PARIS/MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) – France and other members of a NATO-led coalition will use attack helicopters in Libya, French officials said on Monday, a step meant to hit Muammar Gaddafi’s forces more accurately from the air.
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.
Hospital officials said two people were killed and several wounded in Monday’s fighting in Misrata. Later in the day heavy explosions outside the city were heard, lasting about an hour.
A rebel spokesman said forces loyal to Gaddafi also shelled the rebel-held town of Zintan and massed troops close to another town in the mountainous region bordering Tunisia, intensifying operations on the war’s western front.
Confirming the proposed use of helicopter gunships, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters in Brussels the move was in line with a United Nations resolution to protect Libyan civilians and NATO’s military operations.
“What we want is to better tailor our ability to strike on the ground with ways that allow more accurate hits,” he said. “That is the goal in deploying helicopters.”
NATO bombing has damaged Gaddafi’s armor but not enough to break a deadlock between rebels and government forces. While helicopters could make it easier to strike urban or embedded targets, they would also be more vulnerable to ground fire from Gaddafi’s troops.
The French daily Le Figaro reported that 12 helicopters, which could launch more precise attacks on pro-Gaddafi forces and targets than fixed-wing aircraft, were shipped out to Libya on the French warship Tonnerre on May 17.