Press briefing on Libya

by NATO NATO Deputy Spokesperson Carmen Romero and with Wing Commander Mike Bracken, the Operation Unified Protector Spokesperson

  • 20 May. 2011
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  • Last updated: 21 May. 2011 09:51

CARMEN ROMERO (NATO Deputy Spokesperson): Welcome to our Friday update on the situation in Libya. I'm joined here, as you can see in Brussels, by Wing Commander Mike Bracken, our Military Spokesperson for Operation Unified Protector. Mike, welcome.

WING COMMANDER MIKE BRACKEN (Spokesperson, Operation Unified Protector): Thank you.

CARMEN ROMERO: This week Allies and partners met in the North Atlantic Council to discuss progress in our operation to protect civilians in Libya and I can tell you that there was a strong sense around the table. And the sense is that our mission has been making a steady and tangible progress across the country. NATO nations and partners agree we have taken the initiative, we have the momentum. Our mission remains unchanged. We will prevent attacks and threats against civilians until the threat is removed.

And Allies and partners agreed this week that the evidence shows we are doing just that. Qadhafi is finding it harder and harder to launch attacks. His forces are trying tactics which are more and more desperate because the ones they have already tried did not work. We are taking on Qadhafi forces whenever they pose a threat to civilians. NATO air strikes against multiple Qadhafi regime targets on land and at sea last night provide just the latest example of that. And you will hear more details about that from Mike in a minute.

The sense of isolation of the regime is increasing. As the Secretary General said yesterday in Slovakia and today in Rome, Qadhafi's time is up. We need to move on. We need a political process to accommodate the legitimate demands of the Libyan people.

With that I will hand over to Mike. Mike left the operational room this morning at two o'clock and he has flown from Naples to be here in person with all of us and to give you a first-hand update of the last night's operations and also a much wider overview of the situation within Libya. So please be gentle to him, because since he became a spokesperson he hasn't slept much. So, Mike, you have the floor.

WING COMMANDER MIKE BRACKEN: Okay, good afternoon. Before I begin my situational update I'll brief you on the precision strikes which were carried out by NATO and coalition forces last night.

NATO air assets continued their precision strikes against pro-Qadhafi regime forces in a coordinated operation against pro-Qadhafi maritime forces in the ports of Tripoli, Al Khums and Sirte. NATO hit eight pro-Qadhafi warships.

This video—show video please—this video shows a Koni-class frigate and a Combatant fast patrol boat being engaged by NATO aircraft.

At Khums NATO hit a number of RHIBs in the maintenance facility. These RHIBs have been directly linked to the Misrata pro-Qadhafi maritime operations of recent days.

As I have said before, this is a very complex campaign.

And this is now going to the maintenance facility. Okay. Stop video, please.

Okay. As I have said before, this is a very complex campaign and the decision to carry out last night's mission was reached after long and careful deliberation as a direct response to a serious change in military tactics by pro-Qadhafi forces. We have seen a significant and highly-concerning increase in the activities of pro-Qadhafi maritime assets, and a number of maritime engagements. Over the past couple of weeks we have discovered pro-Qadhafi forces indiscriminately mining the approaches of Misrata harbour. In addition, on a further three occasions NATO ships have intercepted pro-Qadhafi assets acting in a hostile manner.

And just a few days ago there was an incident where NATO interdicted a booby-trapped RHIB, leading to the discovery and subsequent destruction of one tonne of explosives at sea.

This escalation has not only caused further serious threats to the safety of civilians, and the flow of desperately-needed humanitarian aid, but these actions clearly demonstrated the intent of pro-Qadhafi forces to strike NATO and coalition maritime vessels.

NATO has been alert and responsive to these calculated changes in tactics. I would like to emphasize three facts about NATO's operations that happened last night.

Firstly, these were legal targets. They were all naval warships with no civilian utility, and were targeted with the approval of NATO and coalition rules of engagement.

