Press briefing on Libya

by Oana Lungescu, the NATO Spokesperson and Colonel Roland Lavoie, Operation ‘’Unified Protector’’ military spokesperson

  • 13 Sep. 2011
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  • Last updated: 14 Sep. 2011 12:14

OANA LUNGESCU (NATO Spokesperson): Good afternoon. Welcome to everybody here in Brussels and in Naples where I can already see Colonel Roland Lavoie, the military spokesman for Operation Unified Protector. Welcome to everybody in Naples and welcome to those who are following us on the internet.

This morning the North Atlantic Council met with our operational partners to review events in Libya since their last meeting two weeks ago. The situation is moving fast and it's moving into the right direction. The political and military structures of the Qadhafi regime have crumbled, while the National Transitional Council has asserted control in key cities, including Tripoli. We are encouraged by statements by the head of the NTC, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who spoke of forgiveness, reconciliation and unity, and he clearly rejected extremism and vengeance.

The NTC is gaining growing international recognition, including by all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. And this time next week there will be a meeting of the Friends of Libya group on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in New York – and the Secretary General will, of course, attend this meeting.

So Libya has gone a long way and NATO has gone a long way in protecting the people of Libya, but our mission is not yet complete. Six months ago, when NATO, together with our partners, started enforcing the mandate of the UN Security Council, Benghazi was under threat, Misrata was under siege, and civilians were attacked and threatened every day by Qadhafi regime forces.

We have enforced the UN mandate to protect civilians effectively. We have saved countless lives and, by protecting Libyan civilians, we've helped them to gradually resume a normal life across Libya and to take the future into their own hands.

But in some parts of the country the situation remains fluid. As the Secretary General has clearly stated, we are determined to continue the mission for as long as necessary, but not a day longer than necessary. Our clear intention is to terminate the mission as soon as the situation allows.

NATO's number one concern has been the protection of civilians from the very beginning of Operation Unified Protector, and it will be the same when the time comes to end our mission. I can't tell you when this time will be. We all hope it's going to be soon.

Now over to Roland for the operational update from Naples. Roland.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE (Spokesperson for the Operation Unified Protector): Thank you, Oana, and welcome to all those joining us today. The areas of confrontation between Qadhafi and NTC forces on the ground have not changed drastically over the last few days. This is essentially due to the deliberate and very commendable efforts of the NTC to try to resolve the situation through dialogue.

Despite the NTC offer to seek a peaceful solution, as this week progressed, it became quite clear that the remaining Qadhafi forces were not willing to negotiate and lose their grip on the cities they still control. By occupying and tightly suppressing cities such as Bani Walid and Sirte Qadhafi forces have in a way taken the population hostage, exposing people to obvious risks, repressing the uprising and preventing some citizens from leaving.

Furthermore, in doing so Qadhafi forces have clearly demonstrated their intent to consolidate their positions and threaten the civilian population in the triangle formed by Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha. Qadhafi repeated his call inciting his followers to pursue a senseless fight. They even directed deadly attacks on the Ras Lanuf refinery yesterday, which has just resumed operations vital to getting Libya back on its feet.

As of this morning the situation in the vicinity of Sirte and Bani Walid was assessed as very volatile. For the moment skirmishes occur in both cities, but are concentrated in their outskirts, so the population is not under imminent threat. However, the situation may change very rapidly, as we have seen in other towns. NATO intelligence indicates that Qadhafi forces have been firing rockets from the inner city of Bani Walid in close proximity to houses and also to mosques.

NATO is closely monitoring the situation, of course, and will continue to do so as long as necessary, although I must stress that NATO does not, and will not engage in close support air operation for the NTC forces as our focus remain the protection of the civilian population.

Elsewhere in the country, with the breakdown of negotiations, NTC forces are pursuing their advances, chasing Qadhafi forces from the village of Abu Qurayn near the coast and in Zila near the Al Jufra Oasis. Initial information shows that even Sabha, although still disputed, is not a safe haven for Qadhafi forces anymore.

