Press briefing on Libya

by Carmen Romero, the NATO Deputy Spokesperson and Colonel Roland Lavoie, Operation ‘’Unified Protector’’ military spokesperson

  • 09 Aug. 2011
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  • Last updated 11-Aug-2011 12:37

Carmen Romero (Deputy Spokesperson):

Good afternoon and welcome to NATO to both you here in Brussels and in Naples.

In a minute, my colleague Colonel Roland Lavoie will update you on Operation Unified Protector in detail. Before that I’d like to brief you on a couple of issues from here.

On Libya, tomorrow the North Atlantic Council will discuss with our operational partners the mission’s progress.. This meeting is part of our regular consultations on our operation.  Allies commitment to the mission’s success remains firm.

We continue saving lives in Libya every day. And allies are as determined as ever to continue enforcing the United Nations mandate to protect civilians.

In Afghanistan we saw on Saturday a tragic event with the death of US service members and Afghan soldiers in a helicopter incident. NATO expresses its strong solidarity with the American and the Afghan people and their governments.

NATO is determined to stay the course in Afghanistan, especially in this crucial period toward transition to Afghan lead. And with that, I’ll hand over to Roland in Naples.

Roland,  the floor is yours.

Col. ROLAND LAVOIE (Spokesperson for the Operation Unified Protector): Bonjour, Carmen, thank you. Welcome everybody. NATO continues to carefully monitor lines of confrontations between pro- and anti-Qadhafi forces in areas such as the southwest of Tripoli and in the Nafusa Mountains which is showing the most activity; and also in other areas of frictions such as Brega, Misrata and Zlitan.

Let me begin with the Nafusa Mountains. Our reports indicate that anti-Qadhafi forces have consolidated their positions in the northwest of the range in the vicinity of Tiji. As of Sunday, they were able to push forward from the recently secured town of Bir al-Ghanam toward the coast, the west coast of Tripoli.

Near Brega now, we have observed increased fighting compared to the skirmishes we have seen in the past. There's considerable movement of heavy equipment from both sides, including artillery, tanks as well as armoured personnel carriers; although the frontlines have remained relatively unchanged however.

To the west, in Misrata, while shelling of the civilians from Zlitan has ceased as a result of recent NATO strikes, occasional shelling continues from Tawurgah in the south into Misrata. Indeed, pro-Qadhafi forces continue to harass the population and to restrict their freedom of movement, illustrating their very aggressive posture.

This week, pro-Qadhafi forces have even tried to hit two NATO ships with rockets fired from Zlitan. The ships were providing naval gunfire support to air operations to strike commanding control nodes of the 32nd Brigade which is Qadhafi's regime’s main elite formation. NATO air strikes continue to focus on destroying and degrading command and control nodes and other military targets in order to erode the regime's ability to coordinate attacks on civilians and reduce its will to fight. The details of those strikes are provided in our daily operational update posted on the internet.

I would like to report that NATO aircraft hit a military staging area in Zlitan at 11:30 PM, 11:45 PM and 2:34 AM local time last night. The target is two former farm buildings which have been taken over by pro-Qadhafi forces and transformed into a field military complex with temporary accommodation facilities used as a staging point from which the pro-Qadhafi forces were reinforcing troops, weaponry and other military equipment in a timely fashion to conduct attacks against civilians. This was a legitimate target. And by striking it, NATO has reduced the pro-Qadhafi forces’ capability to threaten and attack civilians. We do not have evidence of civilian casualties at this stage, although casualties among military personnel, including mercenaries are very likely due to the nature of the target.

Although it will be premature to jump to conclusions, it is becoming more and more apparent that pro-Qadhafi forces are losing their ability to conduct massive offensives. This does not preclude them, however, from operating from covert locations in agricultural, administrative or even residential facilities or schools from where they command and conduct attacks. This explains why NATO has conducted several strikes in such militarized areas taking extreme precautions not to harm innocent civilians living or working nearby.

I would like now to give you an update on the strikes that were conducted since the evening of the August 7th as NATO aircraft conducted several precision strikes against a Libyan frigate moored in the military side of the port of Tripoli. The successful air strikes destroyed weapons and ammunitions before they could be used against the civilian population, NATO forces or humanitarian shipping. NATO acted following airborne intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance missions that concluded that pro-Qadhafi forces were active on and around that military ship. It became evident that the regime forces were removing weaponry and ammunitions from the warship with the intent of using them from other platforms. The strikes were successful, they are expected to reduce the regime's ability to conduct hostile actions or limit the flow of humanitarian aid within the country. I would now be pleased to take your questions.