Secondly, there was a clear and compelling military cases for conducting last night's operations.

Thirdly, NATO and its coalition partners have continued to use a number of communications channels to tell the pro-Qadhafi forces to lay down their arms and return to their bases and homes.

We have been stepping up leaflet drops and radio broadcasts to the pro-Qadhafi forces, telling them to move away from their military equipment, military installations and maritime assets.

Let me emphasize, this does not signal a change in strategy for NATO's operations. Our aim, to protect the Libyan civilians, remains the same. The Commander's mandate, under United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973, is clear and it allows him to use all necessary means to carry out his mission.

The message from my Commander, General Bouchard, has been consistent and clear. We will maintain the pressure and a high-operational tempo on any forces which are coordinating or launching attacks on the civilian population of Libya until our mission is achieved.

That concludes my update on the operational activity of last night.

Slide one.

Now I'd like to provide you with an operational overview of how the NATO mission has developed over the past couple of months. And as a navigator what I would like to do is move from east to west.

Let's start in the east. Slide two.

Two months ago the pro-Qadhafi forces were trying to seize Ajdabiya. The city was under significant pressure and its inhabitants were being shelled by rocket launchers. NATO responded with day and night air strikes, resulting in pro-Qadhafi forces scattering and hiding their larger weapons. By mid-April Ajdabiya was still under some pressure, but pro-Qadhafi forces were not able to launch direct attacks. However, they were carrying out reconnaissance patrols towards the city. There were some skirmishes, but the danger to civilians was greatly reduced and humanitarian organizations started to move into the city. A sure sign that the situation was improving.

Today, pro-Qadhafi forces still present a threat, but they are now in defensive positions in the vicinity of Brega. Consequently pro-Qadhafi forces are now fixed and struggling to maintain their supply lines. There is no shelling at all on Ajdabiya and there is no obvious threat to Benghazi. Life has definitely improved for the inhabitants as a direct consequence of NATO's actions. More humanitarian aid organizations are working in the city and a degree of relative normality has returned.

Moving a little bit to the west, to Misrata. Slide three.

Two months ago Misrata was a city under siege. There were pro-Qadhafi tanks in the city centre and the port was being shelled by pro-Qadhafi multiple- rocket launchers. The city's inhabitants were suffering from indiscriminate attacks by artillery and rockets on a daily basis. There were thousands of distressed people living in appalling conditions by the port. The city was close to collapse.

Once again, NATO air strikes began destroying their tanks and rocket launchers, forcing the attackers to hide. A month later the situation remained extremely serious, with many reports of civilian casualties and pro-Qadhafi forces shelling the rebel-held port in an attempt to disrupt the flow of humanitarian aid. At one point humanitarian assistance was completely stopped for several days.

Around two weeks ago we reached a turning point. This coincided with NATO air strikes that targeted pro-Qadhafi forces, cutting them off from resupplies of ammunition and additional weapons.

The city is no longer under siege. There is no shelling on the port or the city centre. The city is now clear of pro-Qadhafi forces and humanitarian aid flows freely into the port.

I'm encouraged to report that the numbers of people wanting to flee the city in ships has dwindled from thousands to hundreds. Humanitarian aid continues to get into the city by ship, with at least 23 ships getting into the city in the last 25 days.

Pro-Qadhafi forces have been forced to the outskirts of the town by opposition forces and Misrata is calm.

Let's move further west into the Berber Highlands and the western side of the country. Slide four.

Here the situation remains difficult and concerning for NATO. Pro-Qadhafi forces do not control the area, but they are putting the civilian, largely Berber population, under significant pressure from shelling in Yefren, Zintan, Nalut and the Wazin border crossing.

As a consequence many inhabitants have fled over the border to refugee camps in Tunisia and there have been skirmishes between rebel and pro-Qadhafi forces, as well as pro-Qadhafi forces and Tunisian forces along the border. However, in the Berber-controlled areas the rebels have resisted the pro-Qadhafi forces and now appear to be holding their ground.

