* French and UK helicopters hit targets in Brega
* Powerful explosions heard in Tripoli
* British foreign secretary arrives in rebel stronghold
(Adds explosions in Tripoli, Hague quote, Biden on Gaddafi)
By Peter Graff
TRIPOLI, June 4 British and French attack
helicopters struck inside Libya for the first time overnight on
Saturday, hitting targets in the oil port of Brega as NATO
forces stepped up their air war against Muammar Gaddafi.
Aircraft of the NATO-led alliance also hit targets in
Tripoli, where at least six powerful explosions were heard. A
Reuters correspondent in the Libyan capital said aircraft could
be heard overhead at the time of the blasts, before sunset.
It was not immediately clear which targets were hit.
"As long as Gaddafi continues to abuse his people, we will
continue and intensify our efforts to stop him from doing so,"
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said at a news
conference in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya.
Speaking in Benghazi shortly before Hague's arrival, the
head of the rebel council Mustafa Abdel Jalil welcomed NATO's
deployment of helicopters.
"We welcome any measures that would expedite the departure
of Gaddafi and his regime," he told reporters in Benghazi, where
Hague later arrived for talks with council members.
Hague visited the square next to Benghazi's court house
where people greeted him by waving the victory sign and
shouting: "Libya free!" and "Gaddafi go away!"
More on Libya [nLDE72H00G]
More on Middle East unrest: [nLDE73H1UN] [nTOPMEAST]
Libya graphics link.reuters.com/neg68r
A NATO-led military alliance extended its mission to protect
civilians in Libya for a further 90 days this week, and France
said it was stepping up military pressure as well as working
with those close to Gaddafi to try to persuade him to quit.
"This was the first operational mission flown by British
Army Apaches at sea," British Defence Secretary Liam Fox said.
"The additional capabilities now being employed by NATO
further reinforce the UK's enduring commitment and NATO's
determination to ... ensure that the people of Libya are free to
determine their own future."
Military analysts say attack helicopters will allow more
precise strikes against pro-Gaddafi forces hiding in built-up
areas than the high-flying jets used so far, while reducing the
risk of civilian casualties.
But given the vulnerability of helicopters to ground fire,
their deployment also increases the risk of Western forces
suffering their first casualties of the campaign.
WESTERN MOUNTAINS TOWNS SHELLED
Critics of the war have warned of "mission creep" but NATO
has said the use of helicopters would not presage the deployment
of ground troops, which Western nations have ruled out.
Now in its fourth month, the Libyan conflict is deadlocked,
with rebels unable to break out of their strongholds and advance
towards Tripoli, where Gaddafi appears to be entrenched.
Rebels control the east of Libya around Benghazi and the
Western Mountains stretching from the town of Zintan, 150 km (95
miles) south of Tripoli, towards the border with Tunisia.
In a speech at NATO's Libya command base in the Italian city
of Naples, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden praised U.S. troops for
taking part in military operations that he said had stopped a
humanitarian disaster in the North African country.
He reiterated the official U.S. government stance that
Gaddafi must step down.
Rebel fighters repelled an attack by Gaddafi's forces
against one of their checkpoints on the eastern edges of the
rebel-held city of Misrata on Saturday, a Reuters journalist
there said. One rebel was killed and another was wounded in the
clashes, medical workers said.
Gaddafi's forces also shelled Nalut and Zintan, rebel
spokesmen said by phone from the rebel-held Western Mountains
towns. At least 10 people were wounded in Nalut.
NATO's helicopter attacks struck military targets around the
eastern town of Brega, location of an oil export terminal.
Rebel forces swept west through Brega early in the uprising
before retreating from near Gaddafi's home town of Sirte in late
March. Gaddafi's forces have since dug in around the oil town.
"The Apaches were tasked with precision strikes against a
regime radar installation and a military checkpoint, both
located around Brega," said Major-General Nick Pope, the Chief
of the Defence Staff's Strategic Communications Officer.
"In the same area, Royal Air Force ground attack aircraft
destroyed another military installation, whilst a separate RAF
mission successfully attacked two ammunition bunkers at the
large Waddan depot in central Libya."
In a fresh diplomatic setback for Gaddafi on Friday, China
said it had made its first confirmed contact with Libyan rebels
this week, following a spate of defections by high-profile
figures including senior oil official and former prime minister
The rebels and NATO have made Gaddafi's departure a
condition of any ceasefire, but he emphatically told visiting
South African President Jacob Zuma this week he would not leave
The United Nations has said government-held parts of Libya
are running out of food and the capital Tripoli this week saw
the first big protest in months against Gaddafi's 41-year rule.
Gaddafi says the rebels are armed criminals and al Qaeda
militants, and has called the NATO intervention an act of
colonial aggression designed to grab Libya's plentiful oil.
(Additional reporting by Zohra Bensemra in Misrata, Abdelaziz
Boumzar in Bir Ayyad, Libya, Gavin Jones in Italy, John Irish in
Paris, Christina Fincher in London, Sherine El Madany in
Benghazi, David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Joseph Nasr in Rabat;
writing by Lin Noueihed and Joseph Nasr; editing by Andrew