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NATO-led coalition to use helicopters in Libya

PARIS/MISRATA, Libya: France and other members of a NATO-led coalition will use attack helicopters in Libya, French officials said Monday, a step meant to hit Moammar Gadhafi’s forces more accurately from the air.

Continued shelling of the rebel-held western outpost of Misrata illustrated the scale of the problem facing rebel forces and NATO. Rebels said Gadhafi forces were trying to advance into the long-besieged city under cover of rocket and mortar shells.

Hospital officials said two people were killed and several wounded in Monday’s fighting in Misrata. Later in the day heavy explosions outside the city were heard, lasting about an hour.

A rebel spokesman said forces loyal to Gadhafi also shelled the rebel-held town of Zintan and massed troops close to another town in the mountainous region bordering Tunisia, intensifying operations on the war’s western front.

Confirming the proposed use of helicopter gunships, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters in Brussels the move was in line with a U.N. resolution to protect Libyan 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,” Juppe said. “That is the goal in deploying helicopters.”

NATO bombing has damaged Gadhafi’s armor but not enough to break a deadlock between rebels and government forces. While helicopters could make it easier to strike urban or embedded targets, they would also be more vulnerable to ground fire from Gadhafi’s troops.

The French daily Le Figaro reported that 12 helicopters, which could launch more precise attacks on pro-Gadhafi forces and targets than fixed-wing aircraft, were shipped out to Libya on the French warship Tonnerre May 17.

“It is not just French helicopters … it’s coordinated action by the coalition,” the diplomatic source said, in response to the newspaper report. “It is at NATO level.”

The source said the move could not be considered as part of a strategy to use ground troops in the conflict, now in its fourth month.

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. A U.N. Security Council resolution allows NATO to strike Gadhafi forces in defense of civilians, but it explicitly excludes any military occupation. Critics such as Russia accuse NATO of overstepping their mandate in prosecuting a systematic campaign to force an end to Gadhafi’s 41-year rule.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he agreed it was necessary to intensify pressure on Gadhafi’s forces, but declined to say whether Britain planned join a helicopter deployment.

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.

Intensifying diplomatic activity ahead of a G-8 meeting of world powers in France this week, the most senior U.S. diplomat to visit during the uprising arrived in the eastern city of Benghazi for talks with leaders of the rebellion.

Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for the Near East, met members of the National Transitional Council formed to administer the eastern regions under rebel control, on the heels of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s visit Sunday.

“We are here for the long term and what we can offer is support to Libyan institutions and the economy. We will be here to support you all the way,” Ashton said.

Echoing the U.S. and Europe, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu renewed calls Monday that Gadhafi quit while standing alongside Mustafa Abdel-Jaleel, head of the rebels’ national transitional council, after talks in Ankara.

A major Muslim partner in NATO, Turkey proposed a timetable earlier this month for a cease-fire that could allow a political transition to unfold. Davutoglu said the rebel council is “a legal and credible representative of the Libyan people.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he would meet a Libyan “opposition” delegation Monday to try to promote a cease-fire and negotiations.

“It is important at this stage to agree a makeup of participants in future talks – which I hope will be soon but are inevitable in any case – that would represent the interests of all the political forces, all the tribes in Libya.”

The rebels have refused proposals for a cease-fire and talks from Gadhafi’s administration, arguing he has broken previous unilateral cease-fires. They insist Gadhafi, his allies and his family must renounce power as part of any settlement.

As rebel hopes of a military victory have faded, Gadhafi opponents in Libya and Western governments have sought the collapse of the Libya administration from within, encouraging defections of senior officials.

Tunisia said Monday Libya’s top oil official was in Tunisia and believed to be no longer working for Gadhafi. There has been doubt about Shokri Ghanem’s fate since rebels said last week he had defected – a charge Tripoli has denied, saying he was merely on an official trip to Tunisia, Europe and Egypt.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 24, 2011, on page 1.

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