By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 23, 2011 – NATO forces continue to protect Libyan civilians from pro-Gadhafi violence, but the regime is crumbling, losing ground to fighters who support the fledgling Transitional National Council and to the people of Libya themselves, NATO officials said today.
“NATO and our partners have conducted a highly effective campaign in support of the Libyan people under the mandate of the United Nations Security Council,” NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said this morning during a media briefing from the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels.
“Over the past five months,” she added, “we have steadily degraded the war machine built up over more than 40 years.”
Joining her by videoconference from Naples, Italy, was Col. Roland Lavoie of the Canadian air force, military spokesman for NATO’s Operation Unified Protector.
“There’s no doubt that pro-Gadhafi forces are severely eroded, losing through defection or capture key decision makers being expelled from strategic military positions,” Lavoie said, “and most importantly, [the regime is] losing the ability to suppress the Libyan population in a growing number of cities and villages.”
NATO forces do not know Gadhafi’s whereabouts, Lavoie said, adding that he’s not sure it matters. The solution to Libya’s problems will be political, he said, and Gadhafi “is not the key player any more.”
NATO forces today passed a milestone of 20,000 sorties flown and 5,000 military targets damaged or destroyed, including more than 800 tanks and artillery pieces, Lungescu said, with unprecedented precision and minimal risk to civilians.
“For the Gadhafi regime, this is the final chapter,” she added. “The end is near, and events are moving fast. What’s clear to everybody is that Gadhafi is history, and the sooner he realizes it, the better.”
The remnants of the regime are desperate, Lungescu said.
“They may be trying to fight back here and there,” she said, “but they’re fighting a losing battle. The launch last night of another Scud-type missile against Misrata is proof that we cannot drop our guard.”
Meanwhile, regardless of the latest developments, NATO’s military mission has not changed, Lavoie said. NATO forces will keep up the pressure until there are no more attacks against civilians, Gadhafi’s forces are withdrawn to their bases, and full and unimpeded humanitarian access has been assured, she added.
Because several areas still are contested, Lavoie said, “we have to remain vigilant and continue to protect the civilian population.”
The Libyan capital of Tripoli continues to experience clashes between pro- and anti-Gadhafi forces, he said.
The tension “is far from being over,” Lavoie added.
This afternoon, Lungescu said, ambassadors will meet at NATO headquarters to take stock of Operation Unified Protector and the way forward in Libya.
“I can’t prejudge the ambassadors’ discussion,” she said, “but there is a general understanding that any future NATO engagement will be governed by three principles.”
Those principles are:
-- The leading role in the post-Gadhafi period in supporting the Libyan people rests with the United Nations and the Transitional National Council, and NATO will have a supporting role;
-- NATO will have no troops on the ground; and
-- Any future NATO role in Libya in addition to the current one under Operation Unified Protector will have to be on request.
“We have seen people in Tripoli rejoicing as the Gadhafi regime crumbles,” Lungescu said. “They have lived under the threat of violence for decades. Now they can hope for a new beginning.”
In the United States today, Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps Colonel Dave Lapan said the United States has been monitoring and continues to monitor Libya’s chemical weapons stockpiles. The situation in the country still is very fluid, he added, and fighting continues.
“While we believe that the opposition forces control a large part of the country,” Lapan said, “Libya, and Tripoli in particular, are still very dangerous places.”