WASHINGTON — The battle over the right to navigate freely in Libya's Gulf of Sidra officially ended today with a Defense Department announcement of a halt to ship and flight operations in and over the disputed waters.
President Reagan sent the 6th Fleet a "well done" message, saying it has been the "spear and shield of American policy in a troubled and volatile region."
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, in announcing the end of the exercise, said it was "in every way a successful operation." Adm. William J. Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it "flawless."
Crowe added that Libyan leader Col. Moammar Kadafi's decision not to commit any of his military forces against the fleet after Monday, the first day of combat, "may lead us to revise our opinion of Mr. Kadafi's rationality."
19 Exercises Since '81
"We will return whenever we feel it is necessary," Weinberger told a news conference, noting that since 1981 the United States has conducted 19 exercises in the area, eight of them "below" Kadafi's "line of death" across the mouth of the disputed gulf.
The revised box score for the exchange of missiles over the gulf Monday and Tuesday had two Libyan patrol craft "severely damaged" and three others attacked with still undetermined results. U.S. forces suffered no casualties, and Libya's death toll was undetermined.
Weinberger said that U.S. ships operated in the gulf waters claimed exclusively by Kadafi for a total of 75 hours and that U.S. warplanes made 188 sorties over the gulf.
A three-ship force composed of the cruiser Ticonderoga and the destroyers Scott and Caron started steaming north out of the Gulf of Sidra at 7 a.m. PST and all of the ships in Task Force 60 were ordered out of the Tripoli Flight Information Region, or FIR, by 8:30 a.m. PST, Pentagon sources said.
No flight operations were conducted over the gulf and Navy jets from three carriers on station north of the "line of death" restricted their operations to the ships' vicinity, a routine practice, the sources said.
"Everything is moving north," one source said.
But the sources said the 30-ship task force, three carriers among them, will remain in the Mediterranean north of Libya at least through the middle of next week.
Kadafi intends to conduct naval exercises out of Tripoli, situated west of the gulf, Pentagon officials said. The U.S. fleet task force, more than 100 miles away near the mouth of the gulf, will ignore the Libyan maneuvers, the officials said.
The U.S. flight operations, which began over the weekend, had been scheduled to run until Tuesday with the expiration of a Notice of Intent filed to warn civil aviation authorities of the American maneuvers.
'Reckless . . . Illegal Attack'
Reagan telephoned Vice Adm. Frank B. Kelso Jr., commander of the U.S. 6th Fleet, and said the fundamental principle of freedom of the seas "has been upheld in the face of a reckless and illegal attack."
Reagan told Kelso that he was sending a message to the sailors of the 6th Fleet, saying: "You have sent a message to the whole world that the United States has the will and, through you, the ability to defend the Free World's interests. . . . On behalf of all Americans, I say--well done, and we're proud of you. Good luck and Godspeed."
With the battle for the U.S. right to cross Kadafi's "line of death" apparently over, some confusion remained over earlier Pentagon reports concerning the sinking of Libyan missile boats.
Kelso told reporters aboard the aircraft carrier Saratoga that two boats were "severely damaged" and that evaluations of three other "engagements" are under way. The Pentagon had said three boats were sunk and a fourth damaged.