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3rd U.S. Carrier Enters Mediterranean for Exercises

March 20, 1986|Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A third U.S. aircraft carrier entered the Mediterranean Sea on Wednesday for what President Reagan called "routine exercises" that may involve flights over the disputed Gulf of Sidra, claimed by Libya.

Pentagon officials said an undisclosed number of planes took part in the operations Wednesday, but "there were no unusual incidents," meaning no close encounters with Libyan forces. The officials declined to say how close the American ships or planes were to Libya.

Reagan and Secretary of State George P. Shultz, although they have bitterly criticized Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi for allegedly supporting terrorist attacks against Americans, said that the operation was not meant as a warning.

Exercises Defended

"These are routine exercises that the fleet is ready to do. The schedule is going on as usual," Reagan told reporters at a state dinner Tuesday night for Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

"We've done these exercises every year," Reagan said. "You just can't have the Navy just sitting there doing nothing."

Shultz, interviewed on the "CBS Morning News," declined to forecast Kadafi's reaction, calling the Libyan leader "very unpredictable."

The carrier America steamed into the Mediterranean at the head of a 10-ship task force Wednesday morning, boosting the number of U.S. naval vessels there to 45, of which 35 are combat ships, a Pentagon spokesman said.

3 Carriers in Region

It is the first time since November, 1984, that the United States has had three carriers in the Mediterranean. The Saratoga arrived there last August--it was expected to depart in four weeks--and the Coral Sea arrived in October, according to Pentagon sources who spoke on condition they not be further identified.

Watching them closely will be an enlarged Soviet fleet. And Administration sources said a battery of SAM-5 surface-to-air missiles, stationed since early this year at Surt near the Libyan coast, are manned by Soviet technicians.

On Tuesday, the Soviets sent two vessels into the Mediterranean, boosting their fleet to 29, including eight warships, the largest of which is a cruiser, one source said.

Pentagon spokesmen said that Navy operations may include air flights over the Gulf of Sidra, which is claimed by Libya. Much of the gulf, however, lies beyond the 12-mile territorial limit respected by the United States.

In 1981, during a U.S. naval operation, two American fighters shot down two Libyan jets that reportedly attacked them. No close approaches were reported Wednesday or during the most recent previous American exercise in the area, Friday and Saturday.

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