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NATO to deploy helicopters in Libya: French source

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hatien


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PARIS/MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) – NATO plans to use attack helicopters in Libya to help break a military stalemate with forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, a French diplomatic source said on Monday.

Continued shelling of the rebel-held western outpost of Misrata illustrated the scale of the problem facing rebel forces and NATO. Rebels said Gaddafi forces were trying to advance into the long-besieged city under cover of rocket and mortar shells.

The French daily Le Figaro reported that 12 helicopters, which could launch more accurate close attacks on pro-Gaddafi forces and targets than fixed wing aircraft, were shipped out to Libya on the French warship Tonnerre on May 17.

"It is not just French helicopters ... it's coordinated action by the coalition," the diplomatic source said, in response to the newspaper report. "It is at NATO level."

The source said the move could not be considered as part of a strategy to use ground troops in the conflict, now in its fourth month.

A U.N. Security Council resolution allows NATO to strike Gaddafi forces in defense of civilians, but it explicitly excludes any military occupation. Critics such as Russia accuse NATO of overstepping their mandate in prosecuting a systematic campaign to force the end of Gaddafi's 41-year rule.

There was no immediate comment from NATO. A British Ministry of Defense spokesman said: "We have no plans to deploy attack helicopters." French Armed Forces spokesman Thierry Burkhard declined to confirm the report.

According to Le Figaro's source, French special forces, who have been operating in Libya to help identify targets for NATO planes since the start of air strikes, could now be reinforced and deployed to guide helicopter attacks.

The use of helicopters, while it would allow NATO forces to launch closer and more accurate attacks, would pose additional risks for NATO. Helicopters would fly lower and be more vulnerable than aircraft flying well above depleted air defenses. The downing of helicopters could draw ground forces into rescue efforts.

CEASEFIRE CALLS

Gaddafi describes his opponents as religious extremists, criminals and foreign-backed mercenaries. He says he has no intention of stepping down after the manner of Tunisian and Egyptian autocratic leaders overthrown in an "Arab Spring" of democratic protest that swept the Middle East.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he would meet on Monday with a Libyan "opposition" delegation in an effort to promote a ceasefire and negotiations.

He said the delegation represented the National Transitional Council and was led by Abdurrahman Shalgham, a longtime foreign minister and envoy to the United Nations until he denounced Gaddafi in February.

"It is important at this stage to agree a makeup of participants in future talks -- which I hope will be soon but are inevitable in any case -- that would represent the interests of all the political forces, all the tribes in Libya," he said.

The rebels have refused proposals for a ceasefire and talks from the Gaddafi administration, arguing that he has broken previous unilateral ceasefires. They insist Gaddafi, his allies and his family must renounce power as part of any settlement.

As rebel hopes of a military victory have faded, Gaddafi opponents in Libya and Western governments have sought the collapse of the Libya administration from within, encouraging defections of senior officials.

Tunisia said on Monday Libya's top oil official was in Tunisia and believed to be no longer working for Gaddafi. There has been doubt about Shokri Ghanem's fate since rebels said last week he had defected -- a claim Tripoli has denied, saying he was merely on an official trip to Tunisia, Europe and Egypt.

"I believe and I suspect Mr Ghanem just left Libya and that he is not any more working with the Gaddafi regime. Probably that's why he came to Tunisia," Tunisian Foreign Minister Mouldi Kefi said on a visit to Tokyo.

DEFECTION?

Ghanem was staying in a hotel on a small southern Tunisian island, he told a news conference. But when asked whether Ghanem planned to travel to other countries, Kefi said: "Only God knows what is in Mr Ghanem's mind."

The most prominent Libyan defector so far is Moussa Koussa, the foreign minister who fled to Britain in March. A Tunisian security source also said last week that Gaddafi's wife Safia and daughter Aisha were on the Tunisian island of Djerba.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton promised support for the rebels in eastern Libya on Sunday, making the most senior visit to the area by a foreign official since the revolt against Gaddafi began.

"We are here for the long term and what we can offer is support to Libyan institutions and the economy. We will be here to support you all the way," Ashton said in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, where she opened an EU representative office.

France, Britain and other European states have backed Libya's poorly trained and equipped rebels against a government that has held onto power for more than four decades.

"The Libyan people appreciate this visit and appreciate the European Union for supporting the revolution," said Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who heads of the Benghazi-based rebel National Transitional Council.

Several Libyans surrounded Ashton in the city where the revolt against Gaddafi began, flashing "V-for-Victory" signs.

Libya denounced the visit. "The visit itself gives the impression of recognition of an illegal entity," the Foreign Ministry on state news agency Jana. "It aims to divide Libya."

It said the EU should instead be looking for a peaceful solution to the conflict "to save the blood of Libyans and strengthen the unity of Libya and its territorial integrity in accordance with the U.N. Security Council resolutions."

(Additional reporting by Joseph Logan in Tripoli, Sherine El Madany in Benghazi and Joseph Nasr in Berlin; Writing by Ralph Boulton; Editing by Alison Williams)

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