CARMEN ROMERO: So Roland, we will start with three questions in Brussels. Who is the first? No questions in Brussels? Yes, please, could you identify yourself?

Q: (Inaudible) ... Came out from UNESCO yesterday on the strike against the Libyan State television saying that this is not a target, not within the mandate etc, what is your reaction to that criticism? Second question if I may, my country Denmark is having a parliamentary debate on Thursday about prolonging the Danish mandate for participating in the mission, and there has already been quite a lot of discussion between politicians in Denmark about the feeling that other Allied countries should contribute more to the mission. And this is becoming very expensive and difficult for a small country like Denmark, for instance. Will there be any discussion about that possibility? Thank you.

CARMEN ROMERO: Yes, Roland, I think I'm going to take these two questions. On the first one related to UNESCO, what I can tell you is that while NATO is aware of the provisions of the UN Security Council Resolution 1738 as well as of the Geneva Convention, NATO has not deliberately targeted journalists, it targeted... NATO targeted equipment that had been used to incite attacks against civilians. The strike, I can say, hit only three satellite dishes. And we are unaware of any evidence of casualties associated with the strike on those facilities. So that is to say that NATO actions did not contravene the UN Security Council Resolution 1738 and the protocols of the Geneva Convention, these strikes were also fully consistent with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 which as you know authorizes all necessary measures to protect Libyan civilians from attack or threat of attack. So these dishes were being used to call for attacks, and this is why that strike took place.

On the internal discussion in the Danish Parliament, well, as you know, it's for every nation to decide what kind of contribution they will provide to any NATO mission. In this case, of course, we most welcome the Danish contribution so far. And it's for every nation to decide. But of course, you know that the NATO Secretary General and our commanders keep asking nations to do as much as possible. And a commander is never satisfied with the resources he has. So of course, we will continue calling everybody to stay the course. But what I can also tell you is that we have the necessary resources to continue fulfilling the mandate that is given to us by the UN Security Council. I think Gérard has a follow-up question.

Q: Oui, Gérard Godin, en langue française si c'est possible. La France retire cette semaine, je pense, son porte-avion, Le Charles de Gaulle des opérations. Quelle est l'influence que cela va avoir sur le déroulement d'Unified Protector?

Col. ROLAND LAVOIE: I'll take this one. France is... brings back the Charles de Gaulle. But what has to be stressed is that France will continue to maintain the same operational capability from ground-based aircraft. So basically, the commitment of France remains and for us it means continuity... continuity of excellence actually, considering the considerable contribution that France is bringing to this important operation.

CARMEN ROMERO: Please (inaudible)... Brooks.

Q: Yes, Brooks Tigner, Jane's Defence, question for Naples. Were precision-guided bombs used on the frigate, the Libyan frigate that was attacked or these more large blast bombs that were used? And what condition did that leave the frigate in? The photos didn't show that. Thank you.

Col. ROLAND LAVOIE: Precision-guided. The state of the frigate: not good. As of this morning, photos showed that it was quite damaged. And I would conclude here that it is very unlikely to present any threat in the future to the civilian population or NATO forces.

CARMEN ROMERO: Before giving the floor to MPR, are there any questions from journalists in Naples? Please Roland.

Col. ROLAND LAVOIE: None from Naples.


Q: Hello, Terri Shultz, with MPR and Global Post, when you said that you weren't aware of any civilian casualties in the attacks on Zlitan, are you saying that you're not aware that there were any...? You've probably seen reports saying that there were 85 people killed, and showing pictures on Libyan TV of children, men and women having been killed. So you're just saying you're not aware that there were any... or you are not aware that the claims of the numbers, and the fact that there were children killed, are true? Thanks.

