by Staff Writers
London (AFP) June 4, 2011
British Apache helicopters destroyed a radar station and a military checkpoint held by Moamer Kadhafi's forces near Brega in their first sorties over Libya, the defence ministry said Saturday.
The operation late Friday by Apaches from the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean off the north African coast took place alongside an operation by French helicopters from the assault ship Tonnerre, it said.
"Apache attack helicopters, flying from HMS Ocean, conducted their first operational sorties over Libya last night," Major General Nick Pope, spokesman for the Chief of the Defence Staff, said in a statement.
"The Apaches were tasked with precision strikes against a regime radar installation and a military checkpoint, both located around Brega," he said.
"Hellfire missiles and 30mm cannon were used to destroy the targets; the helicopters then returned safely to HMS Ocean."
Libyan government and rebel forces have been fighting for months over the strategic eastern oil town of Brega and it is roughly where the two sides have reached a stalemate in recent weeks.
Two of the four Apaches that Britain has deployed for the NATO mission were involved in Friday's raid, according to the BBC, which has a correspondent on board the ship.
The BBC showed green low-light footage of the helicopters taking off from and landing on the deck of HMS Ocean, and of the ship's crew loading up the helicopters with missiles and cannon bullets.
In an interview with the BBC, the pilot of one of the helicopters said it was "mission success." He was not identified for security reasons, said the BBC, which showed only half of his face while the rest was obscured by his helmet.
"We struck a military radar installation on the coast which we destroyed with Hellfire missiles and we also destroyed a vehicle at a military vehicle checkpoint," the pilot said.
"We are pleased that it was mission success, it is a good feeling to go, do your job, do it professionally, accurately and get back in one piece, and this aircraft is desgined really to do that," he added.
One of the helicopters came under fire from the ground, said the former head of the British Army, General Lord Dannatt.
"My information is that one of the attack helicopters was engaged and destroyed, on the ground, the vehicle and people that were engaging it. These things are highly sophisticated and those on the ground should not tangle with them," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
Pope said the attack was coordinated by NATO's air operations centre at Poggio, Italy, "and in particular was planned alongside an operation by French helicopters from the assault ship Tonnerre."
France has said that it deployed Gazelle and Tigre helicopters.
British Defence Secretary Liam Fox said NATO's use of attack helicopters in Libya is a "logical extension" of the military pressure on Kadhafi.
"No, it's not plan B at all," Fox told journalists on the sidelines of a security conference in Singapore. "The use of the attack helicopters is a logical extension of what we have already been doing."
Fox said the use of the helicopters showed the willingness of the coalition to "keep the pressure up" on Kadhafi.
In a separate statement, he said the mission proved Britain's capability to act in foreign theatres, less than a year after the coalition government axed Britain's only jet-capable aircraft carrier as part of sweeping cuts.
"This was the first operational mission flown by British Army Apaches at sea," he said.
"Their deployment from HMS Ocean demonstrates the flexibility of not just the aircraft, but also the Royal Navy's Responsive Force Task Group, held at very high readiness for contingency operations around the world."
NATO hopes copter attacks will break Libya deadlock
"The use of helicopters could mark a turning point, because they should provide supportive fire for the rebels on the ground," said Francois Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research.
At dawn on Saturday, British Apache helicopters based on the HMS Ocean off the Libyan coast hit a radar station and a military checkpoint near Brega, the first mission involving NATO helicopters in the Libyan conflict.
French Tigre and Gazelle helicopters meanwhile destroyed "20 targets, including 15 military vehicles," according to a high-ranking French military officer.
Well suited to spot enemy troops and miltary equipment often hidden in populated areas, the helicopters are more effective than the high-altitude planes and drones used previously by NATO to pound Kadhafi targets.
The helicopters will be used again "when and where necessary," said Charles Bouchard, overall commander of the NATO effort.
NATO hopes the helicopters will help break the deadlock by increasing the pressure on Kadhafi and his forces, who have so far withstood 3,640 strikes from the alliance.
But despite this heavy bombardment, "we find ourselves in a stalemate in Libya, and no one can predict when the NATO operation will end," a high-ranking European diplomat said in Brussels this week.
Speaking in Singapore on Saturday, British Defence Secretary Liam Fox rejected suggestions that decision to use helicopters was made because higher altitude bombings were producing limited results.
"It's not plan B at all," he said. "The use of attack helicopters is a logical extension of what we have already been doing."
Heisbourg partly agreed, arguing that when faced with a military deadlock the use of helicopters is "logical enough," especially since multiple diplomatic efforts have so far floundered.
"Mediation efforts, with the recent trip of South African President Jacob Zuma as an example, have not been able to achieve a breakthrough because Kadhafi resists," the Brussels-based diplomat said.
The badly organised, badly trained and badly armed rebel forces have also made little progress of late.
Alvaro de Vasconcelos, director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies, argued that the rebel forces in Benghazi "are not in a position to advance on Tripoli," even with the added helicopter support.
More significant in the short term would be to ease the situation in Misrata as "that is there where the helicopters could play an important role with more precise strikes," he said.
NATO hopes to minimise risks to the helicopters by inflicting heavy damage on Kadhafi's navy before launching its sorties, but the helicopters remain vulnerable to ground-based short-range missiles, according to Heisbourg.
Several helicopters drew fire from the ground during their mission on Saturday, but none was hit, according to the French military officer.
The helicopters alone will not be enough to break the deadlock, Heisbourg said, adding the a real breakthrough would come only if the rebels showed they could beef up their military effort.
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Obama reprimanded on Libya, China meets rebels
Benghazi, Libya (AFP) June 3, 2011
China acknowledged Friday for the first time contact with Libya's rebels, as US lawmakers passed a resolution forcing President Barack Obama to explain his decision to intervene in Libya. The United States and the United Nations, meanwhile, slammed Qatar's deportation of a Libyan woman who alleged she had been raped by soldiers loyal to Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi. Beijing's foreign ... read more
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