The main advances in Libya are not in the military domain, but rather in the civilian sector where we observed that the rebuilding of Libya is definitely underway. This is observed through the resuming ground transportation movements, shipping, humanitarian assistance flights on our routine and many cities now have normal access to water, electricity and other basic services. As in many other countries around the world, schools are planning to reopen their doors soon in several regions, and several industries and refineries are being prepared to resume their activities, which will jumpstart the economic recovery of Libya.

Taken individually these milestones may not appear significant, but really their cumulative effect is clear and is clearly paving the way to a recovery of Libya.

The majority of NATO activities over the past week have been concentrated in the area defined by Sirte, Waddan and Bani Walid. We have continued to use our surveillance assets to monitor the situation very closely and maintain a tempo particularly through strike missions to protect the Libyan people. NATO successfully engaged a number of threats to civilians in Libya, including several tanks, rocket launchers, an ammunition storage facility, as well as several surface-to-air threats.

NATO aircraft also conducted a number of strikes deep into the Sahara desert, 400 kilometres south of Tripoli. These were aimed at disrupting a command-and-control facility, a vehicle staging area and destroying several armoured vehicles in order to inhibit the reinforcements of positions in the north.

Now having given you a feel of what is happening on the ground for the moment, I would like to take a moment to remind you why we engage in this operation in the first place.

Operation Unified Protector was initiated to enforce a UN Security Resolution 1970 and then 1973, following the gross and systematic violation of human rights by the Qadhafi regime in Libya. The resolutions specifically referred to the repression of the peaceful demonstrators, arbitrary detentions and forced disappearances, torture and summary executions.

Over the last six months NATO forces have maintained a consistent tempo of operations intervening whenever and wherever Qadhafi forces pose a threat to civilians, be that in Benghazi in the east, Misrata in the west, Sabha in the south, or many other towns, cities and villages right across Libya. Today the recovery of Libya is now quite obvious and the outcome is no longer in doubt.

But let me reassure you we'll continue to play our part to the full until the task is complete.

This concludes my update. Oana.

OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you very much, Roland. We'll start with questions here in Brussels. German Television.

Q:My name is Kai Niklasch, German Television ZDF. One for Oana and one for Roland.

The mandate, how long will it last, the current one we have, and will there be the need for an extension and a meeting to extend the mandate? Because I think after three months it's over normally?

And one for Colonel Lavoie. There were heads of the army and parts of the Qadhafi family that left Libya already. They took refuge in the neighbouring countries. Do you have any idea now, after maybe getting some intelligence advices where Qadhafi is? Is he still in the country? Or has he already left the country because Mr. Ocampo just said the other day that he's calling for Interpol to pursue Qadhafi now and for me that's a clear sign that he may have left the country already.

OANA LUNGESCU: Kai, on the mandate, as you know the situation remains very fluid. It changes by the hour, so our military authorities and the North Atlantic Council continue to assess the situation on the ground. Right now it's premature to talk about extending the mandate or indeed terminating the mission. What I can say is what the Secretary General has made very clear, that we will continue the mission for as long as necessary, but it is also our clear intention to terminate the mission as soon as possible.

If there is to be any extension that decision has not been taken. That would be a technical decision because there is a clear determination to terminate this operation, to get the job done for as long as it takes, but no longer than it takes.

Roland.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: For your question, first, you're right in the sense that several key leaders of the regime have fled the country, very senior commanders and decision makers, so very clearly there was an exodus to some extent.

Having said that, thinking about Qadhafi specifically, to be frank, we don't know if he has left the country. He has not made public appearances in the country now for a while and this certainly raises questions about his whereabouts, but we don't have any sure information about where he is at this time.

One thing I would like to stress, however, and you know that, but we are not in the business of targeting and chasing Qadhafi, so of course our focus is on protecting the civilian population, but I don't have... and we don't have all this information specifically about his whereabouts.

OANA LUNGESCU: Reuters.

