WASHINGTON – Amid complaints from allies that the U.S. military should be doing more in the Libya operation, Pentagon officials disclosed Wednesday that American fighter jets have continued airstrikes inside the country even after the United States turned the mission over to NATO last week.
The revelation came as Pentagon officials laid out U.S. participation in the Libya conflict over the past 10 days, including that Americans have flown 35 percent of all air missions.
Those missions, they said, include bombing attacks against Libyan surface-to-air missile launchers, as well as surveillance and refueling operations. It was the first time the Pentagon acknowledged that airstrikes continued after the U.S. handed over control of the Libya mission to NATO on April 4.
According to Pentagon officials, eleven U.S. fighter jets were assigned to NATO to look for and take out the air defense systems.
The revelation triggered questions because U.S. military officials have said consistently that American fighter jets would only conduct strikes in Libya if NATO makes a special request and it is approved by top Pentagon leaders.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan told reporters Wednesday that NATO has made no such requests for U.S. airstrikes since taking over the lead role in Libya.
But Lapan said that approval process applies only to airstrikes meant to protect civilians from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces. Such strikes could target regime tanks or forces moving against Libyan citizens.
The fighter jets assigned to NATO, Lapan said, are used solely for a separate mission to take out enemy air defenses, such as the truck-mounted surface-to-air missile launchers. The 11 jets are considered NATO aircraft, under separate leadership and committed to making the U.N.-approved no fly zone over Libya safer and more effective.
The distinction is slim, since the purpose of the no-fly zone is to protect civilians.
According to military officials, six F-16 fighter jets and five Navy EA-18G Growler electronic attack planes have been assigned to NATO. They dropped bombs on three separate days — April 4, 6 and 7, defense officials said. The targets included mobile surface-to-air missile targets in Libya.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to provide operational details, said the 11 U.S. aircraft have flown 97 of the 134 air defense mission sorties since April 4. Italy and other nations are also participating, but defense officials said such missions are considered a unique capability that the U.S. can perform.
The 11 fighter jets, officials said, are based in Italy.
In a stark acknowledgement that NATO had not yet accomplished its U.N.-mandated mission of protecting Libyan civilians from attacks by Libyan government forces, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday said the U.S. is receiving disturbing reports of "renewed atrocities" by pro-Gadhafi troops.
"Regime militias and mercenaries have continued their attacks on civilians in Misrata, indiscriminately firing mortar and artillery rounds into residential areas of the city," Clinton said in a statement. "The regime has reportedly destroyed crucial food supply warehouses and cut off water and power to the city, laying siege to the Libyan people in an apparent attempt to starve them into submission. Snipers have targeted civilians seeking medical attention, and thousands of civilians are being forced out of their homes by regime attacks with tanks and artillery."
Asked why U.S. officials did not disclose the recent strikes against Libya air defenses until Wednesday, a senior defense official said the military considers them defense, not "offensive strike operations" because they are targeting missile sites in an effort to protect allied planes patrolling the no-fly zone over Libya. The official said the Pentagon does not believe it has been deceitful by not disclosing the strikes until now.
"It is completely consistent with how we have described our support role ever since the transition to NATO," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said. "We weren't just going to be flying around and doing jamming. If these guys want to show themselves, we're going to take them out."
The U.S. has done 77 percent of all the refueling missions and 27 percent of the surveillance flights, Lapan said. The U.S. has provided 22 tanker aircraft and 13 surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft to NATO for use in Libya operations, including two Predator drones, a high-altitude unmanned Global Hawk, and an array of planes that have sophisticated jamming, radar, communications and spying capabilities.
U.S. officials have emphasized on repeated occasions that the American military would step back into a supporting role in the Libyan conflict after taking the lead early on in the operation.
But in recent days Western diplomats and Libyan rebels have complained about the reduced U.S. role in the conflict, saying that the loss of American aircraft in the combat has had a significant impact. Lack of U.S. fighters, they said, has made it difficult for the opposition forces to gain any ground — and at times even sustain their positions — against the regime forces.
AP Broadcast correspondent Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.