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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.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé was quick to defend against accusations that it was overstepping the outlines of the foreign intervention. He said "the helicopters would not be used to deploy ground forces in Libya and that the decision to send them was fully in line with the UN security council resolution mandating attacks in Libya."
The decision to approve the use of the helicopters was a controversial one in Britain. France announced that the two countries would be providing attack helicopters before Britain had announced it to the public or received government approval for the move, the Associated Press reports.
The Guardian reported on May 24 that the debate about using the helicopters was the first issue to drive a wedge in Britain's bipartisan support for intervention in Libya and prompted members of parliament to voice other concerns they had kept dormant: that the goal had become regime change, that the choice was between a stalemate and regime change, and that the intervention had already suffered from "mission creep."
British defense officials vowed that the use of helicopters would change little about the mission in Libya.
The armed forces minister [Nick Harvey] said deploying the helicopters would not mark an escalation in the conflict, adding: "I do not accept that, if we were to take a decision at some point to use attack helicopters, that that would be an escalation of what we are doing in Libya."
"The targets would remain the same. It would simply be a tactical shift in what assets we use to try and hit those targets."
Meanwhile, British intelligence officers say that Qaddafi is increasingly paranoid, hiding in hospitals and constantly moving, and that senior officers in his forces are no longer able to communicate with each other.
The US today again rejected Libyans' offer of a cease-fire, saying it was time to "finish the job" – a job that could not be considered complete until the Libyan leader leaves. "We have made progress in Libya but meeting the mandate of civilian protection cannot be completed if Qaddafi remains in Libya," Mr. Obama said on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in France.