Posted by: Schuyler R. Thorpe | June 13, 2011

NATO Hits Oil Targets In Brega In Order To Pressure Gadhafi

NATO deploys helicopters to raise pressure on Gaddafi

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – British and French attack helicopters were used to strike inside Libya for the first time overnight on 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.

“This was the first operational mission flown by British Army Apaches at sea,” British Secretary of State for Defense Liam Fox said.

“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.

Speaking in the rebel-held eastern city of Benghazi, the head of the rebel council Mustafa Abdel Jalil welcomed NATO’s deployment of attack helicopters.

“We welcome any measures that would expedite the departure of Gaddafi and his regime,” he told reporters in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi, where British Foreign Secretary William Hague later arrived for talks with council members.

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.

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.

DIPLOMATIC SETBACKS

Rebel fighters repelled an attack by Gaddafi’s forces against one of their checkpoints on the eastern edges of the rebel-held city of Misrata on Saturday, a Reuters journalist there said. One rebel was killed and another was wounded in the clashes, medical workers said.

Gaddafi’s forces also shelled Nalut, injuring at least ten people, a rebel spokesman said by phone from the rebel-held Western Mountains town.

NATO’s helicopter attacks struck military targets around the eastern town of Brega, location of an oil export terminal.

Rebel forces swept west through Brega early in the uprising before retreating 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.

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