Press briefing on Libya

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

  • 27 Sep. 2011
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  • Last updated: 28 Sep. 2011 17:00

OANA LUNGESCU (NATO Spokesperson): Hello, and good afternoon, and welcome to everybody here in Brussels and in Naples and those following us on the Internet.

Before I hand over to Colonel Roland Lavoie in Naples, I'd just like to update you on some of the results of the Secretary General's trip to the United Nations' General Assembly last week.

In New York, the message was clear, a new day is dawning for Libya and the international community is rallying around the new Libya. But our job under the mandate of the United Nations and in support of the Libyan people is not yet done. The situation remains fluid and while threats persist, NATO will continue to protect civilians together with our partners under the mandate confirmed by the recent United Nations Security Council Resolution 2009. The mission will continue as long as it's necessary, but will end as soon as possible.

At the Security Council meeting yesterday, Dr. Jibril from the National Transitional Council thanked NATO for its decision to continue operations for up to 90 days more. And as you know, the technical rollover of Operation Unified Protector was taken last week by the North Atlantic Council. That was a decision that was taken together with our partners. And we also decided at the same time to keep the situation under regular review.

And what does that mean? It means that the North Atlantic Council can terminate the mission at any time and as soon as possible in coordination with the United Nations and the will and aspirations of the Libyan people.

We welcome the fact that a number of nations have reaffirmed their commitment to our mission. For example, the Canadian Parliament just voted overwhelmingly to extend its contribution to protecting civilians in Libya. And that followed news last week that the Netherlands and Sweden will also remain committed in the coming weeks and months.

In New York, the Secretary General also announced that the next NATO Summit will be held in Chicago on May the 20th and 21st next year. So you can put that in your planning diaries.

And with that, I'll hand over to Roland, in Naples for the operational update.


COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE (Spokesperson for the Operation Unified Protector): Thank you very much, Oana; and a warm welcome to all of those joining us today in Naples or elsewhere on the Internet or in Brussels.

Recent developments in Sirte and Bani Walid have been our main area of attention over the last few days. Indeed, it's clear that remaining Gadhafi forces refuse to recognize their defeat and that the former regime has lost both legitimacy and the public support.

As a last resort, they are hiding in urban areas from where they attempt to control the surrounding population and use civilians as shields against the NTC attempts to dislodge them. Multiple sources including the media eye-witness accounts and intelligence reports reveal a worsening situation in these two towns, precipitated by Gadhafi forces, efforts to control ground access points.

The availability of drinking water, food supply, electricity, medicine and fuel is severely impeded, which puts an enormous pressure on the population. Numerous checkpoints and surrounding sniper positions are being used to prevent families from moving to safer locations. And Gadhafi forces and mercenaries roam the streets looking for anti-Gadhafi supporters, taking hostages and conducting executions. Even neutral humanitarian workers are not allowed to bring relief to people in need which is appalling and senseless as this gives Gadhafi forces no military advantage at all.

NATO aircrafts spotted numerous staging points embedded in densely populated areas, from where Gadhafi forces conduct shelling operations and endanger the population. One of these areas is the premises of the Sirte hospital from where Gadhafi forces feel safe from NATO airstrikes.

On a more positive note, the NTC forces have opened a line of communication in the northwest coastal area last weekend, which has allowed thousands to escape from that route. This life-saving operation resulted in NTC casualties but allowed many to escape a very tough, if not to say dire situation.

NATO operations over these densely populated areas have been conducted with extreme caution, using only precision munitions, striking several commanding control nodes, ammunition storage facilities, multiple armed vehicles, sniper firing from positions and heavy weaponry. Such operations further eroded Gadhafi forces in several cases. Also they interrupted them during operations as they were actively conducting attacks against the civilian population.

Of course, there are limitations to what NATO can do in urban environments. Our mandate is to protect, not to endanger the civilians that we want to protect. And we will continue to operate in a very diligent manner. It is also our assessment that Gadhafi forces can't hold their senseless posture for long, given the dynamics on the ground.

Looking now at the centre and south of the country, the NTC is now controlling facilities containing Libya's remaining stockpile of chemical and nuclear related agents. We are confident that allies and international organizations that are in contact with the NTC are working to ensure that Libyan's governing authorities can take full control of any proliferation sensitive material that is left and that they start planning for their safe disposal.

