Joint press briefing on events concerning Libya

by the NATO Deputy Spokesperson, Carmen Romero and by Brigadier General Mark van Uhm, Chief of Allied Operations, Allied Command Operations

  • 12 Apr. 2011
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  • Last updated: 15 Apr. 2011 11:15

Carmen Romero (Deputy Spokesperson): Good afternoon, and welcome to NATO headquarters in Brussels. I’m joined today by General Marc Van Uhm from SHAPE, who you already know, to update you on our military operations related to Libya.

Let me first provide you with a short update on ongoing political events.

We believe that the coordinated approach pursued by NATO, along with our partners from the United Nations, from the region, the African Union and the EU, remains the right response to the crisis in Libya.

Therefore the Secretary General of NATO will join the meeting of the Contact Group in Doha tomorrow. His presence in Doha shows how committed the Alliance is to a political and comprehensive solution to the crisis in Libya.

At the same time, in Brussels, the Alliance continues its political consultations. Tomorrow, Wednesday, the North Atlantic Council will meet with our six operational partners to discuss the latest developments in Libya and to finalise preparations for the Foreign Ministers meeting in Berlin next Thursday and Friday.

NATO has been clear and consistent: there cannot be a purely military solution but we will continue to implement the UN Security Council Resolution with vigour and determination as long as there is a threat to civilians.

But we should be in no doubt about the situation on the ground in Libya. Colonel Gaddafi’s forces are continuing to target the civilian population as we speak.

Gaddafi’s regime is attacking civilians who want their own voice.

Gaddafi is attacking civilians who want to choose their own future as set out by the UN Security Council resolutions. NATO is protecting those civilians.

And without NATO’s efforts, even more civilians would be suffering.

I would now like to hand over to General von Uhm to provide the military update.

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM (Chief of Allied Operations, Allied Command Operations, SHAPE): Thank you. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Let me start with a short overview on the arms embargo and the no-fly zone.

Firstly, as the arms embargo is concerned, we have had busy and successful days. The embargo is proving comprehensive and effective. At the moment 18 vessels are under command of the Allied Maritime Command in Naples. These vessels continue to patrol in their assigned sectors providing coverage of all priority ports along the Libyan coastline.

Since the operation started 270 vessels have been hailed and six boardings have been conducted. No violation of the arms embargo has been reported.

Secondly, on the matter of the no-fly zone, we have continued enforcing the no-fly zone and apart from the attempted violation last Saturday when a fighter aircraft attempted to take off from Benghazi, we have seen no other efforts to challenge the no-fly zone.

This MiG-23, flown by opposition forces, was intercepted and forced to land within minutes of taking off from the Benina airfield near Benghazi on Saturday.

Before I elaborate on the third part of our mission, the protection of civilians, I want to say something about the situation on the ground.

The situation on the ground is dynamic, fluid and changing constantly. In the east opposition forces retook control of Ajdabiya yesterday, two days after being driven to the northern edge of the city.

Regime forces withdrew towards Brega and deployed their lead elements east of that city. Opposition forces have deployed elements southwest of Ajdabiya. So the confrontation line is once again between Brega and Ajdabiya.

In the west the city of Misrata is still under pressure. Regime forces, after having withdrawn heavy armaments from some of the city's neighbourhoods, keep on maintaining the pressure. Yesterday they continued their shelling. However, they did not stop humanitarian assistance entering the city.

In the Zintan area, southwest of Tripoli, regime forces yesterday attacked several cities and they continued to shell populated areas.

Now I want to cover NATO operations to protect the civilian population and the impact NATO is having on the ground.

Over the weekend and yesterday NATO aircraft were heavily involved in intervention operations aiming to degrade Gaddafi's ability to use heavy weapons in civilian-populated areas. Since Friday's briefing NATO has continued to dismantle the fighting ability of the Gaddafi regime throughout the country, with particular attention to the three cities under the most threat, Ajdabiya, Brega and Misrata.

While NATO's operation is focused on destroying the heavy military equipment posing the biggest threat to civilians, air strikes are also hitting ammunition bunkers and lines of communication to cut off these forces from their supplies.

