Press briefing on Libya

Carmen Romero, the NATO Deputy Spokesperson and Wing Commander Mike Bracken, Military Spokesman for Operation Unified Protector

  • 13 May. 2011
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  • Last updated: 13 May. 2011 19:27

Carmen Romero (NATO Deputy Spokesperson): Good afternoon, and welcome to NATO HQ.

I welcome today Wing Commander Mike Bracken, who is joining us from Naples, the Headquarters for Operation Unified Protector. Mike Bracken is our new military Spokesperson and he will be briefing us and you on a regular basis from Naples from now.

A few remarks from my side on the political front, before we move to Naples for the operational update.

As you know, today the Secretary General will hold a meeting with US President Obama in Washington at the end of his visit to the United States.

Their discussions will focus on operations and on progress in Afghanistan and Libya.

During his visit to the US, the Secretary General has emphasised the vital importance of the trans-Atlantic bond. And he has also stressed that while the US brings unique capabilities to the Alliance, Europeans and Canadians are also making key contributions. Our Libya mission - where Europeans and Canadians provide most of the air assets - is a clear example of that . The meeting with President Obama will provide an important opportunity to exchange views and ideas as we also start to look ahead to the next NATO summit which, as you know, will be held in the US next year.

Now, let me say a few words on Libya.

Six weeks ago NATO and our partners launched a mission to protect civilians in that country. It is now almost three months since the regime threatened to destroy Benghazi and its people. It is two months since they attacked Ajdabiyah and Misrata. But the Gaddafi regime has failed to retake those cities by force. In Misrata, Gaddafi forces have been put on the back foot by those that have been defending the city and its vital port.

This illustrates a dynamic situation. There is definitely no stalemate. We are seeing real progress in our mission. NATO and our partners have kept a high operational tempo from the outset. We have taken out a significant part of Gaddafi's war machine.

We can see the effect across the country. Every day, it becomes harder for Gaddafi’s forces to launch and sustain their attacks on civilians.

And we are also having a political effect. The Gaddafi regime is more and more isolated. The pressure continues to increase -internationally and at home.

So every day, the regime's grip of fear is weakened.

And I can assure you that NATO allies and partners are determined to continue implementing the UN mandate until the mission is fulfilled. Now I hand over to Mike Bracken in Naples. Mike the floor is yours.


Wing Commander Mike Bracken (Military Spokesman, Operation Unified Protector): ...Operation Unified Protector here at the Combined Joint Task Force Headquarters Naples.

I will provide an operational update on the activity that NATO and the coalition has been undertaking in the area of operations regarding Libya which are covered by United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973.

It is important to remember that this is an ongoing campaign to protect the innocent civilian population of Libya from harm. Every nation that is providing people, aircraft and ships is committed to that mission.

So let me begin. Since the beginning of Operation Unified Protector more than six and a half thousand sorties, including two and a half thousand strike sorties, have been conducted in order to protect civilians from attack, or the threat of attack.

The situation on the ground remains dynamic, with significant changes just in the past 72 hours. Our strikes in Tripoli, around Sirte and the port town of Misrata have significantly impacted on the command-and-control capability of the pro-Qadhafi regime, his supplies of ammunition and weapons and his ability to launch attacks.

In the last few days we've engaged and destroyed five radar units, eleven surface-to-air missile systems, three rocket launchers, two artillery vehicles and several ammunition depots, as well as command-and-control centres across Libya.

And I can tell you that two nights ago NATO attacked an important C2 bunker. This was a complex in Tripoli. We successfully hit the targets that we were aiming at. This was a known command-and-control facility which had been coordinating attacks against the civilian population.

In Qadhafi's own home town of Sirte, the rows and rows of ammunition bunkers that have been resupplying his forces in Misrata and Brega, have been effectively reduced to rubble, reducing his troops' capacity to attack and more specifically, diminishing their will to fight.

NATO and the coalition will hit pro-Qadhafi forces hard when they are engaged in attacking civilians, supporting such attacks or coordinating these attacks. NATO's intent is to convince them to stop their immoral and illegal activity.

