Libya: Misrata rebels pin hopes on Apache helicopters

A Libyan rebel fighter shouts as his comrades drive towards the positions of Gaddafi forces at Misrata's western front line, some 25 kilometres from the city centre May 30, 2011.
Image caption Rebel fighters had hoped the first raids by British and French helicopters would take place on Thursday

The first strikes by British and French attack helicopters on Col Gaddafi's forces in Libya are expected any time.

The political decision to employ this weapons system was made a week ago, but already British army Apaches had been carrying out exercises in the Mediterranean from their launch platform, HMS Ocean, now the largest ship in the Royal Navy.

The Apaches are each armed with 16 Hellfire missiles, which skim low across the landscape, map-reading their way to a target pre-set by radar in the Apache before launch.

The helicopters can sit at a distance of up to five miles (8 km) from its target, using the terrain to conceal themselves from detection. They are also armed with 30mm cannons, but are unlikely to engage closely enough with Col Gaddafi's forces to use them.

Image caption There are understood to be four operational Apaches on board the HMS Ocean

There are understood to be four operational Apaches on board the Ocean, which will launch attacks in two pairs.

An unknown number of French Tiger helicopters are on board the French warship, the Tonnerre.

They have a similar capability to Apaches, and would normally also be armed with Hellfire missiles.

The French are also expected to deploy Gazelle helicopters. They can carry missiles, but are likely to play a supporting role, assessing battle damage and likely future targets.

Rebel fighters on front lines surrounding their enclave of Misrata were hoping the first raids would come on Thursday night.

But very high winds swept the North African coast all night, and would have made it hazardous to take off or land from a warship.

Tanks destroyed

Fatih Bashagha, the Nato co-ordinator for rebel forces in Misrata, has been sending co-ordinates for attack by planes.

He said that the helicopters will make a big difference because of their ability to fly lower and identify targets such as tanks and Grad rocket launching positions.

Image caption There has been some debate between rebel leaders over whether to advance further

Mr Bashagha is a businessman, whose most recent military experience was as an instructor for the Libyan air force 17 years ago.

"I am happy they are coming. The fighters are happy," he said.

In British army doctrine, Apaches have replaced tanks. That is why the pilots come from the army, not the Royal Air Force.

Their role with conventionally trained infantry is to look over the heads of any advance, destroying threats such as tanks and artillery.

But the force they are supporting is far from conventional.

Most of Misrata's fighters had not handled a weapon until last month, and their undoubted bravery and motivation does not compensate for a lack of technical skill or tactical direction.

Rather than taking over tanks that were abandoned in the city when Col Gaddafi's forces were defeated, they destroyed them as they did not know how to use them.

For three weeks now the rebels have held front-line positions at the border of the Misrata district, where they settled after pushing government troops out of the city, taking high casualties in the process.

One of the key leaders of the urban resistance, Salahuddin Baji, is now the main commander on the southern front.

Here the front line is less clearly marked than elsewhere, meandering through olive groves and scrubby farmland, where shepherds still graze their sheep.

'Give encouragement'

Mr Baji said that the arrival of helicopters shows that Nato is "serious" in its support for the rebel cause.

When an advance is ordered, this southern force will try to sweep to the west, sandwiching government troops.

"We will surround Gaddafi's forces and destroy them," he says.

But whether Libya's makeshift rebel army moves forward is more a political than a military decision. There has been some internal debate between rebel leaders over whether they should advance further.

Image caption Rebel commanders say they are liaising with resistance fighters in Zlitan, close to Misrata

They are taking casualties where they are because government forces know their precise position.

But they do not want to over-reach themselves and appear as invaders rather than liberators in the next district of Zlitan.

Their overall leader, Ramadan Zarmouh, told me that they are liaising with resistance fighters in Zlitan, and want them to stage an uprising.

"If they start, then we will go in and give them encouragement. If they take the centre of Zlitan then all of the district will rise up, and we can attack from the east," he said.

But all of Misrata's fighters know the cost of delay, after the savagery of Col Gaddafi's forces here.

Mr Zarmouh said he "would hate to see Zlitan destroyed like Misrata".

Libya's rebels have high hopes in what helicopters can do, but they know they are not a magic bullet, and there will still have to be hard fighting on the ground if they are to dislodge Col Gaddafi's regime.