Press briefing on events concerning Libya

by Oana Lungescu, the NATO Spokesperson and Rear Admiral Russell Harding, Deputy Commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Unified Protector

  • 08 Apr. 2011
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  • Last updated: 08 Apr. 2011 20:17

Oana Lungescu (NATO Spokesperson) : Good morning – welcome to NATO Headquarters in Brussels. I am very pleased to introduce Deputy Commander of Operation Unified Protector, Rear Admiral James Harding, who joins us from Naples.

NATO has been in full command and control of enforcing United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 for a full week now. During that time we have continued to degrade Gaddafi’s military, as the regime continues to hold cities under siege and  indiscriminately its own people. Our action has been decisive, far-reaching and sustained.

Admiral Harding will give more information on the operational aspects of the mission in a few moments.

Forces from NATO nations and partners in the region are contributing to the Alliance’s operation, demonstrating the breadth of international military commitment to this operation. This includes substantial contributions from Qatar the UAE and Sweden.

NATO Allies met yesterday with our operational partners to discuss the situation in Libya, the dire conditions in  Misrata, and further broadening of international contribution in support of this mission. All confirmed their continued commitment to the military operation to protect the people of Libya. 

 The North Atlantic Council also met earlier this week with the Chairperson of the African Union Commission Jean Ping. They agreed the African Union plays a key role in achieving an early and peaceful solution to the crisis.  And of course we will continue to maintain a close and transparent dialogue with the African Union, as well as other relevant international and regional organisations. 

NATO is in command of the military mission, but we know there can be no purely military solution to this crisis. There is unprecedented international unity and resolve for a political solution. The Secretary General will attend next week’s Contact Group meeting in Qatar. NATO will contribute there, as part of the  broader of international effort to discuss the way forward for Libya.

The NATO Secretary General is in constant discussions with international leaders who are playing a key role in the ongoing efforts to support  Libya. He has briefed them on NATO’s led operations and has been clear that NATO stands ready to assist in whatever capacity the international community deems appropriate.

We will face challenges in the days and weeks ahead. The safety and the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan civilian population are at stake, and the need for the international community to act with unity and purpose is clear. For its part NATO is pressing ahead with the robust and vigilant enforcement of UNSCR 1973.

The civilian population of Libya are NATOs foremost concern. NATOs message to the citizens of LIbya is clear. Our mission is to protect you from those who use military force against unarmed civilians. We are steadfast in our resolve to prevent Gadaffi from using his heavy weaponry against you. 

Now to provide more detail of what NATO forces have achieved in that spirit of unity, I would now like to hand over to Rear Admiral Harding.

Rear Admiral Russell Harding (Deputy Commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Unified Protector) : Thank you Oana,

This is the second update briefing from Naples on Operation Unified Protector, NATO’s effort to protect civilians from violence in Libya.

Since we last spoke, on Wednesday, NATO has continued to exercise control over the no-fly-zone, enforce the arms embargo, and strike forces threatening civilians across Libya.

As I outlined on Wednesday here in Naples, we continue to seal off the coastal approaches to Libya to those who would violate the embargo authorized by the Security Council.

We now have more than 20 ships and several patrol aircraft that are scrutinizing all maritime traffic to ensure only authorized goods get through. our ships will present no obstacle to vital humanitarian aid and will assist humanitarian ships in reaching their destination.

A total of 12 ships have reached Libya in the past few days. four of these ships were humanitarian and eight were involved in evacuations.

in the past 48 hours we have flown over 318 sorties and have struck 23 targets across Libya. This effort maintains the pressure on the Libyan government to withdraw its forces and cease its attacks on communities across Libya.

On Wednesday, we engaged forces in central Libya including an air defence facility near Surt under our mission to protect civilians and civilian population areas. The presence of NATO aircraft and the accuracy of our strikes continue to pressure those who would bring harm to innocent civilians.

In the week since NATO took over command of the mission, the operational tempo has been increasing steadily.