Col. ROLAND LAVOIE: First, I would say like this was a military facility, clearly with two huge agricultural buildings that were occupied by Qadhafi forces and with military tents and temporary accommodation beside it. So, basically, we had very clear intelligence demonstrating that this was clearly a military target. So there's no expectations of any civilian casualties. I am aware, although, that the regime organized a press visit this morning to Zlitan. And I think they toured a hospital where there were several patients and individuals who were either ill or dead. And we do take seriously these allegations, although they are very frequent... and frequently organized in a timely fashion to coincide with these news conferences. I must say that what we say is based on facts. And after every strike we conduct a battle damage assessment. And this allows us to basically see the consequence of our action. At this stage, I have not received this assessment. So I will not speculation on the outcome, although I could tell you that the target was indeed military, based on solid intelligence. And that there's no evidence so far that has reached us, suggesting that there could be any civilian casualties.

CARMEN ROMERO: Next question. No more questions. It seems that there are no more... maybe one more, yes.

Q: A question on the advance of these troops, the opposition, the rebel forces southwest of Tripoli. Can you tell us where they are now? How far from Tripoli? How far from the coastline?

Col. ROLAND LAVOIE: I could not be precise. But basically, we know that the rebel forces are now quite clearly out of the Nafusa Mountains and moving along the flat area leading to the coast. So without giving precise tactical details, they are quite close actually. And this is a considerable advance that they have made over the last few days.

CARMEN ROMERO: Follow up from APR.

Q: You restated that one of the goals of the operation is to reduce the regime's will to fight. And you also said that you saw... that you've seen movements of heavy artillery and significant numbers of heavy artillery. We've been at this for quite a while now. Do you think... are you surprised at how much equipment the regime still has? And do you see any evidence that you're reducing its will to fight? Thanks.

Col. ROLAND LAVOIE: What I was making reference to was the Brega front, because that front has been there for a long time. And basically the rebel has, over time, acquired much experience and ability to face the Qadhafi forces which were basically initially in a strong position, having a kind of Soviet-type formation and defensive postures. So this is essentially the area where we could compare the situation as kind of traditional or conventional warfare actually. As for giving estimates about the degradation or erosion of Qadhafi's power, as I said earlier, it would be very speculative to come with a number in terms of percentage. What we do observe, however, is the inability of the regime to push some advances as we have seen in the Nafusa Mountains and also the inability of the regime to conduct massive attacks and movement which is basically, let's say, symptomatic of some lack of capabilities. So I will stop here at this point. And I'm quite aware that the situation has been fluid and dynamic over the last few weeks, and it could continue to change. So let's not jump to conclusions, but let's observe that the Qadhafi forces essentially had to retreat on a couple of fronts this week.


Q: Yes, Brooks Tigner, Jane's again. You mentioned Carmen the NAC’s going to discuss tomorrow with the operational partners on Libya. What's on the agenda? And also is NATO looking for some of the non-NATO, the few non-NATO countries involved in this to step up their commitment, given that some of the other Allies have pulled out or are considering to reduce their forces?

CARMEN ROMERO: As I was saying, the meeting tomorrow is part of the regular discussions that NATO Allies have with our operational partners participating in the NATO-led operation in Libya. So basically what the ambassadors usually get is an operational update on how the situation is on the ground. And then there is a discussion of the state of play basically. As we know, we have the support of countries of the region and we also have a certain number of countries, partner countries that are participating in the mission. So we are not looking for other... I mean it's for other countries to decide whether or not they want to join this mission.

Q: (Inaudible)...

CARMEN ROMERO: We are not looking for... It's for nations to decide, for partner nations to decide whether or not they want to join us.

Q: How are you going to make up the balance? If some countries are pulling down, you still need to maintain your strike capabilities.

CARMEN ROMERO: This is why we continue calling all nations to do as much as they can. And we are confident that we will be able to sustain this operation as we have done until now. There is no doubt that will happen. Any follow-up questions or any questions for Roland, from here, from Brussels? I would like to double-check with you Roland. Do you have any questions down there in Naples?

ROLAND LAVOIE: Not from Naples, no.

CARMEN ROMERO: No, well AP has another question.

Q: A follow-up on the frigate. Do you have the name of the frigate?

ROLAND LAVOIE: No, I don't, sorry about that.

CARMEN ROMERO: I think we can provide that to you after this press conference. So no problem...

ROLAND LAVOIE: Just a second, was it a Koni type? It was a Koni type. So at least it gives you the class of frigate: K-o-n-i.

CARMEN ROMERO: So you have the name, you have everything you need. That's fine. OK, so if there are no more questions in Naples or in Brussels, I thank you very much for coming or listening to us, thank you very much.