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Renewed US missile barrage amid Libya talks

By Robert Burns

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 29 2011 4:01 p.m. MDT

Adm. James G. Stavridis, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, left, and Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 29, 2011, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the U.S. mission in Libya.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Stepping up attacks far from the frontline fighting, a U.S. Navy ship fired 22 Tomahawk cruise missiles at weapon storage sites around Tripoli on Tuesday, a day after President Barack Obama said the U.S. was moving into more of a backseat role in the Libya military campaign.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, held talks in London with an envoy from the Libyan political opposition group trying to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi.

In Washington, under questioning by Congress, NATO's top commander, U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, said officials had seen "flickers" of possible al-Qaida and Hezbollah involvement with the rebel forces. But Stavridis, testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, said there was no evidence of significant numbers within the political opposition group's leadership.

The Navy Tomahawks targeted storage sites for surface-to-surface missiles near the Libyan capital, while combat aircraft of the U.S. and its partners in an international air campaign struck at ammunition storage depots and other military targets in western Libya. The rebels, though, were reported in full retreat after trying to march on Sirte, a city about halfway between Tripoli and the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi.

All 22 Tomahawks were launched from the USS Barry, a guided missile destroyer in the Mediterranean, according to a U.S. defense official. It was the highest number of Tomahawks fired in several days, even as the Navy has reduced the number of missile-firing ships and submarines off the coast and as the U.S. has prepared to give NATO full control of the Libya campaign.

The Libyan missiles targeted by the U.S. onslaught could have been used by pro-Gadhafi forces defending Tripoli, should heavy combat spread to the capital, which remains under Gadhafi's control. The rebels are outmatched in training, equipment and other measures of military might by Gadhafi's remaining forces, and would be hard-pressed to mount a full-scale battle for Tripoli now.

As for the overall international campaign against Gadhafi, Stavridis said he expected a three-star Canadian general to assume full NATO command of the operation by Thursday. Meanwhile, the Pentagon put the price tag for the war thus far at $550 million.

Clinton told reporters in London that the U.S. is operating with incomplete information about the Libyan opposition. But she said there was no information about specific individuals from terror organizations that are part of the political opposition.

"We're building an understanding, but at this time obviously it is, as I say, a work in progress," she said. "We don't know as much as we would like to know and as much as we expect we will know."

The Obama administration is not ruling out a political solution in Libya that could include Gadhafi leaving the country, she said, but she acknowledged there is no timeline.

Clinton met with Mahmoud Jibril, a representative of the Libyan political opposition.

"Their commitment to democracy and to a very robust engagement with people from across the spectrum of Libyans is, I think, appropriate," she said.

A senior administration official said the U.S. will soon send an envoy to Libya to deepen relations with leaders of the rebels. But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning, said the meeting wouldn't constitute formal recognition.

Chris Stevens, who until recently was the deputy chief of mission at the now-shuttered U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, will make that trip.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the opposition leaders Obama officials have met with have expressed views that correspond with U.S. goals.

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