

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

  • 17 May. 2011
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  • Last updated: 17 May. 2011 20:33

A bag of semtex high explosive found onboard the rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB)

Good afternoon. And welcome again to Wing Commander Mike Bracken, the Operation Unified Protector Spokesperson, who joins us from Naples.  Wing Commander Bracken will give us an operational update in a few minutes.
We've seen the announcement by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court that he is asking judges to issue arrest warrants for Moammar Qadhafi and two other senior members of the Libyan regime for crimes against humanity.   Clearly, the court is an independent institution and it is now up to the judges to take the next step.  
All the evidence that the prosecutor has gathered is a stark reminder of why NATO is conducting operations in Libya -- to protect civilians against what the prosecutor described as crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Qadhafi regime. It's further proof the international isolation of the regime is growing every day  -- and that its reign of terror must end immediately. It's hard to imagine that a genuine transition in Libya can take place while those responsible for widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population remain in power.  
So what we see every day is that the pressure on the regime is mounting to fulfil the mandate of the United Nations Security Council. Within that mandate, NATO is keeping up the pressure and we can see the results on the ground. We have loosened the regime's grip on Misrata and eased the humanitarian situation. We have stopped the regime from retaking the country by force.  And we have done so with the greatest care, to minimise the risk to civilians.

Clearly, there is no purely military solution to the crisis in Libya. The Contact Group, which includes NATO, has agreed that time's up for the Qadhafi regime -- and it will continue applying a combination of military, political and military means to bring about a solution that respects the legitimate aspirations  of the Libyan people. NATO will continue degrading Qadhafi's war machine until the military goals set by allies and contributing partners are met: an end to all attacks against civilians, the return of all pro-Qadhafi forces to barracks and bases, and free and unhindered access to humanitarian aid for all those who need it. We are all determined to keep up the pressure as long as Qadhafi continues attacking his own people -- that was the strong message from the meeting that the Secretary General had with president Obama and members of his national security team in Washington last Friday. They also discussed the mission in Afghanistan, where transition is on track, and prospects for the next NATO summit, which President Obama has offered to host next spring.            

The Secretary General’s next international engagement is in Slovakia on Thursday, and then on Friday in Italy. He will meet the leaders of these countries on a range of security matters,  with Libya at the top of the agenda.

And now, I hand you over to Wing Commander Mike Bracken in Naples for an update on recent operations.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken (Military Spokesman for Operation Unified Protector): Oana, thank you very much. Good afternoon and welcome back to Naples. I'm Wing Commander Mike Bracken, the spokesperson for Operation Unified Protector.

This operation, carried out under United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973, has now been under way for more than six weeks. We are achieving our objectives of reducing the Qadhafi regime's capacity to coordinate strikes against innocent civilians and diminishing its will to fight.

Now let me tell you about our latest operations. In the past four days we've engaged command-and-control nodes, particularly in Tripoli and military training facilities near Tripoli, surface-to-air missile launchers, ammunition storage facilities, armoured vehicles, rocket launchers, tanks and anti-aircraft guns. As you can see a huge array of military targets. And I've just seen a United Kingdom press release giving some details of one of the NATO strikes last night.

Video please.


This shows a Royal Air Force aircraft striking the military training facility on the outskirts of Tripoli.

As we've demonstrated with every attack to date, NATO and our partners continue to do everything possible to minimize any harm to innocent people and to reduce the capacity of pro-Qadhafi forces to target the civilian population. We know that pro-Qadhafi forces are using innocent people as human shields. This tactic is completely reprehensible and unacceptable. We will continue to be forthright and proactive, but we will not be reckless.

Just today I've seen on open-source reporting that thousands of telecom engineers have been used to become human shields to protect the communication infrastructure within Libya.

Shifting to operations at sea. NATO and coalition warships, submarines, and maritime aircraft continue to enforce the arms embargo. Our assets have helped the much-needed flow of humanitarian air to proceed unhindered through the embargoed area and arrive in Libyan ports. In particular into Misrata and Benghazi.

Since the start of operations we've been encouraging pro-Qadhafi forces to lay down their arms. Just recently we have stepped up these activities by distRHIButing leaflets and using an airborne radio system to tell Qadhafi forces to move away from any military equipment, including aircraft, vessels, vehicles and infrastructure. Anything to do with the facilities used to attack the civilian population and to return to their barracks and homes.

