Press briefing on Libya
by Oana Lungescu, the NATO Spokesperson and Vice Admiral Rinaldo Veri, Commander Maritime Forces for Operation Unified Protector
Good afternoon, and welcome to NATO headquarters. I am joined today by Vice-Admiral Rinaldo Veri, the commander of maritime forces for Operation Unified Protector, who will fully brief you on the military aspects actions this weekend.
In the past few days NATO airstrikes have targeted Qadhafi forces across the country intent on launching attacks against civilians and civilian centres. Our strikes have destroyed targets across the country, but especially near Zintan and Yafran, where 17 ammunition stores were destroyed along with armoured personnel carriers and other armoured vehicles.
In Tripoli NATO aircraft struck command and control buildings responsible for directing attacks against civilians. You have all seen reports by Libyan television of the death of Saif al-Arab Qadafi. We cannot independently confirm these reports. Obviously we regret any loss of innocent life in this conflict. NATO is not targeting specific individuals but genuine military targets, with care and precision and will continue to do so. We have warned all civilians to stay away from military sites and equipment – and I would like to repeat that advice today.
This is a complex campaign, operating across the whole of Libya, dedicated to steadily degrading the ability the Qadhafi regime to attack its own people. The actions of NATO forces have saved lives, and will continue to do so. There is no doubt that, were it not for NATO’s precision bombing of tanks, rocket-launchers and ammunition depots then pro-Qadhafi’s forces would have killed and wounded thousands more.
NATO operations are part of the international effort to end attacks on civilians in Libya. This week will see important work in the international community to reach that goal.
We have condemned Qadhafi’s aggressive statement threatening Italy after the nation intensified its contribution to our mission to protect civilians. We also strongly condemn the attacks against the United Nations office and the mission of several NATO Allies in Tripoli. The regime has a clear duty to protect all diplomatic missions -- allowing these attacks to take place is yet another breach of Qadhafi’s international obligations.
We have always been clear that there must be a political solution in Libya. The NATO Secretary General will pursue this urgent international work at the meeting of the Contact Group in Rome this Thursday. He will brief the Contact Group on operations so far.
This meeting will progress on the goals decided at the Berlin Ministerial that set out the end state for this conflict; that all attacks and threats of attack against civilians must end; the regime must withdraw all forces to bases; and full humanitarian access is guaranteed to all the people in Libya in need of assistance.
NATO will maintain the military pressure for as long as it takes until those goals are achieved and the Libyan people have the freedom to determine their own future.
Now I hand over to Vice Admiral Veri, commander of maritime forces for Operation Unified Protector.
Vice Admiral Rinaldo Veri (Commander Maritime Forces for Operation Unified Protector) : Good Afternoon, I am Vice Admiral Rinaldo Veri Commander of the Maritime Component Headquarters located here in Naples. I am responsible for all aspects of Unified Protectorin the maritime environment.
My goal today is to provide you with a situation update for NATO operations in Libya and also to answer questions more specifically related to the maritime operations that I command.
First some operational background. NATO warships and aircraft have been patrolling the maritime approaches to Libya since the 23rd of March.
Their mission is to reduce the flow of arms and related material as well as mercenaries to and from Libya. These actions are in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1973.
This is part of NATO's contribution to the broad international effort to protect civilians in Libya from the violence committed by the Qadhafi regime's armed forces.
A total of 12 nations have contributed assets to the Maritime Embargo and up to 17 warships and 2 Submarines have operated under NATO command at any one time.
Those ships have been busy with two activities; the first is to enforce the embargo, and the second is to take action to ensure NATO helps protect innocent civilians from the threat of attack. And while our simple presence is a powerful deterrent, there are cases where we must take action.
Each case is considered separately. NATO sends out specific Notice to Mariners explaining to merchant shipping how they should behave to pass through the various layers of the embargo.
If a ship chooses not to comply or acts suspiciously, or if there is reason to believe it is carrying cargo that might be used in the ongoing violence against innocent civilians, it will be hailed and boarded.
So far, the Maritime component has conducted more than 750 hailings of ships in the embargo area and we have boarded 26. In most cases, we have determined that all is in order and the vessels have been allowed to proceed, but we have turned away 5 ships.
Overall I strongly believe the Maritime Embargo has contributed significantly to help reduce theviolence against the civilian population of Libya. But I do want to mention a recent and very despicable act by Qadhafi forces.