This campaign is not about the attrition of pro-Qadhafi resources. NATO's goal is not to destroy the pro-Qadhafi military, but to deliver the objectives set out by Ministers in Berlin.

For NATO what is important is that attacks on civilians are on the decline. Yesterday NATO had no reports at all of shelling in Misrata. However, we will maintain the pressure until the attacks stop for good. It is not over yet and our strikes will continue day and night until NATO objectives have been achieved.

Moving to the maritime operations. At sea NATO and coalition vessels continue to enforce the embargo and our assets have successfully maintained a safe route for humanitarian assistance into Misrata. We note that ships providing humanitarian aid, evacuating refugees, or conducting commercial trade are entering and leaving the port. Specifically, we are aware of more than 20 ships freely entering the port in the last 72 hours.

Make no mistake suspicious vessels will be stopped. They will be searched. And if deemed to be in violation of the embargo they will be investigated and dealt with.

NATO ships are consistently monitoring suspicious vessels, potentially carrying arms or mercenaries. There are a total of 20 ships under NATO command which are actively patrolling the central Mediterranean. Since the beginning of the arms embargo operation a total of 905 vessels have been hailed, 37 vessels boarded, and five have been diverted and redirected.

Additionally, in accordance with the Safety of Life at Sea, the SOLAS convention, all NATO ships will maintain a constant lookout for vessels in distress. Captains of ships will follow international law and responsibilities in rendering assistance to any known ship to be in distress. Furthermore, NATO is working with the maritime authorities of neighbouring countries and with the commercial shipping industry in order to spot and assist vessels whenever necessary.

And, in fact, I'm able to tell you today that we have had information that a NATO ship yesterday encountered a vessel in distress. There were approximately 150 people on the vessel. NATO provided food, fuel and mechanical assistance to that vessel. And then they handed the incident over to the Regional Command Centre for further assistance to be delivered. NATO then continued with its embargo operation.

Finally, I wish to reiterate that all NATO and coalition targets are military in nature and have been positively identified as constituent parts of the pro-Qadhafi regime's attacks on the Libyan population and populated areas. Every strike is necessary, legal and executed to ensure civilian casualties are minimized to the fullest possible extent.

In sum, this is a complex campaign with a coherent strategy to disrupt and destroy the ability of Qadhafi's forces to inflict harm on the people of Libya. Every day, every strike makes a difference.

That concludes the operational update. I'm happy to take questions.

Q: First of all, welcome to your new job and I want to start with a question on Misrata, which you mentioned. The situation there is really not clear at all to us. Would you mind explaining whether the opposition forces now control the entire airport, and how far they've pushed back the pro-Qadhafi forces to the east and west of the city?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Let's be clear, the operation that has been set up here has been set up for three distinct roles: the embargo, the No-Fly Zone and protecting the civilians. So if the anti-regime forces have been able to take Misrata and move out I've also seen the open press. The key that I would like to put in here is that yesterday there were no known attacks by NATO onto the city or the port.

If we go back 25 days there were tanks in the streets of Misrata. That is no longer happening. I suggest that NATO has therefore carried out its task well in protecting that port and enable humanitarian aid to get to the city.

As far as the position of the anti-Qadhafi forces are, and whether they have managed to take the airport, I cannot substantiate that with fixed evidence at this stage. But as and when NATO are able to we will pass that information to you. Thank you.

Q: Yes, hello, my questions were also around Misrata. Do you have any technical military terms, explanations of the fact that rebels all of a sudden are able to push back the pro-Qadhafi forces? Is that, according to you, only because of the firm support by NATO through air raids, or is there anything on the ground that could also explain why the rebels all of a sudden are so efficient?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Our mandate, as I said just now, is quite clear. We do not have forces on the ground. Our role is to protect civilians from attack. So we have concentrated our forces on known sites around Misrata where there have been firings onto and into the city and onto the civilian population. We will continue to attack those sites where missiles, rockets or any other munitions are being fired upon civilians.

