Press briefing on Libya

by Oana Lungescu, the NATO Spokesperson and Colonel Roland Lavoie, Operation ‘’Unified Protector’’ military spokesperson

  • 30 Aug. 2011
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  • Mis à jour le: 31 Aug. 2011 09:41

OANA LUNGESCU (NATO Spokesperson): Good afternoon. Welcome to everybody here in Brussels, in Naples and those of you who are watching on internet, and especially those of you in Libya, who I know are also watching on the internet.

I'm joined by Colonel Roland Lavoie in Naples, the military spokesperson of Operation Unified Protector, who's going to give us an operational update briefly.

The NATO mission is important, it's effective and it's still necessary in order to protect civilians. As long as threats remain there's still a job to be done and we will get that job done.

The mission will continue in full compliance with the United Nations mandate for as long as it's needed, but not a day longer. It looks as if we're nearly there, but we're not there yet.

In the last week we've seen vivid reminders of where the threats are coming from. We've seen the grim pictures from Tripoli and the allegations of mass graves, executed prisoners and a hospital full of dead patients. We've seen more reports of how the regime has been using mosques, schools and market places as shields for its weapons.

We must make sure that these threats are gone and that they're gone for good. Until civilians and cities in Libya are safe. So that the Libyan people can build a new future based on democracy, reconciliation and the rule of law. Once NATO's job is done it's for others to take over the lead in supporting Libya. We expect the United Nations to take the leading role and we've already seen that it is doing so. NATO could support upon request.

Last week, as you know, the North Atlantic Council agreed that any possible future supporting role for NATO must satisfy three criteria: a demonstrable need, a sound legal basis, and wide regional support.

I must stress, though, that no decision's been taken and the focus for now remains very much on getting the job done under the current mandate of the United Nations Security Council.

The Secretary General will travel to Paris on Thursday, September the 1st, to take part in the senior level meeting on Libya. As you know, he's already taken part in Contact Group meetings in Doha, London, Rome and Istanbul.

This will be an opportunity for further coordination of international support for the people of Libya as they finally begin to hold the future in their own hands.

One last point I'd like to mention, which has no connection whatsoever with our Libya operations. As you may have seen there was a mid-air collision earlier this morning between an L-39 Lithuanian military plane and a French Mirage jet during a training flight out of the Zokniai air base in Northern Lithuania. Both Lithuanian pilots ejected successfully and walked away from the crash site with no serious injury. Their plane crashed in a rural area and there's been no damage to private property. The French military jet was lightly damaged, but managed to land. The incident is under investigation. The NATO air policing mission over the Baltic state continues. Over the Baltic states, because obviously we're not just talking about Lithuania, but also Latvia and Estonia.

Now over to Roland Lavoie in Naples for the Libya operational briefing.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE (Spokesperson for the Operation Unified Protector): Bonjour, Oana. And welcome to those who are joining us from Naples and of course Brussels.

The Qadhafi regime is collapsing and rapidly losing control on multiple fronts. A few days ago we witnessed the people of Tripoli freeing their city. Now the port is accessible to commercial and humanitarian shipping as in the nearby port of Az-Aawiyahj.

The two metropolitan airports are now secured. The new authorities are able to provide for the overall security of the city. And the National Transitional Council has moved decision centres in the capital and demonstrated its leadership and ability to start coordinating the provision of services to the population. These are very encouraging signs indeed.

Qadhafi forces have also been pushed out of the greater Tripoli area. Despite the presence of remnants of the regime the Tripoli region is essentially freed with the retreat of pro-Qadhafi forces to the areas of Bani Walid to the southeast of the capital where they don't represent a direct threat to the population of Tripoli any more.

Another key changes since last week is the opening of the northwest coastal route linking Tripoli to the Tunisian border. As the overall security situation improves this vital link will gradually allow for more road movements, which means more food, more water, fuel, medicine and other supplies.

Our main area of attention is now the corridor between Bani Walid and the eastern edge of Sirte, where pro-Qadhafi forces are maintaining a varying presence in several coastal cities and villages. A presence that has also been reported inland down to the Al Jufra general area.

Now let me say a few words on the NATO mission as several may wonder if there's still a need for a NATO presence to protect Libya.

From an air component perspective NATO is still very much involved in monitoring the situation and intervening with extreme care and precision when and where we identify threats against the population, including surface-to-surface missile systems, multiple-rocket launchers, air-tracking radars and anti-aircraft guns. For example, just a few days ago NATO aircraft had to strike at command-and-control facilities in Tripoli from where attacks against the population were directed.

As recently as yesterday our aircraft struck several surface-to-air threats and multiple military vehicles in the vicinity of Sirte, which is considered as a last bastion of the Qadhafi regime.

