- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 21, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — NATO said one of its unmanned drones disappeared over Libya on Tuesday, refuting reports that forces loyal to Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi had shot down an alliance attack helicopter.

Libyan state television repeatedly broadcast images of what appeared to be aircraft wreckage, including a red rotor and close-ups of markings in English.

It quoted an unnamed Libyan military official saying a NATO Apache attack helicopter was downed in Zlitan, about 85 miles east of the capital, Tripoli. The report claimed it was the fifth Apache that had been downed.

A NATO spokesman said the alliance lost radar contact with an unmanned helicopter drone Tuesday morning and is looking into the incident, but the alliance denied that an Apache had been lost.

“This drone helicopter was performing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over Libya to monitor pro-Gadhafi forces threatening the civilian population,” said the spokesman, Royal Air Force Wing Cmdr. Mike Bracken.

NATO has not lost any attack helicopters in its Libya mission, he said.

A coalition including France, Britain and the United States began striking Col. Gadhafi’s forces under a U.N. resolution to protect civilians on March 19. NATO assumed control of the air campaign over Libya on March 31. It’s joined by a number of Arab allies.

What started as a peaceful uprising inside the country against Col. Gadhafi and his more than four-decade rule has devolved into a civil war. Rebels control the eastern third of the country and pockets in the west and are trying to press their front line forward from a stronghold of Misrata toward Zlitan.

It was not clear whether ground fire or a mechanical failure downed the drone.

Britain and France began deploying attack helicopters as part of the NATO-led mission earlier this month to boost the alliance’s firepower and flexibility against Col. Gadhafi’s forces.

NATO previously relied on jets that generally fly above 15,000 feet — nearly three miles high. The attack helicopters give the alliance a key advantage in close-up combat, flying at much lower altitudes.

Airstrikes by attack jets remain the backbone of NATO’s Libya campaign, however.

At least one distant explosion rumbled across Tripoli on Tuesday morning as jets roared overhead. It wasn’t immediately clear what was hit or whether there were casualties.

Associated Press writer Raf Casert contributed to this report from Brussels.

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