British and French launch helicopter raids on Libya
Published 24/05/2011 | 05:00
ATTACK helicopters will be deployed in Libya within days in a significant expansion of the military mission against Muammar Gaddafi's forces.
Apache helicopters will fly into Libya from a British Royal Navy warship in a joint operation with the French.
As many as 18 British and French helicopters will be deployed to support rebels trying to consolidate gains against Gaddafi's forces. The helicopter operation will take the allies closer to a full ground operation.
Whitehall officials said that, by the weekend, the Apaches will begin flying missions from HMS Ocean, a helicopter carrier in the Mediterranean.
Their use was authorised by David Cameron at a meeting of the National Security Council after the prime minister asked military chiefs for new ways to increase pressure on the regime.
One of the helicopters' principal tasks will be to enforce a 16-mile buffer zone around the besieged city of Misurata. Some semblance of normality has returned to the city since rebels captured the airport and attacked Libyan army artillery positions more than a week ago.
British military planners said the helicopters would help the rebels entrench their control over Misurata.
"It is very important that we sustain that buffer zone to demonstrate the sense of normality that is building in Misurata now that it is no longer significantly under threat from Gaddafi," one source said.
The Apaches, which carry Hellfire missiles and 30mm cannon, will target mortar batteries, light military vehicles and individuals, including snipers and commanders.
HMS Ocean is currently carrying three Apaches. Another helicopter will arrive in the area later this week, and two more are on standby in the UK.
As many as 12 Tiger and Gazelle helicopters will also fly from a French carrier.
The helicopters will help replace low-flying American gunships that were withdrawn from the operation in March. Military experts said deploying helicopters will make the Nato campaign more effective.
"Attack helicopters can go lower and slower than fighter bombers and their missiles and cannon can be useful precision weapons. Although they are vulnerable, they can take advantage of terrain in ways that fast jets cannot," said Benjamin Barry, a defence analyst.
Syria, meanwhile, has accused the EU of trying to destabilise it after President Bashar al-Assad was targeted by sanctions, including an asset freeze and travel ban.
The EU yesterday overcame divisions to follow the US in imposing sanctions on the Syrian dictator and his inner circle of officials who have given the orders to kill up to 900 protesters since mid-March.
"Syria denounces sanctions by the EU against its people at a time when it is seeking to preserve its security," said a statement by the state news agency SANA. (© Daily Telegraph, London)