(Updates with visit by U.K. ministers in eighth, ninth paragraphs. See EXTRA and MET for more on Middle East unrest.)
June 4 (Bloomberg) -- British and French attack helicopters struck military targets in Libya for the first time last night as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization stepped up the fight against regime leader Muammar Qaddafi’s forces.
U.K. Apache helicopters from the carrier HMS Ocean and French helicopters from the assault ship Tonnerre destroyed a radar installation and a military checkpoint near the strategic oil town of Brega on the central coast, according to a statement from Major General Nick Pope, a U.K. military spokesman.
“The use of the attack helicopters is a logical extension of what we have already been doing,” U.K. Defense Secretary Liam Fox told reporters in Singapore today. “We will continue with the methods we have to degrade his command and control, to degrade his supplies.”
The conflict between Qaddafi’s troops and rebels trying to end his four-decade rule has left most of eastern Libya in opposition hands and curbed oil exports. NATO said May 20 its air campaign has “effectively” pushed Qaddafi into hiding.
British jet fighters operating in areas near where the helicopters were used destroyed a military installation and attacked two ammunition bunkers, Pope said. NATO has a better understanding of where Qaddafi’s forces are stationed, making it “appropriate” to use helicopters, he said.
“As yesterday’s operations demonstrate, the capabilities of the Apache complement well the precision strike and reconnaissance missions flown by NATO fast jets,” Pope said.
NATO will cease its activities if Qaddafi stops “waging war on his own people,” Fox said in Singapore, where he attended a security forum with defense officials from 27 countries, including U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell today were visiting the rebel-held city of Benghazi, where they were to meet with leaders of the rebels’ National Transitional Council, the Foreign Office in London said in an e-mailed statement.
“We are here together as part of a coordinated and strategic approach to Libya -- ensuring that our military, diplomatic and development actions are aligned,” Hague was cited as saying in the statement. “The U.K. is committed to this task. Colonel Qaddafi is isolated internationally and domestically. He has lost all legitimacy, continues to abuse human rights without mercy or compunction. He must go.”
Before the helicopter assault, rebels of the Black Katiba, or Black Battalion, near the opposition-held city of Misrata, said they had been waiting for the Apaches.
“NATO can take care of the Grads, we can do all the rest,” said Khalid Alogab, a tall, bearded commander in a black T-shirt, referring to the Russian-made rockets that Qaddafi’s forces have fired into the city.
A rebel military spokesman in Misrata, Commander Ibrahim Betalmal, said there may be as many as 2,000 Qaddafi loyalists outside the city, some of them elite forces.
Rebel fighters are now coordinating with NATO and have been told not to advance beyond certain points, Betalmal said. “No doubt NATO will help a great deal in clearing the way forward for us,” he added.
The Black Katiba was formed by Misrata men from all walks of life in the first days of the siege. The only qualification for entry was that recruits already knew at least one member of the unit.
The battalion’s name comes from the matte black paint applied to its fleet of pickup trucks, which carry machine guns or rocket launchers. They were painted to set them apart from the white pickup trucks Qaddafi’s forces use, helping reduce the risk of so-called friendly fire incidents -- particularly by NATO aircraft, which have had trouble distinguishing friend from foe.
--With assistance from Peter S. Green in New York and Christopher Stephen in Misrata. Editors: Paul Tighe, Jim McDonald, Heather Langan, Jennifer M. Freedman
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