Paris/Misrata: NATO plans to use attack helicopters in Libya to help break a military stalemate with forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, a French diplomatic source said on Monday.
Continued shelling of the rebel-held western outpost of Misrata illustrated the scale of the problem facing rebel forces and NATO. Rebels said Gaddafi forces were trying to advance into the long-besieged city under cover of rocket and mortar shells.
The French daily Le Figaro reported that 12 helicopters, which could launch more accurate close attacks on pro-Gaddafi forces and targets than fixed wing aircraft, were shipped out to Libya on the French warship Tonnerre on 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 UN Security Council resolution allows NATO to strike Gaddafi 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 the end of Gaddafi's 41-year rule.
There was no immediate comment from NATO. A British Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "We have no plans to deploy attack helicopters." French Armed Forces spokesman Thierry Burkhard declined to confirm the report.
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.
The use of helicopters, while it would allow NATO forces to launch closer and more accurate attacks, would pose additional risks for NATO. Helicopters would fly lower and be more vulnerable than aircraft flying well above depleted air defenses. The downing of helicopters could draw ground forces into rescue efforts.
First Published: Monday, May 23, 2011, 17:51