Just two days ago NATO maritime forces thwarted another attack on Misrata by pro-Qadhafi forces in small boats. NATO detected two rigid-hull inflatable boats, known as RHIBs. These were spotted heading from the western coastal areas towards Misrata. NATO forces reacted by sending warships and helicopters to identify and investigate the RHIBs.

Slide one, please.

As NATO forces made their approach one RHIB was observed stopped in the water, as the second escaped at high speed back to the west.

Slide two.

An explosive ordinance disposal team, known as an EOD team, from an Allied warship, was deployed to inspect the abandoned RHIB and discovered a large quantity of explosives, approximately one metric tonne and two human mannequins.

Slide three, please.

In view of the obvious threat posed by the explosives the decision was made to destroy the RHIB at sea. This was carried out by Allied warships using naval gunfire.

Slide four.

This can only be interpreted as a crude attempt to get mariners to come close to the RHIB, thinking there might be people in distress. Only then to set off the explosives with a potential devastating effect.

Thank you for pictures.

One tonne of explosives is a huge amount. This is nothing less than a floating booby-trap meant to kill people or sink ships. This is the third naval incident we've witnessed. You may recall the attempted mining of the approaches of Misrata on the 29th of April, and just last week two RHIBs attempted to slip past NATO forces and approach the port of Misrata, but they were also intercepted by our ships.

This series of incidents is a serious change in tactics by the pro-Qadhafi forces and clearly demonstrates their intent to use their naval assets and naval knowledge to bring even more harm to innocent civilians. It also demonstrates that pro-Qadhafi forces have the will and desire to strike NATO vessels.

In sum, NATO and the coalition continue to work every day using all measures available to protect the innocent civilian population of Libya. We have constantly adapted to the changing and dynamic situation, both on the ground and at sea. The tally of measurable successes made by the air campaign now stands at nearly 7,000 sorties, of which 2,700 have been strike sorties.

Whilst these figures are impressive, what truly matters is that we are achieving our mission, and most importantly stopping attacks on innocent civilians. The situation near Brega is stable. However, there is sporadic fighting occurring between pro- and anti-Qadhafi forces away from the city where civilians are safely out of the way.

Misrata is much safer than it was even a few days ago, with less shelling on the city. The western villages are holding on and we continue to attack pro-Qadhafi forces that threaten civilian populations. Our campaign to stop the attacks and degrade the regime's ability to resupply its frontline is working and we continue with such strikes.

We are now focused on attacking the regime's ability to command and control, as well as their ability to coordinate their attacks. We will continue to use all necessary measures as authorized in the United Nations legal mandate until all of the conditions set for a peaceful resolution are met.

That concludes today's operational update and Oana and I will be happy to take questions.

Oana Lungescu: (NATO Spokesperson): Ian, the Guardian.

Q: Wing Commander, Ian Traynor from the Guardian. There have been calls quite recently from senior Alliance officers saying that basically the concentration on military targets is insufficient to have the necessary impact on the regime and that the targeting should be widened to infrastructure targets.

First of all, I'd just like to ask you whether NATO is hearing this recommendation and what its response is? And B, we also have reports about the interior ministry in Tripoli being attacked and whether that might be part of a changing strategy. Thank you.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Ian, thank you very much. It's a very pertinent question.

First of all, the United Nations mandate is to protect civilians at all times and we're doing that with care and precision, unlike the regime which is systematically attacking civilians using human shields.

Sir David Richards makes clear the campaign is a significant success for NATO and we are maintaining a high operational tempo and seeing results on the ground.

This isn't a purely military solution, but it is clear that the time is up for Qadhafi and I'll come back to Oana in a minute to cover any further on that.

As for the piece you referred to as the interior ministry, what I do know that as part of NATO's strike package into Tripoli last night the United Kingdom hit a number of NATO targets. Royal Navy Tomahawk missiles and Royal Air Force Tornado aircraft hit a command-and-control facility and a military training base.

Now NATO doesn't disclose individual targets or contRHIButions from nations, but if you want to get more details about those particular sorties if you can refer back to London and the Ministry of Defence I'm sure they'll give you more.

Oana, would you like to take anything further on the question about NATO?

Oana Lungescu:: Yes, it's clear, as Mike said, that the targets are an operational secret. As you know, we don't go into operational details, but we can assure you that each and every target we have hit is a military target. And we are keeping up a high operational tempo. As you've heard almost 7,000 sorties in just over six weeks and we are seeing the results on the ground. We have been hitting, as you can see, from today's operational update, command-and-control centres. We've been hitting ammunition sites, bunkers and critical targets, critical objectives that are playing a role in the command-and-control of attacks on the civilian population.