To summarize the results of the weekend activities 49 tanks were destroyed over the weekend, as well as 9 armoured personnel carriers, 3 anti-aircraft guns and 4 large ammunition bunkers. Most of the tanks destroyed were being deployed around Ajdabiya where Gaddafi forces fell back from their positions in the city after Sunday's air strikes.

Yesterday we were also successful in the Zintan area in the vicinity of the town Yafran, where NATO air strikes destroyed four pro-regime tanks.

So we know we are having an effect. Pro-Gaddafi forces cannot fight where they want. They cannot fight how they want, and they cannot use the weapons they want.

Nothing indicates, however, that Gaddafi has any intention of disengaging from operations. Because his heavy weapon systems have been hit hard over the last few days we expect pro-regime forces to favour hit and run tactics conducted by motorized columns of pickup trucks in order to wear out the opposition forces psychologically, rather than gain ground, especially in the east.

Therefore, NATO will continue to prevent hostile forces from threatening civilians, and population east of Brega and in the vicinity of Misrata, as well as prevent hostile forces resupply.

The average number of sorties flown over the last seven days is 155 sorties, of which 62 were strike sorties, so this is a percentage of over 40 percent.

In total, since the beginning of the operation, we executed almost 1,900 flights, with around 800 strike sorties.

Finally, we have been working on procedures to deconflict and ease the passage of humanitarian flights and shipping and we have seen a steady increase in the level of humanitarian assistance activity into Libya. Since the beginning of the operation a total of 34 movements of humanitarian assistance have been executed; 25 via the air, so by flights, 7 via the sea, by ship and 6 via the ground.

Momentarily, seven maritime and two ground movements of humanitarian aid are in execution. Just to give you an example, two ships who delivered humanitarian assistance in Misrata are now en route to Malta and today another ship with humanitarian aid will arrive in Misrata.

So the port in Misrata is still open and under opposition control, allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid directly into the city.

That's all I have, and I'd be more than happy to take questions you may have.

CARMEN ROMERO (NATO Deputy Spokesperson): Please identify yourself.

Q: Peter Spiegel with the Financial Times. General, can I ask you to talk a bit more about Misrata? You may have seen that the French Foreign Minister this morning was rather critical of NATO's efforts, particularly relating to Misrata, saying they have not struck enough of the heavy equipment, not cleared enough of the humanitarian aid for the city. Can you address those comments?

And also, it sounds like what you were saying is that the threat in Misrata now is not so much what you briefed us on before, which is the heavy weaponry being hidden in the cities, but it's these hit and run tactics from the small trucks and light vehicles? Is that accurate, if you could elaborate there? Thank you.

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: Yes, of course, the situation in Misrata still is a big concern to us, but in the western part of Libya Misrata is absolutely the number one priority. We must understand that the port is still under opposition control and that humanitarian assistance is entering the city without escort.

So we have seen that tanks have been struck in Misrata, so the enemy knows if they use tanks they're going to be hit, so that means that they are thinking before they are doing it, so that means that they are possibly going to use other tactics.

But of course, we are closely watching that. And so far, I think for the humanitarian situation it's to note that humanitarian aid is going into the city, and so far NATO has not had a formal request from the United Nations to assist.

CARMEN ROMERO: And as you heard the Secretary General saying yesterday, it is the United Nations that has to play and is playing the lead coordinating role for humanitarian assistance. So what NATO is doing is contributing to that effort, deconflicting, but the UN is in the lead in that regard.

Who is next? Please.

Q: Don Melvin, Associated Press. I wonder, General, if you can tell us to what extent different countries are having different rules of engagement for their forces, and to what extent that's complicating or even impeding NATO's job. We read a report today that says that airplanes from certain countries can enforce the fly zone, but cannot bomb targets on the ground, that airplanes from another country can bomb air bases, but no other type of targets on the ground, that planes from Libya have not dropped any bombs, that sort of thing. Is that hindering your ability to operate the way that you would like to?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: Well, nations decide what assets they provide NATO to execute its operations. And with the assets provided by the nations we have to execute our mission.