I cannot substantiate the media on this occasion with where the anti-Qadhafi forces are. What I do know is that yesterday there were no attacks on the civilian population of Misrata or on the port. Thank you.

Q: Yes, Brooks Tigner, Jane's Defence. I have two unrelated questions. The first is, have you seen any evidence of arms shipments entering Libya overland from the south? And if so, have NATO forces attacked any of them? That's one question.

And secondly, we're given positive statistics every day and positive statements asserting that Qadhafi's military capabilities, equipment, forces, and maneuverability have been continuously degraded, which suggests that there's been remarkably efficient NATO strikes every day. But no military mission goes without mishaps. I wonder if you could tell us, instead of positive statistics, could you give us an idea of what some of the mishaps have been? Thank you.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, is there anyone in the house here that has any questions?

Carmen Romero: Yes, are you now taking questions in Naples? Because we still have more questions in Brussels. Can we continue in Brussels, Rej?

Q: Last time we asked...

Carmen Romero: Well, we don't hear the question from Naples, Mike, so we will continue taking questions in Brussels. I think that Jane's Defence just asked a question. Please could you repeat?

Q: I want to make sure they can hear it. Can you hear me? I don't see any reaction on the screen.

Carmen Romero: No. Apparently there is no sound. So what we can do is that we can continue with all operational... with all political questions you might have for me. Unless... Rej, give me a sign if you get the sound back. I think I see my face frozen in Naples, so I don't think we are... I think ANSA had a question. Any... yes, more political questions.

Q: Well, I go on? Is about the announcement made today by the procurator of the International Penal Court that he said that Monday we launch an arrest warrant against Qadhafi. And my question is, one time that this arrest warrant will be launched it will changed something for NATO? I mean, NATO will start to hunt actively Qadhafi in order to catch him?

Carmen Romero: Well, obviously NATO fully respects the decisions of the International Criminal Court and as the Secretary General said recently during his trip to the United States, time is running out for Qadhafi so the regime forces should stop immediately any attacks on the civilian population. Also the regime should withdraw all the forces to their barracks and allow full and unhindered humanitarian access for the people in need.

So for the time being we have a very clear mandate from the United Nations which is to protect the civilian population from attacks and threats of attacks, and we will continue implementing that mandate.

Let's see if Naples is back into the line.

Unidentified: Yes.

Carmen Romero: Yes, it seems to. So I think, Brooks had an operational question. Please, could you repeat it?

Q: Can you hear us from Brussels?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Affirmative. Affirmative.

Q: I'll repeat my two questions. They're unrelated. The first was, have you seen any evidence of arms shipments (inaudible...) from the south?

Unidentified: Brussels, we cannot hear the question.

Q: Is he hearing anything?

Unidentified: Brussels, we cannot hear the question.

Q: The mic's fine.

Carmen Romero: So maybe if... can you hear me? Can you hear me?

Unidentified: We can hear you. We cannot hear the question (inaudible...)...

Carmen Romero: Brooks, if you come here, you can ask the question and maybe we can try from here. Maybe this...

Unidentified: Or just reiterate his question. The question was, have we seen any arms...

Carmen Romero: If we have seen any arms shipments coming from... by overland from Southern Libya? Do you have the answer to that, first?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: I have no information about arms being moved across any of the borders around Libya.

Carmen Romero: (Inaudible...) answer because there was a sound problem at the beginning?

Unidentified: Tell you what, Brooks, we'll get your question directly to him and he'll give us a call back.

Carmen Romero: Yes, yes. Yes. Okay, so any questions maybe. (Inaudible...) microphone works, please. Please, next question.

Q: I'm Noureddine Fridhi from the Arab Television Al Arabiya. I would like to ask a question, if you have any idea about situation on the ground in the western part of the country, in the Jabal al Gharbi, and mainly also about the movement of troops or fighting in the area close to the borders between Tunisia and Libya?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, Carmen, can you hear me? Carmen?

Carmen Romero: Yes, we can hear you.