These interventions may well evolve in terms of numbers of strikes performed over time, but will remain critically important until the Libyan civilian population is no longer under threat from the former regime.

It is equally important to note that the Alliance air component is tracking and deconflicting numerous air and ground movements, which include humanitarian aid movements which are of critical importance at this recovery phase of the conflict. So far, since the beginning of the NATO mission, we have tracked and coordinated thousands of air and ground movements to enable approximately 870 deliveries of humanitarian aid by national and international organizations, including non-governmental organizations.

These numbers may sound abstract, but they do reflect a very concrete reality for those who are in real need of basic necessities.

From a maritime component perspective now, NATO is still enforcing the arms embargo, while ensuring this is done with minimum inconvenience to humanitarian aid cargo vessels. We further provide naval cooperation and guidance for shipping.

With the return of security the Tripoli port is returning to normal state. Commercial traffic is transiting in and out and shipping levels are increasing; including humanitarian aid. NATO ships continue to provide an overall security presence and have also intervened to provide urgent assistance when required. The latest was last weekend when medical assistance was provided to a ship leaving Tripoli for Misrata with 32 of the ex-prisoners released from the Abu Salim prison aboard.

NATO certainly shares concerns expressed by many regarding the overall humanitarian situation in Libya. It is reassuring, though, that we learn of more and more initiatives sponsored by governments and non-governmental organizations to help the Libyan population. While individual nations, commercial operators and specialized non-governmental organizations are better suited and equipped to conduct such operations, NATO will continue to act as an enabler, essentially through a security presence at sea and close monitoring of the air space.

So my message is that despite the fall of the Qadhafi regime and the gradual return of security for many Libyans, NATO's mission is not finished yet. We remain fully committed to our mission and to keeping the pressure on the remnants of the Qadhafi regime until we can confidently say that the civilian population of Libya is no longer threatened.

I could take now your questions.

OANA LUNGESCU: We'll start in Brussels. DPA.

Q: Alvise Armellini from the German Press Agency, DPA. I guess it's a question for you, Oana. Could you just explain what is the process for ending the mission? You said you're nearly there, but not yet. So what happens when you are there? Who takes the decision, how long does it take, do you need authorization for the UN or anything like that? Thank you.

OANA LUNGESCU: The decision will be taken by the North Atlantic Council on the military advice of our commanders of Operation Unified Protector and of the military authorities. And I think the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also made that clear not so long ago. He made clear that this is the assessment of NATO military authorities and NATO to make.

What I can tell you is that last week when the North Atlantic Council met there was consensus around the table, together with the contributing partners in Operation Unified Protector, that the anti-Qadhafi momentum is irreversible and that there was full commitment to continue the mission until the mandate is fulfilled, but no longer than is absolutely necessary.

Over there.

Q: Robert Nisbet from Sky News. We're reporting that Colonel Qadhafi was seen leaving Tripoli in a convoy to Sabah. Is there anything you can add to that? And secondly, as opposition forces advance on Sirte are you concerned that that push could also endanger civilians?

OANA LUNGESCU: I'll leave the first question for Roland because I have no information about that.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Thank you, Oana. Since the beginning of the conflict we have heard many rumours and allegations regarding the movements of Qadhafi or his key supporters. I have no evidence either confirming or denying these allegations. Keeping in mind that there's a limit on what we could see from 20,000 to 30,000 feet above the ground.

With respect to the situation in Sirte, actually we are... we have seen recent reports, actually no later than a few hours ago, that there's discussions ongoing between the anti-Qadhafi and pro-Qadhafi supporters. We see these discussions as certainly an encouraging sign and we'll see how they evolve over the coming days.

I would like to stress, however, that we have seen many villages and cities being freed since the beginning of this conflict, and very recently it was Tripoli, a very dense urban centre with a lot of troops within and around the city. And what we have seen actually is a great care in the way that the anti-Qadhafi forces were engaging the pro-Qadhafi forces. So basically we certainly expect that they will continue to act with the same level of care as this conflict evolves.

OANA LUNGESCU: Just to add, the National Transitional Council has made public statements urging restraint and calling on all their forces to respect international law, to protect civilians and that is the way that we would like this conflict to be resolved, with the full protection of civilians on the ground.

We've already seen that the NTC has reached out to communities, for instance, in Zlitan and that dialogue was the way forward.


Q: Sorry, two questions. Following up on Alvise's question regarding the possible end of NATO's mission. Is it... can you rule out, or is it still possible that once and if Qadhafi's captured or somehow located, that NATO forces will stay beyond that point?

