Britain deploys top diplomat, helicopters to Libya

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British Foreign Minister William Hague flew to Benghazi on Saturday for talks with rebels fighting to oust Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi after NATO deployed attack choppers for the first time.

Russia's top diplomat, meanwhile, warned that the NATO military operation in Libya was "sliding towards" a land campaign, a prospect he said Moscow viewed as "deplorable."

"We are here today for one principal reason -- to show our support for the Libyan people and for the National Transitional Council, the legitimate representative of the Libyan people," Hague said in a statement.

Hague, accompanied by international development minister Andrew Mitchell, was to meet with Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chief of the rebel National Transitional Council, Britain's Foreign Office said.

Hague's trip to the rebel capital of Benghazi came just hours after British Apache helicopters attacked forces loyal to Kadhafi in their first operations as part of the NAT0 air campaign against the veteran strongman.

"Britain remains a strong and true friend of Libya," Hague said.

"We could not and did not turn a blind eye when Kadhafi turned his forces against innocent civilians. For as long as Kadhafi continues to abuse his people, we will continue and intensify our efforts to stop him."

British Apache choppers and French Gazelles and Tigres were deployed, the two countries said.

The British defence ministry said Apache helicopters had on Friday night attacked a radar station and a checkpoint operated by Kadhafi's forces in the strategic oil town of Brega, in eastern Libya.

A spokesman for France's military chiefs, Thierry Brukhard, said the copters destroyed about 20 targets and drew light arms fire from forces on the ground but were not damaged.

In its latest operational update released on Saturday, NATO said it hit a military camp and three command and control nodes in and around Brega, 240 kilometres (150 miles) southwest of rebel-held Benghazi.

"Attack helicopters under NATO command were used for the first time," the military alliance said in a statement that listed vehicles, military equipment and fielded forces as the targets struck.

The attacks were launched as part of the aerial campaign to protect Libyan civilians from Kadhafi's forces in line with a UN resolution that barred ground troops.

"We welcome any action that could precipitate the end of (Moamer) Kadhafi's regime," Jalil told reporters in Benghazi.

Moscow, however, expressed alarm as the NATO campaign entered a new phase.

"We know that France and Britain intend to use military helicopters. We have given our view of NATO's actions," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency.

"We consider that what is going on is either consciously or unconsciously sliding towards a land operation. That would be very deplorable," he added.

"We think our Western partners understand that the events in Libya are taking an undesirable turn, but the decisions that have been taken are continuing by momentum," Lavrov told journalists in Odessa.

Russian President Dmitry Mevedev's special representative on Africa said earlier Saturday that he would travel to Libya on Monday evening to try to mediate the conflict, the Interfax news agency reported.

Mikhail Margelov said he plans to visit Benghazi, according to the report.

Russia abstained from the UN Security Council resolution on Libya and has called for a negotiated solution to the conflict, which has cost thousands of lives since it erupted in mid-February.

Libyan rebels, meanwhile, said they are caring for the woman allegedly raped by soldiers loyal to Kadhafi and who fled to Qatar but was deported back to Benghazi earlier this week.

© 2011 AFP

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