Last week, it was also reported that some Gadhafi forces had regrouped to Al Fuqaha. And I'm pleased to report that they have not been able to consolidate or expand their footprint and do not represent a major threat to the region which is arid and sparsely populated. We will continue of course to monitor the situation closely as we do for the rest of the Libyan territory.

Operation Unified Protector is not over yet. We are committed to pursue it to protect the population of Libya for as long as necessary, but not a day longer.

I'm now available to take your questions. Up to you, Oana.

OANA LUNGESCU: As usual we'll start in Brussels and then hand over to you in Naples for what questions you may have.

I think I can see Agence France-Presse, Laurent.

LAURENT THOMET (Agence France-Presse): Laurent Thomet with Agence France-Presse. You mentioned the NTC forces that have taken control of chemical, stockpiles of chemical agents. Do you know if they've taken control of all the known stockpiles and does that include the mustard gas that the regime has been known to be holding?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: This is correct. You could understand that I could not be very precise about locations, but in central and south of the country, for the moment the only areas where the Gadhafi forces have some control are essentially Bani Walid and Sirte. So basically we do believe that the new governing authorities are in control of these dangerous matters.

OANA LUNGESCU: Over there.

Q: Bonjour colonel, Jan Cordys (Agence Europe). Maintenant que le terrain en Libye est de plus en plus occupé par les forces rebelles, les journalistes sur place découvrent d'énormes entrepôts de munitions, et ils ont remarqué entre autres des… un important nombre de caisses vides avec des missiles… qui contenaient avant des missiles sol-air. Est-ce que vous pouvez nous dire qu'à un moment ou à un autre de l'opération Unified Protector, l'armée libyenne du regime de Kadhafi a utilisé ce genre de moyens pour menacer les avions ou les hélicoptères qui ont été utilisés par l'OTAN? Merci.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Effectivement, oui. Je n'ai pas la connaissance des détails ici, là, sur place en termes des lieux et moments, mais ce genre de munitions ont été effectivement utilisées.

Il faut aussi garder à l'esprit qu'une partie des munitions ont été réparties. Toute armée au combat normalement va répartir ses ressources. Donc il y a certainement un travail important à faire de la part des nouvelles autorités pour prendre le contrôle de ces munitions, et c'est d'ailleurs l'assurance que nous avons reçue du Conseil national de transition.

OANA LUNGESCU: Over there.

Q: Good afternoon, Emiliano Bos from Swiss Radio Television.

Good afternoon. You have been saying that NATO is still protecting civilians as it is according to the mandate. I can't really ask you to get back a bit to something that was involving protection of civilians fleeing Libya, I'm talking about an accident regarding a vessel of migrants end of March, beginning of April, something that you already have been talking about. But I have met eight of the nine survivors of this vessel on which 72 people were on board, 63 died. So according to the witnessing, there was at least one helicopter bringing some water and some food and they saw different military ships, at least one big ship, so I don’t know which kind of ships. But something that really touched me, they're saying that someone took picture of them at least from the ship and probably, according to them once again, from the helicopter. So I was wondering if up to now you have, if you're aware, if you have any information about pictures taken from any military ... I'm not saying NATO ships of course I'm saying military ships in that portion of sea where NATO was operating. And as far as I understood, NATO was opening an inquest, an investigation about this accident and is it finished, this investigation? Are the outcomes public already? Thank you.

OANA LUNGESCU: (Inaudible) said at the time I don’t know if Roland has anything more in Naples.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Oana, we didn't have the sound for… for the beginning of your reply. I know that this is being looked into but at this time, I don’t have any… any update to provide.

OANA LUNGESCU: We will take down the details and we'll get back to you as soon as we can, as soon as we actually have information on this incident.

Q: Would you allow me to have a follow-up or should I wait?

OANA LUNGESCU: I think it's probably better if we try to find out if we have any new information about the incident.

Q: … (inaudible) after the press conference just to understand it. Thank you.

OANA LUNGESCU: So we can go over to Naples. Roland, any questions you may have there?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Yes, we have a question.

Q: Mark McCall from The Times of Malta. How long do you estimate that NATO will need to be in Libya? And will this depend on the success or lack of it of the NTC forces operating in Sirte and Bani Walid?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: I'll talk from an operational perspective. For us, if you look at Operation Unified Protector, we'll be there as long as required by our higher headquarters. We basically we take the direction from there.

