PARIS/BRUSSELS France and other members of a NATO-led coalition plan to deploy attack helicopters in Libya, a French diplomatic source said on Monday, a move aimed at ramping up pressure against Muammar Gaddafi's forces.
Twelve helicopters were shipped to Libya on French helicopter carrier Tonnerre on May 17, daily Le Figaro reported earlier, to help break a military stalemate three months into an uprising against Gaddafi's four-decade rule.
"It is not just French helicopters ... It's coordinated action by the coalition," the source said. "It is at NATO level."
NATO bombing has damaged Gaddafi's armour but not enough to break a deadlock between rebels and government forces. While helicopters could make it easier to hit urban or embedded targets, they would also be more vulnerable to ground fire by Gaddafi's troops.
Military spokesman Thierry Burkhard declined to confirm the report, but said the ship was now in the Mediterranean.
"Using helicopters from the Tonnerre is a way of getting closer to the ground," Le Figaro said, citing a source.
French planes were the first to bomb Gaddafi's forces in March after the United Nations voted to allow intervention to protect civilians.
"Twelve helicopters is not a lot," Ken Freeman, associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), told Reuters.
"They tend to be quite vulnerable, so they are probably going to be used very carefully ... You could probably say it is a sign that people are running out of ideas of what to do. This is doing something other than sitting on your hands."
The air strikes, now led by NATO, were launched as Gaddafi's troops advanced on Benghazi after the Libyan leader vowed "no mercy, no pity".
Many NATO members refuse to go beyond enforcing a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone to attack Gaddafi's forces, despite the urging of France, Britain and the United States, which all want to see Gaddafi removed from power.
A British Ministry of Defence spokesman said there were "no plans to deploy attack helicopters (in Libya)."
Speaking in Brussels, British Foreign Minister William Hague told reporters he agreed with France and others that "it was necessary to intensify the military, economic and diplomatic pressure on the Gaddafi regime." But he declined to say if Britain planned to join a helicopter deployment.
Britain's largest warship, HMS Ocean, left Plymouth in southwest England in April carrying Apache attack helicopters and other aircraft for exercises in the Mediterranean.
"I've not got any announcement to make today about additional assets involved in that (the Libya campaign), so I can't comment further... But we are very much behind the intensification of the military campaign," Hague said.
HELPING SPECIAL FORCES?
The NATO campaign has crippled Tripoli's ability to attack rebels, but rebel advances have also stalled.
According to Le Figaro's source, French special forces, who have been operating in Libya to help identify targets for NATO planes since the start of air strikes, could now be reinforced and deployed to guide helicopter attacks.
The French source said the move could not be considered as part of a strategy to use ground troops in the conflict.
"I think the most likely scenario is that the attack helicopter would be used for special forces attacks," said military helicopter specialist Andrew Drwiega, adding that special forces could identify targets quickly without having to wait for jets.
"I don't think it would be likely the attack helicopter would operate independently simply because of the risk of attacking friendly forces," Drwiega told Reuters.
Analysts have said NATO may have no choice but to escalate its Libyan war effort and use helicopters or naval gunfire to end bloodshed particularly in the besieged city of Misrata.
(Additional reporting by Vicky Buffery, Gerard Bon and Avril Ormsby in London; Editing by Andrew Heavens)