NATO is focused on decreasing the pressure on the population by striking pro-Qadhafi units, and this strategy is clearly working.

Finally, moving to Tripoli. Here we have increased the pressure by striking military command-and-control centres. This has limited Qadhafi's ability to give orders to his forces. It has also constrained his freedom of movement. Effectively, he's gone into hiding.

That concludes my east to west operational update. I have already briefed on the maritime operation. However, I reiterate the escalation in pro-Qadhafi maritime activity has not only caused serious threats to the safety of civilians and the flow of humanitarian aid, it also demonstrated the intent of pro-Qadhafi forces to strike NATO and coalition maritime vessels.

In sum, pro-Qadhafi forces no loner have enough combat power or logistics to carry out decisive attacks on rebel forces. Thanks to NATO air strikes their command-and-control is severely hampered and their forces are finding it difficult to get resupplies.

Today the anti-Qadhafi forces are better organized. They continue to make gains. NATO's actions have resulted in dramatically fewer attacks on civilian populations in Libya and pro-Qadhafi's capability is significantly reduced compared to when Operation Unified Protector began on the 31st of March.

The Commander's remit is clear. NATO and its partners will carry out of the United Nations mandate until all attacks or threats of attack on the civilian population have ceased.

That concludes my operational update and my update on the strikes that occurred last night. Thank you.

CARMEN ROMERO: So now we will move to questions. Mike, maybe you'd join me. Please identify yourself, because Mike doesn't know you. Please.

Q: I'm Martinez de Rituerto with El País. Commander, how many people were on these boats when the boats were attacked? If you have any idea. Apparently the situation was very peaceful, they were just moored at the dock. And why didn't you do these attacks when they were bombing the land positions of the rebels on the cities. Thank you.

WING COMMANDER MIKE BRACKEN:: Okay, I'll take the first question first. Sorry, the second party first. The reason that they were attacked at this moment in time is it had become very clear to NATO and the coalition that Qadhafi's tactics have changed. He had started to use his maritime forces. He was using maritime forces to lay mines in the entrance to Misrata. He was laying booby traps which could quite easily have been approached by a civilian vessel or a military vessel. And if any vessel had been near that booby-trapped RHIBs with a tonne of explosives, not only would it have hurt every person onboard, whether it was a civilian ship or a military ship, it most likely would have sunk it.

The intent was clearly there to start changing their tactics. Should we have waited until somebody else had been killed? Or should we have taken action? I suggest we took action to enable us to stop and reduce that risk to the civilian population.

In regard to the first part of that question, the numbers involved, we have meticulously tried to inform the Libyan people and the armed forces to move away from all forms of military equipment, installation and specifically maritime and land equipment that could be used to enforce … enact these sorts of catastrophes onto the civilian people.

So I can't answer the question with numbers, but we have done everything we can to make sure that they were aware that the risks were extremely high.

CARMEN ROMERO:Next question.

Q: I want to come back to both these points, actually.

CARMEN ROMERO:Can you please identify yourself.

Q: Sorry, Bruno Waterfield, The Daily Telegraph. As far as you're aware did those vessels have crews onboard or does the fact that they were docked mean perhaps they didn't have crews onboard?

And again, I'd just like to come back, I mean, it does seem odd that you should attack vessels in dock when they don't seem to clearly be presenting a threat in the fact that they're not at sea. One would have thought that perhaps if they were moving towards an area then perhaps that would be the moment to hit them. So could you, again, develop more about what intelligence maybe you had, or whatever, that gave you this cause to attack them?

WING COMMANDER MIKE BRACKEN:: Bruno, thank you very much for that question. Well structured. My brain's trying to calculate all of that.

