Apaches bid to end Libyan stalemate
AT 1.04 in the morning, the pilot of an Apache helicopter-gunship hidden in the inky black sky pressed the trigger of the 30mm cannon, bringing down concentrated fire on a pick-up truck, ripping it open.
Ammunition stored inside set off secondary explosions, spreading the swirling flames.
Three men who had been trying to open fire with the vehicles' anti-aircraft gun mounted at the back of the truck were now terrified, scrambling to get away.
One of the two Apaches followed the fleeing men for a few minutes before wheeling away. The mission commander, in charge of the aircraft, had no doubt this was the right decision.
"They were running away and posed no immediate threat, there was no justification in shooting them. I did not think it would have helped in what we are trying to achieve here," he said.
"We had made a point, dealt with what was threatening us, the gun on the truck, destroyed weapons. It's simply a matter of patience, using one's intellect, and also one of morality."
The Apache WAH 64Ds, launched from HMS Ocean, the UK's sole remaining aircraft carrier, had faced limited ground-fire, mostly scattered Kalashnikov rounds, during their first mission in Libya, indicating that the regime's air defences had been damaged by the sustained bombing campaign.
Two months after Nato's intervention, there is stalemate on the ground, and the introduction of the attack helicopters, and their French equivalents, is designed to change that situation.
But the deployment is also controversial, leading to inevitable charges of "mission creep", and claims this may lead to "boots on the ground".
"With an Apache we can be very precise about our targeting," said the mission commander.
"In Afghanistan we were supporting troops. In Libya we are acting in support of the people against the forces of a despot," the pilot said. (© Independent News Service).