WASHINGTON — U.S. Navy jets, while on training exercises over the Mediterranean on Wednesday, shot down two Libyan MIG-23 fighters when the Libyans appeared to threaten the U.S. warplanes, American officials said.
The incident, which occurred about noon local time (2 a.m. PST) in international airspace, comes at a time of increasing U.S. hostility toward Libya over that nation's construction of what U.S. officials charge is a chemical weapons plant near the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci said that the downing of the Libyan jets "had nothing to do whatsoever with that plant" and took place more than 600 miles away. He said the pilots of the two Navy F-14 Tomcats acted in self-defense after taking action to evade the Libyan fighters.
No Further Action Sought
Carlucci said the United States had "absolutely not" provoked the Libyans into the confrontation, and did not seek further action. "We now consider this matter closed," he declared.
Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi called the U.S. downing of the Libyan jets an act of "American terrorism" and vowed revenge, the official Libyan news agency reported.
Kadafi threatened to "meet challenge with challenge," Libya's Jana news agency said in a dispatch monitored in London. "If America has prevailed because it is a superpower in the air and the sea, it will inevitably be defeated on land. We, as well as the fish, are awaiting them," Kadafi was quoted as saying.
The Libyan government requested an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council to condemn the U.S. action and an informal meeting was scheduled for this morning by the 15-member council to discuss the request.
News of the incident caused residents of Tripoli to jam service stations for gasoline and to begin an exodus from the city, according to the Yugoslav news agency Tanjug, which has a correspondent in the Libyan capital.
President Reagan was awakened at 2:53 a.m. PST by a telephone call from Lt. Gen. Colin L. Powell, his assistant for national security affairs, informing him of the incident, the White House said. Reagan was at his new home in Bel-Air, winding up a nearly two-week Southern California vacation before his scheduled return to the White House today. Reflecting the low-key manner in which the White House appeared to approach the incident, no statement about the attack was made in Reagan's name, and the President was said not to have altered his daily schedule.
Shortly after Reagan was notified, Powell called President-elect George Bush, a Bush spokesman said. The spokesman said Bush supports the pilots' actions.
Carlucci, at a Pentagon press briefing, said that the Navy planes were conducting training flights off the carrier John F. Kennedy, which was steaming near the southwest tip of Crete about 127 miles north of the Libyan coast.
At 11:50 a.m. local time, two MIGs were tracked taking off from the Libyan coastal airfield at Al Bumbah and heading for the American F-14s. The four warplanes approached each other in cloudy skies about 70 miles north of Libya, well away from the Libyan-claimed Gulf of Sidra over which the two nations have clashed before, U.S. officials said.
"The F-14 pilots maneuvered to avoid the closing aircraft," Carlucci said. "They changed speed, altitude and direction. The Libyan aircraft continued to close in a hostile manner."
He said the U.S. pilots dived from 15,000 to 4,000 feet and took five separate dodging actions, but still the Libyans approached and "sought to put their nose on our aircraft," Carlucci said.
"At about 14 miles, the U.S. section leader (lead pilot) decided that his aircraft was in jeopardy and they could wait no longer. One MIG-23 was shot down with a Sparrow missile. The second MIG was shot down by a Sidewinder missile at 6 miles," Carlucci said.
In all, four U.S. air-to-air missiles were fired, three modern radar-guided Sparrows and one older heat-seeking Sidewinder, officials said. Both pilots fired missiles; early indications were that the two hits were scored by the lead jet, Carlucci said.
The MIGs' two crewmen apparently escaped. Parachutes were seen coming from the downed aircraft, and a Libyan search-and-rescue helicopter was observed heading for the scene, officials said.
The two American fighters returned unscathed to the Kennedy.
Carlucci repeatedly emphasized that his information was partial and preliminary, subject to change after the pilots were interviewed, recordings of radio traffic studied and radar data reviewed. The pilots were flown to the U.S. naval base at Naples, Italy, for detailed debriefing, Carlucci said.
The pilots were operating under normal peacetime rules of engagement, he said, which allow them to fire their weapons to protect their planes and ships if a potential enemy displays hostile intent. The defense secretary said there was no radio contact between the American and Libyan jets and that the lead pilot made the decision to shoot on his own.