U.S. warplanes struck targets in Libya on Monday in retaliation for the April 5 terrorist bombing in West Berlin in which an American serviceman was killed, and 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 an address to the nation. "If necessary, we will do it again."
Squadrons of F-111 fighter-bombers, flying from three U.S. Air Force bases in Britain, along with A-6 and A-7 light bombers from two Navy aircraft carriers, hit targets described by White House spokesman Larry Speakes as the command and control centers and intelligence, communications, logistics and training facilities used by terrorists.
The targets were around both Tripoli and Benghazi, areas that are thickly populated. The first of the attacks took place at 2 a.m. in Libya (4 p.m. PST).
In addition, F-14s and F-18s--the Navy's most sophisticated interceptor fighters--and planes equipped with electronic radar-jamming and surveillance gear were dispatched from the carriers America and Coral Sea, which 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.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said at a press conference Monday night that one F-111 had not been accounted for. Libyan anti-aircraft defenses reportedly fired at the attacking planes, and Libyan radio claimed that three of the attacking planes had been downed. Neither Weinberger nor Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who also attended the press conference, could give any estimate of the damage inflicted on the targets.
The 18 F-111s involved in the strike took off from three bases in England, flew southwest over the English Channel, south over the Bay of Biscay west of France, along the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula and over the Strait of Gibraltar toward Libya.
In addition, 15 attack bombers and other aircraft launched from the two carriers joined the force in a closely coordinated attack that struck what Weinberger called "good night targets" offering sharply delineated outlines.
The defense secretary said that the roundabout route was taken because France denied permission for U.S. planes to fly over its territory--bringing about a course that required several aerial refuelings.
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," the President said.
"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."
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.
There were no immediate reports on the extent of damage inflicted by the air strikes, which Speakes said were "carefully planned" to minimize the possibility of striking civilians, although preliminary reports from Tripoli indicated that there were civilian casualties.
Weinberger said the targets in or near Tripoli included the Bab el Azziya Barracks, which he described as a command and control headquarters for Libyan terrorist operations; a military airfield named Tarbulus, and Sidi Bilal, a training area. 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 Benna military air base.
Speakes described the targets as "sites which allow Kadafi to perpetrate terrorist acts."
In addition to authorizing the strikes at the terrorist-related targets, President Reagan also authorized what Speakes called "limited defense-suppression missions in order to defend our own forces engaged in this mission."
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 two to 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 on the same subject.
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 real 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 9 p.m. EST from the Oval Office, a piece of information several of them passed on to reporters.
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 that the Administration still does 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 retaliated by escalating terrorist attacks against Americans, Speakes said, "The U.S. is prepared to take the appropriate response."
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 to overthrow. "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."
The action came three weeks after two U.S. naval carrier battle groups engaged Libyan forces in combat during exercises in the Gulf of Sidra.