Last Friday, Maritime Forces under my Command detected 4 fast moving small craft heading toward the approaches to Misrata harbor. Whilst in pursuit of these vessels, a mine-like object was observed in the water, which had clearly come from one of these small craft.
Investigations by those Maritime Forces on the scene later confirmed the presence of 3 mines.
They were small moored-mines designed to detonate on contact with a ship. Unfortunately, one of the mines had become detached from its mooring and was drifting like a floating mine.
It is clear to me that our forces had disrupted an attempt by pro-Qadhafi forces to lay mines in the approaches to Misrata, thus directly attempting to halt the flow of humanitarian aid to the innocent people of Libya.
The two moored mines were destroyed Saturday and Maritime Forces are now actively engaged in countering the mine threat to the port of Misrata. NATO mine counter-measure vessels are establishing a cleared corridor into the Port of Misrata.
My clear aim is to ensure that humanitarian aid can move safely to port.
I urge shipping companies wishing to approach Libya to continue to liaise with the NATO Naval Cooperation and Guidance for Shipping Centre (NCAGS) organization.
Meanwhile, NATO Air assets have continued precision strikes against Qadhafi regime military installations, including command and control nodes, lines of communication, ammunition storages and various armoured vehicles.
We have also attacked missile launchers and transport vehicles. All these targets have been directly linked to attacks or threats of attack against civilians and populated centres.
Since the beginning of the NATO operation, there have been over 4800 sorties, which includes over 1900 strike sorties. By means of our airstrikes, we have damaged or destroyed many targets including command and control centres, equipment and a large number of ammunition storage facilities. And just last night we destroyed three self-propelled artillery pieces that were shelling Misrata.
Just to be clear: We do not target individuals. All NATO targets are military in nature and have been clearly linked to the Qadhafi regime's systematic attacks on the Libyan population and populated areas.
With that, I am happy to take your questions.
OANA LUNGESCU (NATO Spokesperson): And we'll go to Brussels first with three questions and then to Naples. Reuters.
Q: Yes, Admiral, David Brunnstrom from Reuters. I just wonder if I could ask you: "The IOM has been appealing to NATO to allow its ship to dock in Misrata. I understand he was still looking for the mine. But is there any particular reason that that mine should threaten that ship. What is your response to the appeal from the IOM?"
VICE ADMIRAL RINALDO VERI: In the beginning, I would like to say that the port of Misrata is not closed. What we are doing is performing every effort to render that area as safe as possible. We are now still looking for that floating mine.
When that finishes and if we didn't find it, then we should try to create a corridor, a safe-corridor into the port. We are working with the commercial shipping so that all traffic is informed properly. Then it is a master's decision to decide whether he wants to enter or not.
OANA LUNGESCU: ZDF.
Q: Kai Niklasch ZDF German Television. Can you give us an idea how the situation in Misrata is itself.... Are there parts that are under control of Qadhafi troops? Are there parts that are under control of the opposition? How would you describe the situation? At the moment, how would you evaluate the situation? Is there clear access to Misrata harbour despite of this one mine that is floating and missing?
VICE ADMIRAL RINALDO VERI: Yes, I will reply to your last question first. Besides the mine issue, for the moment, there is clear access into the port of Misrata. As far as the first part of your question, I can say that thanks to the continuous military action which has been undertaken vis-à-vis the port of Misrata and the city of Misrata, the port is still quite safe and the anti-Qadhafi forces have succeeded in expanding the perimeter of their control. However, the situation is still very critical and there is heavy shelling going on.
OANA LUNGESCU: Have we got any other questions in Brussels? AFP.
Q: (Inaudible)... the situation is still critical and that there is heavy shelling going on, you mean permanently? And what is NATO doing then to stop that to happen?
VICE ADMIRAL RINALDO VERI: NATO is doing what its mission is dictating. And that is to continue pushing and putting pressure on all pro-Qadhafi regime targets. Therefore, we keep targeting any capability of the Qadhafi regime to be able to guide his men to attack his own population. To that end, I just mention that three self-propelled howitzers were destroyed last night. And that is very good news.
OANA LUNGESCU: We can go to Naples now for the next three questions. And then we'll come back to Brussels.
Q: Martino Villosio, Associated Press. Even knowing that you are more focussed on maritime operation, I wish to know if you can provide us with more information on why the compound where Qadhafi’s son was allegedly killed has being targeted by NATO.
And the second question: are aware of any activities of al-Qaeda in Libya nowadays? What is the role al-Qaeda is playing and knowing that yesterday, the day before yesterday, Bin-Laden has been killed.
