Press briefing on Libya

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

  • 18 Oct. 2011
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  • Last updated 25-Oct-2011 12:18

Carmen Romero (NATO Deputy Spokesperson): Good afternoon to everyone in Brussels and in Naples, as well as to those joining us on line. Welcome.

From my side in Brussels, I would like to start this operational briefing on Libya by saying that the North Atlantic Council will meet tomorrow, as usual. Tomorrow is Wednesday. Ambassadors from NATO countries and our partners involved in the Libya operation will have a routine meeting in order to discuss the current situation on the ground. This meeting is part of our regular consultations since the beginning of the operation.

With regard to when our operation will terminate, I'm sure you are interested about that, I would like to stress what the NATO Secretary General said on Friday. It is premature to set a timetable now. We are very close to the end, but there are still threats to the civilian population and as long as these threats persist we will continue with our operation.

Key benchmarks for ending the mission, as you know, will be whether or not there are threats to the civilian population, as well as the capability of the National Transitional Council to protect civilians. Termination, it's a political decision, which will be taken by the North Atlantic Council after we have made a careful and comprehensive political and military analysis. Any decision by NATO will be done in coordination with the United Nations and the National Transitional Council.

And with this I will hand over to my colleague in Naples, Roland Lavoie. Colonel Roland Lavoie, please, you have the floor.

Colonel Roland Lavoie (Spokesperson for the Operation Unified Protector): Bonjour, good afternoon, to all those joining us here in Naples or in Brussels. Since our last operational update there were a few changes to the security situation in Libya.

Most of Sirte is now under NTC control and fighting is limited to a very small area where a few remaining Qadhafi fighters are vainly trying to hold their positions.

NTC forces have made significant advances in Bani Walid, both from the northern and southern fronts. As of this morning it appears that Qadhafi fighters are unable to sustain significant offensive capability.

The NTC was also successful in managing a small-scale clash in Tripoli last Friday, demonstrating their ability to quickly respond to skirmishes using their own means and capabilities to safeguard the civilian population.

The situation was stable in the rest of the Libyan territory and the territorial waters.

Now NATO's assessment is that despite isolated fighting in Sirte and Bani Walid, most of the local population in these areas is no longer under threat. The remaining Qadhafi fighters are on the defensive, apparently attempting to avoid capture. They don't control significant populated areas and no longer pose a credible threat outside small pockets of resistance.

As the NTC is playing an increasing role in Libya's security, NATO is still committed to fulfilling its mandate. Operation Unified Protector is actively and continuously monitoring the situation in Libya by conducting surveillance operations from air and sea to detect potential threats against the civilian population and being ready to intervene as necessary, as we did on a number of occasions last week.

Our ships at sea are also provided a constant presence and continue to enforce the arms embargo.

There should be no doubt that NATO remains ready to engage, using all necessary force against military assets that may represent a significant threat against civilians in Libya. Our mission may well be near completion, but we will maintain a strong vigilant posture until relieved of our duties.

As a final note, I would like to stress Libya's progress in air space control. A few days ago Libya's newly formed civil aviation authority announced that it will take responsibility for controlling aircraft in air space above Benina International Airport in Benghazi. This decision marks a positive step towards enabling the new Libyan authorities to start rebuilding their country.

The Libyan civil aviation authority has taken the decision in close consultation with NATO, the International Civil Aviation Organization and under other international organizations. Although NATO's No-Fly Zone continues to be enforced, Libyan air traffic control services will now direct humanitarian flights into and out of the air space in a 50-mile radius around Benghazi.

Once NATO's mission ends, Libya's authority, supported by the international civil aviation community are expected to assume complete responsibility for Libya's air space.

This completes my brief, Carmen.

Carmen Romero: Very good. Thank you, Roland. Let's start with questions here in Brussels. Any questions, please? ZDF.

Q: Yes, Kai Niklasch, ZDF, German Television. That sounds pretty much to the end of the NATO mission in Libya when you would like to hand over the responsibility for the air space and so on. Do you expect, maybe it's a question for Carmen, do you expect that the Council will tomorrow decide that NATO will stay another two weeks and then has to leave? Is this so close to the decision that you can say something like that? Or how would you evaluate the situation?

This is my first question. And the second one, if you allow, Mr. Lavoie, there were media reports and we got some briefings from the American side that there are many weapons around, and al-Qaeda and other terror groups are interested in these weapons and the Americans will send some specialists to get these weapons. How is the situation? How many weapons are missing, of which amount of weapons are we talking about at the moment?

