Press briefing on Libya

by Carmen Romero, the NATO Deputy Spokesperson and Colonel Roland Lavoie, Operation ‘’Unified Protector’’ military spokesperson

  • 16 Aug. 2011
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  • Last updated: 16 Aug. 2011 18:23

Carmen Romero (NATO Deputy Spokesperson): Good afternoon and welcome to the weekly update on our operation in Libya. My colleague, as you see, Colonel Roland Lavoie, will provide you with an operational overview in a minute. Before that I would like to comment on one recent development which illustrates the importance of continuing our mission to protect civilians in Libya.

On Sunday Qadhafi forces launched for the first time an unguided short-range ballistic missile to attack the Brega area. This missile potentially could have killed many civilians. We strongly condemned the use of this kind of indiscriminate weapon in the way that puts civilians at risk.

It shows that Qadhafi and his regime are desperate, and they continue to represent a serious threat to innocent people in Libya.

We are protecting civilians as mandated by the United Nations Security Council and we will continue putting military pressure on pro-Qadhafi forces for as long as it takes. Our actions are helping set the conditions for a political solution and transition to democracy. We hope that this can be achieved as soon as possible. The Libyan people deserve no less, and with this I will hand over to Roland in Naples. Please, Roland.

Colonel Roland Lavoie (Spokesperson for the Operation Unified Protector): Bonjour Carmen. Thank you. Welcome from Naples. First, I would like to give you an overview of the situation on the ground. Then on recent NATO operations over the past week and I will be happy at the end to take questions either in English or in French.

These last few days we have witnessed significant advances of anti-Qadhafi forces on several fronts: in the northwest where Qadhafi forces have lost considerable grounds; and also in the regions of Misrata and Brega.

Last week we saw significant movements of anti-Qadhafi forces progressing north from the Nafusa Mountains, gaining Bir Al Ghanam and also advancing across the flatlands towards the coast.

Since then, as you have seen on television, the advance of anti-Qadhafi forces have continued towards the north as they have now reached the coastal towns of Zawiyah, Sabratha and Surman, west of Tripoli.

Anti-Qadhafi forces have also progressed eastward, reaching the towns of Al Aziziyah, Gharyan and Tarhunah. Anti-Qadhafi forces are now assuming control of the key approaches to Tripoli.

These advances are the most significant anti-Qadhafi territorial gain we have seen in months. Meanwhile, the return of people in the Nafusa Mountains has begun. As the threat from Qadhafi forces has decreased it is now safe for them to re-enter their homes.

Similarly, now, looking at the Misrata front, we have seen significant changes here again. As you may recall pro-Qadhafi forces were until very recently attacking the local population in Misrata, mainly from the town of Tawurgha, which is located 40 kilometres south of Misrata.

Last Friday anti-Qadhafi forces freed the area from hostile forces, which is expected to further reduce the intermittent and indiscriminate shelling of Misrata by pro-Qadhafi forces, and also reduce the threat to the flow of humanitarian assistance.

The threat emanating from Zlitan has also diminished, as pro-Qadhafi forces are being pushed further west their ability to use short-range weaponry against the civilian population is eroded.

On the Brega front now it is now confirmed that the eastern edge of the town is now under anti-Qadhafi control, and the suburb town of New Brega is finally free of pro-Qadhafi forces.

Unfortunately, the threat against Brega is not over yet. On August the 14th NATO intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance assets detected the launch of an unguided, short-range surface-to-surface missile from the vicinity of Sirte. Its point of impact was roughly five kilometres east of Brega, which is an area currently under control of anti-Qadhafi forces.

The use of such missiles presents a direct threat to innocent people. Although the surface-to-surface missiles in Qadhafi's arsenal are highly inaccurate, and are not designed to hit a specific target, they are a weapon of terror. Their use against an urban or industrial area is utterly irresponsible.

On August the 15th further reports indicated that two oil storage tanks were burning in Brega, demonstrating again Qadhafi's intent to destroy or damage key infrastructure that the population of Libya will need after the conflict.

Brega has been a ghost town for several months. It is hoped that the graduat retreat of pro-Qadhafi forces will change the situation and facilitate the return of the civilian population.

Notwithstanding very encouraging signs on the ground, NATO forces have been very active in denying pro-Qadhafi forces the means to use their command-and-control nodes and their combat assets as we have conducted numerous air strikes and provided naval gunfire support in the vicinity of Zlitan, Tripoli, Brega and Tawurgha.

Over the last week alone, NATO assets damaged or destroyed around 150 military targets.

The persistent and cumulative action of NATO is creating an obvious effect, as attacking pro-Qadhafi forces are gradually losing their capabilities to command, to conduct and to sustain their attacks on the civilian population.

While Libyans regain their towns, combat zones return to life and families are returning to their homes, as we can observe in the Nafusa Mountains where thousands of people have returned to their homes since the end of July, according to the UNHCR.

In fact, it is estimated that 70 percent of Libyans or more who have fled to Tunisia for safety in the first months of the conflict have already returned to their homes.

