Press briefing on Libya

by Oana Lungescu, the NATO Spokesperson and by Wing Commander Mike Bracken, Operation ‘’Unified Protector’’ military spokesperson

  • 07 Jul. 2011 -
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  • Last updated: 07 Jul. 2011 20:34

Oana Lungescu (NATO Spokesperson): Welcome back and welcome to Wing Commander Mike Bracken, the Spokesman of NATO's Operation Unified Protector, who joins us from Naples to provide us with this week's operational update.

The Secretary General will be in Naples tomorrow to meet the Commander of Operation Unified Protector, General Charles Bouchard and his staff. He will want to thank all the servicemen and women from allies and partners for a very successful operation.

And I think he'll, obviously, also discuss the progress of the air and maritime campaigns, enforcing United Nations Security Council Resolutions to support and protect the people of Libya.

Today there was strong agreement around the Council table on several key points. We are continuing to successfully fulfil the mandate, the arms embargo is effective, the No-Fly Zone is effective, and there are no coordinated attacks by regime forces against civilians. Where we see an attack, or the threat of attack, we take it out, exactly as mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 1973.

This is also an extraordinarily precise operation, showing utmost respect for human life and great care about civilian infrastructure.

So NATO and our partners are doing the job they were mandated to do. That's the military job. We will continue to do it until the three clear military goals have been met. An end to all attacks against civilians, the withdrawal of all regime forces to bases and full and unhindered humanitarian access.

But clearly the overall aim cannot be fulfilled by military means alone. We're helping to create the conditions for a political solution. But that is not NATO's job. The main responsibility for political guidance rests with International Contact Group and the Contact Group will meet in Istanbul next Friday under the co-chairmanship of Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

The Secretary General will represent NATO, which as you know is part of the Contact Group. This is the fourth such meeting, and we expect it to give a critical impetus to efforts to reach a political solution and to speed up preparations for a post-conflict Libya in accordance with the legitimate aspirations of the people of Libya.

And with that, over to you, Mike, in Naples for the operational update.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken (Spokesperson for the Operation Unified Protector): Thank you, Oana. Good afternoon to Brussels and good afternoon to those of you who have joined us here today in Naples.

Our last operational update was held on the 28th of June by the Commander, Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard. Since that time the situation in Libya from east to west continues to be complex and, in places, very dynamic. Yet we continue to achieve our mission to protect the people of Libya.

Success in this campaign will be measured by the removal of threats to the civilian population. We have degraded Qadhafi's military capacity to the point that he is no longer capable of running any major offensive operation. Pro-Qadhafi forces, however, are still able to launch limited operations and use intimidation tactics, which shows clear intent to harm civilians as we've seen with the continued indiscriminate shelling of cities and towns and the use of mosques and civilian neighbourhoods from which to launch such attacks.

Let's now have a look at the situation from east to west. Brega is the cornerstone of the pro-Qadhafi forces campaign in eastern Libya. Ongoing operations aim to protect the civilian population and help facilitate the safe road delivery of humanitarian assistance from Benghazi to the coast towns, such as Ras Lanuf and Sirte, which remain under the control of pro-Qadhafi forces.

There are occasional skirmishes between Brega and Ajdabiya and we are monitoring them closely with NATO intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.

Yesterday in Brega NATO forces struck military refuelling equipment to deny pro-Qadhafi forces access to fuel in the Brega region. These precision strikes will limit the ability of pro-Qadhafi forces to threaten Libyan civilians, and significantly degrade the logistical support for Qadhafi's campaign in eastern Libya.

In Misrata pro-Qadhafi forces have shelled the outskirts of the city several times in the past week. And fighting between the two forces is ongoing. Around Tiwal(?), 40 kilometres south of Misrata there have been skirmishes between pro- and anti-Qadhafi forces. It appears that the boundary of fighting remains in the Dafniyah/ Zlinten area about 25 kilometres west of Misrata.

Currently anti-Qadhafi forces are assessed to have gained some ground, but the situation is constantly changing. NATO forces are monitoring the situation very closely and engaging military targets that threaten civilians, whilst minimizing the risk to the local population.

