Waves of U.S. warplanes, retaliating for the April 5 terrorist bombing that claimed the life of an American serviceman in West Berlin, struck targets in Libya early today as President Reagan declared that "when our citizens are abused or attacked, anywhere in the world, . . . we will respond so long as I am in this Oval Office."
"Today we have done what we had to do," Reagan said in a brief televised address to the nation Monday night. "If necessary, we will do it again."
F-111 fighter-bombers from three U.S. Air Force bases in Britain, along with A-6 and A-7 light bombers from two Navy aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, hit two military airfields, two barracks and a military training area in Libya. White House spokesman Larry Speakes said all five facilities were used by terrorists.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger told a press conference that one of the F-111s remained unaccounted for, its fate unknown. The air strikes, which began about 2 a.m. today in Libya (4 p.m. Monday PST), drew anti-aircraft fire from Libyan defenders, and Libyan radio claimed that three of the attacking planes had been downed.
Weinberger said the U.S. planes knocked out the lights and communications gear at a military airfield near Benghazi. Beyond that, neither Weinberger nor Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who also attended the press conference, estimated the damage inflicted on the targets.
The airfields, barracks and training area were around the thickly populated cities of Tripoli and Benghazi. But Weinberger described all of them as "good night targets" that offered clear outlines to the attacking planes.
"Every effort was made to avoid civilian casualties and limit collateral damage," Speakes said.
French Embassy Hit
The French Foreign Ministry, however, reported that the French Embassy in Tripoli was hit, but it said there were no injuries.
The 18 F-111s involved in the strike took off from their bases in England, flew southwest over the English Channel, down the Atlantic coast and over the Strait of Gibraltar toward the three targets around the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Weinberger said that the roundabout route, which required several aerial refuelings, was taken because France denied permission for U.S. planes to fly over its territory.
Fifteen attack bombers, the A-6s and A-7s, were launched from the two carriers, the America and the Coral Sea. They struck the airfield and military barracks around Benghazi. The carriers had taken up positions in the Mediterranean Sea just beyond what Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi has proclaimed the "line of death" marking the northern boundary of the Gulf of Sidra.
In addition, a Defense Department official who asked not to be identified said that F-14s and F-18s--the Navy's most sophisticated interceptor fighters--and planes equipped with electronic radar-jamming and surveillance gear were sent aloft from the carriers as a protective shield for the bombers.
As the warplanes attacked, U.S. officials told the senior Soviet diplomat in Washington of the raids. Shultz said that the Soviet charge d'affaires "was told of our evidence, and he was told this action was directed against terrorists and was in no way directed against the Soviet Union."
Reagan, in justifying the attack, declared that evidence of Kadafi's responsibility for the West Berlin incident, in which a Turkish woman was also killed and more than 200 people were injured, "is direct, it is precise, it is irrefutable."
"Despite our repeated warnings, Kadafi continued his reckless policy of intimidation, his relentless pursuit of terror," Reagan said. "He counted on America to be passive. He counted wrong."
Presidential spokesman Larry Speakes told a hurriedly called press briefing Monday evening: "In light of this reprehensible act of violence and clear evidence that Libya is planning future attacks, the United States has chosen to exercise its right of self-defense. It is our hope this action will preempt and discourage Libyan attacks against innocent civilians in the future."
Cooperation With Allies
Reagan said that "close cooperation" with allies had prevented Libya from carrying out several other terrorist attacks against civilians. He said French authorities had helped stop "a planned massacre of people waiting in line" for visas at the American Embassy in Paris.
Weinberger said the targets in or near Tripoli included the Aziziya Barracks, which he described as a command and control headquarters for Libyan terrorist operations; the port of Sidi Bilal, described as a training base for Libyan commandos, and the Tripoli military airport, which Weinberger said is used "to transport military and subversive material around the world."
In or near Benghazi at the other end of the Gulf of Sidra, he said, U.S. planes struck the Jamahiriya Barracks, which he called an alternate command post, and the Baninah Air Base, which the attackers struck to put Libya's air defenses out of commission during the raid.
Speakes described the targets as "sites which allow Kadafi to perpetrate terrorist acts."
Illegal to Be in Libya
Asked if the Administration would be evacuating Americans from Libya, Speakes noted tersely that an executive order issued early this year makes it illegal for them to be there. About 1,000 Americans remain in Libya in defiance of Reagan's order. Most are individuals who have done business in the country for many years or are married to Libyans.
The Administration informed both Congress and European allies in advance of the attack. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said that John M. Poindexter, Reagan's national security adviser, informed the congressional leadership about three hours in advance.
"As Adm. Poindexter said, there would still be time to call off the strike if there was a substantial amount of opposition," Dole said. "There wasn't any opposition, although there was a feeling that they should have been consulted earlier."
The military action took place against a backdrop of intense lobbying by the Administration to recruit the support of the Western allies. In Paris, U.N. Ambassador Vernon A. Walters met with French President Francois Mitterrand and Premier Jacques Chirac, who are said to be leading opponents of military action against Kadafi's regime. Later in the day, Walters traveled to Rome and met with Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi.
A Limited Response
Although Speakes said that a decision earlier in the day by the European Communities rejecting economic sanctions against Libya played "no role" in Reagan's decision, a senior Administration official expressed frustration at the limited nature of the European response.
"What they've done today is not give us even half a loaf," he said, speaking on the condition that he not be identified. "They love to talk about how sanctions don't work. But if they all cut off trade with Libya, in 60 days there'd be a domestic uproar. You'd be seeing real quality-of-life differences in terms of shortages."
The Administration apparently acted without the full support of the allies, although Speakes said: "They understand our reasons, our motives for this, and there is general support for our activities in one form or another."
The first indication that the Administration was about to act came from congressmen who had been summoned to the White House in the late afternoon under a veil of secrecy. They were told that Reagan would address the nation at 6 p.m. PST from the Oval Office, a piece of information several of them passed on to reporters.
'An Evolving Decision'
Speakes said that the military action was the result of "an evolving decision" that grew out of increasing evidence that Kadafi was behind the bombing of the West Berlin discotheque.
Reagan's specific go-ahead for today's mission was made "very, very recently," Speakes said, although he acknowledged that letters carried by Walters to European capitals over the weekend indicated Reagan had approved a military response in principle without revealing details about the timing.
Speakes said the Administration still did not have evidence linking Libya to the explosion aboard TWA Flight 840 on April 2. But he said U.S. intelligence showed Libyan agents targeting Americans "all over the globe.
"We can't afford to sit back and wait passively for Kadafi to attack," he said.
Asked what the Administration would do if Kadafi reacted now by escalating terrorist attacks against Americans, Speakes said: "The U.S. is prepared to take the appropriate response."
'Another Coup Attempt'
Another senior Administration official said that Kadafi is isolated in the Arab world, except for rhetorical support, and that this latest U.S. military action should make him more vulnerable. "It won't be long before you see another coup attempt," he predicted.
Reagan said: "The Libyan people are a decent people, caught in the grip of a tyrant."
Today's attack came three weeks after two U.S. naval carrier battle groups engaged Libyan forces in combat during exercises in the Gulf of Sidra. Planes from the carriers sank at least two Libyan patrol boats and attacked a missile base after being fired on by Libyan missiles while cruising in the gulf.