Unidentified: (Inaudible...).

Carmen Romero: No, maybe...

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: (Inaudible) about activity in the west of Libya and on the Tunisian border. Okay, let's take the west of Libya first. There is movement across the whole of Libya and our role continues to be that of protecting the civilians. There is activity in some of the towns and cities and we will liaise where possible to ensure that our aircraft can be applied to maintain the safety of the civilians on the ground. That's about all I can say at this stage.

Carmen Romero: Next question. It was Radio Algérie and then we'll come to you. Radio Algérie.

Q: En français, je suis désolé...

Carmen Romero: No, you have to answer... you have... It has to be in English.

Q: Vous pouvez partir.

Carmen Romero: It has to be in English.

Q: En français, s'il vous le voulez bien...

Carmen Romero: (Inaudible...).

Q: Non?

Unidentified: Je ne vais pas parlé en français...

Q: Okay.

Unidentified: Je ne vais pas parlé...

Carmen Romero: Okay, so. Let's go now to Ana.

Q: Thank you. Ana Pisonero from the Spanish News Agency Europa Press. This past week Norway and the U.K. have gone public saying that if the mission goes on, prolongs for several months, they might have problems to keep up, to sustain the capabilities to the levels that they are now. As military on the ground there do you think that this might have a negative impact? Are you currently aware of these possible decisions to cut down contributions in the not too long future?

And my second question, if I may, is there seems to be report the Qadhafi forces are obliging people to evacuate at gunpoint, whether from Misrata or other coastal cities. Does NATO have a strategy against this? Or not?

Thank you.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, I've got two questions there. First of all, there are over 7,000 personnel on Operation Unified Protector and over 200 aircraft and 20 ships provided by NATO and the coalition. From an operational perspective the commander will effectively deliver the mission with the assets that nations are able to provide. If nations have to change their perspective or their ability to provide it at some stage, then that will be for a higher command to decide and deliver whatever assets are available.

The important thing here is the commander will deliver the mission with whatever assets are at his disposal.

On the second one, thee evacuation you mentioned of personnel out of... people out of Libya. We are aware that there is... are people leaving across some of the land boundaries, and we are aware that there are some vessels going into the Mediterranean with people onboard. Under the circumstances to which they are put onto those ships or selected to go onto those vessels, we do not have detail.

As I've said before, we do not have people on the ground in Libya. We do not have forces on the ground in Libya. Our role is to protect the civilians. Those civilians that if they go into vessels and go to sea, if they then are encountered by NATO vessels they will be given assistance as best as possible as per the SOLAS agreement.

Now if I can pass to Carmen, please, for any high level aspects on the contribution from NATO nations.

Carmen Romero: Mike, I would like to add to the question by Europa Press the fact that all Allies are determined to implement the UN mandate for as long as necessary. So that I can assure you everybody's determined to continue the mission until the three objectives set up in Berlin are fulfilled. And of course, the policy of NATO, as you know, is that it is for nations to decide how their contributions will evolve and we all hope that this mission will be over rather sooner than later for the good of the Libyan people, but we are confident that we will continue having the assets that are necessary to fulfil our mission.

ZDF, please.

Q: My name is Kai Niklasch. I'm from German Television ZDF. You said there are no tanks in the streets of Misrata any more. Can you give us an idea where the main shootings take place at the moment? Where are the Qadhafi forces resisting the NATO attacks? Where are the main shootings? In Misrata or somewhere else?

And the second question would be, we saw Qadhafi on the screen yesterday. Does NATO know where he is and where these scenes took place?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, I'll take the first question, which was the shelling in Misrata. We are aware from our ability to oversee activity in Libya that the shelling has occurred in the main part of the city and around the port. The pro-Qadhafi tanks that were in the city are no longer in the city. The main reason for that is, as they have been within the area we have targeted them specifically because they have been attacking civilians on the ground.

Where they are at this moment in time is a tactical piece of information which I'm not at liberty to discuss at this stage.

