Apache strikes take war on Gaddafi to new level

British pilots are destroying regime weapons but sparing fleeing soldiers. By Kim Sengupta on board HMS Ocean off Libya
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The Independent Online

At 1.04 in the morning, the pilot of an Apache helicopter-gunship hidden in the inky black sky pressed the trigger of the 30mm cannon, bringing down concentrated fire on a pick-up truck, ripping it open. Ammunition stored inside set off secondary explosions, spreading the swirling flames. Three men who had been trying to open fire with the vehicles' anti-aircraft gun mounted at the back of the truck were now terrified, scrambling to get away.

One of the two Apaches followed the fleeing men for a few minutes before wheeling away. The mission commander, in charge of the aircraft, had no doubt this was the right decision.

"They were running away and posed no immediate threat, there was no justification in shooting them. I did not think it would have helped in what we are trying to achieve here. We had made a point, dealt with what was threatening us, the gun on the truck, destroyed weapons. It's simply a matter of patience, using one's intellect, and also one of morality."

The Apache WAH 64Ds, launched from HMS Ocean, the UK's sole remaining aircraft carrier, had faced limited ground-fire, mostly scattered Kalashnikov rounds, during their first mission in Libya, indicating that the regime's air defences had been damaged by the sustained bombing campaign. Two months after Nato's intervention, there is stalemate on the ground, and the introduction of the attack helicopters, and their French equivalents, is designed to change that situation. But the deployment is also controversial, leading to inevitable charges of "mission creep", and claims this may lead to "boots on the ground".

There were further Apache strikes in the early hours of yesterday morning, a sign that the tempo of missions will continue at a high rate. Two Apaches, with a Sea King 7 helicopter providing intelligence, destroyed a multi-barrelled rocket launcher mounted on a truck and placed in an abandoned building. Western air strikes have also destroyed much of Muammar Gaddafi's armour. But his forces have adopted new tactics, hiding their artillery in built-up areas, using flat-bed trucks to carry out attacks on opposition forces and set up mobile checkpoints.

The Apache strikes, targeting one such checkpoint on the road between Ras Lanuf and Brega, aim to encourage rebel fighters in the east to move forward.

The first mission was launched at 00.20 on Saturday morning. Twenty-five minutes later they were over their first target, a military radar used to monitor sea and air traffic. This was taken out by four laser-guided Hellfire missiles. Previous attempts at bombing by jets from thousands of feet high had failed.

The Apaches then moved on to their next target further east. Speaking just after returning from the attack, the mission commander, an officer with the Army Air Corps based at Wattisham in Suffolk, described what happened.

"Unlike the previous target, here we saw movement on the ground. I have been very clear with my crew that we had to be absolutely certain that we were dealing with armed troops and not local people. We watched for about five minutes, they could hear us, but they could not see us. We started getting some small-arms fire, but it was pretty random and didn't reach us. But then we could see them ranging the gun at the back of the truck towards us and at that point we opened fire," he said. "Did some people die, yes probably, but all I can say is that we were facing a direct threat at the time and our task was to destroy such weapons. The rules of engagement are pretty clear on this. But what I was not going to do was to take out anyone who did not pose a direct threat.

"With an Apache we can be very precise about our targeting. The radar we targeted was on the coast. It was stopping us from enforcing the no-fly zone and coming in to help the population. It was something difficult to bomb from up high but with the Apache we can go high or low, vary our heights, vary our angles. It is very, very versatile."

Like the rest of the Apache crew on HMS Ocean, the officer had served in Afghanistan. There the ferocious reputation of the Apache had at times, ironically, led to skirmishes ending.

The Taliban tend not to hang around when they hear the aircraft they call the "mosquito" because you can hear it just before it stings. "But it seems to me the main difference is that while in Afghanistan we were going out over the wire in support of British troops. In Libya we are acting in support of the people against the forces of a despot," the pilot said.

The pilot, who said he was a "modest student of politics", continued : "In a wider context, it seems to me that what has happened in the 'Arab Spring' is pretty amazing and exciting. You can't suppress ideas being spread any more because of the new forms of communication, the information age. But I think it will take at least a couple of years before we see what it means for us, and much more importantly, the people of Libya and this region."