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Terrorism & Security

Britain sends attack helicopters to Libya. Is this mission creep?

The decision to introduce highly precise helicopters that can target Qaddafi fighters ensconced among civilians has heightened concerns about the true aim of the mission in Libya.

By Correspondent / May 27, 2011

A Libyan rebel fighter points out positions of forces loyal to leader Muammar Qaddafi at Misrata's western front line, some 10 miles from the city center on Thursday, May 26. The British government approved the use of helicopters in Libya to target Qaddafi fighters.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

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Within days of US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron vowing to ramp up pressure on Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, the British government approved the use of its Apache helicopters in Libya. While the helicopters could help NATO break the current stalemate, they have also heightened concerns about the expansion of a mission that more now see as a thinly veiled attempt at regime change.

NATO has succeeded in stopping a bloodbath as Mr. Qaddafi's forces closed in on the rebels in March, which were killing hundreds of civilians as they advanced, prompting a United Nations resolution. But the conflict has since reached a stalemate. The attack helicopters would allow NATO forces to get closer to the ground and shoot more precisely, a boon in urban areas where Qaddafi's troops have ensconced themselves among civilians, making it impossible for NATO to attack them from fighter jets without risking civilian casualties.

However, the helicopters also come with more risk for the pilots because they are closer to the ground and moving more slowly, making them easier targets for Qaddafi's forces on the ground. Reuters reports that NATO announced today that it will put the helicopters into action as soon as they are ready.

The decision by France and Britain to use the helicopters signals a frustration with the current strategy – fighter jets, no ground troops – which has been unable to bring any sort of conclusion to the conflict, the Guardian reports. The helicopters are a compromise between that and the use of ground troops, which would be opposed by virtually all parties involved.

The decision to deploy the helicopters is a clear recognition that high-level bombing from 15,000 feet cannot protect civilians who continue to be attacked by rocket and mortar shells. It brings the Nato offensive much closer to the ground at a time when Britain and other Nato countries are insisting they have no intention of sending in troops.

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