We have flown more than 1500 sorties, almost half of them strike sorties. I would point out that many of these sorties last up to six hours, and if you add up it all up we are flying upwards of 600 hours per day, a very significant effort.

Since we started this effort we have hit targets including T-72 tanks, armoured personnel carriers, rocket launchers, surface-to-air missiles and ammunition dumps in locations including Misrata, Ras Lanuf and Brega.

All these different targets are part of a coherent NATO strategy which reaches across the country and is designed to protect civilians by reducing the ability of the government to wage a ruthless war on its citizens.

Some strikes have destroyed equipment and disrupted miltary formations; others have interdicted lines of communication, cutting off government forces' access to vital supplies.

Yet others have struck directly at forces which were already attacking civilian areas. 

It would appear that two of our strikes yesterday may have resulted in the deaths of a number of Transitional National Council, or, TNC forces who were operating main battle tanks. The incident took place Northeast of Brega where fighting has gone back and forth on the road to Ajdabiya.

The situation in the area is still very fluid, with tanks and other vehicles moving in different directions, making it very difficult to distinguish who may be operating them. In addition, until this time we had not seen the TNC operating tanks.

It is important to stress that our mission is to protect civilians, and we will continue to strike forces that could potentially cause harm to the people of Libya.

I’d like to conclude by addressing an allegation that Colonel Gaddafi made against Operation Unified Protector on Wednesday.

He said NATO aircraft struck the Sarir oil field, and I assure you this is absolutely false. there was no NATO strike in that area. I repeat, no NATO aircraft flew strikes in that area.

What we do know is that government forces have attacked those oil facilities in the Sarir area in an attempt to disrupt the flow of oil to Tobruk. The fire was a direct result of his own aggressive action.

I’ll now take your questions….

OANA LUNGESCU (NATO Spokesperson): We'll start with two questions from Brussels, then we'll go over to Naples and then we can come back here. AFP, please introduce yourself.

Q: Yes, Pascal Mallet from Agence France-Presse, AFP.

Admiral, two questions. First one, is it true that according to General Younis, the rebels' military chief, NATO apologized for the incident which occurred in Brega because apparently communications between the rebels and NATO are not very good and you did not know... somebody did not know in the chain of command of NATO that the rebels had from now on tanks and they were using them?

Second question, about Ajdabiya, is that true that NATO did not fly over the advancing Gaddafi troops while they were rather exposed to strikes in the desert area, and that it's much more difficult, as you know and as you say every day, to strike troops when they are nearing boroughs, cities, suburbs where effectively there is a difficulty and a high risk of collateral damage. So can you confirm what is exactly the tactics of NATO? Why don't you, apparently, according to people on the ground, including journalists, strike people that are effectively much more vulnerable before they reach the cities?

REAR ADMIRAL RUSSELL HARDING (Deputy Commander,  Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Unified Protector): Thank you. Can I take the second question first? I think your question was why are we not attacking forces that are, I think you imply, out in the open and easier to attack than forces which are directly in the built-up areas?

I think what I just outlined there was the fact that we have been ranging far and wide, and I said this in the answer to the question on Wednesday, very similar. Over the last 24 hours, and last night, we've ranged as far over as ammunition dumps directly connected and servicing those forces attacking civilians to the south and southwest of Tripoli, along the coast through Ras Lanuf and Sirte. We've attacked air defence sites that are lit up, illuminated our aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone. So what I would say is we are indeed, and it may not be apparent to TNC forces, to whom we don't have to prove where we are, but we have been attacking targets that directly threaten civilians, civilian population areas, or are linked to those forces doing so. So we've done that in the last 24 hours and throughout the first week of our operation.