I think the first thing I need to cover is why did we attack them where they were? There was clear intent from the situation NATO had found themselves with a significant change in tactics by Qadhafi's and pro-Qadhafi maritime forces, so the risk was there. There was clear intent.

They were legal targets. They were within the targets allowed within the mission and the remit presented by the United Nations Security Council resolutions. I think really beyond that I have nothing more to add.

CARMEN ROMERO:Slobo, follow-up.

Q: Yeah, Slobo Lekic from the Associated Press. Just to follow up to the previous question. Were these ships that we saw hit, the Koni and the Combatant, were they... do you know for a fact that they were actually used in attacks on Misrata or the laying of mines because previous information was that the pro-Qadhafi forces were using speed boats, small speed boats to lay the mines, so were these ships that were hit yesterday actually utilized for that purpose?

WING COMMANDER MIKE BRACKEN:: I'm not going to go into the intelligence or the tactics that the Commander used to make those decisions. They were identified as clearly legitimate and legal targets. They were within the NATO rules of engagement, and therefore they were attacked on those bases.

Q: Are there other ways of neutralizing ships when they are at dock, for example, mining, putting an Allied ship in front of the harbour so that you avoid any ship to go out? Why the choice of bombing them from using air power?

WING COMMANDER MIKE BRACKEN:: In answering that question I would say that our aim was not to destroy these ships, but to remove their ability to turn their military weapons onto the civilian population, humanitarian assistance or NATO vessels. And in doing that...

Q: (Inaudible...) ship. I don't think you can (inaudible...).

WING COMMANDER MIKE BRACKEN:: I doubt if you can do much with those ships. They certainly won't be turning their vast array of military capability onto the civilian populations where they were docked.

CARMEN ROMERO:And if they were hit it's because they were considered by the Commander that they represented a threat to the civilians.


Q: Mike, here's Kai Niklasch from German Television ZDF. Please allow two questions. The first question would be there are news reports that Qadhafi is offering fire cease. Do you consider these offers as being serious and will NATO react on that?

And the second part, you said you had a turning point two weeks ago. How would you describe the strength of the Qadhafi forces at the moment in general? Can you give us an idea?

WING COMMANDER MIKE BRACKEN:: Okay, two parts to that really. First of all, the offer of a ceasefire, I personally haven't seen that on the wires, but I've been travelling since four o'clock this morning to get here to be in person to give you this brief.

As far as a ceasefire is concerned, that is a political decision for our higher command to tell us when to stop. My commander's intent and his remit is quite clear. To use all force to protect the civilian population of Libya and until we are directed otherwise by the higher command of NATO our Commander will carry on with his mission.

The second party is the turning point. About two weeks ago I think it became apparent that our sortie rate was able to be increased and we were able to take on the target sets that we approved. It takes a while to develop all the information, all the intelligence and reconnaissance and surveillance that's required to make sure that the precision weapons that are employed are used to their best effect, resulting in the least amount of risk to casualties on the ground.

Once all of that had been achieved NATO was able to employ the large amount of assets from within the current team that NATO is working with, to carry out the build-up of strikes and to get us to the position we are now. And that position is a time when the maritime forces are significantly impacted upon so their ability to attack civilian population, hinder humanitarian aid or restrict or put NATO ships at risk is significantly reduced.

Thank you.

CARMEN ROMERO:Yes, on the ceasefire I would like to add that until now all the offers for a ceasefire that we have seen from the Qadhafi regime were not serious and at the same time that those offers were made the pro-Qadhafi regime was attacking civilians. As you know, our operations will continue until three conditions are met: all the attacks against civilians have ended, all the forces for Qadhafi forces have been withdrawn to their bases, and there is full and unhindered humanitarian access to people in need.

The Guardian.

Q: Ian Traynor of The Guardian. Two points for either of you. Wing Commander, you referred to this shift in tactics by the regime as threatening both NATO maritime assets and coalition ships off the coast there. Can you specify what you mean by non-NATO maritime assets in the area, please?

