BENGHAZI, Libya

British and French helicopters attack troops loyal to Gadhafi

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 military vehicles and equipment, and troops trying to hide in populated areas.

Until now, NATO has relied on attack jets generally flying above 15,000 feet, pounding Gadhafi targets in relentless overnight bombings.

KABUL, Afghanistan

Gates appeals for patience in war against the Taliban

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates appealed for patience with an unpopular war and said Saturday it’s too early to change strategies in Afghanistan or make more than modest U.S. troop withdrawals this summer.

Gates offered no specifics on what he would recommend to President Barack Obama on beginning a troop reduction in July. But his comments during a farewell visit to Afghanistan suggested he thinks it is too soon to cut sharply or to slow what he called an increasingly effective offensive against the Taliban. Gates is retiring at month’s end.

He laid out several markers that he said should be met before big changes are made.

One factor, he said, is determining in the next several months what Osama bin Laden’s death means for the fight against the Taliban. The group’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had a close relationship with al-Qaida, bin Laden’s terrorist network.

Gates said it is possible that bin Laden’s death could make Taliban more willing to “walk away from” al-Qaida.

“I think it’s too early to tell,” he said at a news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “My hope is that we would have some indication perhaps later this year of the impact. But I think the important thing is for us to see through” the military offensive against the Taliban that has blunted and in some areas reversed their momentum in recent months.

CAIRO

Ex-finance official convicted of squandering public funds

Egypt’s former finance minister was sentenced in absentia Saturday to 30 years in prison for squandering public funds and abusing his authority, the state news agency said.

Yousef Boutros-Ghali, a nephew of former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, left Egypt during the uprising that forced out President Hosni Mubarak in February. Yousef Boutros-Ghali was a powerful confidant of Mubarak’s son Gamal.

Boutros-Ghali’s whereabouts is unknown.

A Cairo court convicted Boutros-Ghali on Saturday in two cases. In one, he was found guilty of appropriating luxury vehicles seized from the customs authority. In the other, he was convicted of abusing his authority by using state print shops to produce campaign material.

In each case, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison and was fined $6 million.