(Reuters) – British and French attack helicopters were used to strike inside Libya for the first time overnight Saturday, hitting targets in the oil port of Brega as NATO forces stepped up their air war against Muammar Gaddafi.
A NATO-led military alliance extended its mission to protect civilians in Libya for a further 90 days this week, and France said it was stepping up military pressure as well as working with those close to Gaddafi to try to persuade him to quit.
“The additional capabilities now being employed by NATO further reinforces the UK’s enduring commitment and NATO’s determination to… ensure that the people of Libya are free to determine their own future.”
Military analysts say attack helicopters will allow more precise strikes against pro-Gaddafi forces hiding in built-up areas than the high-flying jets used so far, while reducing the risk of civilian casualties.
But given the vulnerability of helicopters to ground fire, their deployment also increases the risk of Western forces suffering their first casualties of the campaign.
Critics of the war have warned of “mission creep” but NATO has said the use of helicopters would not presage the deployment of ground troops, which Western nations have ruled out.
Now in its fourth month, the Libyan conflict is deadlocked, with rebels unable to break out of their strongholds and advance toward Tripoli, where Gaddafi appears to be entrenched.
Rebel forces, who have taken control of the eastern city of Benghazi, swept west through Brega early in the uprising before beating a retreat from near Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte in late March. Gaddafi’s forces have since dug in around the oil town.
“The Apaches were tasked with precision strikes against a regime radar installation and a military checkpoint, both located around Brega,” said Major General Nick Pope, the Chief of the Defense Staff’s Strategic Communications Officer.
“In the same area, Royal Air Force ground attack aircraft destroyed another military installation, whilst a separate RAF mission successfully attacked two ammunition bunkers at the large Waddan depot in central Libya.”
In the latest diplomatic setback for Gaddafi, China made its first confirmed contact with Libyan rebels this week following a spate of defections by high profile figures including senior oil official and former prime minister Shokri Ghanem.
Libyan rebels and NATO have made Gaddafi’s departure a condition for agreeing a ceasefire in the conflict, but he emphatically told visiting South African President Jacob Zuma this week he would not leave Libya.
“He is more and more isolated,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told Europe 1 radio. “There have been more defections around him and we have received messages from his close entourage which has understood that he must leave power.”
In Beijing, a terse Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said Beijing’s ambassador to Qatar, Zhang Zhiliang, had met and “exchanged views on developments in Libya” with Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of the rebel council that is trying to offer itself as a credible temporary alterative to Gaddafi.
The ministry gave no details but the meeting itself was an indication that Beijing wants to keep open lines of communication with the rebel forces.
The United Nations has said government-held parts of Libya were running out of food and the capital Tripoli this week saw the first big protest in months against Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
Gaddafi says the rebels are armed criminals and al Qaeda militants, and has called the NATO intervention an act of colonial aggression designed to grab Libya’s plentiful oil.
Western governments say they believe they are wearing down Gaddafi’s ability to control Libya through a combination of diplomatic pressure and military action.
Rebels control the east of Libya around Benghazi and the Western Mountains stretching from the town of Zintan, 150 km (95 miles) south of Tripoli, toward the border with Tunisia.
In Misrata, rebel leader Abdelsalam reported fighting in Dafniyah to the west of the city that is now in rebel hands.
He said revolutionaries in Zlitan had been supplied with weapons and telecommunications equipment from Misrata and Benghazi, and had been waging attacks at night, “but not on the scale that threatens Gaddafi’s forces’ iron grip on Zlitan.”
Zlitan is the next town to the west of Misrata, and one of only three between there and Tripoli. A rebel spokesman there, Mabrouk, said security in the town was tight.
(Additional reporting by Zohra Bensemra in Misrata, Abdelaziz Boumzar in Bir Ayyad, Libya, John Irish in Paris, Christina Fincher in London, David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Joseph Nasr in Rabat; Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)