UK 'undecided' on Libya helicopters

Tuesday 24 May 2011 15:43 BST

No decision has yet been taken on deploying UK Apache attack helicopters to Libya, the Government insisted today, contradicting claims by a French minister.

Defence minister Nick Harvey was forced to explain the situation to MPs when Labour tabled an urgent question about the reported "escalation" of the Nato-led mission.

The Opposition complained that Parliament was being "kept in the dark" after French defence minister Gerard Longuet said Britain would follow France in using helicopters.

"The British, who have assets similar to ours, will also commit. The sooner the better is what the British think," Mr Longuet told reporters at a European Union meeting yesterday.

But Mr Harvey told the Commons: "My understanding is that the French have indeed taken a decision to deploy their attack helicopters in Libya.

"I state again for the avoidance of all doubt: no such decision has been taken by the United Kingdom. It is an option we are considering and there is absolutely no sense in which it is true to say that we have kept Parliament in the dark about a decision."

The use of helicopters would not represent an escalation of the mission, he insisted, but only a "tactical shift" to improve the ability to strike moving targets more precisely.

He spoke as the Ministry of Defence said RAF Tornado and Typhoon aircraft attacked a large military vehicle depot within Muammar Gaddafi's compound in the capital Tripoli.

It is understood that, if authorised, Apaches could fly from HMS Ocean in the Mediterranean for joint operations with French aircraft to stop the forces of dictator Muammar Gaddafi targeting civilians in Misrata.

French foreign minister Alain Juppe has confirmed that France is sending helicopters to Libya, which he said would fall within UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorises the protection of civilians.

French amphibious assault ship Le Tonnerre sailed from Toulon last week and reports in the Paris media suggest it is carrying 12 helicopters and sailing for the Libyan coast.

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said: "The British people will be desperately concerned that French ministers seem to know more about the deployment of British military equipment than the British Parliament.

"Parliament has not written the Government a blank cheque on Libya and ministers should never keep the British public in the dark on major deployments."

Sending helicopters would represent a "serious escalation", he said, and the potential for it happening should have been discussed by Parliament.

Downing Street said: "We do not normally confirm those kinds of things until they have happened."

"Frequent" updates have been given to Parliament by ministers on the situation in Libya as it developed, the Prime Minister's spokesman told reporters.

Describing the latest operations in the military campaign against the brutal repression of the Libyan uprising by forces loyal to Col Gaddafi, the head of the Armed Forces' spokesman, Major General John Lorimer, said: "Royal Air Force Tornado and Typhoon ground attack aircraft destroyed a regime vehicle near Zlitan on Saturday, and on Monday engaged a further two vehicles in the same area.

"RAF aircraft armed with precision guided weapons also participated in a major Nato strike operation against targets in and around Tripoli last night, attacking a large military vehicle depot within Colonel Gaddafi's large Bab Al Aziziyah complex in the centre of the city.

"As ever, the utmost care was taken in mounting the attack to avoid the risk of innocent civilian casualties."

British-funded relief ships have now rescued 5,000 migrant workers and injured civilians stranded in Misrata, after 600 reached Benghazi last night, the Department for International Development (DFID) said today.

DFID has paid for a number of ships, operated by the International Organisation for Migration, to shuttle between the opposition stronghold and besieged Misrata over the past month, bringing in food and other vital supplies and evacuating people who wanted to leave.

Misrata has been under siege by Gaddafi's forces for two months and has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the Libyan uprising.

The UK-funded ships have brought in 280 tons of food aid and nearly 2,100 tons of humanitarian supplies, while rescuing around 5,000 migrant workers, wounded civilians and their families since mid-April.

The latest ship also carried an assessment team made up of representatives from a number of humanitarian organisations to gather information about the support needed by Misrata as it seeks to rebuild for the future.

International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said: "A month ago, we promised we would help to get thousands of innocent civilians caught up in the fighting in Misrata back to safety. Today we make good on that promise, with British funding now having helped with the evacuation of around 5,000 people.

"As well as reaching poor migrant workers left in Misrata, this latest evacuation ensures that wounded civilians can receive much-needed medical help from facilities in Benghazi.

"The assessment team that arrived on the ship will also be able to get a better idea of needs as the city starts to rebuild itself and look towards the future."

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