But the mission is far from over. The Alliance is committed to see the mission through.

On this, Carmen, we will take some questions.

Carmen Romero: We'll take the three first questions in Brussels. Please identity yourself. Radio-France Internationale.

Q: Une question en français, mon Colonel, s'il-vous-plaît. Pierre Bénazet, Radio-France. Deux questions d'ailleurs. La première, vous avez parlé d'un missile surface-surface. Est-ce que vous faites référence à un missile de type Scud? Est-ce que ça veut dire que les forces qadhafistes disposent encore d'un arsenal suffisant, malgré les frappes de l'Alliance depuis le début de l'opération Protecteur unifié?

Deuxième question, la situation sur le terrain que vous décrivez, les gains territoriaux par les rebelles. Est-ce que ça veut dire que maintenant la région de Tripoli est relativement encadrée ou encerclée par les forces rebelles? Et est-ce que vous les soutenez dans ces offensives qui, apparemment, sont décisives, selon vous, si j'ai bien compris?

Colonel Roland Lavoie: D'abord, à propos des Scuds, ce type de missile surface-surface, c'est effectivement de type Scud. Quelle menace que ça peut représenter? Somme toute, aucune menace nouvelle. Puisque ces armements étaient présents dans le théâtre d'opération depuis le début. Je peux aussi sans rentrer dans les détails mettre l'accent sur le point que nous avons détruit une bonne partie de l'arsenal des forces de Qadhafi. Ce qui fait en sorte que notre estimation est qu'il peut certainement utiliser certains gestes désespérés pour attirer notre attention. Mais essentiellement, c'est un peu comme lancer la vaisselle au mur. Ça fait du bruit. Et après ça, c'est le temps de partir. À propos des Scuds, c'est à peu près tout ce que j'ai à dire.

Au niveau des gains territoriaux, c'est effectivement le cas que la région de Tripoli est contrôlée essentiellement dans ses contours par des forces anti-Qadhafi. Donc, les forces de Qadhafi vont avoir extrêmement de difficulté à se ravitailler et à poursuivre leurs actions.

Votre question avait plusieurs sous-questions. Est-ce que j'y ai répondu dans l'ensemble?

Q: Oui, mon Colonel, juste pour savoir si vous aviez un soutien spécifique de ces offensives sur les gains territoriaux dans la Tripolitaine de la part des forces de l'OTAN?

Colonel Roland Lavoie: Notre rôle est un rôle de protéger la population civile contre les attaques. Donc, si vous regardez les attaques qu'on a faites depuis quelques semaines, ce sont effectivement des attaques contre des centres de commandement et contrôle, contre les capacités logistiques de Qadhafi. Effectivement, il y avait aussi quelques attaques sur le terrain lorsqu'on a dû enlever des menaces immédiates à la population. Mais en gros, nous ne sommes pas un parti sur les lignes de front. Nous travaillons à éroder les capacités de combat de Qadhafi. Donc, l'évolution significative que nous avons vue sur le terrain est essentiellement le fait de l'action des forces anti-Qadhafi qui ont pu progresser grâce à l'élimination préalable de la menace.

Carmen Romero: You have a question.

Q: Yes, I have a follow-up question regarding the Scud missile that was fired. I understand that NATO was targeting Qadhafi's stockpiles of such missiles early on the campaign. Does NATO have any sort of idea, estimates how many might be left or whether there's a viable stockpile still left?

Colonel Roland Lavoie: Many... thank you for asking the questions. Essentially, and this is similar to the question I provided prior in French, so thank you, that will allow everybody to understand. In short, what I said is that these Scud-type missiles, the one that was fired last weekend, is a type of armament that does not represent a new threat. It was there present since the beginning of the conflict.

I could also assure you that since the beginning of our presence we have engaged repeatedly several pieces of heavy armament, including Scud launchers and launchers of missiles, including very recently just a few days ago.

Our assessment, without going into details, is that the Qadhafi regime does not have any more an effective operational capability. It could certainly, as I mentioned in French, throw the dishes against the wall to make a bit of noise, but we do not believe that they could generate a significant operational effect with that type of weaponry, that it is basically running short of.

Carmen Romero: Next question. Slobo.

Q: Yes, you mentioned that the rebels seem to have occupied Surman and Sabratha. Can you just clarify that? What exactly is the situation in these two towns? And also can you say anything about the state of the Libyan military in Zawiyah right now?

Colonel Roland Lavoie: Okay. For the first question, we talk here about regions that are still contested, so there are still fights. Essentially, let me just check my notes here, I think in the suburbs of Surman there is still some fighting reported this morning. Zawiyah, although the centre is under anti-Qadhafi forces, there's still reports of fighting also in the suburbs.

I don't have more granular information. Of course, the situation is very dynamic and it is evolving hour by hour.

Carmen Romero: We move now to Naples for questions from the journalists you have there, please.

Colonel Roland Lavoie: Any questions from Naples? No, no questions for Naples.

