France to supply helicopters to NATO's Libya campaign
France will provide attack helicopters for NATO's air war in Libya to improve the alliance's ground strike capacity, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Monday.
Juppe, who was in Brussels for a European Union foreign ministers' meeting, said the helicopters would enable NATO "to better adapt our ground strike capacity with more precise means of (carrying out) strikes".
The Gazelle and Tigre class attack helicopters would be used as wanted by NATO planners under the UN Security Council resolution authorising military action to protect Libyan civilians from Moamer Kadhafi's forces, he added.
"Our strategy consists of increasing the military pressure over the next few weeks while at the same time moving forward on the path towards a political solution," Juppe said.
He said the helicopters would not be used to drop troops in Libya. NATO has repeatedly insisted that it would not deploy an occupation force, which is not authorised under the UN resolution.
In Paris, the military said the BPC Tonnerre aircraft carrier set off from the French Mediterranean port of Toulon on May 17, but it did not confirm a Le Figaro newspaper report that it was carrying helicopters to Libya.
"For the moment it is not engaged in operations in Libya," military spokesman Thierry Burkard told AFP.
The BPC can carry 16 Tigre or larger 12-tonne NH-90 helicopters, 750 troops and scores of armoured vehicles for launching amphibious attacks.
Le Figaro said the modern helicopter carrier had left Toulon with 12 helicopters aboard intended for operations in Libya, where France and other western power have been pounding Kadhafi forces since March 19.
The use of attack helicopters would allow more precise strikes on targets in Libya that warplanes are unable to reach for fear of civilian casualties.
NATO has mobilised around 200 airplanes, ranging for surveillance aircraft to mid-air refuellers and combat jets, as part of its missions in Libya, which include enforcing an arms embargo and a no-fly zone as well as ground strikes.
The aircraft have conducted almost 7,900 sorties, including more than 3,000 sorties aimed at identifying or striking targets, since NATO took over from a coalition led by the United States, France and Britain on March 31.
NATO says it has seriously degraded Kadhafi's ability to command his forces but the veteran strongman remains in power, controlling swaths of the west while the opposition holds the east.
France is among a handful of countries that have recognised the rebels along with Italy, Qatar and Gambia. The EU opened a mission in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi on Sunday.
Juppe pointed out that EU foreign ministers underlined their support for the National Transitional Council in a statement welcoming "the important role" the NTC plays "as a key political interlocutor representing the aspirations of the Libyan people."
The top French diplomat also said the door should be left open for contacts "with those in Tripoli who have understood that Kadhafi no longer has a role to play in Libyan political life."
Juppe said he "insisted on France's willingness to move forward on these different issues and not stay forever militarily."
© 2011 AFP