And the other question is, on a different subject, there have been reports that one of his sons, Khamis, has been killed in recent days. Also reports that possibly he was in a convoy that was hit by a NATO air strike that possibly caused his death. Can you confirm that or any details that you have on NATO striking a convoy in which he might have been present, or a brigade of his, or what details you might have?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: If I may, about the... the end of our mission is not aligned on the capture or non-capture of Qadhafi. It's aligned on NATO's assessment of the level of threat to the civilian population in Libya and this will be essentially the criteria that will be used by our chiefs to call an end to this mission.

With respect to Khamis, a bit similar to what I have said for Qadhafi. There was... there's a lot of allegations and rumours about what could have happened to him, and to be frank, we don't know. What I could tell you is that I'm not aware of any operation that would have targeted him specifically in that area yesterday evening when it was reported. So at this time I would qualify this as a rumour and I'll keep it for that at this stage.

OANA LUNGESCU: Roland, we can go to Naples for any questions you might have there.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: No questions from Naples.

OANA LUNGESCU: Okay. I think we have Jane's over here.

Q: Yes, Brooks Tigner, Jane's Defence. A question for Roland. Yesterday your operational update shows that NATO struck quite a few things around the Sirte area, military vehicles, anti-aircraft, missile system, military facilities, et cetera. But press reports really focused on this area showing that the fighting's between the rebels and the remaining Qadhafi forces, so I was wondering why NATO was striking all of these assets? And that includes 22 armed vehicles. Were these vehicles moving or were they grouped together?

Thank you... and just static. Thanks.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Essentially you will notice since the beginning of our campaign, very often significant percentage of our strikes were in areas where you had lines of confrontations, so it's not very surprising that these are in the areas where there's more activities, more vehicle movements and more movements of pieces of weaponry. So this explains certainly in part why we have been active in Sirte.

Keeping in mind that we have been active in that area since the beginning of the campaign. So from that perspective we focus specifically on striking at what we believe presents a threat to the civilian population. This is not based specifically on a given city or on a given target, but more on a given threat, and these vehicles, these different pieces of weaponry that we have targeted lately were assessed as threatening the population.

Q: Were the 22 armed vehicles moving or were they just grouped together on a parking lot? Thank you.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: I don't have the specifics of every specific target that we hit. What I could tell you in general terms, however, is that like vehicles and pieces of armaments rarely stand still at a given location. Most of our... what we call the dynamic strikes are done when we see the movement of military material going towards a population centre.


Q: Thank you. Teri Schultz with National Public Radio and Global Post. Yesterday in Doha the opposition said that Qadhafi could still pose a danger to civilians even though he's in hiding and even though his assets have been so degraded so can you envision your operations being wrapped up if he has not been found? And on the same topic, last week the British Defence Minister said that NATO was helping, providing intelligence and reconnaissance to help in the hunt. I know you've said before that you're not, but these reports keep coming up, so if you'd like to have an opportunity to deny it again, please have one. (Laughs). Or not.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: The trigger for the end of the mission, as I mentioned a bit earlier, is based essentially on an assessment that the civilian population in Libya will be safe. So this has little to do with one individual in particular. It has more something to do with the overall security situation. So... and again, this is not an absolute. This would be an assessment made when there will be a sense that essentially the Libyan authorities would be able to assume the overall control of their security. And a key trigger also being, of course, the decisions of our masters. Like we are an operational mission at the disposal of higher authorities in NATO Headquarters.

Your second question was about coordination, you mentioned, with assets on the ground, I believe?

Q: Yes, the British Defence Minister came out several days ago and said that despite denials NATO is helping the rebels with reconnaissance and intelligence to hunt for Qadhafi.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Basically NATO is pursuing its mission. What we do is dictated by the threats we identify and our mission basically we engage those threats.

We are not engaged in direct coordination or tactical coordination of our actions with troops on the ground.

Q: Kai Niklasch from German Television ZDF, It's a follow-up to the question we had before, but can you give us an idea what's going on there? The British Defence Minister Mr. Fox said last Thursday that there are special forces of the British operating, that the rebels were trained and that there were weapons given to the rebels. Does NATO know about that, and how do you coordinate these efforts?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Our NATO mission has no troops on the ground. And as a spokesperson for NATO this is what I could talk about. So I tell you concretely we have no ground troops on the ground. We do have exchange of information with Allies, presence of Allied nations on the ground, but as part of Operation Unified Protector we have no such presence.

OANA LUNGESCU: Let me make that doubly clear. NATO has no special troops and NATO has no ground troops or any sort of ground forces under NATO command in Libya. I hope that clarifies it once and for all.

