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CHOPPER AND AWE; Apache blitz as Hague meets rebels.

Byline: JOHN INGHAM

THEY rose from HMS Ocean like two ghosts, darker even than the jet black Mediterranean night, to tighten the grip on Colonel Gaddafi.

The pounds 40million British Apache attack helicopters, bristling with Hellfire anti-armour missiles, headed out across the sea to the lights winking on a Libyan coast so close it felt we could touch it.

Just 25 minutes later the first white flashes, followed by shockwaves, rolled across the sea to nudge the 20,000-tonne sole surviving Navy aircraft carrier.

Shortly afterwards, Foreign Secretary William Hague flew into rebel-held port Benghazi, to the north-east of the attack, for talks with opposition leaders.

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

Britain's determination was underlined by the Apache raid to the west of the oil port of Brega.

The Army Air Corps helicopters, flown by veterans of the Afghanistan war, destroyed a radar site with six Hellfires.

Then, after coming under fire from AK-47s, they blasted an anti-aircraft gun at a checkpoint with 30mm cannons.

All along the coast other flashes lit up the night sky as Nato jets and French helicopters targeted Gaddafi's forces.

To launch the Apaches, HMS Ocean had crept to within 15 miles of the Libyan coast.

It turned into the warm breeze blowing sand off the Sahara just after midnight on Friday, and I watched as the sleek helicopters were dispatched in near total darkness by flight deck officers waving luminous green wands. After the 656 Squadron Apaches from Wattisham, Suffolk, were waved back in, the mission commander stepped down from his helicopter to calmly say: "It's a good feeling to go and do your job, do it professionally, do it accurately and get back in one piece." Commanding officer of 4 Regiment Army Air Corps Lieutenant Colonel Jason Etherington said: "We will be given targets that perhaps fast jets cannot target because of the risk of collateral damage. We can fly lower and slower and have smaller, more precise weapons."

More Apaches are to follow. But the helicopter's low-level raids and slower speed- about 200mph maximum - puts it at huge risk of being shot down by ground forces.

One source said: "The biggest threat is from small-arms fire.

"AK-47s are commonplace and there are plenty of rocket propelled grenade launchers.

"But the Apache is arguably the best protected aircraft in the world. We have full confidence in it."

CAPTION(S):

Apache crew set off early yesterday Precision weapon... Missile loaded on 'copter Deadly mission ... just before take-off Libya visit... Hague
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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 5, 2011
Words:440
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