Apache helicopters hit Libyan targets

BRITISH Apache attack helicopters destroyed a radar installation and a military checkpoint as they carried out their first strikes in Libya.

The early morning operation saw the "carefully and rigorously" selected targets near the key oil town of Brega attacked as part of an escalation of the Nato operation in the country.

At least one of the helicopters is believed to have come under fire, but was not hit during the attack.

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All the Apaches returned to their base on HMS Ocean safely. The aircraft have been deployed to Libya in an effort to aid rebels fighting troops loyal to Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi.

The Apache operation was part of a night of attacks on regime fighters that saw the RAF attack another military installation near Brega, near the eastern front line, and two ammunition bunkers in the centre of the country. Rebel forces in the east of the country are pushing west from Ajdabiya, with Brega the next major town on their route.

Prime Minister David Cameron approved the use of the aircraft last week and yesterday is the first time they been used in Libya.

French helicopters were involved in simultaneous attacks, which are believed to have targeted 15 military vehicles and five command buildings.

Operation commander Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard said: "This successful engagement demonstrates the unique capabilities brought to bear by attack helicopters.

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"We will continue to use these assets whenever and wherever needed, using the same precision as we do in all our missions."

The Nato operation in Libya was extended by 90 days on Wednesday, leading to accusations that the coalition has become a victim of "mission creep". Labour MP Graham Allen has called for a fresh debate on the mission.

There are fears that the original aim of Nato forces backed by the United Nations is being supplemented by a desire to end Gaddafi's rule. The dictator has confined himself to the capital Tripoli as members of his government continue to defect.

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General Lord Dannatt, the former head of the army, said introducing the helicopters was "an inevitable intensification" on the conflict.

"If you pick up the words from when President Obama was visiting (the UK] and what we've heard the Prime Minister say, we don't want to let this thing linger any more than we absolutely have to.

"The mission under UNHCR 1973 is quite clear: it is to protect people.

"But of course the implied task, and let's be absolutely honest about it, is the removal of Colonel Gaddafi."

Dannatt added he had been told the helicopters had come under fire during yesterday's mission, but added they are "highly sophisticated and those on the ground should not tangle with them".

Apache helicopters are designed for close-range attacks and operate at lower altitudes than other aircraft deployed by Nato forces in Libya.

That leaves them more vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire, with Defence Secretary Liam Fox admitting there was an "increased risk" in their deployment.

Previously, Nato commanders have been forced to rely on aircraft flying about three miles above the ground.

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Major General Nick Pope said: "The Apaches were tasked with precision strikes against a regime radar installation and a military checkpoint, both located around Brega. Hellfire missiles and 30mm cannons were used to destroy the targets; the helicopters then returned safely to HMS Ocean.

"In the same area, Royal Air Force ground attack aircraft destroyed another military installation and a military checkpoint, while a separate RAF mission successfully attacked two ammunition bunkers at the large Waddan depot in central Libya.

"The targets which were prosecuted had been carefully and rigorously selected. Our understanding of the detailed disposition of Col Gaddafi's forces has been improving in a very satisfactory manner, despite their efforts to conceal themselves."

Fox added: "This was the first operational mission flown by British Army Apaches at sea. Their deployment from HMS Ocean demonstrates the flexibility of not just the aircraft, but also the Royal Navy's Responsive Force Task Group, held at high readiness for contingency operations around the world.

"The attack helicopter is yet another potent and formidable aircraft type which has now been added to the Nato forces on this operation.

"Those who are still supporting Col Gaddafi would do well to realise that the best way to remove themselves from danger is to understand that their future lies with the Libyan people, not a discredited regime."

The commander of the Royal Navy's Response Force Task Group, Commodore James Kingwell, added: "This action highlights Nato's resolve to protect the Libyan people and it is a further example of the increasing pressure on the Col Gaddafi and his regime to recognise the will of the international community and cease attacks on his own people.

"The successful and safe operations required a first-class performance by the sailors, soldiers and Royal Marines across the Royal Navy's Response Force Task Group.

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"I am very proud of all of their work so far, which yet again underlines the versatility of this force."

Elsewhere in the country, rebels are reported to have taken control of four towns in the Nafusa mountain range in the west. Government forces had held the area under siege for months.

At least two powerful explosions were heard in central Tripoli yesterday evening. Aircraft could be heard overhead at the time of the blasts, before sunset. Air strikes during daylight hours are relatively rare.

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