In relation to your first question, I'm not aware what General Younis has said today or yesterday, but I'm not apologizing. The situation on the ground, as I said, was extremely fluid and remains extremely fluid and up until yesterday we had no information that the TNC or the opposition forces were using tanks. There were equipment moving up and down the road between Brega and Ajdabiya going forward and coming back, and our role is to protect civilians. Tanks have been used in the past to directly target civilians, and indeed the other day we had questions and we were examining the case in Misrata where we've seen tanks right in the centre with population areas of people round about them.

Thank you.

OANA LUNGESCU: Europa Press.

Q: Thank you. Europa Press, Ana Pisonero. Thank you so much, Rear Admiral. Yesterday General Carter Ham said that the situation in Libya had gone into kind of a stalemate. I think he was referring both military and politically. I don`t know if the chain of command of NATO shares this assessment, and if not, how are you dealing with this and how will your tactics change? And I don't know if can make a second question. Do we still have all the U.S. attack aircraft in place or did the reduction already effectively take place? I think it was around 40 planes that they would retrieve from command of NATO.

Thank you so much.

REAR ADMIRAL RUSSELL HARDING: Can I address your second question first on U.S. forces? And then I think the first question may come to you. On the answer about U.S. forces, as President Obama said some days ago, the U.S. forces would start to take a step back, so with the U.S. forces being up here a large number of aircraft flying roughly half the strike sorties, the number of coalition aircraft has come up. And we're now content with the number of strike aircraft we have. Today there are over a 110 fast jet, as I would call it, sorties flying missions over Libya over the next 24 hours. So that's over a 110 sorties.

So what the U.S. forces are providing is supporting assets to us and the focus, the main, principal number of sorties is now flown by the coalition.

On your earlier... sorry, the NATO nations and the partners. On the first question, I think you've said... you're quoting General Ham, I'm not aware exactly what he said, and you're asking whether there is a political or military stalemate. I'll leave Oana to give her own view on that question. But as to whether we've changed what we're doing, no, we haven't changed what we're doing. We're looking at those forces across Libya, and I'm sorry to repeat it, who are attacking the civilian population, threaten to attack them or are directly linked to that, and that means looking at where they're getting their ammunition from and also looking at where they're getting the fuel from.

Oana, do you want to take the first part of that question?

OANA LUNGESCU: Absolutely. From what I've seen from General Carter Ham's testimony to the United Services Committee in the Senate yesterday, he made clear that his assessment was based on the changing tactics by the pro-Gaddafi forces that the Rear Admiral was also referring to, the fact that we see all forces driving around in civilian vehicles, very hard to tell who's who and also the fact that pro-Gaddafi forces are using human shields and are parking tanks next to mosques and school.

So it's very hard to pinpoint any of this military hardware without causing civilian casualties.

So I think General Ham made it clear that his assessment was not made on the basis that NATO had taken command, and we've always made clear that there is no purely military solution to this conflict. This is why it's so important to find a political solution, and there I would say there is no stalemate. Just on the contrary, I think there is a clear drive from the international community to urgently find a political solution to this conflict.

And the contact group will be meeting next Wednesday, I understand, in Doha. As I said, the Secretary General has been invited and will be there. The whole international communion(sic) is united and committed to finding a solution as soon as possible. And the only solution can be a cessation of violence as demanded by the United Nations Security Council Resolution and an immediate transition to democracy as demanded by the people of Libya.

I think we'll now go over to Naples for the next set of questions.

REAR ADMIRAL RUSSELL HARDING: Thank you. I'm happy for the next question.

Q: Good morning.

REAR ADMIRAL RUSSELL HARDING: Good morning.

Q: Paolo (inaudible) from Associated Press. I would like to know if it's possible to confirm how many proven casualties, civilian casualties there have been due to NATO attacks that you can be sure and you can confirm? And what is NATO doing to improve communication and coordination with the rebel forces? Thank you.

REAR ADMIRAL RUSSELL HARDING: I'm going to get a reputation for this because I'm going to take the second question first. Someone's going to catch up with quite soon and then start asking the questions round the wrong way.

