The U.S. Navy ended 75 hours of operations below Col. Moammar Kadafi's "line of death" in the Mediterranean Sea and sent the 6th Fleet north late Thursday, completing what the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called a "flawless operation" demonstrating the United States' right to sail in disputed waters.
"The Libyans have learned something from us," said Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., the nation's ranking military officer.
Before midnight in the battle area Thursday, the warships Ticonderoga, Caron and Scott, loaded with electronic combat-control gear, had steamed out of the Gulf of Sidra, and the three aircraft carriers that had launched 188 flights of U.S. warplanes over the gulf since Monday had ceased flight operations in the area.
On Mediterranean Duty
But the carriers and their accompanying destroyers, frigates and cruisers were expected to remain for several days in the central Mediterranean, and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger declared: "We will return to the open seas off the coast of Libya whenever it is required."
Kadafi claims sovereignty over the entire gulf and has drawn what he calls a "line of death" across its mouth. The United States, however, regards as international territory all waters more than 12 miles from the Libyan coastline.
President Reagan, in his first public reference to the military action, said Thursday that the United States will hold Kadafi "fully accountable" if he carries out threats to make Americans targets for terrorist attacks, in retaliation for Libyan losses during the confrontation in the Gulf of Sidra.
"We will not be intimidated," Reagan said in a speech at a political fund-raising luncheon in New Orleans.
Earlier, Reagan spoke by telephone with Vice Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, commander in chief of the 6th Fleet, who was aboard the fleet's flagship, the Coronado.
"The fundamental principle of freedom of the seas--so important to the economy and security of the Free World--has been upheld in the face of a reckless and illegal Libyan attack," Reagan said, according to a White House transcript.
The confrontation began Monday afternoon, when Libya began firing Soviet-supplied SAM-5 surface-to-air missiles at U.S. warplanes that had entered the airspace over the Gulf of Sidra.
Responding to those attacks, U.S. warplanes from the carrier Saratoga twice fired high-speed anti-radiation missiles at radar antennas based on the Libyan coast that guide the surface-to-air missiles.
Site Being Repaired
Damage from the first strike Monday was believed to have been repaired. But "the site was put out of action" by a second attack Tuesday, Weinberger said. However, he added, the antennas are being replaced once again with Soviet-furnished equipment.
Four days after the bulk of the action, Pentagon officials continued to assess the battle damage, correcting earlier reports. Weinberger said that two Libyan missile patrol boats were sunk--rather than three, as reported earlier--and that three others were attacked. The results of the attacks on the three others are still being evaluated.
One official said that the Libyan navy's six submarines remained in port and that if the Libyan air force "came out, Kelso had the authority to clear the skies" with the Navy's F-14 and F/A-18 fighters. Only two Soviet-built Libyan MIG-25s ventured out over the gulf Monday, and they turned back more than 125 miles from any U.S. aircraft.
'A Flawless Operation'
As the ships were sailing out of the gulf Thursday, Adm. Crowe, who appeared with Weinberger at a Pentagon news conference, declared that "I frankly would have to rate it in my professional judgment as a flawless operation."
He said that the Libyans were unsuccessful in efforts to jam the electronic equipment that guides U.S. missiles and helps to protect U.S. ships and planes from attack. The Soviet Union's role was limited to surveillance "and presumably exchange of intelligence," Crowe added.
Weinberger said there were no U.S. casualties and no information about Libyan casualties.
24 Reported Killed
Diplomatic sources in Tripoli said that 24 Libyan sailors were killed and four were listed as missing in the U.S. attacks on the patrol boats.
The exercise never went beyond the first stage of what one official described as "stair steps," which escalate the Navy's reaction to whatever actions were taken by the Libyans in response to the American aircraft and naval operations south of the "line of death."
A senior Pentagon official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, said that if the confrontations had escalated, U.S. forces eventually would have launched direct bomb attacks on Libyan military bases and other targets. "This thing was carefully gamed out," the official said.
But, the official added, had Kelso decided to take any such action, permission would have been required from higher authorities in Washington.
1,546 Flights Conducted
During the exercises, which began Sunday, 1,546 flights were conducted by carrier-based aircraft over the central Mediterranean, Weinberger said. Of the 188 that flew over the Gulf of Sidra, 85 took place at night.
With the fleet beginning to disperse, the Saratoga--which was joined in the operation by the carriers Coral Sea and America--was expected to return to port in Mayport, Fla., within a month.
But the fleet will remain on operational status for several days, one senior Pentagon official said. "I don't expect them to anchor in Barcelona and let the troops go ashore," he said.
Kelso, meanwhile, is considered by some as a front-runner for the post of chief of naval operations, the Navy's senior position, which Adm. James D. Watkins will vacate June 30.
The job generally is given to a full admiral. Kelso met with Weinberger in London last week in a session that some Navy sources said involved discussion of the Mediterranean operation but was also viewed as a job interview.
However, a senior Pentagon official cautioned that "the jury is still out" in regard to the job.
Times staff writer Eleanor Clift contributed to this story from New Orleans.