U.S. warplanes streaked low over the Libyan capital in the early morning hours today, and the sounds of explosions rocked the air as Libyan gunners fired barrages of anti-aircraft and tracer shells into the sky.
The attack began shortly after 2 a.m. and was over in about 15 minutes. Tripoli's stubby skyline was quickly lit up with the crimson glow of fires as columns of smoke rose to merge with the night sky.
One of the targets of the U.S. attack appeared to be the Bab el Azziya military barracks, where Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi keeps his headquarters and residence when he is in Tripoli.
Libyan radio quickly interrupted its regular broadcast of patriotic songs to announce that three U.S. planes had been shot down and their crews killed by outraged Libyans.
(In Washington, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger said in a press conference that one of the attacking aircraft, an Air Force F-111, was unaccounted for but that it had not necessarily been shot down.)
Libyan radio also said members of Kadafi's family had been injured in the attack.
"The savage American invaders carried out a treacherous and barbaric air strike this morning against the residence of the brother leader of the revolution (Kadafi), " the broadcast said. "A number of members of the family of the brother leader were injured as a result of this raid.
"The concentrated American barbaric air strike is continuing against populated and civilian quarters of Tripoli. A number of civilians, most of them foreign nationals, have fallen," the radio said.
Shortly after the attack began, electricity was cut to several parts of the city. The sound of vehicles screeching through the streets could be heard in the brief moments between the sounds of gunfire and explosions. Terrified residents poured into the streets on foot and in automobiles, jamming roads as they honked their horns.
Embassy Reported Hit
In Paris, the Associated Press quoted the French Foreign Ministry as saying that the French Embassy in Tripoli was hit in the bombing raid but that no one was injured. A spokesman provided no information on the extent of the damage.
On Monday, Libya was already stepping up its military preparations in the capital against a possible U.S. attack.
The extent of the preparations was not clear, but they included movements by air and naval forces and an order to hospitals to store blood plasma and other medical supplies needed to treat casualties in the event of an attack.
Naval vessels moved into Tripoli's harbor, taking up positions alongside civilian cargo ships, and there was an unusual amount of air activity over the capital as military jets and transports flew in and out of the old Wheelus Air Force Base, a onetime U.S. facility, just outside the city.
Shield Against Attack
Over the past few days, there were signs that Kadafi might seek to use the presence of Americans and other foreigners from U.S.-allied nations as a shield against a U.S. military strike.
In an interview two days ago, Kadafi said he planned to move foreign oil company workers, including an estimated 1,000 Americans, into a number of military camps that he said had been targeted for attack by the United States.
This had not happened by the time of today's attack, according to Western diplomats, who added that they did not take the announcement seriously. However, they said, the attitudes of Libyan officials towards foreigners had become noticeably more hostile in recent days.
One diplomat said the Libyan officials with whom his embassy deals had suddenly become "very irrational and unpredictable. One moment they are very sweet, the next moment they are very hostile.
'Very, Very Nervous'
"The Libyans are very, very nervous," he added.
Also on Monday, Libyan officials reacted angrily to the results of a meeting of the 12 foreign ministers of the European Communities in The Hague. The Common Market ministers, seeking to forestall a U.S. military strike against Libya with political action of their own, passed a resolution accusing Libya of sponsoring terrorism and agreeing to lower the number of Libyan diplomats in their countries. They also imposed travel and visa restrictions on the remaining diplomats and called for closer intelligence cooperation to combat terrorism.
Libya, apparently taken by surprise, strongly criticized the European move. A few hours before the Common Market decision was announced, Western reporters in Tripoli were assembled for what they were led to believe would be a press conference by Kadafi. But the reporters instead were given a statement denouncing the Common Market decision.
Switching of Roles
"There is no excuse to take military or economic action against Libya," the statement said. "There is no excuse to accuse Libya. But it is very clear that Europe and the U.S. are switching roles. The U.S. is playing the role of military terrorist while Europe is playing the role of political and economic terrorists.
"Libya is not afraid of an American attack but will face it and defeat it with the help of all Arab countries," the statement added. It was signed by Jadallah Azzuz Talhi, chairman of the General People's Committee, who is nominally the Libyan equivalent of prime minister.
Diplomats in Tripoli say the apparently increasing hostility toward foreigners and the signs of military preparations in the capital reflected a growing conviction, shared by the diplomats as well as Libyan officials, that the United States would retaliate against Libya for what Washington calls its involvement in the recent bombing of a Trans World Airlines jetliner and a West Berlin discotheque frequented by American soldiers.
"They are seriously worried about the possibility of an American strike," one diplomat said. "They know they have no defense against it."
Libya's 76,000-member armed forces are well equipped but regarded as poorly trained, despite the presence of about 3,000 to 6,000 Russian military advisers. Although the army has about 3,000 tanks and an air force of 535 combat aircraft, Western diplomats estimate that no more than 20% of Libya's military equipment is operational at any given time because of poor maintenance and the lack of personnel trained to operate it.