BENGHAZI, Libya -- British Apache and French attack helicopters struck targets for the first time in NATO's campaign in Libya, hitting Moammar Gadhafi's troops early Saturday near a key coastal oil town, the alliance said. Hours later, at least eight airstrikes were heard in Tripoli.

The action was a significant step-up in NATO's operations and a major boost to Libyan rebels, just a day after rebel fighters forced government troops from three western towns and broke the siege of a fourth in yet another erosion of Gadhafi's power since the eruption in mid-February of the uprising to end his 42-year rule.

NATO said the helicopters struck troops trying to hide in populated areas, military vehicles and equipment. Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, commander of the Libya operation, said the engagement "demonstrates the unique capabilities brought to bear by attack helicopters." Until now, NATO has relied on attack jets, generally flying above 15,000 feet -- nearly three miles high -- and pounding Gadhafi targets in relentless overnight bombings. And eight thunderous explosions from a rare daytime NATO attack were heard Saturday afternoon in Libya's capital. A Libyan government official said it was not immediately clear what was hit.

The helicopters give the alliance a key advantage in close-up combat, flying at much lower altitudes.

The Apaches hit two targets near the eastern oil town of Brega, according to a statement from the Ministry of Defense in London. It said they took off from HMS Ocean, stationed off the Libyan coast and returned safely after completing their mission in the early morning hours.

British Maj. Gen. Nick Pope said the Apaches targeted a radar installation and a military checkpoint. "Hellfire missiles and 30 mm cannon were used to destroy the targets," he said.

Separately from the helicopters, Royal Air Force aircraft destroyed another military installation near Brega and two ammunition bunkers at the large Waddan depot in central Libya, Pope said.

Brega is of strategic importance to Libya's oil industry and lies on the coastal road along the Mediterranean that leads to the capital, Tripoli. In the early days of the uprising against Gadhafi, it went back and forth between rebel and loyalist hands, but later the front line settled to the east of the town, leaving Brega under Gadhafi's control.

The conflict in Libya appears at a stalemate after nearly four months. NATO airstrikes have kept the outgunned rebels from being overrun, but the rebels have been unable to mount an effective offensive against Gadhafi's better equipped armed forces.

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