Hitting the Source U.S. Bombers Strike At

U.S. Bombers strike at Libya's author of terrorism, dividing Europe and threatening a rash of retaliations

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The blow, when it finally fell, was unexpectedly jarring. Despite years of agonized Western debate about combatting terrorism, months of mostly fruitless diplomatic maneuvering, weeks of U.S. warnings and finally days of ominous public silence, the world still seemed unprepared when the bombers struck. Although Libya had felt the sting of the Sixth Fleet over the Gulf of Sidra just three weeks before, the principal buildings and the minarets of the central mosque in Tripoli were bathed by floodlights, providing a beacon for U.S. pilots. Under cover of darkness, 13 F-111 fighter-bombers flying out of Britain, joined by twelve A-6 attack planes launched off carriers in the Mediterranean, blasted military and intelligence targets in and around Tripoli and the coastal city of Benghazi. Going to the source of Libyan fanaticism, four F-111s aimed 16 bombs, each weighing 2,000 lbs., at the Bab al Azizia barracks: the living quarters and command and communications center from which Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had incited, planned or supported terrorist murders throughout the world.

The raid began around 7 p.m. Monday Washington time (2 a.m. Tuesday in Libya) and was over in time for a White House announcement to catch evening TV news shows. But no one ventured to label it an 11 1/2-min. war; neither the Reagan Administration nor anyone else harbored illusions that anything definitive had been settled during the few moments that the bombs were falling. Rather, there was a sense in Washington and around the world that the U.S. had crossed a fateful line in the intensifying battle between civilized society and terrorism, with consequences that no one could truly predict.

The U.S. launched its bombers out of a grim conviction that ruthless attacks on Americans and the citizens of many other countries will never let up until terrorists and the states that sponsor them are made to pay a price in kind. In his televised address following the raid, the President asserted that the air strike "will not only diminish Colonel Gaddafi's capacity to export terror, it will provide him with incentives and reasons to alter his criminal behavior." That argument won the support of only three U.S. allies: Britain, which gave permission for the F-111s to use English bases, Canada and Israel. All the others at minimum counseled against a raid; France and Spain went further, vexing U.S. opinion by refusing to let the F-111s fly over their territory. That forced the bombers to take a circuitous route that added 2,400 nautical miles to their 5,600-mile round trip.

The great fear in Europe was that the attack would trigger a cycle of new vengeful terrorist assaults followed by more U.S. reprisals. Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi expressed the concerns of European governments and public opinion alike: the U.S. action, he said, was likely to unleash "explosions of fanaticism and of criminal and suicide missions."

The Administration did not dismiss that possibility. The President told a business group the day after the raid, "Yesterday the United States won but a single engagement in a long battle against terrorism." But as that battle proceeds, Reagan has made his intentions clear. "We have done what we had to do," he said in his televised address. "If necessary, we shall do it again."

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