Q:Yes, David Brunnstrom from Reuters. Colonel, I understand that you don't have specific information, but what would be your best guess as to Qadhafi's whereabouts? And I notice that the commander of the operation was quoted in the Canadian Press last week as saying that Qadhafi... I mean, NATO was aware that Qadhafi was in Tripoli and moving around in tunnels to and from his compound in the Rixos Hotel. At what point did your intelligence let you down and you lose contact with him?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Thanks David. We receive intelligence confirming at various times in the conflict Qadhafi was clearly within the country. But for a while he has not given any sign of life and frankly like I don't have the information and if I would have I may not be in a position to disclose it, so I'm sorry, but I have to disappoint you, I don't have any more to say on that.

OANA LUNGESCU: AP.

Q:Oana, there's... as you know, there's a major Taliban attack going on in the heart of Kabul today and I'm just reading the strats report here saying that it's unique in the sense that the militants have demonstrated the capability to hit at the heart of the western military and intelligence presence in Afghanistan.

In view of the series of high-profile Taliban attacks recently do you think... I mean, it seems that the Libya operation has really distracted NATO from Afghanistan. Would that be correct?

OANA LUNGESCU: No, that would not be correct. NATO is conducting several major operations. The operation to protect the people of Libya and to enforce the United Nations mandate with the No-Fly Zone and the arms embargo is one such operation and we've shown that we can conduct that operation successfully and effectively together with our partners.

At the same time, Afghanistan remains the key operation for NATO and we continue to remain committed to that operation. As you know we're following developments very closely. We have full confidence in the Afghan Security Forces that they can deal with such attacks, as they have in the past. We've seen the enemies of Afghanistan trying to test transition in the past. They have not succeeded and they will not succeed. They will not derail transition and they will not stop transition.

That process is already under way in seven provinces and districts that represent a quarter of the population of Afghanistan. We expect the next stage of transition to get under way soon and to be just as significant.

Clearly the Taliban may be trying to gain media attention with such attacks, but the reality on the ground is that the number of enemy-initiated attacks in Kabul and across Afghanistan, is actually down on last year. So the trend of violence in Afghanistan is down, not up. And what is also very clear, is that vast parts of the population have rejected the Taliban and continue to reject the Taliban.

In the last minutes ISAF in Kabul has issued a news release and I will read it to you.

A small group of insurgents attacked the vicinity of the U.S. embassy and International Security Assistance Force Afghanistan Headquarters today firing from outside the compound using small arts and rocket-propelled grenades. The attack started around 1:30 p.m. local.

Afghan National Security Forces and coalition forces immediately responded to the attack and are still on the scene. Coalition forces are providing air support. There are no reports of ISAF casualties at this time.

So for any other operational details I will refer you to our colleagues in Kabul.

We can go now to Naples for the next questions and then we'll return to Brussels. Roland.

Q:Yes, Maria (inaudible...), freelance journalist, Italy. I have a question for Mrs. Lungescu and a question for Mr. Lavoie. The first question is... the first question is, coming back to the beginning, as you quote the beginning of the operations and the reason of this war, is NATO aware of the fact that this war is based on a major lie, the 10,000 people who were supposed to be killed by Qadhafi forces at the beginning of the protest, but in fact, even the ICC, the International Criminal Court, in its warrant, speaks about 200 people and Amnesty International speaks about 200 victims on both sides, so Qadhafi's side and the other side, so is NATO aware that this war to protect civilians started from a huge, huge media lie? This is the first question.

The second question is for Mr. Lavoie. NATO is not supposed to take sides but it seems that really you take sides. It's... it's in the fact and it is in your words. For instance, when Misrata was under siege and the civilians were trapped into fighting, and the Libyan army was around Misrata NATO bombed heavily Libyan forces.