Carmen Romero: Roland, I take the first part of the first question regarding a possible termination of our operation in Libya. What I can tell you is that from our point of view, the date for the end of the operation is moving closer. I don't expect tomorrow a decision on termination by the ambassadors, because as we have seen in the last days there is still a threat to the civilian population and as long as these threats persist our mission will continue. But something that I can assure you is that that day, the day this operation will terminate, is moving closer.

Now over to you Roland. Also maybe you want to take a part of the first question.

Colonel Roland Lavoie: Actually, on the second question specifically, with respect to weapons, NATO's role is strictly to protect the civilian population and of course there's limitation to what we could achieve from 20,000 feet above the ground.

This task, to track and control weapons will essentially be a task for the NTC to take in the coming months, with the support, of course, of international players. But I could say on the other hand that through our strikes we have taken out a considerable amount of weapons since the beginning of the conflict, and yes, it's amazing to see the amount of weapons that was at the disposal of the Qadhafi regime. If you look at our strike statistics the huge majority of those were basically military weaponry vehicles and there's about 6,000 of them. So this is a huge amount and we're quite aware that there's still a considerable amount left in the country.

Unfortunately, I don't have any statistics or empirical data to quantify this arsenal.

Carmen Romero: Okay, let's got to a follow-up of ZDF and then we take Belga.

Q: If you allow, Colonel Lavoie, a follow-up. You said you're still surprised how many weapons are in the country. What are you doing to find these weapons? Is it with the help of the Americans who would like, I think, to send specialists, 40 or 50, and then officer of their administration? And what is your impression, how many weapons are there and are they under control or are there terror groups like al-Qaeda and others trying to get them?

Colonel Roland Lavoie: I'm afraid I can only comment on what is under the mandate of Unified Protector, so basically which is to protect the civilian population. We do not have a role and have a presence on the ground to track and to account for weapons, and I cannot comment on behalf of other government organizations that would cooperate with the Libyan authorities to manage this issue.

Carmen Romero: Yes, to that I would like to also make the point and to add basically what Roland said. This is not part of NATO's mandate. We don't have any specific task given to us by the UN Security Council to protect those stockpiles if they actually exist, but we have seen efforts by individual NATO countries to support the NTC efforts to deal with this issue. Of course, an issue of concern as the Secretary General has said a few days ago.

Agence Belga, s'il vous plaît.

Q: The mandate was threefold, so first, on the No-Fly Zone, second, the arms embargo and three, the protection of the population. Can we... do you consider a total end to the mission or could some parts remain for longer term?

Carmen Romero: It's too early for me to say. This is something that the ambassadors represented... nations represented in the North Atlantic Council, will have to discuss based on the military assessment that will be given to them.


Q: Carmen, a question on Kosovo, since the deadline for the removal of the Serbian barricades runs out today. Can you comment on what the KFOR will be doing there?

Carmen Romero: Well, from Brussels, what I can tell you is that it is for our commander in Kosovo to decide KFOR's course of action. I can assure you that the North Atlantic Council and the NATO Secretary General have full confidence in our commander on the ground from KFOR and the fact that he will take the right operational decisions.

As you know, our mission in Kosovo is mandated by the United Nations and according to the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 KFOR is responsible for providing the safe and secure environment for all people in Kosovo. It is also part of KFOR's mandate to ensure the free movement of the international civilian presence and other international organizations such as EULEX and KFOR.

I would like to make the point that KFOR always tries to solve these views through dialogue and COM KFOR has been in regular contact with all sides and communities in recent days and weeks with the aim to restore freedom of movement for all people and my understanding here from Brussels is that that dialogue is still ongoing.

Q: Japanese newspaper, Mainichi. My question is about Tripoli. What... how many Qadhafi fighters do you estimate remain in Tripoli? And you said it is not threat and could you elaborate the reason why?

Colonel Roland Lavoie: We cannot estimate the number of Qadhafi fighters in Tripoli, especially considering that it is understandable that a part of the former Qadhafi forces basically could have returned to civilian life.

What I could say, however, and I think the example of the last... the skirmish that we witnessed last Friday is a good example. There was basically a relatively small group of pro-Qadhafi fighters who were active in part of the city and basically here we talk about 2,000 to 3,000 people and again, from altitude it's not obvious to come with the precise number, but it reveals that essentially the threat is a threat that could basically be handled quite successfully and rapidly by the Libyan authorities, ensuring that the civilian population is protected.