The second question was specific to Qadhafi. Qadhafi is not a target as an individual. Our mission is to deal with command-and-control, to protect the civilian population and to deliver the mandate that United Nations set us. I also saw on open source Colonel Qadhafi talking to personnel on the television. We have nothing to support that information. We do not have people on the ground to verify it and that is as much as I can say.

Q: (Inaudible...) with NPR and Global Post. I'm interested to find out what the status of communication is between NATO and the rebels on the ground. Previously when there were some mistakes or mishaps, as Brooks puts it, we were told that there was not a whole lot of communication between the rebels and NATO forces, but with them asking for and receiving more and more political backing, their meeting at the White House today, for example, I'm interested to find out what the status of communication is now. Thanks.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: The NATO mandate does not give us any authority to decide on sides at a NATO level. The operational activities that are being carried out, as I've said, are to protect the civilian population. Any relationship with pro- or anti-Qadhafi forces is beyond this forum for myself at this stage.

Operationally we are carrying out the mandate to protect the people of Libya.

Carmen Romero: I could add from the political side that the Secretary General has had contacts with representatives from the Transitional Council, National Council at their request, and he has seen in several occasions Mr. Jibril. Also on the margins of the Contact Group on Libya, in Doha, to exchange views on how the current situation is and the evolving military operation. So basically we are in contact.

Q: (Inaudible...) meet them now in Washington, also?

Carmen Romero: I'm not aware of that. I'm not aware that the Secretary General is going to meet with Jibril, but of course, things change, so I cannot confirm that. That means I'm not... it was not planned. It is not planned for the time being, but if that changes I will let you know.

I think ANSA has a follow-up question.

Q: Yes. Still ANSA. About your answer, about Qadhafi. You said that Qadhafi is not a target as an individual person. I am wondering, when Monday the International Penal Court will launch arrest warrant against him because responsible of crime against humanity, Qadhafi will become a military target in that moment?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Simply from the operational level. If the International Criminal Court make an announcement they will give that decision when they are ready. At the operational level we remain focused on our mission, which is to deliver the United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973. Beyond that, if the ICC make an announcement that will be dealt with at a political and at a Headquarters level.

Carmen, do you wish to say any more?

Carmen Romero: For the time being there is nothing to add to what you have said. Qadhafi as such is not a target as an individual because in our mission we are not targeting individuals and our mandate is to protect civilians. That is all I can say for the time being.

Follow-up, ZDF.

Q: Would this have any impact on your mission if there is an arrest warrant as it could happen on Monday?

Carmen Romero: For the time being we have the mandate we have.

Q: Yes, there are reports that Libyan television is saying that an air strike in Brega killed a group of civilians in a guest house, I think. Can you comment on that?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: I can honestly say I do not know any information about an attack or an incident in Brega. What I can do, though, is say that in Tripoli, two nights ago, we attacked a C2 bunker that had been used to coordinate attacks against civilians.

And I do ask why would the Qadhafi regime place a civilian activity or an entertainment close to such a strategically important command-and-control centre. We use our sophisticated means to determine maximum risk to any civilians and we successfully struck the target, the command-and-control target in Tripoli two nights ago. Thank you.

Carmen Romero: Questions in Brussels? Okay. Last question in Brussels. Europa Press.

Q: Yes, sorry, it's just a quick follow-up on the last question of our colleagues. Do you have any intel or any information whether Qadhafi was inside the complex that was bombed successfully two days ago? In the command-and-control bunker? Thank you.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: We do not know if anybody or who was in that bunker. It had been quite clearly used as a command-and-control centre to deliver attacks on the civilian community. And as I've said, and I know previous spokespersons have said, we do not target Qadhafi as an individual. The Resolution is quite clear. It is to stop attacks on civilian personnel within Libya.

Thank you very much.

Carmen Romero: This is all we have time for unless there are any questions in Naples. I understand that there are none, right?

Unidentified: No questions in Naples.

Carmen Romero: Thank you very much, and I really apologize for our technical problems. See you on Tuesday. Thank you.