Press briefing on Libya

by NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu and Mike Bracken, Spokesperson for the Operation Unified Protector

  • 21 Jun. 2011
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  • Last updated: 21 Jun. 2011 19:33

Oana Lungescu (NATO Spokesperson): Good afternoon, welcome to everybody here in Brussels and also welcome to those joining us from Naples. Before I handover to Wing Commander Mike Bracken in Naples for our operational update I'd just like to give you an overview of what's happened over the past few days.

Clearly, the main issue for NATO over the weekend and yesterday are the allegations of civilian casualties. Mike will provide more operational information, but it's important that we put those allegations in context of the NATO mission.

Each and every civilian death is a tragedy. On Sunday, due to a technical failure, one of our weapons did not strike the intended military target, which was a missile site. We deeply regret this tragic accident.

Speaking to the media yesterday the Secretary General personally conveyed his condolences to the families of all those who may have been involved, and I would like to do that again today.

Where NATO believes we have caused civilian casualties we will say so and we will do it as swiftly as we can establish the facts. The tragic accident in Tripoli is an exception. If you look at our track record after over 4,000 strike sorties you can see we have taken utmost care to avoid civilian casualties and will continue to do so.

Our mission fully complies with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 and our mandate is to use all necessary means to prevent attacks and the threat of attack against civilians and civilian populated areas. We do not target specific individuals.

Let's not lose sight of the fact that it is the Qadhafi regime which started this crisis. Not NATO, not the international community. It is the Qadhafi regime who's deliberately and indiscriminately attacking civilians. It is the Qadhafi regime who has been deliberately and indiscriminately using tanks, guns and artillery against cities, like Misrata and Zintan. It is the Qadhafi regime that has been deliberately and indiscriminately firing rockets from mosques and citing bunkers next to children's playgrounds.

That is why we will keep up the pressure until our mission is accomplished. Because if we stop it will put countless more lives at risk.

And with that I'll handover to Naples and Wing Commander Mike Bracken. Mike.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken (Spokesperson for Operation Unified Protector): Thank you very much, Oana, and good afternoon Brussels, good afternoon those who've joined us here in Naples.

Since Friday, looking east to west across Libya, there has been little significant change in the operational situation where pro and anti-Qadhafi forces are engaged in fighting.

In the east in Benghazi, humanitarian aid is entering the city by air, sea and land, without any reported difficulties. There have been some skirmishes between Brega and Ajdabiya, but there is no significant change in the overall picture, with pro-Qadhafi forces occupying defensive positions in Brega and the anti-Qadhafi forces located in Ajdabiya.

In Misrata pro-Qadhafi forces on Sunday indiscriminately shelled civilian-populated areas on the outskirts of the city. Unexploded ordinance located in and around the city remains a major concern, but the residents are receiving continuous support from international and non-government organizations.

The port remains open and humanitarian and shipments are frequently arriving.

West of Misrata, near Dafniyah, there is no significant change in the position of pro- and anti-Qadhafi forces. Skirmishes continue and we know the pro-Qadhafi forces have been actively engaged in shelling the anti-Qadhafi positions.

With regard to the western coastline, again, there has been no significant change in the situation, though it appears that attempted uprisings by local residents in Az-Aawiyahj have been suppressed by the pro-Qadhafi forces.

In the west and in the Berber Highlands there has been fighting in and around Nalut, but the anti-Qadhafi forces are holding their position and taking ground. Overall, pro-Qadhafi forces have been pushed further into the mountains.

Around 30 humanitarian assistance organizations are now operating in the Berber Highland region, providing people with basic necessities, such as food, water, shelter and medical supplies. This is an increase from virtually no humanitarian presence at the beginning of May and is a very encouraging sign.

In Tripoli NATO continues to target command-and-control nodes and other sites involved in the coordination or logistical supply of pro-Qadhafi forces, which are actively engaged in threatening or harming the civilian population.

Today, I would like to focus and clarify three separate incidents relating to NATO air strikes conducted between last Friday and the early hours of Monday morning. I'd like to reiterate the facts of these three, and as I said, separate events.

Firstly, the strike on Friday in the area of Brega. NATO can confirm that on Friday in the area of Brega NATO hit a column of military vehicles which was observed in the area where Qadhafi forces had recently been operating.

In a particularly complex and fluid battle scenario, these vehicles were assessed as a threat to civilians and were engaged by NATO aircraft. NATO subsequently confirmed that the vehicles that were hit were part of an opposition patrol. We regret any injuries caused by this unfortunate incident. That's the first incident and was on Friday the 17th of June.

The second incident on Sunday morning involved a weapon malfunction which reportedly caused civilian casualties. On Sunday morning, the 19th of June, we targeted a military missile site in Tripoli with a number of precision-guided weapons. Our review of the strike had indicated that during the course of the air strike, on the missile site, a potential weapon system failure occurred and this caused the weapon not to hit the intended target, and reportedly resulted in a number of civilian casualties.