Your second question was, what are we doing to improve the communications with the rebel forces? I have to be frank and say it is not for us, trying to protect civilians, of whatever persuasion, to improve communications with those rebel forces. I can see what your point is of how do you avoid knocking out TNC tanks that we hadn't previously seen in that respect, but I think I'm secure in that in saying it's not for us to improve the communications. What we have to do is we have to see very clearly where civilians or civilian population areas are being attacked and then make sure that we can either take action or if we can't take action it's because we might cause collateral damage in that respect. So that's my answer to that question I think. We need to make sure where there is action we know where it is, that we can protect the civilians.

In your first question on civilian casualties, I think the best answer to that, in trying to be very precise is to ask NATO HQ to come back with an answer to that and follow-up that, because there is a danger that any answer I give now could be out of date by the time I gave it in that respect.

So what I'd like to do is hand over back to NATO... or not hand the question back to NATO HQ, but to say that's something we'll come back to you on that. Thank you.

Next question, please. While we're still waiting to see if there's any more questions here, are there any more questions in Brussels?

OANA LUNGESCU: Absolutely. Reuters.

Q:  Also two questions. The first one, for the past few days we've heard a lot from NATO about Gaddafi forces using human shields to hide behind its' heavy military equipment. Can you develop that idea a little bit more? I mean, do you mean that Gaddafi forces are seeking out urban or highly populated areas to put their... or places like mosques or hospitals to put their equipment in? Or have there been instances of Gaddafi forces kidnapping or forcing people to congregate around areas or keeping people around... forcefully keeping people around areas where they want to hide equipment.

That's one thing. And the other question, just to follow up on my colleagues' questions regarding the military stalemate. I appreciate that there's no sense of a political stalemate in Libya right now, but there's a clear sense that in the military sense that neither side is making any advances for the past quite a few days and I think that's what General Ham was referring to.

Would you agree that there is sort of a military impasse or a military balance right now in Libya between Gaddafi forces and the rebels?

REAR ADMIRAL RUSSELL HARDING: Thank you. I'm not sure I got the whole of your question. I couldn't hear the opening, but I think you asked the first question is do you mean that pro-regime Gaddafi forces are using urban areas or highly populated areas to put their vehicles amongst, and are we seeing any incidents of them taking civilians to congregate in certain areas? And then your second question was on this again, this military stalemate, is an impasse and do I agree?

If I go to the first question, I can tell you that as we look across Libya and we look for where the forces are, or where they're moving, we've been watching some of the areas to the south, well to the south, of Brega and Ajdabiya, and we've seen an example of a force that we've been tracking lay up for overnight and a couple of days, and actually put large heavy vehicles and armoured vehicles among civilian conurbations. In other words, in amongst civilian population areas and buildings. And we can see that from our imagery in that respect.

So yes, we have see that. As we track the forces across the country we look to see where they go, and of course, that's a direct result of our action in the past to make sure that they can't move quickly up to threaten the population areas. So we are seeing that on our imagery.

As to incidents of inviting people to congregate, I personally have seen what you have seen on the news media, in the websites, all the way along. As to whether we're seeing it here there have been reports of civilians in Misrata and that nature, but I think you're seeing as much on the news and the international media because this is being reported by journalists and TV crews in that respect.

As to the stalemate, I think it's up for anyone who wants to make a judgement in that respect. What I can say is that over the last 48 hours, and probably longer, the situation between Brega and Ajdabiya and certainly in the last 48 hours has been fluid between Brega and Ajdabiya and the forces have moved up and down that highway as I outlined about the incident yesterday with the TNC tanks.

If someone wants to define that as a stalemate that's fine. All I'm saying is yes, it's fluid, but it's fluid in a reasonably small area.

Thank you.

OANA LUNGESCU: BBC.

Q: Matt Cole, BBC. Rear Admiral, you say you won't be apologizing for the strikes that hit rebel targets and you say it's not for you to make efforts to improve communication with the rebel command. Does that mean in a sense you're keeping an impartial distance, which actually could see you attack rebels at a later date if you see them as threatening civilian targets?