We are conducting an air operation, a very effective air operation and you can see the effects of that air operation on the ground.


Q: Yes, follow-up please, Oana and Colonel Lavoie. I have understood that NATO has not troops on the ground, but do you know that there are any other troops operating beyond NATO?

OANA LUNGESCU: We can tell you what the NATO mandate is, what NATO is doing and isn't doing. We have been conducting an air operation, and a maritime operation under the United Nations mandate for Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973. We are conducting that operation successfully and once we know the job is done we are hoping to wrap it up, no sooner, no later, when all the aspects of the mandate have been successfully fulfilled.

Over there.

Q: Hello. Paul Hackett from the English service at Euronews. You say there`s no troops on the ground. Do you have plans in place should the situation deteriorate to put boots on the ground, or support peacekeepers?

OANA LUNGESCU: As NATO ambassadors and the operating... the contributing partners to Operation Unified Protector discussed last week there is no intention and no plan to put any ground troops in Libya. Under the current mandate that is not the case anyway.

NATO will not be taking the lead role in a post-Qadhafi period. That is very clearly for the United Nations to do. We stand ready to support the United Nations if needed, if required. But no decision has been taken.


Q: Hello, Matt Cole, BBC. Just to take you back, please, to the issue of Sirte and the attacks you've... and targets you've hit around Sirte, do you perceive that Colonel Qadhafi's forces pose a threat to civilians in his home town there? And if so, what and who? In these targets you've hit who exactly were these targets actually threatening?

And as a secondary, if I may, could you address a little more directly, please, the question of the rebels' advance on Sirte? You say there's discussions going on between pro- and anti-Qadhafi sides about their approach, but what if the rebels pose a threat to the civilians there? Are you prepared to take action towards them?

Thank you.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Generally speaking we have to recognize that Qadhafi represents a threat globally. Wherever he is the remnants of the regime still demonstrate an ability to command and control systematic attacks. We have seen it just a few days ago when we had the launch of a Scud missile, and just a few days prior also another launch of a Scud missile, both from the vicinity of Sirte.

So we look at the theatre of operation as a global entity and not something very, very, very specific. Does Qadhafi represent a threat specifically to given individuals in Sirte? I don't know. Does he represent a threat to the security of Libya? Definitely, most certainly. And this is why we continue to engage the military assets that are being deployed.

Your second question, about the acts and the presence of the rebels, so far, as I mentioned a bit earlier, the anti-Qadhafi forces have shown no intent to conduct systematic attacks against the populations. You just have to look at these individuals and their background. We don't talk here about military forces, although they are gaining in experience day by day. We talk about citizens who basically did uprisings in different communities and who are joining forces to push away the Qadhafi regime that was controlling them.

They have shown some signs of restraint in other cities and we have no reason to believe it will be different for the region of Sirte. We have also to keep in mind that there's dialogue going on, not only in Sirte, but also in the south, in the area of Sabha we are aware that the anti-Qadhafi forces are trying to seek a resolution, if possible without violence to this conflict.


Q: Yes, Al Hiwar TV.

Le régime algérien a enfin reconnu qu'il abrite une partie de la famille Qadhafi et d'autres loyalistes à Qadhafi. Ma question est de savoir est-ce que L'OTAN a entamé des négociations directes ou indirectes avec le régime algérien afin de permettre au CNT… le renvoi, le CNT a demandé l'extradition de ces personnes. Est-ce qu'il y a un contact à Alger, donc le régime algérien a aussi précisé par la voie de son ministre des Affaires étrangères qu'il a informé l'ambassadeur américain à Alger donc, de cela.

OANA LUNGESCU: Ce n'est pas le rôle de l'OTAN d'avoir des négociations là-dessus, c'est le rôle des autorités algériennes de discuter avec les nouvelles autorités libyennes pour résoudre ces problèmes en conformité avec la loi.

Mais, ce qui est clair c'est que même les plus proches de Qadhafi se sont rendus contre qu'il n'y a pas de futur pour le régime en Libye et c'est le moment que Qadhafi lui-même et tous ceux qui essaient toujours de combattre en son nom se rendent contre que Qadhafi fait partie de l'histoire sanglante de la Libye mais pas de son futur.

German Television again.

Q: (Inaudible...). The military equipment of the Qadhafi forces which was bombed by NATO aircraft was mentioned earlier. Could you please be more specific, Colonel, about the civilians who were under threat by this military equipment? Who were they, how many were they, where were they?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: I'm sorry, I don't have the specifics on every target. What I could tell you, however, is that the Qadhafi apparatus is a global threat, has been a global threat, and has been continuing to threaten the overall population in Libya. Qadhafi has demonstrated repeatedly its aggressive intent and they have shown no intent at all to retreat peacefully and call their troops to stop hostilities.