We can still not confirm that the site where our weapon landed was, in fact, the site that was shown on the media, but the site is very likely to be that failed weapon and is likely to have been caused by that weapons malfunction.

NATO regrets the loss of innocent civilians and we continue to take great care in planning and conducting our air strikes.

The third incident is the NATO strike yesterday on June the 20th on a command-and-control node in Surman, which is west of Tripoli. In the early hours of Monday morning NATO carried out a precision strike using precision-guided weapons on a highly-significant command-and-control node in the Surman area near Zawiya.

The facility was directly involved in coordinating systematic attacks on the Libyan people and was identified through rigorous analysis based on persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and this was carried out over a prolonged period of time.

NATO is aware of allegations that this strike caused casualties. That is something we cannot independently verify, but I say again, this was a legitimate military target, a high-value, command-and-control node used to coordinate attacks against civilians.

We observed the site over a prolonged period of time before conducting the precision strike which minimized any potential risk of causing unnecessary casualties.

Slide, please.

Okay, this slide shows the area where we were taking this command-and-control strike. On the left-hand side you can see, in amongst what looks like the trees, the rubble of a command-and-control centre. To the right and to the top you can see a very significant large mosque. Just south of that mosque there is an area where you can see an aerial tower, and that was the communications facility, built and placed directly next to a mosque.

Just south of that you can see the school. This is a local school for children, right in amongst this area.

Next slide, please.

The target that we hit was a command-and-control node. This picture clearly shows a building. On top of that building, which you saw in the previous slide, are a number of white dots. Those 17 dots are satellite dishes, some of which are approximately three metres wide. I ask, how many buildings require 17 satellite dishes if they're not a command-and-control communications facility?

Next slide, please.

This slide shows that same area after NATO strikes. It is no longer a command-and-control centre.

Next slide, please.

Okay, following our strike on the communications facility, right next to the aerial, you can see there was no damage caused anywhere near the mosque, or the school. Precision-guided weapons were used to take out a command-and-control node, a high-value target, which needed to be removed from the battle space. NATO used precision weapons to carry out this strike.

Next slide, please.

I'd like to go back to this slide so you can see it in perspective. The mosque is to the right. Just below is the communications facility. To the left, and in amongst what looks like the trees, are the command-and-control nodes which were removed by NATO strikes.

Next slide, please.

Okay, I hope that clarifies the three separate incidents. One was a very unfortunate strike, which we referred to as blue on green. The next was a situation where a missile or weapon had a weapons system failure. The third was a clear strike, by NATO, on a command-and-control centre.

Finally, I have news on some reports received this morning. A 0720 Zulu hours, or Greenwich Mean Time, NATO received reports that an unmanned autonomous helicopter drone, used by NATO forces, lost radar contact with the command centre. This drone helicopter, unmanned, was performing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over Libya to monitor pro-Qadhafi forces threatening the civilian population. We are currently looking into the reasons behind this incident.

What I can say is NATO confirms that it's not lost any attack helicopters during Operation Unified Protector. More information will be provided on this incident as it becomes available.

NATO forces continue to use all necessary measures to protect civilians. These measures include the use of attack helicopters and precision-guided weapons launched from fighter aircraft, and we continue to use information, surveillance reconnaissance or intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance drones to build up our knowledge base, along with all other information sources available to us to fuse them for the Commander's use.

We have flown nearly 12,000 sorties, of which four and a half thousand are strike sorties, with bombs hitting their intended targets with a very high degree of accuracy. The skies over Libya are well protected and the No-Fly Zone is being enforced.

In sum, NATO is committed to its mandate to protect the civilian population of Libya. We will continue to enforce the arms embargo. We will continue to enforce the No-Fly Zone. NATO will continue to legitimately strike targets for maximum military affect, including command-and-control nodes, military equipment and ammunition storage sites. We will stay the course, and we will continue with the mission until the Qadhafi regime verifiably ends the violence and opposition against the people of Libya.

Thank you very much.

Oana Lungescu: We will start with questions from Brussels. Jane's.

Q: Yes, Brooks Tigner, Jane's Defence. Just some questions on the drones. Could you tell us where the drone was over Libya? You don't have to give exactly coordinates, you won't do that, but at least was it in western Libya or eastern?

Secondly, approximately how many drones are in the skies over Libya? And who did the drone belong to? Was it NATO or one of the allies? And if so, which ally? Thank you.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, similarly to all the questions I've taken over the period of the time I've been doing this, we will not be clarifying which nation provided the asset and therefore that answer is closed.