David, Reuters.

Q: Well, yes, David Brunnstrom from Reuters. Just to follow up on the previous question, does that mean then, in fact, that you are not going to extend the campaign to non-military targets - the infrastructure - which was referred to by the British general?

Oana Lungescu:: Obviously, David, we are continuously reviewing our operations to adapt to changing circumstances on the ground.

FT, Deutschland.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: I would also add...

Oana Lungescu:: David?

Q: ...Deutschland. It's a question. You said you want to focus more... or you want to focus on command-and-control centres. How do you define a command-and-control centre? Is it, let's say, any point from which the dictator Qadhafi has a connection to his troops? Would you define that as a command-and-control centre too? Yes or no? Thanks.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: If the mission is... Oana, should I take that question?

Oana Lungescu:: As we said, Klaus, obviously we don't go into operational details. What we are hitting are clearly military targets. We do not target any specific individuals. That has been made repeatedly clear and I can say that, once again here, we are not targeting specific individuals. We are focusing on command-and-control centres or any other military targets that are playing the role in coordinating and running attacks against the civilian population. I think you have a follow-up.

Q: How do you define command-and-control centre?

Oana Lungescu:: Mike may want to come in on that. I would define a command-and-control centre as a site from which the attacks on the civilian population are being coordinated and run from.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Absolutely. From an operational perspective a command-and-control centre is where the planning and execution of an operation is put together and it's then passed down to the forces in the field, who then deliver that.

What I mean by that is anywhere that's planning it, they pass the information, they communicate it to forces on the ground, who then attack innocent population. And that is what we're stopping. We're stopping that command-and-control facility to stop the communication to the forces on the ground who deliver those weapons.

Oana Lungescu:: I think we have ANP there.

Q: Hans (inaudible), Netherlands Press Agency. Can you explain why a training facility on the outskirts of Tripoli is a direct threat to the civilian population elsewhere in Libya?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay the training facility is a tactical issue. It's a target that has been selected by the nations involved in this operation. It's been cleared as a legal target. It fulfils the requirement within our target-set and beyond that, our rules of engagement, our selection of targets is not something that we will discuss today.

Oana Lungescu:: What I would add is that, of course, as you all know, the rules of engagement have been agreed by all 28 Allies.


Q: Kai Niklasch, German Television ZDF. Mike, can you give us an idea where the pro-Qadhafi forces are still strong because on the last briefing we have learned that in Misrata there were no tanks left and there was hardly anybody firing at NATO troops and now you are bombing training facilities on the outskirts of Tripoli and I wonder myself where are the fights going on?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, there is fighting going on across Libya. We continue to monitor the situation and where we identify targets, whether they are what we would call dynamic targets, something that is seen on the ground, about to or involved in or capable of attacking civilian population and identified as being used for that, they will be struck. It's quite clear that targets across Libya that are being used in that manner will be taken out by the NATO operation.

Oana Lungescu:: AFP.

Q: Laurent Thomet with Agence France-Presse? Can you comment on reports that Muammar Qadhafi has been wounded? And also, separately, on reports that people close to the regime are fleeing the country or Qadhafi.

And also, in answer to a question earlier, you mentioned that you were dropping leaflets and sending radio communications, encouraging forces to leave the regime. Do you have any evidence that they are dropping their weapons? Is it having any effect?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, two parts to that really. One is regarding Qadhafi. We do not track his position as a target. Our targets are selected of those to do with command-and-control and weapons that are being used against the civilian population. So I think that issue's closed from my perspective.

On the side of the information in leaflets and within the radio broadcasts, this is something that goes on to ensure that not only the forces on the ground, but also the civilian population know that it is not sensible to be near military installations, particularly command-and-control installations, to be near military vessels, military vehicles, and these messages that are being sent out on the radio stations and through the 140,000 leaflets that have already been delivered into the air space and into the locations within Libya, are passing that same message. Come away from such military equipment and go back to your bases and your homes.

Oana Lungescu:: Laurent, on your question about defections, we've all seen information from open sources, as you probably have. As you know, we don't have any boots on the ground to confirm any such reports, but if they are true they would prove, once again, that the Qadhafi regime is isolated and that people around Colonel Qadhafi realize that there is no future in the regime, and that it is now time to let the people of Libya decide on their future.

