French official: helicopters being sent to Libya

France and Britain will deploy attack helicopters in Libya as soon as possible, the French defense minister said Monday — a move that would allow their pilots more precision but also expose them to greater risk.

Gerard Longuet said the helicopters would be used to target military equipment such as Libyan tanker and ammunition trucks in crowded urban areas while causing fewer civilian casualties.

Longuet said he discussed the plan with British military officials and they were "exactly on the same wave length."

The use of attack helicopters would appear to mark a new strategy for NATO, which has relied on strikes by fighter planes and seen that result in a stalemate on the ground.

Nimble, low-flying helicopters have much more leeway to pick targets with precision than high-flying jets. But they also are much more vulnerable to ground fire. The alliance has had no military deaths since it first started enforcing a no-fly zone on March 31.

Longuet said France would essentially use Gazelle helicopters, which have been around for some 40 years.

"It is an old machine but fully adapted to the situation," said Longuet. France also can use the Tigre, a modern helicopter gunship.

In airstrikes using fighter planes, the alliance fears collateral damage can be too great against a foe that can hide in urban areas or mix up with civilian traffic.

"We had to give ourselves the means to strike without hitting civilians," Longuet said.

NATO is operating under a U.N. mandate that authorizes the use of force — but not ground troops — to protect Libyan civilians. Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have been responsible for attacks on civilians, and he has shown no inclination to cede power.

Longuet and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the use of the military attack helicopters would fall within the U.N. mandate.

A French military spokesman said Sunday a French amphibious assault ship, Le Tonnerre, had sailed from Toulon, France, last week. The French daily newspaper Le Figaro reported Sunday that the Tonnerre was carrying 12 military helicopters and sailing for the Libyan coast. Longuet would not confirm the number of choppers on board.

A NATO spokesman in Naples said Monday that the alliance is "aware the French government has an additional ship operating in the area" and that it is under French command not NATO's.

The spokesman said he could not say whether that would remain the case. He spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with NATO regulations.

Longuet said France could strike as soon as "there is a target that merits it. We don't strike to strike. We strike to avoid provisions getting to troops that fight civilians."