Carmen Romero: And to Gérard.

Q: FRENCH Oui, Gérard Gaudin de Belga. Est-ce qu'à l'inverse vous avez observé à certains endroits des progressions des forces loyales au régime?

Colonel Roland Lavoie: Pas de façon substantielle. Nous savons que dans la région de Gharyan, par exemple, que les forces de Qadhafi ont tenté et tentent encore de s'affirmer dans ce secteur-là, sans résultats conséquents. Ce qu'on a constaté en fait au fil des derniers jours, c'est effectivement une dégringolade dans le sens que tant sur le front nord-ouest qu'aussi à l'intérieur en allant un peu vers l'Est, les forces de Qadhafi ont dû reculer et souvent avec beaucoup de précipitation, puisque nous avons trouvé sur place... on nous a rapporté sur place que des pièces d'armement, par exemple, avaient été laissées. Ce qui montre que ce n'est pas un retrait qui a été planifié et effectué dans un bon ordre.

Carmen Romero: Brooks?

Q: Yes, Brooks Tigner, Jane's Defence. To your knowledge are any of the Allies training in any of the rebels' ex-territory, away from the territory of Libya? And secondly, does NATO as an organization have any plans to perhaps strike a new defence reform relationship with the new regime of Libya, since it's so confident that the current one will fall? Thank you.

Colonel Roland Lavoie: NATO as an organization has no mandate, apart from the mandate given by Resolutions 1970 and 73, so basically we do the arms embargo, we enforce a No-Fly Zone. We do not... and we facilitate, of course, the arrival of the humanitarian aid. We do not train as NATO any of the belligerents.

Carmen Romero: To add something to what Roland just said is that right now we are focusing on implementing the current mandate that has been given to us by United Nations Security Council, as Roland was saying. And then in the post-Qadhafi period what we expect is other organizations, especially having the United Nations in the lead, supporting the new Libyan government and we only foresee, if at all, a supporting role for NATO and of course, we cannot rule out a support in the defence area, because this is where NATO has great expertise, if requested and required.

I think you have a follow-up question, Brooks?

Q: No, that answered it, thank you.

Carmen Romero: Okay. So we go back to Slobo and then BBC.

Q: Yes, there's been recently criticism of NATO, especially at the United Nations and the UN Security Council members, that NATO has overstepped its mandate because of the fact that in this current situation where the pro-Qadhafi forces are obviously on the defensive, NATO is still striking... mounting air strikes against them, although they're only aiming their fire at the attacking forces, at the attacking rebel forces. They're not endangering or threatening civilians.

And that's why several countries have expressed unease with this continuing attack, which they say is biased in the sense that it's helping the rebels and working against the forces which are on the defence. Can you comment on that? (Laughs). Forgot the question.

Colonel Roland Lavoie: Is it for me, or Carmen, do you want to take it, or I take it?

Carmen Romero: Well, I can start by saying that NATO is not overstepping its mandate, and the mandate given to the Alliance was a mandate approved by all members... I mean, by the United Nations Security Council. And if you see the latest comments by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, he praised actually the role, the military role that NATO is playing and what we are doing is basically implementing the United Nations Security Council mandate.

I'm sure that Roland would like to add something to this.

Colonel Roland Lavoie: Well, just that it is clear we take a side... it's to take the side of the people of Libya. This is essential to understand that when we strike at a tank it's because we have an understanding that this does represent a threat to the local population. Same thing for ammunition depots. You will have noticed very lately, in the last few days, we have struck a lot of field... advanced field command-and-control nodes in locations where troops were gathered in suburbs of cities. You don't do that if you don't intend to do an attack. And these are the targets we engage.

Every time we engage a target this is the mental test that is in our mind, like is it a target that presents a threat to the civilian population, and if the answer is yes we will engage this threat.

Carmen Romero: BBC.

Q: Hello, Matt Cole, BBC. It's a question on this issue of mandate. You're now halfway through your second 90-day mandate. Given the significant gains you've been speaking of do you envisage there being a need for further extension, and if so, would you envisage that being another 90 days or maybe suggesting an open-ended mandate? Can you maybe share some thoughts?

Carmen Romero: Nations will decide whether or not there is a need to extend this mission. As you know all Allies and Partners that are participating in this operation are firmly committed to continue implementing the UN Security Council mandate for as long as it takes. So if there is a need to extend it this is something that the Allies will discuss and they will take the necessary decision before the mandate expires.

And about how long, or for how long the length of a possible extension? That's something that I cannot speculate because this is something that will be, of course, in the hands of our military advisers, and then in the hands of the North Atlantic Council.

I don't know if there is anything, Roland, you would like to add.

Colonel Roland Lavoie: No, that's complete, thank you.

Carmen Romero: Any other questions? No, well, if that's... nothing in Naples, Roland? I would like to make sure that there are no questions there from our Italian colleagues?

Okay, in this case, thank you very much, and see you next Tuesday. Thank you very much, Roland.