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Libya's rebels await the arrival of Nato

Britain has sent Apache helicopters to help rebels fighting Gaddafi's forces in Misrata. Photograph: Ho/Reuters

The besieged Libyan city of Misrata is braced for the imminent arrival of Nato attack helicopters, after the announcement by France's foreign minister that they would be deployed "very rapidly" against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

A rebel commander told the Guardian that Nato had issued instructions for rebel fighters not to move beyond pre-arranged lines, allowing them freedom to attack anything beyond.

Rebel troops were being moved from the front line leaving many checkpoints deserted. Misrata airport, which includes military facilities abandoned by pro-Gaddafi forces, was abruptly closed to visitors and ringed with armed fighters.

Rebel commanders said that "facilities" were being constructed there, prompting speculation that Nato may be using the airport either as a base or an emergency landing zone for helicopters damaged on frontline.

The day before, Al Jazeera filmed armed western employees of private security companies liaising with rebel units on the frontline at Dafniya.

In Paris, French defence minister Gerard Longuet refused to say when the British Apaches and French Tiger helicopters, currently on warships in the Mediteranean, would be deployed, but added "In any case, very rapidly."

Rebel leaders expect this deployment in the next few days after the peace mission to Tripoli by South African president Jacob Zuma failed to produce the resignation of Colonel Gaddafi that Nato and rebels had hoped for.

After Monday's lull in the daily shelling of outlying areas of Misrata, pro-Gaddafi forces fired rockets and mortars at frontline positions around Dafniya, the shooting halted abruptly when Nato jets circled the area.Rebel commanders said Gaddafi's forces may be in a weakened state. The rebel troops still lack heavy weapons, but have acquired the Nato Milan anti-tank missile, used with devastating effect to clear fortified positions earlier in the month.

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