First strikes by NATO helicopters against Gaddafi forces

Night-vision sight shows targets hit by French Tigre attack helicopter during their first strikes in Libya, June 3, 2011.

From MSNBC:  British Apache and French attack helicopters struck targets for the first time in NATO’s campaign in Libya, hitting Moammar Gadhafi’s troops early Saturday near a key coastal oil city, the alliance said.

The action was a significant step-up in NATO’s operations and a major boost to Libyan rebels on the ground, just a day after rebel fighters forced government troops from three western towns and broke the siege of a fourth in yet another erosion of Gadhafi’s power since the eruption in mid-February of the uprising to end his 42-year rule.

NATO said the helicopters struck Gadhafi troops attempting to hide in populated areas, military vehicles and equipment. Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, commander of the Libya operation, said the engagement "demonstrates the unique capabilities brought to bear by attack helicopters."

The Apaches hit two targets near the coastal city of Brega, according to a statement from the Ministry of Defense in London. It said they took off from HMS Ocean, stationed off the Libyan coast and returned safely after completing their mission in the early morning hours.

British Maj. Gen. Nick Pope said the Apaches targeted a radar installation and a military checkpoint. "Hellfire missiles and 30mm cannon were used to destroy the targets," he said.

Separately from the helicopters, Royal Air Force ground attack aircraft destroyed another military installation near Brega and two ammunition bunkers at the large Waddan depot in central Libya, Pope said.

French Gazelle helicopters also took part in simultaneous attacks on different targets, the BBC reported.

"This successful engagement demonstrates the unique capabilities brought to bear by attack helicopters," Bouchard said in a NATO statement released earlier. "We will continue to use these assets whenever and wherever needed, using the same precision as we do in all of our missions."

Attack helicopters provide additional flexibility to track and engage pro-Gadhafi forces who deliberately target civilians and attempt to hide in populated areas, NATO said.  (photo: French Ministry of Defense/Reuters)

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