And for Carmen, you were talking about the NAC meeting this week.


Q: Can you say whether the rules of engagement were discussed at that meeting and whether there's any suggestion that they might be extended or changed? Thank you.

WING COMMANDER MIKE BRACKEN:: Taking the first point, Ian, and thank you for that, there was a significant change in tactics. Up until about two... maybe two and a half weeks ago we... in fact, I think it was the 29th of April, we hadn't seen maritime assets being employed in the situation in Libya. That changed when maritime assets were used to lay mines in the entrance to Misrata. So there was a significant change of tactics.

Following that we saw a RHIB being left still in the water, set up as a significant threat. There was a tonne of explosives on that RHIB and the EOD teams decided that that RHIB was a significant risk to shipping, whether it be civilian or military. And for that reason that RHIB was hit at sea and exploded at sea.

You asked why I'd said NATO and coalition. As you're aware there are certain nations that are a part of NATO and there are others that sit on the outside, but work alongside. And the nations that have contributed, and the reason I say the NATO and coalition is that there are some nations that are not fully engrossed within the NATO construct.

Carmen, would you like to take the second question?

CARMEN ROMERO:Yes, from my side I can tell you that there hasn't been any discussion at all in the North Atlantic Council of a possible change of the rules of engagement; that, as you know, are approved at 28.

Q: Nicolas Gros-Verheyde, du quotidien en français Ouest-France on the web blog Bruxelles2.

On Tunisia, Commander, could I ask if you could do something on the... because there are some incidents on the border between Tunisia and Libya and I think the only way for the pro-Qadhafi forces to attack Nalut is to go through the Tunisian territory. Could you have some forces to... to have observer or to interposition force in this sector?


For me that question really leads to one answer. We do not have military personnel from NATO on the ground, so we could not do what you're asking. What we can do is we can maintain a form of overwatch to see what is happening on the ground and take all information available, wherever it comes from on the ground, open source or anything, to maintain the details that we can build up using the skills of the intelligence officers and the personnel within our construct of the Headquarters and our outside agencies to build up a picture. And we can use our air assets to then assist. Whenever we see forces employing weapons against civilians they become a legitimate target within our mandate. So we can interdict then.

But until then it's quite clear we do not have forces on the ground and we cannot, therefore, get involved on the ground in the Wazin area.

Q: Just a follow-up. (Inaudible...) do you have in demand of assistance of Tunisian government?

WING COMMANDER MIKE BRACKEN:: That's a political question and I leave that one for Carmen?

CARMEN ROMERO:Of course, Tunisia is, as you know, a partner country so we are in contact with Tunisia, but not on this issue, as far as I understand.

We have time for two last questions, so please...

Q: Mark Carlson from the Associated Press Television. Why has NATO not been able to strike and kill Qadhafi himself?

WING COMMANDER MIKE BRACKEN:: I find myself slightly surprised you ask the question, because I mean, it's been answered by every single press conference since we started this. The location of Qadhafi as an individual is not relevant for the operational effect. The operational effect is to stop the attacks on civilian personnel. So if we can stop the command-and-control chain then that will stop it, because the forces on the ground will not be directed. We at no time identify individuals as targets. Thank you.

CARMEN ROMERO:Last question now, I'm sorry, but Mike...

Q: Khalid Farooqi from Geo Television, Pakistan. But you did try to bombard compound in Tripoli which are associated with Qadhafi regime, that NATO is trying... this is the impression in Islamic world, that NATO is trying to kill Qadhafi himself.

WING COMMANDER MIKE BRACKEN: NATO and the partners in this operation have not identified Qadhafi as an individual to be targeted. In Tripoli we have clearly attacked command-and-control nodes and in doing that we stop the ability of the communications from command-and-control to the forces on the ground and thereby we stop the shootings and the bombings of the civilian people.

Thank you.

CARMEN ROMERO:Thank you for coming.