This time there are many towns, Sabha, I have some friends from African countries who are trapped there, and not because of the Libyan army, Sabha, Bani Wallid and Sirte, they are under siege, but the siege is made by Abdel Jalil forces. So why NATO is not trying to protect those civilians who cannot go out? It's the same situation than Misrata. And also why NATO did nothing to protect the black migrants and the black Libyans who were killed by the so-called rebel forces when they enter Tripoli and other cities? They are civilians too I guess.

OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you for those questions. A quick answer from me. NATO is not involved in a war in Libya. NATO is enforcing a United Nations mandate to protect civilians, to enforce the No-Fly Zone and the arms embargo under two very clear and strong United Nations Security Council Resolutions, 1970 and 1973. And I think those resolutions speak for themselves.

Roland.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Thank you. Similarly... and thank you for the opportunity to clarify something here. I know there's several calls at all ends of the ideological spectrum calling for NATO to take sides in this conflict. I will tell you and reaffirm clearly, if there's one side and the only side we will take is the one of the Libyan people. Our mandate is not to provide close-air support for the anti-Qadhafi forces or to wage a war against pro-Qadhafi forces. Our mandate is to protect the civilian population. And this is what we are doing.

And one aspect that maybe gets a bit less attention in this mission is that beside the strike missions that for obvious reason attack... sorry, attract, a lot of attention, we are constantly patrolling the skies and providing a presence that very often deters attacks from happening.

We are patrolling also the waters to prevent weapons from coming in. We have 24/7 operations both at sea and in the air to monitor and to track whatever threat could be identified against the civilian population.

So this is what we are after. As I mentioned earlier, we're not after Qadhafi. We are aiming at protecting the civilian population and this is not a NATO venture. This is a venture of the international community that through the United Nations decided to vote two resolutions, calling upon nations of the planet to unite, nations that were like-minded to help the civilian population and NATO responded, and not only NATO, but also partner countries, to make a difference. And this is what we're doing.

OANA LUNGESCU: Roland, are there any more questions in Naples? I take it we'll go back to Brussels where we still have quite a few questions. We had the Belgian News Agency here.

Q:Oui, Gérard Gaudin de Belga. Je sais que l'exercice est un petit peu difficile. Vous n'avez pas de topo sur... etc. Mais est-ce qu'on a une idée du pourcentage à peu près du territoire qui est soit aux mains encore des pro-Qadhafi, soit aux mains du Conseil national de transition ou qui est partagé?

Q:And also there are... there are soldiers and advisors from many countries, from many NATO countries and Qatar, in Libya, so is it not a big contradiction?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Brussels is on line. I'll get to your question after.

OANA LUNGESCU: Obviously we've had some technical problems. I don't know if you managed to hear the question from our colleague, from the Belgium Press Agency. If not, he will repeat it, if that's okay.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Sorry about that, we had a technical problem.

Q:Oui... vous m'entendez?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Oui.

Q:Et donc, Gérald Gaudin de Belga. Je sais que l'exercice est un petit peu difficile, n'ayant pas de forces au sol. Mais avec les moyens de renseignement, d'intelligence dont vous disposez, est-ce que vous avez une idée du pourcentage du territoire qui est encore aux mains des pro-Qadhafi, déjà aux mains du Conseil national de transition ou qui est disputé?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: En terme de pourcentage, ce que je vous inviterais à faire c'est regarder la carte. Si vous faite un triangle reliant Bani Walid et Sirte et prenez Sheba comme point sud, ça vous donne en fait un triangle où en fait les forces qadhafistes ont été observées et où elles ont opéré.

Ceci dit, comme j'ai mentionné dans mon exposé, il y a quand même quelques éléments clés de ce triangle-là qui ont été érodés au fil des derniers jours. Et donc, à l'heure actuelle, il n'est plus évident que les qadhafistes aient nécessairement accès à l'axe Bani Walid-Sirte à cause de la prise position entre les deux... entre les deux villes donc ce qui représente une rupture significative de leur capacité. Même chose à Sheba où à l'heure actuelle l'emprise des qadhafistes n'est plus assurée. C'est une ville qu'on considère contestée, c'est-à-dire qu'il n'y a aucune force ni d'un côté, ni de l'autre qui semble totalement la contrôler. Donc, en gros, ça représente une portion relativement modeste du territoire et d'ailleurs une portion qui maintenant semble être contestée dans deux de ses axes principaux.