And if I may, if I can also ask, in terms of the difficulties you're finding on the ground, human shields, the difficulty between distinguishing between rebels and Gaddafi forces, do you see any way of resolving this without ground troops going in? Thank you.

REAR ADMIRAL RUSSELL HARDING: I think I'll go back to my standard routine, I'm going to take the last question first. The mandate and the direction that we're operating here, that General Bouchard is operating under, and the staff here, is such that there is to be no occupation force has stated in the UNSCR. In other words, we translate that as no boots on the ground.

If there is to be a debate about that it's a debate that the international community need to have, and then as I would expect that NATO needs to have in that area.

In your question about attacking civilian targets, I think what you were implying is if the anti-Gaddafi forces were threatening or attacking civilians, bona fide civilians, would that action fall under for us an attack as much as the pro-regime forces are attacking civilians at the moment and the answer has to be yes.

The UNSCR and the NATO mandate is very clear. It is to protect civilians who are threatened by violence or are being attacked and civilian population centres. And please be... let's be clear, I'm talking about civilians. Does that answer your question?

OANA LUNGESCU: I see Matt is nodding. Japanese media.

Q: Fukushima from Mainichi newspaper, Japanese daily newspaper. European Union recently decided to dispatch military vessels in order to put... assist humanitarian assistance activities near Libya. And there might be a final decision in the coming days directly from the UN OCHA. Do you have any concerns in terms of the coordination between the NATO operation and the EU humanitarian assistance operation?

Thank you very much.

REAR ADMIRAL RUSSELL HARDING: Your question is do we have any concerns? No. It has to be done properly. It has to be done correctly. There's an easy way of doing it which is if everyone speaks to each other, just as we're doing at the moment, the international humanitarian agencies are speaking to NATO, telling us where they have vessels, telling us where they're going to leave from, where they want them to go. That information goes straight... if we take the sea blockade, that information goes straight to the maritime component headquarters, at various headquarters here in Naples and then straight out to the ships at sea.

So if you know where they're coming from and you know where they're going, as I said in the statement, we'll take every action to do that.

The other one I can give an example of is the aid flights, and I myself watched the C-17 being unloaded in Doha some days ago. That aircraft had gone into Libya, taken out casualties and then gone back and as I recall went back the next day. And there's a process it goes through where those aircraft are notified to us, it goes to the air component commander to make sure that the aircraft that are flying, the airborne early warning aircraft, the AWACS knows where they are, and the fighters that are up there as well.

There are corridors that we can do this. So if you take that all the way back, let's say to this potential for the EU to do something different, then all we have to do is to speak to each other. But at the end of the day what we have to make sure is that the arms embargo isn't breached, the no-fly zone isn't breached and we can continue to protect the civilian population. Thank you.

OANA LUNGESCU: In terms of the humanitarian mission, as you know, NATO has completed its plans for a humanitarian mission and stands ready, if requested, to put that mission in place. At the moment we are making sure, as the Rear Admiral said, that we are deconflicting, as the term goes here, making sure that there is no conflict, no confusion between our operations to enforce the arms embargo and humanitarian operations ongoing for the people of Libya, and also in terms of our regular contact with the European Union. That is ongoing. That is clear, that is transparent.

I can tell you that the Secretary General will be meeting the European Union High Representative, Baroness Cathy Ashton next Monday and we have also invited Baroness Ashton to the NATO Foreign Ministers Meeting next week in Berlin to discuss the situation in Libya.

Any other questions? Herald Tribune.

Q: Stephen Castle from the International Herald Tribune. Just going back to the incident in Brega, I'm a little bit confused about the reason that you don't want to apologize for this? Is it because you... I mean, as I understood it you mistook these tanks for Gaddafi tanks because you didn't know that the rebels were operating them. And if that's the case it was a mistake and therefore why not apologize? And the alternative is that perhaps you thought that whoever was operating them, they were attacking civilian targets, they were a threat to them, and if it's the latter then that puts the rebel activities in quite a different light.

