BENGHAZI, Libya — 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 in several locations, including near a key coastal oil city, the alliance said.
The action came as 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 targets that included Gadhafi troops hiding in populated areas, military vehicles and equipment.
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.
The French helicopters took off from the helicopter transport ship Tonnerre in the Mediterranean, said Col. Thierry Burkhard. He said the French helicopters struck 15 military vehicles and 5 military command buildings, without identifying the sites or their location.
He said the French helicopters came under light firearms fire but were not hit or damaged. Burkhard said the operation was aimed at putting “additional pressure on the Gadhafi forces who continue to threaten the civilian population.”
Until now, NATO has relied on attack jets, generally flying above 15,000 feet (4,500 meters) – nearly three miles (five kilometers) high and pounding Gadhafi targets in relentless overnight bombings.
But the helicopters are a game-changer, giving the alliance a key advantage in close-up combat, flying at much lower altitudes.
NATO quoted Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, commander of the Libya operation, as saying the engagement “demonstrates the unique capabilities brought to bear by attack helicopters.”
The strikes came after Libyan rebels on Friday won control of four towns in the western Nafusa mountain range, where government forces have besieged and randomly shelled rebel-held areas for months.
After weeks of siege, government forces drove about seven tanks and a number of armored vehicles into Yifran in early May and surrounded its near neighbor Galaa, Col. Jumaa Ibrahim of the region’s rebel military council said via Skype.
Fighters who had fled then used their knowledge of area to chip away at the government forces, he said. On Friday, the rebels entered the town to find that the last government forces had fled the day before.
The rebels also pushed government fighters from Shakshuk and Qasr al-Haj, two villages near a key road that runs along the mountain range’s northern edge, Ibrahim said. The latter holds an important power station for local towns.
Ibrahim said rebel forces took the towns on Thursday then moved north to clash with Gadhafi forces in the village of Bir Ayyad on Friday. There were no reports of casualties.
The small rebel force in the western mountains is unlikely to threaten Gadhafi’s hold on Tripoli, 45 miles (70 kilometers) northwest, but the victories could bring relief to local residents by opening up roads between their communities. The western mountain population is tiny compared to the large rebel-held territories in east Libya.
The conflict in Libya is nearly four months along, but the situation on the ground appears mostly stalemated. NATO airstrikes have kept the outgunned rebels from being overrun, but the rebels have been unable to mount an effective offensive against Gadhafi’s better equipped armed forces.
Gadhafi’s regime has been slowly crumbling from within. A significant number of army officers and several Cabinet ministers have defected, and most have expressed support for the opposition, but Gadhafi’s hold on power shows little sign of loosening.
Gadhafi has been seen in public rarely and heard even less frequently since a NATO airstrike on his compound killed one of his sons on April 30. Questions are arising about the physical and mental state of the 69-year-old dictator, who has ruled Libya since 1969.
Rebels have turned down initiatives calling for cease-fires, insisting that Gadhafi and his sons must relinquish power and leave the country.