Three months ago Misrata was a city under siege. Now pro-Qadhafi forces have been pushed out of the city and people are returning to their homes. International and non-government organizations are working to clear the dangers left by the remains of unexploded ordinance that has been put there by the pro-Qadhafi forces, and the land mines in and around the city. The port remains open and humanitarian aid shipments are frequently arriving.

To the west cities such as Zuwarah(?) and Al-Zawiya remain under pro-Qadhafi control and forces loyal to Qadhafi are likely preventing the local population from uprising.

In the Berber Highlands and the area of the Nafusa Mountains, we've seen over the past week NATO's round-the-clock operations resulting in the removal of more than 60 military targets.

In and around Garyan, about 80 kilometres south of Tripoli, NATO's air operations have hit 18 military targets, including a tunnelled military complex in Wadi, southeast of Tripoli. This complex has been built into the mountains and was used to resupply pro-Qadhafi forces, tanks and other military vehicles.

All strikes on munitions and support facilities were conducted using precision-guided weapons. NATO continues to monitor this area closely and will continue to use all necessary measures to protect these communities.

There has been fighting in and around the towns of Kikla, Nalut, Zintan and Yafran, but they are all assessed to be under anti-Qadhafi control. Anti-Qadhafi forces look to have the initiative and are able to launch successful attacks against pro-Qadhafi forces.

Progress is significant and NATO will see this mission through. We've flown over 14,000 sorties, with strikes 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.

Hundreds of these sorties have been conducted by attack helicopters under NATO command-and-control. These have been fully integrated into NATO's operations for over a month. They have been a true force multiplier, with the added flexibility to engage military equipment and regime forces from Brega to west of Tripoli.

Attack helicopters have destroyed over 300 military targets, such as armed vehicles, main battle tanks, radar systems and military facilities used by pro-Qadhafi forces to threaten the civilian population.

Missions conducted by attack helicopters are totally integrated into the operation and are fully supported by the wide range of NATO intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. And there's even evidence that suggests that the sheer presence of attack helicopters has also contributed to the reducing of the threat of attacks against civilians.

At sea the embargo remains totally effective. We've boarded 148 ships, hailed more than 1,650 and denied passage to nine vessels because their cargo was not compliant with the United Nations Security Council 1970.

Our measurement of success is the removal of threats to the Libyan people. Throughout Libya there is free movement of personnel and humanitarian aid. The mission is being achieved and maintained.

However, Qadhafi has proved, by continuing to field his forces, and indiscriminately shelling civilians, that his intent has not diminished. His forces are rearming, regrouping, and fighting in places such as Kikla, Misrata and Dafniyah. If NATO was to step away Qadhafi's intent to harm civilians would remain. And thousands of lives will be put at risk. That is why the mission must continue.

NATO remains fully engaged and as long as pro-Qadhafi forces continue to plan and launch attacks on civilians, NATO will continue to use all necessary measures to protect them.

That completes my statement and I'll be happy to take some questions.

Oana Lungescu: Reuters.

Q: Yes, David Brunnstrom from Reuters. This is a question for the Wing Commander. I was wondering if you could tell us how you assess the likelihood of a successful rebel advance to Tripoli? And whether NATO has stepped up its activity in the area of the rebel advances?

And also, if the rebels were to advance to the extent that we saw the possibility of fighting in Tripoli itself, would NATO consider that a threat to civilians and how would it respond to such a scenario?

Thank you.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, firstly, the talk of rebel advances. It's important for us to track the fighting that's going on between the rebels and the Qadhafi forces, but our mission is quite clear, and the mandate that we're working to is to protect the civilian population.

But I will come back to the last part of your question, which is if they were to be moving into Tripoli and there was fighting, the key here it's the protection of the civilian community and that is where NATO's mission is and that's where our mandate allows us to operate.

Other than that we track the progress between the varying factions and we monitor very closely what's happening. Where we see fighting occurring, which is endangering the civilian community, we then engage.

Oana, do you want to add anything to that?

Oana Lungescu: No, I think your... it's absolutely what the mandate is, remember David, the mandate under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under attack or the threat of attack.