With regard to the proximity and the area it was operating, at this stage I believe it was operating in the central coastal area of Libya. That is as much detail as I can give you at this stage.

With regard to the number of drones that are being operated, I can say we are using a number of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance platforms, ranging from the whole spectrum available to NATO. That is as far as I'm prepared to go on that issue.

Thank you.

Oana Lungescu: NPR.

Q: Terri Shultz with National Public Radio and Global Post. Just in the last couple of days there have been some... more doubts raised about the sustainability of the operation, particularly the RAF says that it would be very difficult to go beyond September. Yesterday you've got Franco Frattini saying that these mistaken air strikes are really hurting the credibility of the Alliance, and that's, of course, one of your countries who's doing air strikes. And then in the United States you've got the debate over the War Powers Act.

So I want to know... I mean, I basically know what your answer will say about whether nerves are fraying, whether the Alliance is fraying inside, but I'd like to know how much concern you have as you watch these developments? Thanks.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, if I could start, and then I'd like to pass it to Oana. First of all, we do not talk about the nations, in particular. I can see you laughing, because you know the answer to this. I cannot give you details about particular nations and their contributions.

What I can say is that the Commander works with the assets available to him and currently he has all the assets he requires to carry out the mandate.

With regard to the credibility, I would suggest that what I've just covered in the three separate incidents proves quite clearly that we are a fact-based organization and when the facts are available to us we openly stand here in front of you, the world media, and tell you those facts.

What I can't tell you is where a weapons malfunction missile or weapon landed. What I can say is that it's very likely, because of where we were operating, that it landed in the northern part of Tripoli. Everything else we have clearly said to you in as quickly a timely manner as we can.

I would suggest that our reputation and credibility is unquestionable. What is questionable is the Qadhafi regime's use of human shields, firing missiles from mosques, using people, walking towards Misrata in large numbers, being forced to walk towards Misrata in open battle space. This is contested area where both pro- and anti-Qadhafi forces are working and fighting. To have large numbers of innocent civilians being made to march or walk through that area is not acceptable under international law, and puts civilians at risk.

Thank you. Oana, do you wish to add anything?

Oana Lungescu: Terri, as you know, the Secretary General has encouraged every ally and partner to continue contributing to this mission with all available assets and also with all the flexibility that our commanders need to make this operation sustainable.

What is clear is that all allies and partners agreed that this operation would be extended by a further 90 days, as of the 27th of June, and they've also agreed that they would provide all the assets that are necessary for as long as it takes. So there is the commitment, there are the assets in place, and time is not on Qadhafi's side.

Q: You must be aware of the threats in Congress, however, to withdraw funding for the Libya mission, even though it was promised at the highest level to maintain it as long as is necessary. If Congress pulls back the funding what would that do to the operation? We talked a lot about drones and a lot about ISR here. The United States is obviously the main provider of these assets.

Oana Lungescu: Obviously there are debates in national parliaments, as there are in Congress in the United States. That is absolutely understandable and natural in an alliance of democracy. And we will not interfere in any of those debates.

But what I can say is that we are very grateful for the assets that the United States are providing and those are unique and essential assets to the success of this mission.

We have a very clear United Nations mandate. It's an historic resolution that authorizes all necessary means for the protection of civilians in Libya. We are fulfilling that mandate. We have the commitment to see this through, because this is what the international community wants us to do, this is what the people of Libya need.


Q: First, just a technical question. Is this the first... this drone, is it the first hardware lost by NATO in this operation? I know a U.S. jet crashed before NATO took over, but is this the first time for NATO?

And secondly, to follow up on Terri's questions, the issue is after these 90 days with the current assets, can NATO sustain this mission? The RAF today said that it could be a problem. The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle will have to be taken back next year, so how will you continue the mission without that aircraft carrier? So if you could answer that question.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: First of all, with regard to assets, since the 31st of March when NATO took over this task this is the first piece of hardware that I'm aware of that has been lost.

Regarding your other question, sustainability and nations' contributions, as I keep saying, the Commander will work with the assets available to him to prosecute the mandate that has been given to him. If some nations at one stage need to withdraw some of their support in assets, other nations have been forthright in providing additional support in other areas. We will work with what we have. That is what military planners do. That is why as a nation you employ us as military officers and planners, to work with whatever is available to conduct the mandated task by the United Nations.

Thank you.

Oana Lungescu: I think we can go over to Naples for the next three questions, if you have any over there, Mike.

Moderator: No questions from Naples.

Oana Lungescu: There is one more question here.

Q: Viktor Kalashkinov of News Agency, Ukraine. Commander, you mentioned... could you identify the type of missile or missile platform which was attacked during that weekend incident. And in that equation probably interconnected with that, you also mentioned those satellite dishes, 12 or something, placed on the roof of a building. These satellite dishes, what satellite actually do you imply? Who runs it, et cetera? Two questions, please.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, the first one is it was a weapon released from a NATO aircraft and that is as far as I'm prepared to discuss with regard to the type of weapon. It was precision-guided weapon as we said already. All the weapons being used on this operation are precision-guided weapons, carefully planned and executed operations to take out military targets for military effect.

