Across the line of death

JOHN BARBER April 7 1986

Across the line of death

JOHN BARBER April 7 1986

Across the line of death


When Moammar Khadafy first claimed sovereignty over the Gulf of Sidra off the Libyan coast and described its outer limit as the “line of death,” most statesmen regarded the action as simple bombast from a flamboyant man. But last week Khadafy’s line of death became just that. Massed ships of the U.S. navy’s Sixth Fleet—three aircraft carriers with about 225 jets, 23 cruisers, destroyers and frigates and as many as 12 nuclear-powered submarines—hovered outside and occasionally ventured across the 443-km line. And when the Libyans responded with missile fire, the Americans answered with force. In the end at least 150 Libyans are believed to have been killed.

The one-sided battle lasted less than 48 hours, and senior U.S. officials swiftly denied that the superpower deliberately provoked the desert nation into battle. But other U.S. politicians claimed that the operation was carefully calculated to humiliate the Libyan dictator. The fighting rallied Libyans in support of Khadafy, and some of his usually hostile Arab neighbors also came to his support. It also raised the prospect of Libyan-sponsored terrorist reprisals against American targets around the world (page 16). Said Libya’s official radio: “Oh heroes of our Arab nation, let your missiles and suicide cells pursue American terrorist embassies and interests wherever they may be.”

The battle began on Sunday, at 4:30 p.m. EST, when U.S. aircraft first crossed Khadafy’s line of death. They were followed more than 12 hours later by a fleet of three U.S. ships—two cruisers and a destroyer. Then the Libyans fired six Soviet-made SA-5 missiles at the aircraft from a newly operational base near the city of Sidra, also known as Sirte. But the fighters were able to evade the 2,000-m.p.h. missiles, designed to destroy less-manoeuvrable bombers. The Libyan offensive ended after about five hours on Monday when the last of the SA-5s dropped harmlessly into the sea.

Then, after darkness at 2:30 p.m. EST, A-6 attack jets launched from the carrier America destroyed a 27-man, French-made Combattante patrol boat with Harpoon missiles and Rockeye

bombs. Within two hours more A-6 attacks crippled a 70-man Soviet-made corvette which was approaching the fleet from the Libyan port of Benghazi, and, with the aid of High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARMS), the Americans disabled the Sidra missile base. Shortly after midnight local time the cruiser Yorktown attacked another Combattante with surface-tosurface missiles, and two A-7s completed the destruction of the missile base. The battle ended 12 hours later when two A-6s destroyed another Sovietmade Nanuchka corvette.

The debate following the battle focused more on the issue of provocation than tactics. Short-

ly after the Sixth Fleet’s response to Libya’s missile firings, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said, “This was not an act to provoke or humiliate Khadafy.” And in Ankara, Turkey, touring Secretary of State George Schultz declared, “Our exercise was not designed to provoke such an attack.” But The New York Times and Washington Post both quoted senior White House officials as saying that President Ronald Reagan ordered the naval exercises on March 14 after his advisers told him that the action would almost certainly lead to a confrontation with Khadafy. I They added that the £ President was concerned I about intelligence resi ports indicating that

Khadafy was preparing terrorist attacks against U.S. diplomats and decided that a show of force was the only way to deter him. The officials said that planning for the action began as early as January, following terrorist attacks in the Rome and Vienna airports that U.S. officials said were organized by groups harbored by Libya.

The United States is supported by most nations in claiming that the gulf is an international waterway. That is because countries generally claim sovereignty only over the waters within 12 miles of their coastlines. The United States has consistently challenged any claims beyond that limit, as it did when it sent the Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea through the Northwest Passage last August despite Canadian claims to sovereignty over the strait. But, declared Leonard Legault of the department of external affairs, “we do not see how the Libyan claim to the gulf could be sustained under international law. It is totally unlike anything claimed by Canada.” He added that it is common for countries to draw baselines to claim bays that are more than 38 km wide, but that such claims are usually supported by historic usage of the waters or the deeply indented shape of the bay. The longest baseline drawn by Canada in its claim to the arctic archipelago is 160 km.

By contrast, the 443-km “line of death” is longer than the Gulf of Sidra is deep. Declared Legault:

“We know of no basis for considering the gulf a historic bay, and the geographic criteria are simply not there.”

A state department official told Maclean ’s that the United States has not yet decided whether to mount fresh challenges to the Canadian claims. Still, it conducts about 40 “freedom of navigation” exercises annually near countries with “objectionable” claims. Said Sims:

“There’s nothing unusual about a freedom-of-navigation exercise. What is unusual is that Khadafy chose to react to it with force.”

Last week’s battle was similar to a 1981 confrontation in which U.S. navy F-14 jets shot down two Libyan fighters that attempted to intercept them

over the gulf. Although Khadafy has amassed a formidable arsenal of mainly Soviet-made weaponry since he seized power in 1969, military analysts consider his 73,000-man military weak. Most experts said that illiteracy and lack of technical skills prevent Libyan soldiers and airmen from mastering their sophisticated weapons, while Libyan sailors have a reputation for seasickness.

The diplomatic consequences of the battle were less clear than the results of the fighting itself. Its immediate effect in Tripoli was a spontaneous demonstration in support of the dictator, whose regime is currently struggling

to cope with the effects of drastically declining oil revenues. As well, the U.S. action was strongly condemned by the Arab League, which includes many American allies and countries that are usually suspicious of the Libyan dictator. Said retired U.S. admiral

Gene LaRocque, director of the private Washington-based Center for Defence Information: “In the eyes of the Arab world, Khadafy is going to be a hero, and we are going to come off as a bully. The entire episode has been counterproductive.”

Most of the United States’ Western

allies were noncommittal in response to the fighting. But Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi said, “Italy does not want a war on its front door.” And in Athens several thousand protesters greeted Schultz with a raucous antiAmerican demonstration supported by the governing Socialist party. Most U.S. congressional leaders strongly supported Reagan’s actions. But one dissenting note was sounded by Republican Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon. He declared, “The United States is not only playing a dangerous game of ‘dare and double dare’ but also undermining the precarious stability of moderate Arab allies.”

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev denounced what he called “the imperial bandit face of [U.S.] neoglobalist policy.” But he did not threaten any form of military reprisals. There are about 2,000 Soviet military advisers in Libya, and the country has received Soviet military equipment worth about $14 billion since 1979, although Khadafy rejects orthodox communism and he has been an unreliable client. Speaking at a Moscow banquet in honor of visiting Algerian President Chadli Benjedid, Gorbachev proposed a mutual withdrawal of both Soviet and American fleets from the Mediterranean. The United States swiftly rejected the proposal claiming it has “vital interests” in the area.

The U.S. fleet began withdrawing from the area last week, well ahead of its April 1 target for ending the exercise. But official statements from both Washington and Tripoli made it clear that the two nations are still at war. Said one source close to Reagan: “The President considers Khadafy to be enemy No. 1 and he is prepared to launch a major attack on Libya if he is given a good enough excuse. Reagan is just waiting for Khadafy to make his day.” But Khadafy, too, may seek revenge and launch a campaign of terror far removed from the reaches of the Sixth Fleet.