Q: Does that mean to say that possibly NATO could be involved in preventing a rebel advance that could lead to fighting in Tripoli?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: We're not involved in the ground battle as you're describing there, and we're... the mandate is clear. If we were to see civilians being attacked in Libya than we would have the mandate to engage those making the attacks.

Oana Lungescu: Of course, what we have seen until now very clearly is that regime forces have been consistently and indiscriminately attacking civilians and civilian areas.

Q: Japanese newspaper, Mainichi. National Transition Council is invited to Brussels next Wednesday. Does this meeting have good influence on the operation to see after this meeting you can have good cooperation with anti-Qadhafi forces? Additionally, is there any press conference on Tuesday... or Wednesday?

Oana Lungescu: We'll let you know about media plans in due course. The representatives of the Transitional National Council, Mr. Jibril, have been invited to meet the North Atlantic Council next Wednesday for an informal council and they will also have a bilateral meeting with the Secretary General.

As you know, the Secretary General has already met TNC officials in the context of the International Contact Group and the Contact Group has made very clear that Qadhafi has lost all legitimacy, that he must go. That call was endorsed by NATO Foreign Ministers in April in Berlin. So it makes sense for the NAC to brief the Transitional National Council on how NATO implements the United Nations Resolutions in support of the people of Libya and I think the Council will also want to hear what plans the TNC have for the future and for ensuring security and the protection of civilians.


Q: Yes, Wing Commander, the Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister is saying that they have evidence that Columbian mercenaries, funded by the west and by the Arab allies taking part in the operation, are now fighting on the opposition side, that they've joined the rebel fighters trying to advance towards Tripoli from Misrata. Can you comment on that?

And just one more question, are they acting as forward air controllers?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, I mean, that's a good question. I do not know of any mercenaries on the ground. As you know, NATO doesn't have any personnel on the ground so I can't answer that question from that side of the house.

And certainly when we talk of forward air controllers there are very clear rules for NATO aircraft and the way we would use forward air controllers and we're not doing that in this situation because we do not have personnel on the ground to carry out that role. So we're carrying out our role based n the multitude of assets available to NATO, including our surveillance reconnaissance, our command-and-control, our refuellers, our fighters, our attack helicopters.

And when we bring all of that together we're very capable of identifying our targets and carrying out precision attacks in accordance with the Resolution.

Oana Lungescu: In general terms, Slobo, we've not seen anything to indicate that this allegation might be true, but what we have seen is repeated, consistent and credible reports that Qadhafi's forces have been using mercenaries, and that is not just now or in the last few weeks or months, that has been the case for years, indeed decades. And this, if confirmed, would be in clear breach of the arms embargo mandated by the United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973.

Are there any questions with you in Naples, Mike?

MODERATOR: Yes, Oana, we have a couple of questions here.

Q: Good afternoon, I'm Maurizio Dente from the ANSA agency. I have two questions. According to the latest news pro-Qadhafi forces have killed 14 rebels and pushed back the insurgents in Misrata. Have you got any update on the subject?

And then the second question, according to NATO intelligence what is the real situation on the ground right now?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, thank you for that question. With regard to the fighting and the loss of life on the rebels or the regime side we have no way of tracking that information. We have the same open source accounting that you have and we also use our fused information from what we call "all sources" together. But I cannot confirm anything in the way of casualties that's been going on in the fighting.

With regard to your second question, which is the movement of forces and the changing of ground, I think I've already covered that in the statement where I talk from east to west where the skirmishes have been occurring and where the lines now lie, so I think we've covered that one. Thank you.

MODERATOR: We have another question in Naples here.

Q: Good afternoon, I am (inaudible) from Agenzia Italia and I have a question.  The Italian government announced this morning a two-thirds cutback in financing of the mission, plus a reduction in troops. Mrs. Lungescu, you recently said that Italy was a very good contributor and ally to this operation, financially too. Following this morning's news, will NATO still be able to continue at the same pace with the reduced support from Italy?

Oana Lungescu: I must say I haven't seen those particular reports so I'm not going to comment on any details you might have, perhaps faster in Naples than we do in Brussels. But what I can say is that Italy is a staunch ally and has been a very reliable and strong contributor to this mission and we continue to rely on Italy for its support, as we do on all our allies and partners.

