Sources Say U.S. Plane Intercepted by Libyan Jets
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Two Libyan jet fighters intercepted a U.S. Navy surveillance plane flying over the Mediterranean Sea off Libya on Monday, prompting two American fighters to scramble from the aircraft carrier Coral Sea, Reagan administration sources said Tuesday.
The Libyan fighters made no threatening moves toward the Navy plane, which was in international airspace, and flew back to Libya before the American fighters arrived, said the sources, who declined to be identified.
Although he refused to provide any details, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger confirmed the incident late Tuesday when he was briefly interviewed by TV crews. Weinberger said the interception occurred well outside Libyan waters ″in the southern Mediterranean.″
The incident appeared to represent the first direct contact between U.S. and Libyan military forces since terrorists attacked the airports in Rome and Vienna on Dec. 27, killing 19 people, including five Americans.
The United States has accused Libya of supporting the Palestinian terrorist faction that conducted those attacks and has imposed a variety of economic sanctions against the North African country as a result.
In other developments Tuesday:
-Pentagon officials stepped up their war of words against Libya and the Soviet Union, with spokesman Robert B. Sims branding the introduction of SA-5 surface-to-air missiles in Libya ″a significant and dangerous escalation in the Soviet-Libyan arms relationship.″
-Sims also said the Soviet Union had increased its surveillance of U.S. ships and aircraft in the Mediterranean region in what appeared to be ″an integrated effort to obtain detailed information about our fleet operations and provide it to the Libyans.″
-And Pentagon sources said the aircraft carrier Saratoga would enter the Mediterranean on Wednesday, buttressing U.S. forces in the region. The sources had disclosed earlier the carrier was ordered from the Indian Ocean to join the Coral Sea ″because of the tensions with Libya.″
The sources added, however, the Navy had not received any orders to prepare for a retaliatory strike against the North African country.
According to the sources, the incident involving the two Libyan fighters and a Navy EA-3 electronic surveillance plane from the Coral Sea occurred at mid-day local time Monday, meaning during the early morning in the United States.
The sources said the Soviet-made MiG-25 fighters appeared as the EA-3 flew over the Mediterranean waters northeast of the Libyan capital of Tripoli and north of the Gulf of Sidra.
After the pilot of the surveillance plane detected the Libyan fighters and notified the Coral Sea, two U.S. F-A-18 fighters were scrambled by the carrier, one source said. But the Libyans had already begun leaving the area by the time the American fighters arrived, he dded.
″There were two MiGs that showed up and nosed around,″ said one source. ″They came fairly close.
″But they made no threats, no menacing gestures, and then they peeled off and went away. There was nothing hostile and it was a rather unremarkable intercept.″
The sources said they could not be positive the planes were flown by Libyan pilots, ″but we assume they were. They were definitely Libyan planes.″
They said the Coral Sea is in the Ionian Sea, to the south and east of Italy, due north of Libya. The carrier was described Tuesday as conducting routine operations.
The sources said the EA-3, a large, twin-engine jet packed with sophisticated electronic listening gear, is often used to conduct lone reconnaissance missions. The planes can carry large amounts of fuel to linger in an area for several hours.
One source said it was not that unusual for Libyan fighters to be detected in the area, but he also said the two Libyan fighters that intercepted the EA- 3 ″moved a bit closer to our plane than they normally do.″
One official said the initial reports of the incident suggested the Migs had moved to within 200 feet of the EA-3.
Weinberger, in interviews with CBS and ABC, said he found nothing ″remarkable″ about the incident because Libyan planes had patrolled in the general area before.
″Libyan planes have been up in that area. This is a little farther north than they’ve been before, but I don’t think there’s anything unusual about it.″
ABC quoted unidentified sources Tuesday night as saying the F-A-18′s that responded to the Libyan fighters had actually been preparing to intercept two Soviet reconnaissance planes that were shadowing the 6th Fleet when the EA-3 pilot called for assistance.
Sims, meantime, refused to say how close the Libyans were to completing the installation of SA-5 missiles currently being provided by the Soviets.
The missiles are capable of striking surveillance planes at a distance of up to 150 miles. Pentagon officials have said privately that the first batteries of the missiles could be operational by the end of the month.
″They clearly are heading in the direction of being operational and they will constitute a serious threat to our aircraft, which normally fly over international waters in the Mediterranean,″ Sims told reporters.
The spokesman also confirmed earlier reports that the Soviets had increased their own surveillance of U.S. ships. The Soviets have 26 ships in the Mediterranean, including six combat vessels, Sims said.
Moreover, the vessel that the Soviets normally use as the flagship for their Mediterranean forces ″is currently in port in Tripoli, Libya,″ the spokesman added.
Sims said he was not prepared to suggest the Soviet surveillance was in any way illegal.
″I’m just saying that the amount of military equipment provided to Libya and the surveillance of our movements, put together, suggest some degree of danger for our forces,″ he said, adding the Soviet support could help the Libyans if they decided to attack U.S. forces.