VICE ADMIRAL RINALDO VERI: I want to make it clear. And I repeat what was said that we do not target individuals. So what NATO bombarded was surely an installation from where Qadhafi or his men were able to conduct or guide his forces towards attacking the civilian population.
As far as your second question is concerned, I'm not aware of any specific action of al-Qaeda. But we must know that in any environment where there is instability and confusion, criminal organizations and terrorist activities are very prone to dwell.
MODERATOR: No more questions from Naples.
Q: (...) Clearly very grave in Misrata. … finding that it's somehow much more difficult than elsewhere to stop the shelling? Could you expand a little bit on the difficulties that are perhaps facing … in targetting or … the ordnance being fired. And secondly the overall mission, Colonel Qadhafi doesn't appear to be showing any signs of particular fatal weakness. Is there any sense yet of on what the end game to all of this is? Thank you.
VICE ADMIRAL RINALDO VERI: A mission of this type is a deliberate mission and therefore takes time. After neutralizing the frontline forces, the Qadhafi forces now have split out. We are aware that they're hiding, they are camouflaging. So it is getting all the more difficult to be able to exactly discover their positions. But we are still doing it. At the same time, we are taking great care in ensuring that no civilian population or entities are close to where we are going to attack.
Having said that, every day, something positive happens. And with our air strikes, with our arms embargo, with our protection of the Libyan people, we take a step closer to the final objective we have to reach.
OANA LUNGESCU: AP in the second row here.
OANA LUNGESCU: AP
Q: Admiral, Slobodan Lekic from the Associated Press. Just to expand on this question from my colleague from BBC, the frontline seemed to have stabilized. There seems to be a stalemate now in the frontlines. The bombing doesn't seem to be affecting that very much in the last couple of weeks. Do you think that at some point, these continuing air raids will start becoming counter-productive?
VICE ADMIRAL RINALDO VERI: I personally don't think there is a real stalemate. Let's say that we are going slowly but steady. And after attacking the frontline forces, now we're trying to get hold of everything that he can use to supply his frontline forces. So we are talking about ammunition depots. We're talking about his logistic lines. We're talking about his command and control centres. We're talking about lines of communications. So I would say that this is a work, a job that is... it needs patience; it needs determination. But we still have to keep going on and we are still moving forward.
OANA LUNGESCU: We had a follow-up question from Jadev (?).
Q: Well, I'm just curious whether there is any chance to get to know whether there is a strategy change. We've heard from Oana and before that some important things might happen during the next few days. Can you give us an idea whether there is any change in your strategy?
VICE ADMIRAL RINALDO VERI: I beg your pardon. I didn't understand. You're speaking about NATO strategy or the pro-Qadhafi regime strategy?
Q: Oh, your strategy, NATO.
VICE ADMIRAL RINALDO VERI: Our mission is quite clear for now. We have an air campaign to run and a maritime campaign. And we are still head on that.
OANA LUGESCU: AFP.
Q: My question... Pascal Mallet, AFP again. My question is a follow-up to those of my colleagues which are all around the same question. How long should it last if you say that we need patience? How many weeks, months, years? Have you any expectation? Or you don't have any idea of how long it would last?
VICE ADMIRAL RINALDO VERI: In our opinion, it should last the time it needs to last. In the sense that it will last till Qadhafi stops attacking his own civilians, till all his military, paramilitary, mercenaries and vehicles retreat back to their bases, until the humanitarian aid is allowed to flow without any... safely and without any hindrance.
OANA LUNGESCU: I don't see any other questions. We've got a question at the back to answer.
Q: David Sanger, from the New York Times. I wonder if you could tell me, given the mission that you've described, what would be necessary to get people to go back to their bases? Is that something that in your estimation you could do by air power? Or at some point, are you going to require some kind of ground troops in order to be able actually force people back in their bases and to stay there?
VICE ADMIRAL RINALDO VERI: At the moment, we assess we can obtain, we can achieve the objective with the air power and the maritime campaign going on. The future... We can't foresee the future at the moment. And that will be studied as the requirement comes.
OANA LUNGESCU: I think these are all the questions I can see in Brussels, unless there are more questions from Naples of course. (...)
UNIDENTIFIED: That's it. Now, thank you.
MODERATOR: There are no more questions in Brussels, Madam.
OANA LUNGESCU: So thank you very much Vice Admiral Veri for your precious time. Thank you very much to everyone in Naples.