UK attack helicopters 'set for Libyan strikes'

Britain and France are to deploy attack helicopters in Libya in an effort to break the stalemate in the conflict, the French defence minister said yesterday.

There was no immediate confirmation of Gerard Longuet's claim from the UK Ministry of Defence, but a spokesman said that "all options are being looked at".

Any use of attack helicopters such as the RAF's Apaches, which can hit small targets in built-up areas - like the besieged city of Misrata - would represent a significant stepping-up of international military operations.

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It is understood that, if authorised, Apaches could fly from HMS Ocean in the Mediterranean for joint operations with French aircraft to stop the forces of dictator Muammar Gaddafi targeting civilians in Misrata.

French foreign minister Alain Juppe confirmed that France is sending helicopters to Libya, which he said would fall within UN Security Council resolution 1973, that authorises the protection of civilians.

And Mr Longuet later added: "The British, who have similar resources to us, are going to do the same thing we are."

French amphibious assault ship Le Tonnerre sailed from Toulon last week and reports in the Paris media suggest it is carrying 12 helicopters and sailing for the Libyan coast.

Speaking in London after talks with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Foreign Secretary William Hague declined to comment on the prospect of the use of attack helicopters.

But, in response to questions about the possible French deployment of helicopters, he said: "While not commenting on any particular deployment, remember that the tactics of the Gaddafi regime have changed over the weeks of this action.

"So sometimes, what we do in response, the assets we use in response, our own tactics, do also have to change."

Mrs Clinton said: "With respect to any French offers to increase their contribution to the effort in Libya to protect civilians, I'm sure that will be taken up through the Nato chain of command. The French have been a very strong partner and we would welcome any further commitments that they might make."