The duration of our mandate is more based on the conditions on the ground than in terms of time; because our mandate is to protect civilians. And when there will be no more requirements for the NATO presence, we will be told and we will stand down.

In terms of the threat assessment on the ground, for the moment the only two remaining areas of concerns are Sirte and Bani Walid. This is why there is a general sense that a lot of the Libyan territory has been secured. And as of about a week ago, our estimates were that there were still about 200,000 inhabitants out of a population of over 6 million that were still being threatened.

So it gives you an appreciation of the level of the threat. Keeping in mind that it's not only the number that counts, it's also the people because each of these people are basically feeling threatened and we'll keep on with our mission as long as necessary. But as the Sec Gen said, not one day longer.

OANA LUNGESCU: If I may just add to that, Roland, just to clarify obviously we are not in Libya: there are no NATO troops on the ground in Libya.

But what the North Atlantic Council together with our operation partners did last week was to extend the mandate for another up to 90 days based on the renewed mandate of the United Nations Security Council resolution 2009, and that is we continue to operate in the air and at sea, policing the no-fly zone, the arms embargo and preventing attacks and the threat of attacks against civilians.

But clearly as we said, there is a general feeling that we are in the final phase of this operation, but we will see the mission through, and once there is a military assessment from our military authorities that the conditions on the ground permit the North Atlantic Council will take that decision to terminate, to phase out the operation. And that decision obviously will be made in consultation with the United Nations and according to the will and to the aspiration of the new Libyan authorities.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: I think we have another question from Naples.

Q: (Inaudible) for a political magazine in Albania. Just a question: how much you estimate the cost of military operation up to now?

OANA LUNGESCU: I don’t have an estimate of the overall cost of the operation. As you know the principles calculating this cost is that cost lie with a (inaudible) so it's up to nations. There is however of course the costs to AWACS planes which are NATO assets but I don’t have a calculation right now. Of course the mission is still ongoing.

I think they have another question in Naples.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Yes we have one more question here.

Q: Yes (inaudible), Politika Belgrade. During the established contacts with the NTC, did it happen any time that you got any communication with the Islamic parts of the broad coalition which is called NTC?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: I could only talk from an operational perspective. From an operational perspective, we are not in discussion or in contact with the NTC and we do not coordinate our operations with them.

At the political level I'll let Oana look at that side of the question.

OANA LUNGESCU: Politically there have been contacts as you know with the Transitional National Council on the margins of contact with meetings and then on the margins of Friends of Libya meetings. And these are the source of political contacts that have been ongoing.

And as you know Dr. Jibril was also here in Brussels at NATO Headquarters and he addressed an informal meeting of the North Atlantic Council before the summer.

I think we can now go to the Belgium News Agency.

Q: Oui, Gérard Gaudin, de Belga…. J'ai en fait deux questions. Une qui s'adresse plutôt au colonel Lavoie, et l'autre à Oana. Celle qui s'adresse au colonel Lavoie, c'est la suivante. Apparemment, la semaine dernière, il restait trois poches de résistence. Il n'y en a plus que deux. Est-ce que ça veut dire que sur tout l'ensemble du territoire, il y a plus des pro-Kadhafi qui commettent un certain nombre d'actes de violence isolés?

Et alors pour Oana, la fin de l'opération, ça veut dire la fin totale, est-ce que… il y aura plus de contrôle de l'embargo, il y aura plus de… surveillance du no-fly zone après la fin de l'opération?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Merci monsieur Gaudin pour votre question. Des actes isolés, je crois que ça demande à être defini pour pouvoir répondre à la question dans le sens que… autant que l'OTAN soit concernée, notre présence est justifiée pour aider et apporter une assistance globale pour sécuriser la population de la Libye. Autrement dit, il est fort possible que des actes isolés puissent se produire à petite échelle dans un coin ou dans un autre du pays, et à chaque semaine, on est au courant de quelques escarmouches.

Ceci dit, du point de vue de l'OTAN, nous nous consacrons surtout aux menaces à grande échelle. Autrement dit, pour aider là où nous croyons que l'autorité actuelle ne peut pas prendre en compte les besoins de sécurité. C'est pour ça qu'on s'attarde donc aux menaces significatives.