The second question with regard to the satellites on the building, I also showed you not only the communications satellites, which can be used for relaying and receiving commands, and therefore command-and-control, which is the command-and-control node which we've been saying is important to remove for the battle space.

I also showed you south of the mosque a large aerial complex above the communications buildings. These are command-and-control and communications facilities and they needed to be taken out because they're being used to direct pro-Qadhafi forces to inflict harm upon the people of Libya.

Oana Lungescu: I think we have a follow-up here.

Q: I'm sorry, what I had in mind, the Libyan missile or platform, which was attacked and probably destroyed during that incident. What sort of missiles were attacked and probably destroyed by NATO missile?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: The information I have is that it was an SA-2 site and a technical repair facility. That's as much as we can tell you at this stage, and as far as targets are concerned it's for NATO to keep that information and to clear it within its own nations with national frameworks and partner. Thank you.

Oana Lungescu: I think we have one last question here. Thank you.

Q: One more question about Franco Frattini's comments yesterday if you could respond directly to what he said about the concerns that NATO's credibility could be endangered by strikes on... that kill civilians. Do you believe that your credibility is being undermined by this and it's giving actually in reverse a credibility to the regime claims that NATO is hitting civilians, thus helping Qadhafi's propaganda?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, I think there's a political element to that question and I have nothing to say with regard to individual nations or leaders and the comments they make.

From an operational perspective we have carried out over four and half thousand strike sorties. That's many, many thousands of precision-guided weapons. We have hit over 2,100 targets. Our air crew go to great length and are very professional in the training that they are given and the work that is done by the support staff and the planning staffs in all of the headquarters to ensure that any risk to civilians are minimized.

As I've said, we hit a command-and-control centre west of Tripoli. We had one missile malfunction in all of the three months we've been operating. And we don't know exactly where that landed. We do know that at the same time of us investigating the loss of a missile that malfunctioned, a technical failure, an explosion occurred north of Tripoli. We, by default, have to associate the two as being common. We still cannot prove that that was actually our missile.

Thank you.

Oana Lungescu: Laurent, as I've said before, I think you have to look at the records of this operation and at the records of this Alliance. We take utmost care to ensure that civilian casualties are kept to a minimum. Obviously we can't say that the risk is zero. It never is in such an operation. But we are taking utmost care. We are targeting all legitimate military targets with great precision and I think you can take us on our record.

We are also doing our best to make any information available on possible civilian casualties as fast as we can verify the facts. And what I think is very important to make clear is that NATO does not target individuals. NATO clearly does not deliberately target civilians. And that is the difference between NATO and the Qadhafi regime, which indiscriminately and deliberately has been targeting civilians from the start of this crisis.

This is why the United Nations passed the historical United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which is our mandate for this Operation Unified Protector, and that is the mandate we are fulfilling. That is, to protect civilians and to bring to an end these outrageous attacks.

I think that will be the last question. Brooks.

Q: Yes, again, Brooks Tigner, Jane's Defence. A question for Naples. Just to be sure about this attack on the C-2 mode, west of Tripoli, I mean, lots of buildings have satellite dishes and towers that aren't military, so I'm playing the devil's advocate here. Was your decision to launch based only on visual identification or was it also on signals analysis?

Thank you.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, I'm not going to go into detail of how and exactly what information was used to decide that that was a command-and-control facility and a command-and-control node, but after persistent ISR and fusing all of the information available to NATO, contributed from all of the nations participating in this operation, and others, we were able to establish that this was clearly a command-and-control node. Having identified it as a military command-and-control node it was put to the Commander as a legitimate target which had to be removed for military affect.

Oana Lungescu: One final question over here. ANSA.

Q: (Inaudible...) ANSA, and I would like to have your opinion about the Italian Home Affairs Minister, Mr. Maroni, who wants the Italian forces to be out of the war as soon as possible, and this is his party's position clearly expressed and he wants to have Italy out of the war within September.

Oana Lungescu: Italy is a very valuable ally and a very valuable contributor to Operation Unified Protector. We fully respect all the internal debates in Italy, as in any other ally, about this operation or any other NATO operation. Such debates are absolutely natural. This is what happens in a democracy.

The decisions are up to the national governments of each ally and each partner.

Thank you very much, in Brussels and in Naples. Just to let you know that we won't hold our next briefing on Friday because I know most of you will be busy covering the European Council, so we don't want you to try and be in two places at the same time. I know not even the Brussels press corps is ubiquitous.

Many thanks.