Wall Street Journal.

Q: Stephen Fidler from the Wall Street Journal. From your earlier answers about the targets, should we conclude that attacking infrastructure targets would not, at the moment, fulfil the legal requirements that NATO has for determining what targets should be? If that's the case what would need to happen to change those legal requirements? Would there need to be another UN Resolution to do that, or could that be done by internal decisions within NATO?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Stephen, it's quite clear, the United Nations Resolutions that we're working to. We're working on an embargo, we're working on a No-Fly Zone, and we're working on protecting the civilian population. That is the criteria at the operational level to which the commander is working to.

Anything outside of that, and if there was to be any chang in direction, would come from the NATO Headquarters. But at the moment operationally it is quite clear exactly what our mission is and the commander will continue with that mission until told otherwise from higher command.

Oana, do you want to add anything to that?

Oana Lungescu:: What I wanted to say is that obviously we're not going to go into a discussion on semantics here, but as you have seen from our operational updates we have been consistently striking military targets, including command-and-control centres and bunkers and ammunition sites. We will continue to keep up the pressure until the military goals have been met. And we will continue to review our operations in light of the situation on the ground.

Until now there has been no discussion in the North Atlantic Council about the rules of engagement. The rules of engagement have been agreed by consensus by all 28 Allies.

Q: Oana?

Oana Lungescu:: Ian.

Q: Oana, it's not really a semantic discussion. David Richards says military targets is not enough, you need to go for infrastructure. Basically what we're asking you're saying that you're only hitting military targets. Basically what we're asking is, is infrastructure a military target or is it beyond the scope of the current mission as defined by the rules of engagement? It's not a semantic argument.

Oana Lungescu:: Well, we're not going to go into operational details.

Laurent, AFP.

Q: Still in that same line of questions, earlier Wing Commander you said that you define command-and-control centre where the planning and execution of an operation is put together and then passed on to forces in the field. So could that mean that Libyan regime generals or colonels are putting together plans inside a school building or an interior ministry building? Would that be considered then a command-and-control centre and then a legitimate target?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Thank you for that. It's a good question. If we were to identify a command-and-control target we would rationalize that within our rules of engagement, and if it was considered that we could deliver precision weapons with minimum or no casualties and it was a clear command-and-control target, that target would be taken.

If there was any doubt then that target would not be taken at that time and when the appropriate time came we would take the target.

Oana Lungescu:: And obviously, as we said before, what matters is the effect on the ground. You are seeing that NATO is keeping up the pressure. You do see the effect on the ground and we will keep up that pressure until the military goals set by NATO Allies and partners have been met.

FT Deutschland.

Q: Sorry, just to clarify the command-and-control centre. It's not important, let's say, what technical installations or whatever are inside, but what matters is who is inside this so-called command-and-control centre. It doesn't have anything to do with technical installation. These people could meet each other at any time in a tent, in a desert or whatever. It's just important who meets.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: No. The activity, the planning and delivery of attacks onto the civilian population by a command-and-control centre would make it a legitimate command-and-control target.

The people, as we've said before, it's not about individuals, it's about the activity that's being conducted. And if that is delivering armament onto civilians that would make it a legitimate target.

Oana Lungescu:: And obviously as we have said since the start of the operation, as in all NATO operations, we are conducting this mission with great care and precision to avoid any civilian casualties. Very much unlike the strategy pursued by the Qadhafi regime which now stands accused of crimes against humanity.

I will go to Naples, Mike, if there are any questions at your end.

Just checking whether there are any questions.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Bit of an echo there, Oana. There are no questions here in Naples.

Oana Lungescu:: Good, so we'll come back here. I think we have one more over there. Le Soir.

Q: Yes, Gerard Gaudin, Belgium News Agency. Is there no NATO representation in Benghazi?

Is there no NATO representation in Benghazi, already, or not?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, I heard “is there no NATO representation in Benghazi?”.

From an operational perspective it's quite clear, we do not have boots on the ground as it's called, or forces on the ground in Libya. We have a clear direction as to what our mandate is. Beyond that at a diplomatic level, Oana, do you want to add anything?

Oana Lungescu:: We all know that there are several Allies and other nations that have representation on the ground, but NATO has no representation in Benghazi at this stage.

Any other questions? If not, thank you very much, Mike, and thank you very much to everybody who's come to the briefing.