So which of those two is it?

REAR ADMIRAL RUSSELL HARDING: I'm sorry, can you just... let's be clear about the question. Just repeat the specific question, please. I've got your points about you know, was it mistake, you mistook and you didn't and/or you didn't know.

Q: If it was a mistake then why not apologize. If it wasn't a mistake then what we can conclude is that those tanks were actually targeting or a threat to civilian population, which in case I would understand the reason that you wouldn't want to apologize for that.

REAR ADMIRAL RUSSELL HARDING: Thank you. I think I'd make two points. One, in this situation in Libya we have seen direct evidence, documentary evidence, of tanks attacking civilians. Shots from journalists themselves, with people around them, and you know as much as what has gone on in Misrata as I suspect I do.

So in that point tanks have been used, even though we've seen the tactics change over the course of this week where the tanks have been held further back. We've seen light, technical vehicles with big guns, machine guns, anti-aircraft guns on the back of pickups used, we've seen groups of three or four of those trucks used to fit in to the civilian population and then try and move forward as quickly as they can.

The one thing about those trucks, though, is that they cannot hold ground. They can directly target the civilian population.

But when you then see tanks coming up and appearing on the highways in the boroughs up to Brega and then between Brega and Ajdabiya, those are the vehicles that can cause the greatest harm to the civilians and that's the first point I would make.

The second point is that up to that point we had not seen the TNC operating tanks. And as I said earlier, and I'm not apologizing for what I said, it is, and was, a very fluid situation on the road between Brega and Ajdabiya. In other words, there were vehicles going backwards and forwards, but the key point was those units that we had previously seen in this matter in other areas attacking civilians were on that road. And that's where I think we got to yesterday.

OANA LUNGESCU: Rear Admiral, thank you very much. I know you're a very busy man. We'll let you go back to the mission. Unless there are any further questions from Naples?

REAR ADMIRAL RUSSELL HARDING: Ladies and gentlemen, any questions? No, I don't think there are any more questions from here. Thank you, Oana.

OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you very much indeed. And thank you very much to the journalists who joined us from Naples. We will try to have for the future briefings either Admiral Harding or General van Uhm from SHAPE joining us with operational details for the next briefings. Our plan is to hold similar press conferences on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Thank you very much.

REAR ADMIRAL RUSSELL HARDING: Thank you.

OANA LUNGESCU: So we will continue trying to bring you those operational details from the ground from Naples, as well as from our planners in SHAPE.

I would also like to show you, especially for broadcast organizations, an example of what Rear Admiral Harding was talking about when he mentioned, repeatedly, the tanks of the pro-Gaddafi forces attacking civilians in urban areas. I think we have an example, a piece of video, where you'll be able to see one of Gaddafi's tanks firing in an urban area, clearly in breach of the United Nations Resolution 1973. You will then be able to see the pilot carefully surveying the area before striking the tank. And you will also be able to see the effect that strike has on Gaddafi's other forces, dispersing them and disrupting their attack.

(VIDEO - NO SOUND)

OANA LUNGESCU: You can also see the cloud cover.

That is a strike. Obviously there was ammunition onboard.

And these are the pro-Gaddafi forces beating a hasty retreat.

This, I understand, is in Misrata, but this is not just about Misrata, obviously. This is the sort of indiscriminate attacks in urban areas that pro-Gaddafi forces have been engaging in all over Libya in places like Misrata, like Brega, like Ras Lanuf. 

Q: That was when?

OANA LUNGESCU: It dates... it is from this week, so it is from the period when... after NATO took command and control of this operation.

Thank you very much, indeed, for coming today. And as I said, we'll try to keep up these briefings on Tuesdays and Fridays. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED: You want the video, eh?

UNIDENTIFIED: Yes.

OANA LUNGESCU: Yes.