Just for the benefit of the English-speaking people, I was asked about the area that was controlled by Qadhafi and I basically said that if you do a triangle between Bani Walid and Sirte going towards Sabha this is essentially the area where Qadhafi is operating, or has been operating. What I wanted to stress, however, is that the latest advances of the NTC forces over the last two days have basically interrupted to some extent the communications between Bani Walid and Sirte.

So it means that the area that is controlled by Qadhafi along the shore is being seriously contested. Similarl situation in Sabha. At this time we consider the city and its surroundings as being contested because there's no clear indication that the entire region is under the control of one or the other side. So essentially the area of operation of Qadhafi is shrinking and is being contested in its main communication lines. Which from a military perspective this means a lot because it prevents or inhibits Qadhafi's capability to pursue his aggressions.

OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you for providing the answers in both languages, Roland. That's how effective OUP is. KUNA.

Q:Nawab Khan from the Kuwait News Agency, KUNA. Colonel, you said earlier in your statement that the situation in Bani Walid and Sirte may change very rapidly. Are you suggesting that these two towns may fall into the hands of NTC forces in a day or two? Thank you.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: What is difficult to predict here is that what will happen on the ground is not necessarily dependent on NATO, but of the actions of the two main parties there. So basically they are the main trigger.

What we do observe, however, is that the potential is there for very rapid change because there's a significant concentration of forces on both sides that are in those areas. And we're not talking about huge cities here, so if you look at what happened in other cities and villages this could change, indeed, very rapidly. But I cannot predict when this will happen.

OANA LUNGESCU: AFP, over here.

Q:Oui, une question en français. Je voulais savoir. Avez-vous été surpris par la contre-offensive sur Ras Lanuf hier? Et est-ce que vous êtes... vous avez estimé le nombre de combattants pro-qadhafistes qui ont pris part à cette attaque? Et est-ce que l'OTAN participe aujourd'hui à des opérations pour reprendre les lieux?

Et deuxièmement, est-ce que vous avez évalué le nombre de combattants pro-pales.... pro-Qadhafi actifs dans le triangle dont vous avez parlé tout à l'heure?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Donc, pour ce qui est de la situation à Ras Lanuf, la meilleure façon de décrire cette situation-là, c'est de parler l'expression anglaise "un strike", autrement dit d'une action ciblée dans le temps et dans l'espace. Autrement dit, ça ne reflète pas un gain ou une avancée territoriale des forces qadhafistes. Donc, on parle ici essentiellement d'une opération de style soit commando ou sabotage.

À l'heure actuelle, on n'a pas en main toutes les données pour savoir s'agit-il d'un déplacement de troupe ou s'agit-il purement et simplement de forces ou de saboteurs qui étaient demeurés sur place à Ras Lanuf.

Mais certainement, il n'y a pas de changement global dans les espaces contrôlés. Il s'agit d'une opération essentiellement isolée. Donc, ça répond un peu aussi à la deuxième question, à savoir qu'il n'y a pas nécessairement besoin d'opérations spécifiques pour répondre à cette situation-là. Ceci dit, nous avons comme politique de ne jamais commenter les opérations en cours.

Juste pour satisfaire moindrement votre curiosité, je me contenterai de dire que nous surveillons de très près la situation, mais non seulement le long de la côte dont à Ras Lanuf; mais dans le territoire complet.

Just for the benefit of the English-speaking listeners, I was asked about the situation in Ras Lanuf. I described it as being a strike, meaning by that this does not represent any significant shift in the positions controlled by the Qadhafi forces. This represents actions made by a few individuals. At this stage it's not clear if those individuals are simply saboteurs, or if they are from other regions, but it does not represent a shift in the territorial base of the Qadhafi forces and I concluded by saying that, of course, we are continuing our monitoring of the situation, not only on Ras Lanuf, but over the entire Libyan territory.