So from that perspective we consider that this is not a threat that is necessarily requiring a NATO intervention, especially in urban areas where we have to make sure that if we operate that we do so without endangering the civilian population.

Carmen Romero: More questions from Brussels? AFP.

Q: Une question en Français. Est-ce que vous pourriez faire le point sur les moyens qui restent engagés? Et combien d'appareils font les vols tous les jours?

Colonel Roland Lavoie: En termes de moyens, nous n'avons pas vraiment connu une réduction drastique de moyens depuis la pointe de nos opérations. Ce qui correspondait environ au mois de juillet. Ce qui a changé et de façon significative, c'est davantage notre posture.

Comme vous avez pu le constater à partir de nos comptes-rendus quotidiens, nous avons réduit le nombre de sorties et spécialement, plus spécifiquement le nombre d'engagements contre des cibles militaires libyennes de façon à refléter la nouvelle donne de la situation donc au sol qui nécessite beaucoup moins d'interventions.

Donc, en termes de capacité, nous maintenons nos pleines capacités. Mais nous les utilisons davantage pour faire un suivi, une surveillance 24 heures sur 24, sept jours sur sept, du territoire libyen pour intervenir seulement si nécessaire.

Maybe in English for our English-speaking audience. I was asked about our assets, our status of assets for the moment in our operation. And basically I said that there was no significant change in the amount of assets we had since the peak of our operations in July. What has changed significantly is essentially our posture, because of the change on the situation on the ground we are now using our assets essentially to monitor the situation and see what is going on there and intervene only if and when necessary. Which means a significant reduction in our strike sorties.

So I want to insist, however, that although we're doing a lot of monitoring, we maintain a full capability to intervene as and when necessary, as we have done on a few occasions over the last few days.

Carmen Romero: Back to ZDF, to German TV.

Q: Kai Niklasch again, Colonel Lavoie, from German Television. There were reports that one of the Qadhafi sons was found. Can you confirm that? Do you have any hints or ideas where Saif al-Islam is, for example, or where Qadhafi is himself? His last audio messages came from Syria, so is this maybe a hint that he might be there?

Colonel Roland Lavoie: No, I'm afraid I don't have that information and I will not speculate on that. As you have noticed over this conflict there was a lot of information, a lot of rumours, a lot of misinformation circulating, so basically the last thing I want to do is to add to these speculations.

Carmen Romero: More questions from Brussels? If that's not the case, Roland, we move to Naples. Are there any questions from journalists in Naples, please?

Q: Thank you, Marina (inaudible), freelance journalist. It's always concerning the civilians and basically in Sirte there are still a lot of civilians inside. Some mainstream media say that the NTC forces used GRAD, so indiscriminated weapons inside... they send GRADs inside the cities. They forbade Red Cross, ICRC to enter because they fired around ICRC. That was some days ago. And recent report is that NTC forces, when they entered Sirte, they destroy civilian houses and they loot a lot of things.

So how do you protect those civilians?

Colonel Roland Lavoie: Thank you. There are several parts to the question, so my answer may be a bit long, but essentially the situation in Sirte, I would like to describe it a bit. We talk here about close urban fighting and this fighting is at the moment limited within a few blocks, a few buildings. So it's a very, very small area.

We have no evidence of civilians being targeted by NTC forces in that close combat. We talk here about urban warfare basically between what has been called by some the diehards, so the few remaining Qadhafi forces on site, and the NTC forces.

Actually the NTC has shown repeatedly their intent to allow the civilian population to escape. They have attempted numerous times to resolve this situation through political means and basically the remaining Qadhafi forces have shown now willingness to get out of there and let the civilian population escape and to protect the city.

So basically we have no evidence suggesting improper behaviour. I would like also to say that it is our expectation that the NTC will take care of the police role that every government on the planet has a responsibility to assume. This is not a role for NATO. Is looting possible in Libya? Certainly. As it is probably in many countries on this planet. This is clearly a role for the NTC and NATO, humanitarian organizations, the international community, and also the leadership of the NTC have made repeated calls for restraint, for the respect of human rights and for the respect of the rule of law in Libya and we certainly expect the NTC and the NTC fighters to respect that commitment.

Carmen Romero: Any other questions from journalists in Naples? Roland?

Colonel Roland Lavoie: Nothing from here.

Carmen Romero: Nothing else from Brussels? You are all happy? Okay, thank you very much and see you next Tuesday. Bye bye.