Nato is gearing up to deploy French and British attack helicopters to strike Muammar Gaddafi's forces in Libya as soon as possible, the commander of the alliance's mission said on Friday.
France is contributing four Tigre attack helicopters while Britain offered four Apaches, Nato military officials said, adding that the helicopters are being prepared to fly over sea water and desert conditions.
"We are still in the process of developing their capabilities and they will be brought into action as soon as they are ready," Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, the Canadian commander of the mission, told a news conference.
Calling their arrival "timely," Bouchard said the helicopters will allow Nato to conduct an "effective and aggressive" mission against Gaddafi forces who are threatening the civilian population.
"It's an additional capability to pinpoint these vehicles that are much more difficult to see from aircraft at high altitude," he said via videolink from his headquarters in Naples, Italy.
Insisting that Nato has no intention to put troops on the ground, he said, "The helicopters that are being provided to us are armed and attack helicopters and they are not the type that do mass movements of troops on the ground."
Bouchard had requested six attack helicopters earlier this month, a Nato official said.
Britain earlier said the change in tactics would give a final push to the regime of an increasingly "paranoid" Gaddafi.
Britain will operate its heavily armed helicopters from the HMS Ocean, a helicopter carrier that will be based off the coast of the North African country, a British government source said.
The French choppers are being transported aboard the Tonnerre aircraft carrier, which is also transporting a dozen Gazelle helicopters that are older than the Tigres, an alliance military official said.
Nato claims it has seriously degraded Gaddafi's military machine with air strikes from high-flying combat jets, but helicopters would help the alliance strike regime assets hidden in urban areas.
The risk however is that helicopters will engage more closely with the enemy and thus become targets themselves.