NATO begins helicopter attacks to pressure Gadhafi
Share with others:
TRIPOLI, Libya -- British and French attack helicopters struck military targets in Libya for the first time Saturday, as NATO tried to ratchet up the pressure on the country's leader, Moammar Gadhafi, a few days after extending its mission for three more months.
The British Apache and French Tiger and Gazelle helicopters rained missiles and cannon fire on targets behind the front line near the eastern oil city of Brega, including military vehicles, military command buildings, a radar installation and a checkpoint, according to military officers from both countries.
Their deployment represents a calculated risk, giving NATO the ability to strike military targets in built-up areas with more precision than fast-moving, high-flying warplanes but also raising the risk of the first Western military casualties of the campaign, because helicopters are more vulnerable to ground fire.
British Defense Secretary Liam Fox denied that the move was an admission that fighter jets had failed to achieve the alliance's ultimate objective -- forcing Gadhafi from power.
"It's not Plan B at all," Mr. Fox told a conference in Singapore. "The use of attack helicopters is a logical extension of what we had already been doing. We already had fast jets in action; this gives us a chance to target new targets in a way we weren't able to do."
Hours after the helicopter attack, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell arrived in the rebels' de facto capital, Benghazi, to meet with officials there, news agencies reported.
Gadhafi's government has suffered several setbacks in the past week, including the defection of its oil minister and several senior military officers and the largest protests in nearly three months in the capital, Tripoli. Yet the rebels admit there is little sign yet of cracks in Gadhafi's inner circle.
After weeks of swinging back and forth, the main coastal front line in the conflict has settled just to the east of the strategic city of Brega, which lies 482 miles east of Tripoli and remains under Gadhafi's control.
There was no immediate comment from the Libyan government, but the head of the rebel Transitional National Council in Benghazi, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, said the rebels "welcomed any measures to expedite the departure of Moammar Gadhafi."
Five hundred miles to the west, rebel fighters in the besieged city of Misrata welcomed the news but said they hoped to see the helicopters soon, to neutralize the heavy artillery they said was impeding their advance.
"We can win this battle," said Abu Mohammed, one of the fighters. "We have no problem if we face Gadhafi's forces, but they are not facing us, they are shelling from a distance."
But if the coastal front line is relatively static, the rebels have made progress in the western Nafusa mountain range, winning control of four towns on Friday, the Associated Press reported.
The small rebel force in the sparsely populated region is unlikely to threaten Gadhafi's hold on Tripoli, but the victories could bring relief to local residents by opening up roads between their communities.
First Published June 5, 2011 12:00 am