And I think it's fair to say that we execute this operation in a very high operational tempo, and as I said in my opening remarks, we generate 155 sorties per day, the last seven days, of which more than 40 percent is strike sorties. And with these strike sorties, as you have seen the reporting over the last weekend, we have destroyed many tanks and many other targets have been hit.

So it's for the nations to decide how they're going to contribute, with what assets, so it's a national decision with this regard and it is not for us as NATO to have comments on that.

CARMEN ROMERO: And that has always been a NATO principle and this goes for all NATO-led operations.

Q: Can I just follow up. Is that report that I've read essentially correct? That there is that range, that there are some planes that are not allowed by their national governments to bomb targets on the ground, for example, others that can bomb only certain types of targets? Is that correct?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: It is for nations to talk about their national contribution. It's not for us to have any comments about that.

Q: Without naming nations, General, is that the constraints under which you are now compelled to operate? That some nations who you need not name here, have imposed such types of constraints?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: We work with the assets we get, and that's what we have to do and execute our mission.

CARMEN ROMERO: Any more questions? Yes, back to Financial Times.

Q:  I just wanted to ask you about another media report, if you don't mind. Libya state television has again reported today that NATO hit civilian targets and killed civilians. I know these reports are somewhat specious sometimes, but can you address that? Have you seen those reports? And has NATO done any investigation as to whether that actually occurred?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: Yes, the information we got out of theatre, so from the commander in Naples, is that we can confirm that there was an air strike yesterday in that region. However, it was 21 kilometres southwest of the town that was mentioned on Libya TV, Kikla. And the target that was... there were two tanks, so this differs significantly from what the Libyan-run state television reported, because they reported about a strike in the town of Kikla.

So it's reasonable to assess that this report is a misinformation and is not in line with what has been reported in NATO.

CARMEN ROMERO: And as you know, it is a rule for us that NATO takes all the necessary measures to minimize the number of victims, and of course, I mean, to avoid civilian casualties.

That's it? No.

Q: Earlier you were asked to respond to the criticism from the French and British Ministers calling for NATO to intensify efforts. You've said NATO has struck 49 tanks, so do you disagree with the Ministers, Foreign Ministers of France and Britain saying that NATO needs to do more? Has NATO not done enough?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: The thing I would like to say is the same answer as I gave to the previous question, that we, as NATO, we have to execute this mission with the assets provided by the nations and I think so far we're doing a pretty good job, and protecting the civilians by taking out the most... the biggest threat, I would like to say, when you look what we have done in a very high operational tempo over the last few days, taking out numerous tanks, taking our armoured personnel carriers, destroying ammunition storages. I think with the assets we have we're doing a great job.

CARMEN ROMERO: What is obvious is that we are enforcing NATO operations with vigour and determination within our current mandate, and as the General just said, I mean, our operation tempo is high.

Q: Rafael Canas from the Spanish News Agency EFE. General, when you say with the assets we have we are doing a great job, do you imply you could do a better job with more assets? Thank you.

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: With the assets we have we're doing a great job. And we fulfil our mission, so it's not for us to say that we need more.

CARMEN ROMERO: And we are enforcing the mandate that has been given to us by the United Nations with three operations and for the time being, I mean, we are conducting that operation with very clear and strong determination.

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: I think when you look at the mission, the arms embargo is in effect. The no-fly zone is effective. We are protecting the civilians. So we are executing our mission.

Q: Follow-up, please. If you had, let's say 40, 60, 80 more fighters you could do a better job?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK VAN UHM: Well, I think the answer is clear. If you get more you can do more.

CARMEN ROMERO: But we have 200 planes, so I mean, right now we can conduct operations under very high tempo, using the assets we have at our disposal.

I think that finishes our briefing. We see you on Thursday in Berlin. Thank you.

Q: (Inaudible...) on Thursday?

CARMEN ROMERO: On Thursday we have a press conference, yes, in Berlin. In Berlin. Not here.