British Apache and French attack helicopters struck targets for the first time in NATO's campaign in Libya, hitting Moammar Gadhafi's troops early today near a key coastal oil city. The action was 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.
NATO said the helicopters struck Gadhafi troops attempting to hide in populated areas, military vehicles, and equipment. Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, commander of the Libya operation, said the engagement "demonstrates the unique capabilities brought to bear by attack helicopters." Until now, NATO has relied on attack jets, generally flying nearly three miles 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.