As you know, NATO and its partners have decided to extend this operation by another 90 days from the end of June and we have full confidence that we have all the resources and assets we need to see this mission through. And as you can see from the recent pace of operations they have actually been stepped up.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: If I can add two things to that, please. Firstly, as a host nation Italy has been absolutely fantastic in the support that NATO's received in across the piste. I'm standing here in Naples and we've been supported here on the unit tremendously. And in second regard was the reduction of any troops or assets contributing to the work that's being done by NATO.

Of course, the Commander works with the assets available and what we see sometimes is one nation at one moment in time needs to either cease contributing an asset, while they do continuation of training, or they need to take their pilots back through simulator training and we adapt accordingly. And what we see very often is another nation stepping forward and just helping out while that occurs.

So, you know, the Commander will work with the assets available to him and ultimately the mandate is clear, the mission is clear and he will use his planning staff to make sure that he adapts whatever is available to him to carry out that mission.

Thank you.

MODERATOR: And we have another question from Kim Sengupta from The Independent.

Q: I would ask the Wing Commander, the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Libyan regime used a curious phrase yesterday morning and he said that we are now facing... they are now facing the closing phases of the NATO air campaign. Without asking you to read his mind, what do you think he meant, in your perception?

And also, is there a feeling now that after more than... well, almost four months of air campaigning, that the thing is now coming to a closure?

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: That's interesting to hear that the Foreign Minister would say that. Maybe I should think that that is very encouraging that he thinks that the mission is coming to an end and that he sees peace spreading across Libya and the attacks on civilians coming to an end. That is what we're all looking forward to happening.

I don't see totally that side of the house. We have a clear mandate. We're still seeing attacks on civilians, we're seeing bombing in Misrata, we're seeing skirmishes in the Brega and the mountain areas, and we're seeing attacks and fighting occurring down in Brega. So, you know, the mission is not complete.

Any perceptions that it is will be concluded when we see that all of those things have stopped.

We've had four months, as you put it. I think the 31st of March was when the operation started under the NATO umbrella and during that time we have seen a dramatic change in the dynamics across Libya. We've seen the seizure of Misrata come to an end, we've seen the fighting on the outskirts of Benghazi move completely away from Benghazi and up towards Ajdabiya and further afield and we've seen the Berber Mountains, we've seen the villages being able to operate freedom of movement, the humanitarian aid being able to move by road, by air into Benghazi through our agreement and our assessments, and we've seen aid continuing to be delivered across the piste, going into Tripoli, Misrata and many other ports.

So yes, we have moved a very long way from the 31st of March. But for us it's not over yet. It only becomes over when the mission is complete and the attacks on civilians come to an end.

Thank you, Kim, and I look forward to meeting up with you in London again.

MODERATOR: We can move back to Brussels for further questions.

Oana Lungescu: Thank you. I just have something to add in answer to the previous question from the Italian press agency. Just to say that actually in this morning's North Atlantic Council quite a few allies made additional contributions to the mission, so in terms of staff and resources, so we remain fully confident that all allies are continuing to contribute to this mission in the ways that they can, and that they continue to support it, both in terms of political will and contribution in assets and resources to see it through.

One last question. Reuters.

Q: Yes, David Brunnstrom again from Reuters. I was wondering could I just pick you up on that. Could you be a bit more specific about what additional resources you've got, whether or not any other country is going to be increasing its contri... or contributing to the strike mission or any more aircraft are being provided, et cetera?

Oana Lungescu: No, I'm not going to go into the details of the NAC discussion, David.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Oana, we have one more question here, if we may?

Q: Good afternoon, a simple question from Danielle(ph) (inaudible), ASCA Press Agency. Mrs. Lungescu was mentioning a meeting that the Secretary General will have with the General Bouchard here in Naples tomorrow. Do you have any further details as to the exact timing of this meeting and as to where there will be a press conference of some kind during the visit? Thank you.

Oana Lungescu: Danielle, I will issue a press advisory from here at NATO Headquarters later today. I'm afraid there will be no press conference as such.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken: Okay, if there's no more questions, Oana, over to you.

Oana Lungescu: Thank you very much, Mike. Thank you everybody in Naples, and thank you in Brussels for coming today.