France and Britain to deploy helicopters in Libya

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France said on Monday that it and Britain would deploy attack helicopters in Libya to achieve more accurate strikes on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. British officials declined to confirm comments from French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet that Britain would deploy helicopters from its assault ship HMS Ocean.

Two months of Western bombardment of Libya using high-flying fixed-wing planes has damaged Gaddafi’s forces, but not enough to break a military stalemate three months into an uprising against his four-decade rule. Helicopters would make it easier to hit urban or embedded targets with precision while avoiding civilian casualties, but they would also be more vulnerable to ground fire.

The French daily Le Figaro reported that 12 helicopters had been shipped to Libya on the French helicopter carrier Tonnerre. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters at a meeting with EU counterparts in Brussels that a decision had been taken to this effect and the move was in line with a U.N. mandate to protect civilians, which has been taken as the basis for NATO’s military operations. “What we want is to better tailor our ability to strike on the ground with ways that allow more accurate hits,” he said.

Longuet said: “The British, who have resources comparable to ours, will do the same thing as us.” He said the landing ship HMS Ocean, currently off Gibraltar, would be used for this purpose.

Britain’s Sky News quoted sources as saying Britain would send 12 Apache helicopters to the Libyan coast. A Ministry of Defence spokesman declined to confirm or deny the report. Speaking in London at a news conference earlier with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Foreign Secretary William Hague declined specific comment, but said the tactics used by Gaddafi’s forces had changed: “So sometimes what we do in response, the assets which we use in response, our own tactics in response, do also have to change.”

NATO COMMAND?

Clinton said she was sure any French offer to increase its contributions would be “taken up through the NATO chain of command,” and a French diplomatic source said the deployment would be a “coordinated action by the coalition.”

However, a NATO official said he did not know whether the helicopters would come under the command of NATO or of the individual states deploying them. French planes were the first to bomb Gaddafi’s forces in March after the United Nations voted to allow intervention in Libya. NATO took command of the overall mission on March 31.

However, many NATO members refuse to go beyond enforcing a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone to attack Gaddafi forces, despite the urging of France, Britain and the United States, which all want to see Gaddafi removed from power.

Ken Freeman, of the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said helicopters had their limitations. “They tend to be quite vulnerable, so they are probably going to be used very carefully … You could probably say it is a sign that people are running out of ideas of what to do. This is doing something other than sitting on your hands.”

Juppe said it did not represent a change in strategy. “The strategy remains the same: protecting the population by weakening Gaddafi’s military power and military might is not just about armoured vehicles and planes, but also command centres and supply structures,” he said.

According to Le Figaro’s source, French special forces, who have been operating in Libya to help identify targets for NATO planes since the start of air strikes, could now be reinforced and deployed to guide helicopter attacks.



Pic: The Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopter