U.S. Navy jets, while on training exercises over the Mediterranean on Wednesday, shot down two Libyan MIG-23 fighters when the Libyans appeared to threaten the U.S. warplanes, American officials said.
The incident, which occurred about noon local time (2 a.m. PST) in international airspace, comes at a time of increasing U.S. hostility toward Libya over that nation's construction of what U.S. officials charge is a chemical weapons plant near the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci said that the downing of the Libyan jets "had nothing to do whatsoever with that plant" and took place more than 600 miles away. He said the pilots of the two Navy F-14 Tomcats acted in self-defense after taking action to evade the Libyan fighters.
No Further Action Sought
Carlucci said the United States had "absolutely not" provoked the Libyans into the confrontation, and did not seek further action. "We now consider this matter closed," he declared.
Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi called the U.S. downing of the Libyan jets an act of "American terrorism" and vowed revenge, the official Libyan news agency reported.
Kadafi threatened to "meet challenge with challenge," Libya's Jana news agency said in a dispatch monitored in London. "If America has prevailed because it is a superpower in the air and the sea, it will inevitably be defeated on land. We, as well as the fish, are awaiting them," Kadafi was quoted as saying.
The Libyan government requested an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council to condemn the U.S. action and an informal meeting was scheduled for this morning by the 15-member council to discuss the request.
News of the incident caused residents of Tripoli to jam service stations for gasoline and to begin an exodus from the city, according to the Yugoslav news agency Tanjug, which has a correspondent in the Libyan capital.
President Reagan was awakened at 2:53 a.m. PST by a telephone call from Lt. Gen. Colin L. Powell, his assistant for national security affairs, informing him of the incident, the White House said. Reagan was at his new home in Bel-Air, winding up a nearly two-week Southern California vacation before his scheduled return to the White House today. Reflecting the low-key manner in which the White House appeared to approach the incident, no statement about the attack was made in Reagan's name, and the President was said not to have altered his daily schedule.
Shortly after Reagan was notified, Powell called President-elect George Bush, a Bush spokesman said. The spokesman said Bush supports the pilots' actions.
Carlucci, at a Pentagon press briefing, said that the Navy planes were conducting training flights off the carrier John F. Kennedy, which was steaming near the southwest tip of Crete about 127 miles north of the Libyan coast.
At 11:50 a.m. local time, two MIGs were tracked taking off from the Libyan coastal airfield at Al Bumbah and heading for the American F-14s. The four warplanes approached each other in cloudy skies about 70 miles north of Libya, well away from the Libyan-claimed Gulf of Sidra over which the two nations have clashed before, U.S. officials said.
"The F-14 pilots maneuvered to avoid the closing aircraft," Carlucci said. "They changed speed, altitude and direction. The Libyan aircraft continued to close in a hostile manner."
He said the U.S. pilots dived from 15,000 to 4,000 feet and took five separate dodging actions, but still the Libyans approached and "sought to put their nose on our aircraft," Carlucci said.
"At about 14 miles, the U.S. section leader (lead pilot) decided that his aircraft was in jeopardy and they could wait no longer. One MIG-23 was shot down with a Sparrow missile. The second MIG was shot down by a Sidewinder missile at 6 miles," Carlucci said.
In all, four U.S. air-to-air missiles were fired, three modern radar-guided Sparrows and one older heat-seeking Sidewinder, officials said. Both pilots fired missiles; early indications were that the two hits were scored by the lead jet, Carlucci said.
The MIGs' two crewmen apparently escaped. Parachutes were seen coming from the downed aircraft, and a Libyan search-and-rescue helicopter was observed heading for the scene, officials said.
The two American fighters returned unscathed to the Kennedy.
Carlucci repeatedly emphasized that his information was partial and preliminary, subject to change after the pilots were interviewed, recordings of radio traffic studied and radar data reviewed. The pilots were flown to the U.S. naval base at Naples, Italy, for detailed debriefing, Carlucci said.
The pilots were operating under normal peacetime rules of engagement, he said, which allow them to fire their weapons to protect their planes and ships if a potential enemy displays hostile intent. The defense secretary said there was no radio contact between the American and Libyan jets and that the lead pilot made the decision to shoot on his own.
He said the Defense Department had "preliminary information" that the Libyan planes had turned on their radars, but it was not clear whether they were targeting radars used for weapons, or simply navigation or weather sets. Carlucci declined to discuss the subject further.
In requesting the U.N. Security Council meeting, Libyan Ambassador Ali Sunni Muntasser said the Libyan jets were "unarmed, on reconnaissance."
Wednesday's action was the fourth instance of U.S.-Libyan hostilities since Reagan took office in January, 1981.
On Aug. 19, 1981, two F-14s from the aircraft carrier Nimitz downed two Soviet-built Libyan SU-22s with Sidewinders over the Gulf of Sidra. The confrontation occurred over an area that Kadafi had declared as expanded Libyan territorial waters--but recognized by the United States and virtually all other nations as international space.
The Americans returned safely, but Libya said that one Libyan pilot was found in the water and the other was missing and presumed killed.
During that crisis, Reagan, on one of the first California vacations of his presidency, was allowed by then-counselor Edwin Meese III, the senior White House official accompanying him, to sleep through the night at his Santa Barbara area ranch. In Wednesday's incident, the White House staff alerted him promptly.
On March 24, 1986, Libya fired missiles at U.S. jet fighters flying near the disputed waters of the Gulf of Sidra, and the United States retaliated by attacking a missile site and destroying two Libyan patrol boats.
Less than a month later, Libya became the target of the biggest U.S. air strike since the Vietnam War when U.S. warplanes, both carrier-based and from British bases, hit Tripoli and Benghazi, killing 17 civilians and injuring 100. The raid was in retaliation for the bombing of a West Berlin discotheque popular with U.S. servicemen 10 days earlier. The United States charged at the time that Libya was behind the bombing, though later intelligence pointed toward Syrian-backed terrorists as the more likely culprit.
On Capitol Hill, members of Congress--Democrats and Republicans alike--agreed with Pentagon officials that the action of the pilots was appropriate under the circumstances and that the incident was not provoked by any U.S. action.
"It seems to me that our pilots were justified in defending themselves," said Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "I don't think we sought this engagement today. This was simply a matter of self-defense."
"Kadafi never learns," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.). "Maybe this time he will finally get it straight--whenever he threatens American forces, we will defend ourselves."
Rep. Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that Kadafi may have deliberately brought on the American attack to win sympathy from his Arab neighbors.
"He has been milking the alleged threat to his chemical plant for all it is worth to garner Arab support," the Wisconsin Democrat said. "The fact that the clash takes place far from Rabta (site of the chemical facility) minimizes the chances that Rabta would be a focus of retaliation. Two planes is a cheap price to pay so that Col. Kadafi can tune in his television to hear outpourings of fervent backing from all over the Arab world."
Navy officials called Wednesday's action by the Libyans inexplicable, saying that in flying directly out toward the American jets, the MIG pilots departed significantly from standard practice.
Normally, Libyan pilots, who are considered poorly trained and supplemented by Syrian, Soviet and North Korean pilots, do not stray over the ocean and hug the coast if they do, Pentagon sources said.
From the moment the Soviet-made MIG-23s took off from Al Bumbah, however, a U.S. Navy E-2C Hawkeye electronic reconnaissance aircraft watched and listened as they flew a straight line out over the ocean toward the U.S. aircraft. Guided by ground controllers, the aircraft closed on the F-14s.
"They were coming out for a specific purpose," said a naval officer familiar with the event. "They knew exactly what they were doing."
Navy officials were at pains to stress that U.S. forces, which were operating in a commonly traveled area for the U.S. Navy, were not spoiling for a fight. Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Navy forces have conducted exercises in the area a dozen times in the last year, most recently in mid-October.
Navy officials said that the Kennedy, which has been on station with the 6th Fleet since last August, now is steaming eastward toward a port call in the eastern Mediterranean--probably Alexandria, Egypt, or Haifa, Israel.
The Kennedy is due to be relieved by the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and its 13-ship battle group, which are now in the mid-Atlantic. The Roosevelt will not reach the Mediterranean before next Tuesday and may not relieve the Kennedy before about Jan. 12.
The Roosevelt left from Norfolk, Va., also the home port of the Kennedy, with 2,000 assault Marines and amphibious landing gear--heightening speculation about U.S. intentions in light of Reagan's revelation last month that his Administration had discussed with North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies possible military action against the chemical plant in Libya.
A Navy statement, however, insisted that the Roosevelt's departure was "a routine deployment" planned "many, many months ago."
Navy officials would not say how long the United States would keep both carrier groups in the Mediterranean.
But with the Kennedy within striking distance of Libya, the United States still can pose a threat to Kadafi. Navy officials said that they do not believe a strike order is imminent.
But they noted that U.S. forces have several options for striking Libyan targets if that course is chosen. The options include the use of Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from U.S. submarines or long-range air-to-surface missiles that would allow Navy planes to attack such targets as the chemical plant without running the gauntlet of Soviet-made SAM-5 and SAM-6 air defense missiles that ring the plant. "We certainly don't want (American) prisoners of war paraded through the streets of Tripoli," said one officer.
Times staff writers Melissa Healy and Sara Fritz, in Washington, and James Gerstenzang, in Los Angeles, contributed to this story.