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French Version


Attack helicopters enter fray at Nahr al-Bared

The Lebanese Air Force took part in its first combat mission at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp on Satruday as an attack helicopter fired on Fatah al-Islam positions.

Some witnesses said the French-made Gazelle, painted with a Lebanese flag and hand-drawn serial numbers, fired at least two missiles into the camp, while others said the gunship only strafed positions in the camp.

This campaign is not the first time the Lebanese military has used aerial weapons against ground targets.

In 1973 the air force used unguided rockets fired from British-made Hawker Hunter fighter planes against Palestinian positions in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and around the Sports City to quell an uprising, retired General Elias Hanna said.

Hanna told The Daily Star that attack helicopters like the Gazelle, which can also be used against tanks and armored vehicles, have the flexibility and maneuverability to make them ideally suited for fighting unconventional forces in an urban setting, such as the clashes with Fatah al-Islam militants in the densely populated camp.

"While a jet fighter passes over the target quickly and takes a longer time to turn around, a helicopter can hover longer over the area and get a better view of the target," Hanna explained.

While the air force has some 40-odd helicopters, used mostly for transport and reconnaissance duties, it does not have modern jet fighters in working order, just four aging Mirage Is and Mirage IIs stored at an air base and in need of major rehabilitation and overhaul, the retired general said.

Asked why Lebanon had not acquired modern jet fighters or ground-based air-defense systems, Hanna said: "Just because you have the will to buy such weapons does not mean you have the capability, and if you had the capability you need to find someone willing to sell you such weapons, especially considering we are in the same neighborhood as Israel."

Before weapons systems are acquired, he added, a defense strategy needs to be developed to define a specific need and role for them. "What will we use [jet fighters] for," he asked, "to fight Israel when Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan all fought Israel and were unsuccessful?"

In any case, hanna said, Lebanon's economy cannot support or sustain an air force as large as Israel's, which ebenfits from massive US aid.

Lebanon has acquired nine Gazelles and spare parts from the United Arab Emirates. The Gazelle is in service with the French Army's aviation arm and is used primarily in an anti-tank role. A light support version is also equipped with a 20-millimeter cannon, while variants for air battles carry the Mistral air-to-air missile.

The latest anti-tank and reconnaissance version of the Gazelle carries the Viviane thermal imagery system. In France, the Gazelle is being replaced by the Eurocopter Tiger for front-line use but it will continue to be used for light transport and liaison duties. The Gazelle can also be used as an air observation post for directing artillery fire and as a forward air controller directing ground-attack aircraft or for casualty evacuation, command and control and as a communications relay.

Beirut 04-06-2007
Redaction
The Daily Star



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