Je ne peux pas rentrer dans les détails militaires, mais on parle ici de formation militaire, et non pas de gestes isolés. Tout pays en conflit, si on regarde l'histoire, a connu suite au conflit une phase de reconciliation et de tensions. Et je ne crois pas qu'un pays en particulier, notamment la Libye, puisse faire exception à cette règle. Notre attention est surtout donc au niveau des menaces significatives. Et ces menaces-là, essentiellement maintenant, sont concentrées sur deux villes, au nord du pays.

OANA LUNGESCU: Gérard, ce dont on parle en ce moment, c'est le mandat de l'Opération Protecteur unifié. Tu connais les résolutions… les deux résolutions de l'ONU et la nouvelle résolution 2009. C'est ce mandat-là dont on parle qui a été prolongé pour jusqu'à 90 jours supplémentaires, mais on est déterminé à terminer cette operation avec ce mandat le plus rapidement possible; le moment où ce sera faisable sur le terrain en coordination avec les Nations Unies et avec les autorités libyennes.

Ce sera aux Nations Unies qui seront… auront le leadership dans la période d'après-Kadhafi pour l'appui au peuple libyen de décider s'il y a besoin d'autres moyens d'appui pour le futur.

Mais pour le moment, on parle du mandat actuel, et de l'opération actuelle. On est déterminé à continuer notre mandat et notre opération, mais pas un jour plus long que nécessaire.

Okay we've got Japanese media over there?

Q: Japanese paper (inaudible). I want to ask about Defence ministers meeting, and last time ….. last Defence ministers meeting… there was a discussion about who and which asset to be… should be contributed to the Operation United Protector. Do you expect similar discussion would happen in the next Defence ministers meeting? Thank you.

OANA LUNGESCU: I don’t expect a detailed discussion on assets because we have the assets that we need for the operation as it stands right now.

One last question from AFP.

Q: Laurent Thomet again with AFP. Actually two questions if possible. The rebels appear to have made a big advance on Sirte, taking the port. Is Sirte closer to being captured by the… NTC than Bani Walid? Is there one of the two towns that's more in control of the Gadhafi forces? And the second question is on the mission in general. Britain yesterday announced that it was withdrawing its helicopters. Are there other nations withdrawing assets? Could we say that NATO allies are winding down their missions because the situation is improving so much?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Thank you very much for your question. Regarding Sirte, we consider it contested so it means that big part of the town is controlled by Gadhafi forces. And of course for the last three days, the NTC forces have made significant progress starting with the south, and then the west, and most lately also the east. But essentially the overall region is contested. And it would be premature at this stage to go further than that.

With respect to assets, you should be aware that regularly, throughout the mission, we… different nations provide Unified Protector with different sets of assets. As far as we're concerned, it's not one specific contribution that we look at, but at maintaining the overall capability.

You made reference to the U.K. contribution which has been significant, and we're very thankful for that contribution. And I could assure you that the commitment of that country and of several other countries contributing to OUP has been absolutely fantastic and we are not short of any assets. Our nations have provided us what we need to operate which you could see just by looking at our daily updates that reflect clearly that we have maintained a very high operational tempo since the beginning of the operation.

OANA LUNGESCU: Okay. Thank you very much indeed. And thank you to everybody in Naples, thank you very much Roland. Good afternoon to everyone.

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Oana? Are you still on? Okay, we'll take... my apologies, but we'll take still the question from here. So please just ask it. Yes.

Q: (Inaudible).


Q: Nicola , The Post Internazionale. What is the condition to say that Libyan people are finally protected and so to stop the operations?

COLONEL ROLAND LAVOIE: Okay. I was asked that question, but I think it was in French, so that gives me the opportunity to answer that in English.

Essentially what I said on that is that we… our last assessment, dating for about a week ago, was that there was "approximativelly" still about 200,000 citizens in Libya who we believe were basically being threatened. So basically this gives you an idea considering that the country has over 6.5 million inhabitants.

So basically we're getting there and we have a sense, a general sense that soon will come the day when we will have reached confidence that our mission is not needed anymore and we believe that this day is not too far ahead.

Having said that, this assessment is event-driven and is security-driven so basically we will assess the situation, and only when we will be there that we will be able to confirm that we have reached that level of confidence that the population is safe enough.

Of course, that military assessment will have to be validated by our higher headquarters, as all good military would take direction, and we'll end the mission when our higher headquarters will give us the signal that we have accomplished it fully.

So I guess this concludes the news conference. Thank you very much for all those who attended. See you next time.