France is shipping attack helicopters to Libya in a bid to step up strikes against forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, French officials said Monday, confirming an earlier report by French daily Le Figaro.
REUTERS - France and other members of a NATO-led coalition will deploy attack helicopters in Libya, French officials said on Monday, in a move intended to achieve more accurate air strikes on Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.
Twelve helicopters were shipped to Libya on French helicopter carrier Tonnerre on May 17, daily Le Figaro reported earlier, to help break a military stalemate three months into an uprising against Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.
Confirming the proposed use of helicopters, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters in Brussels the move was in line with a United Nations resolution to protect civilians and 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. “That is the goal in deploying helicopters.” NATO bombing has damaged Gaddafi’s armour but not enough to break a deadlock between rebels and government forces. While helicopters could make it easier to hit urban or embedded targets, they would also be more vulnerable to ground fire by Gaddafi’s troops.
“It is not just French helicopters ... It’s coordinated action by the coalition,” a French diplomatic source told Reuters earlier in the day. “It is at NATO level.”
A NATO official said he did not know whether the helicopters would come under NATO command.
“NATO is aware that the French government has decided to send another ship to join operations in the Mediterranean under national command. Coordination of this ship’s activities with NATO operations could take place in the future if and so when required,” he said.
French first to launch strikes
French planes were the first to bomb Gaddafi forces in March after the United Nations voted to allow intervention in Libya.
“Twelve helicopters is not a lot,” Ken Freeman, associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), told Reuters.
“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.”
The air strikes, now led by NATO, were launched as Gaddafi’s troops advanced on Benghazi after the Libyan leader vowed “no mercy, no pity”.
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.
“This is not a change of 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,” Juppe said.
British Foreign Minister William Hague told reporters in Brussels he agreed with France and others that “it was necessary to intensify the military, economic and diplomatic pressure on the Gaddafi regime.” But he declined to say if Britain planned to join a helicopter deployment.
Britain’s largest warship, HMS Ocean, left Plymouth in southwest England in April carrying Apache attack helicopters and other aircraft for exercises in the Mediterranean.
“I’ve not got any announcement to make today about additional assets involved in that (the Libya campaign), so I can’t comment further... But we are very much behind the intensification of the military campaign,” Hague said.
Helping special forces?
The NATO campaign has damaged Tripoli’s ability to attack rebels, but rebel advances have also stalled.
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.
The French source said the move could not be considered as part of a strategy to use ground troops in the conflict.
“I think the most likely scenario is that the attack helicopter would be used for special forces attacks,” said military helicopter specialist Andrew Drwiega, adding that special forces could identify targets quickly without having to wait for warplanes.
“I don’t think it would be likely the attack helicopter would operate independently simply because of the risk of attacking friendly forces,” Drwiega told Reuters.
Date created : 2011-05-23