OANA LUNGESCU: I'll take the last two questions we had from Brussels. One over there.

Q:Sertaç Aktan, from IHA News Agency, Turkey. Would you have any evaluation from NATO's side on the recent visits of Prime Minister Erdogan, Turkish Prime Minister to the region including Libya? How do you see Turkey's influence on the region? Do you see it as an asset to NATO? Thank you.

OANA LUNGESCU: I understand Prime Minister Erdogan will be in Libya later this week. I think on Thursday. We can only welcome such visits. I know various allies have reopened or are in the process of reopening their diplomatic missions on the ground, and I see this as part of the wide and the broad trend of international recognition for the new Libya that's taken the future in its own hands.

Last question here.

Q:(Inaudible...) du Quotidien d'Oran Algérie. Voilà, on parle ces derniers temps de beaucoup membres de la direction ou des pro-Qadhafi qui sont partis vers le Niger, le Mali...

OANA LUNGESCU: Oui, on ne vous entend... on ne vous entend pas très bien.

Q:Là, vous m'entendez?

OANA LUNGESCU: Oui.

Q:On parle ces derniers temps de plusieurs membres de la famille de Qadhafi qui sont partis en Algérie, au Niger. On parle du Mali. Bon, ce n'est pas très précis. Mais on parle également d'un mouvement de troupes pro-Qadhafi bien armées et beaucoup d'armes qui circulent, qui sont parties vers ces régions-là du Sahel. Et on parle même d'une jonction avec les éléments d'al-Qaïda. Est-ce que cet aspect des choses...? Ma question est la suivante. Est-ce que cet aspect des choses... cette prolifération des armes et cette jonction éventuelle entre les partisans de Qadhafi et des terroristes d'al-Qaïda... est-ce que cet aspect des choses est pris en charge par les politiques de l'OTAN? Et est-ce qu'il y a une consultation ou des contacts avec les pays révérends du Sahel, c'est-à-dire l'Algérie, le Mali, le Niger etc.? Voilà.

OANA LUNGESCU: Bon, ce sont des questions hypothétiques qui reposent surtout sur des informations médiatiques. Je n'ai aucune confirmation de ces informations. Ce que je peux vous dire en général, c'est qu'on est très encouragé par les déclarations de la part du Conseil national de transition, de son président Moustapha Abdeljalil qui a clairement parlé du fait que la nouvelle Libye ne va pas être extrémiste mais modérée. Il a parlé de réconciliation, d'unité, de droits de l'homme, de l'homme de la démocratie. Et on a bien vu la feuille de route déjà présentée par le Conseil national de transition pour la transition démocratique de la Libye qui démontre très clairement le désir sincère de démocratie de la NTC.

Pour ce qui est de la prolifération des armes, on continue à suivre ces aspects de très près. C'est bien sûr toujours un aspect qui... qui peut causer des... des problèmes. C'est de la responsabilité du Conseil national de transition d'assurer que cette transition se fait de manière paisible et sans prolifération des armes.

Pour le moment, c'est la responsabilité du... des Nations-Unies d'aider le peuple libyen dans cette transition qui bien sûr ne sera pas aisée. L'OTAN reste à la disposition de l'ONU d'aider dans cette transition si on nous le demande.

Mais comme vous savez, nous n'avons pas de troupes sur le terrain, pas de forces sur le terrain. Alors, ce n'est pas à nous de contrôler ce qui se passe avec les dépôts d’armes. C'est surtout la responsabilité du Conseil national de transition, des nouvelles autorités libyennes. Je ne sais pas si Roland a quelque chose à ajouter.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Pas vraiment

OANA LUNGESCU: Voilà, merci beaucoup à tout le monde. Et la semaine prochaine, je serai à New-York. Mais il y aura bien Carmen Romero et bien sûr Roland à Naples. À la prochaine.