So from that perspective they are and they remain generally a threat. Let's keep in mind also that the coastal area west of Sirte is basically full of small and larger villages, so therefore the maneuver of military forces in that area represent a threat in general terms to the population of the area.

I believe, Oana, that we have one question from Naples.

Q: The leader of the National Transitional Council, Jalil, until last Saturday has mentioned the... has asked the forces in Sirte to surrender. Otherwise there would be a military confrontation. I don't believe that a surrender is likely by the Qadhafi forces, thus at this point if there should be a confrontation, a greater confrontation, especially in the area of Sirte, inevitably the civilians would be in greater danger. At that point what would NATO do if the rebels enter forcibly that area? As the Qadhafi forces would inevitably attack the civilians.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Thank you. First, I would like to say that we welcome that initiative of maintaining a dialogue. We have seen it in Sirte, but we have also seen it in other regions. And I would not dismiss the possibility of a peaceful resolution in Sirte or in the villages around Sirte.

Let's rewind and go back in history just a few weeks, although it seems to be a long time ago when several villages in the Nafusa Mountains, for example, were freed or even also in the south, in the area of Sabha where some were expecting a bloodshed that did not occur.

The sense that we are getting is that as the regime is being eroded in many villages and cities the citizens seem to wish to avoid a fight. Especially if they feel that they have the freedom to do so, if they are not controlled or repressed to do so. A key element for these discussions are what we call the elders, and my apologies for the expression that might not necessarily represent the exact terminology, but basically those who have influence locally. And I would not dismiss the possibility of a peaceful resolution.

What if this does not work? Tough to predict the future. What I could predict is maybe not the behaviour of the actors on the ground, but is the behaviour of NATO. We will pursue our mission, we will remain vigilant, and no, I will not speculate about how we will react to a given situation. But what I could assure you is that our mission is to protect the civilian population and that we will continue that mission with great care.

OANA LUNGESCU: If there are no more questions in Naples we have two final questions in Brussels. They're both follow-ups. I'll go to NPR first, and then to Reuters.

Q: Thanks. I would just be interested in more reasoning for why you consider Qadhafi a global threat? The United States, as you know, downgraded him as a threat when they took away much of his nuclear capability, so I'd be interested in your definition of that. Thanks.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Based on several factors. First, it's the ability that he still displays, to command and control troop movements and weapon movements, and the deployment of these weapons, including the launch of surface-to-surface missiles and operating radars. Essentially he is displaying a capability still to exercise some level of command and control.

The pro-Qadhafi troops that we see are not in total disarray. They are retreating in an orderly fashion, conceding ground and going to the second best position that they could hold to continue the warfare.

We have seen it only a few days ago in Tripoli. While although they were being pushed back they were very, very aggressive in shelling the two airports, the port area and fighting quite aggressively to hold their positions.

So we... let's not declare the regime totally there at this stage. The threat still remains. It has been demonstrated in the past, and the threat will be over when we will have a political settlement of this conflict with people putting down their weapons and starting to rebuild their country.

Q: (Inaudible...) talking about. You're identifying him as a global threat. How is he a threat to anyone outside of Libya?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: No, if I... my intent is certainly not to interpret global in that sense. I'm talking generally speaking, like Qadhafi regime has displayed an ability of mobility within the borders of Libya and of projecting power within also the borders of Libya. I do not believe that Qadhafi poses a serious threat to his neighbours.

OANA LUNGESCU: Final question, Reuters.

Q: I just wanted to ask for a bit of clarification. When you were mentioning earlier that you've heard reports of discussions between anti- and pro-Qadhafi supporters were you referring to the ultimatum that the anti-Qadhafi forces have given to the pro-Qadhafi forces to give up arms around Sirte and elsewhere? The four-day ultimatum?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Among other things. And also based on what we have seen as being a trend in the latest weeks where we have seen dialogues in several villages that basically were freed with... I'm not saying no hostilities, but with minimum hostilities.

Just to give you a picture, several cities are not fortified war zones. Several cities, especially smaller villages are often controlled only with a few checkpoints along the key road and one or two relatively small command-and-control centres. So this is the best way I could describe the picture on the ground.

OANA LUNGESCU: I think we've seen very clearly where the threat has been coming from all along in the last six months. We've also seen the commitments to restraint and respect for human rights from the NTC, and we continue to call on all remnants of the regime to stop their threats, to stop their attacks, lay down their arms, stop the bloodshed and allow the Libyan people to build the new future for Libya in reconciliation, in peace, and full respect for the rule of law.

Thank you very much.