WASHINGTON — The U.S. aircraft carrier Forrestal and elements of its support vessels cut short port visits in Italy on Friday and steamed into the Mediterranean for possible quick reaction to the jetliner hijacking in Pakistan, Pentagon officials said.
The conventionally powered Forrestal and a guided missile destroyer got under way from Naples and headed southward as a "prudent thing to do" in the event the carrier needed to launch aircraft, said the officials, who requested anonymity.
"The basic thing to do was to get under way," one official said. "You can't launch airplanes from anchor."
Other ships in the battle group departed or were preparing to leave two other Italian ports to link up with the carrier, the officials said.
Originally, the carrier and its escorts were scheduled to remain in port through Wednesday.
The rapid response of the carrier force to the hijacking apparently underscored U.S. determination since the April 15 air strike against Libya to prepare to react militarily to terrorist attacks. The U.S. attack was in retaliation for the bombing of a West Berlin discotheque in which an American soldier died.
Vice Adm. Kendall Moranville, the new commander of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean, issued the order for the Forrestal to move out of Naples, the officials said. The carrier was not given a destination other than the Mediterranean, they said.
"He was seeing the potential involvement of his ships (in efforts to halt the hijacking, in which Cyprus was a potential destination) and he wanted his forces where he could use them," one official said.
An unknown number of Forrestal crew members were left ashore because of the carrier's hasty departure, which came just before a weekend of expected shore leave, the officials said. Those left behind probably would be sent out to the ship on helicopters, they said.
2nd Carrier in Port
A second carrier, the Kennedy, is in the Spanish port of Benidorm, and plans had been made to send it to sea with the Forrestal, the officials said. But the plans apparently were canceled when the hijacking drama ended with the storming of the plane by Pakistani commandos. The Kennedy was to stay in port until Sunday.
Together, the two carriers are equipped with about 175 aircraft of all types--fighters, light bombers and reconnaissance, radar-jamming and radar-warning planes.
No carrier battle groups are in the vicinity of Pakistan or in the Indian Ocean, the officials said.