WORLD

GUNNING FOR GADHAFI

THE U.S. SHOOTS DOWN TWO LIBYAN JETS AND CLAIMS THAT TRIPOLI WILL SOON MAKE CHEMICAL WEAPONS

JOHN BIERMAN January 16 1989
WORLD

GUNNING FOR GADHAFI

THE U.S. SHOOTS DOWN TWO LIBYAN JETS AND CLAIMS THAT TRIPOLI WILL SOON MAKE CHEMICAL WEAPONS

JOHN BIERMAN January 16 1989

GUNNING FOR GADHAFI

WORLD

THE U.S. SHOOTS DOWN TWO LIBYAN JETS AND CLAIMS THAT TRIPOLI WILL SOON MAKE CHEMICAL WEAPONS

President Ronald Reagan, a mere fortnight from retirement, seemed determined last week to end his eight-year presidency with a bang. For the fourth time since he took office in January, 1981, his cold war against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi flared into open conflict: U.S. jets, in a rerun of a 1981 incident, shot down two Libyan warplanes over the Mediterranean. American officials quickly claimed that their pilots fired in self-defence and denied that the incident was linked to veiled U.S. threats to destroy a Libyan factory that Washington alleges was built to mass-produce chemical weapons. In view of Reagan’s long-running feud with Gadhafi, Washington’s claims on both counts were received with skepticism—even by some of America’s allies. But Canada was not among the skeptics. After reserving judgment for two days, Secretary of State for External Affairs Joe Clark said last Friday that Ottawa accepted the U.S. position, both on the downing of the Libyan jets and on Libya’s chemical-weapons capability.

The U.S.-Libyan shootout occurred just days before the start of an international conference on the entire issue of chemical warfare. The foreign ministers of 140 countries began talks in Paris on Jan. 7 to discuss ways of enforcing an increasingly ignored 1925 Geneva Protocol that banned the use of mustard and nerve gases—weapons that, according to Washington, Libya will soon be able to make. Speculation that the United States was planning military action to destroy the suspect Libyan plant

was fuelled by Reagan’s refusal last month to rule out the use of force, and the deployment of a fresh U.S. naval battle group to the Mediterranean. It was also heightened by U.S. anger over the Dec. 21 bombing of Pan American World Airways Flight 103, in which a Palestinian terrorist group known to be supported by Gadhafi is a prime suspect. And while most observers clearly doubted that Washington would strike until after the five-day Paris conference was over, if at all, tension in the region remained high.

Meanwhile, the 15-nation UN Security Council met in New York City to consider Libya’s complaint over the midweek shootout. The Soviet government, voicing its “indignation” at the U.S. action, instructed its delegate to support Libya’s position and seemed likely to back a resolution condemning the United States. Other Communist and nonaligned council members were expected to follow suit. The council is almost equally divided between Western nations on the one hand, and those of the Communist and nonaligned groups on the other. As a result, Canada—in the first week of

its two-year term as a nonpermanent council member—seemed likely to play a pivotal role in the debate. A Canadian “no” vote would be of considerable symbolic importance to Washington, which would clearly prefer to prevail by a majority vote rather than by using its veto as a permanent member of the council.

Last week’s fateful encounter pitted two Soviet-built Libyan MiG-23 fighters against two U.S. navy F-14 “Tomcat” fighters, flying cover for the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy over international waters some 600 miles northeast of the suspect chemical factory. After the two Libyan planes had been destroyed by U.S. air-to-air missiles, Libya’s deputy representative to the UN, Ah Sunni Muntasser, insisted that their jets fell victim to a premeditated attack while on an unarmed reconnaissance mission. But U.S. Defence Secretary Frank Carlucci maintained that the F-14s opened fire in response to the “clear hostile intent” of the Libyans—and after taking evasive action five times to avoid a confrontation.

In an attempt to buttress its case, the Pentagon released a dramatic videotape of the incident, taken from an automatic camera on one of the U.S. jets. A print made from the tape showed what a Pentagon spokesman said were four missiles under a wing of one of the Libyan planes, while the 71/2-minute audiotape confirmed the U.S. contention that the American pilots repeatedly tried to avoid a confrontation. Despite Libyan envoy Muntasser’s claim that the U.S. photographs and voice tapes of the incident were “fake, fake, fake,” one of the two U.S. pilots is clearly heard reporting that Libyan planes once again were headed for their jets: “Bogeys [Libyans] have jinked back at me again for the fifth time.” The tape, said Pentagon

spokesman Daniel Howard, “tells me that the Libyan ambassador to the UN is a liar.” Carlucci also denied any link between the 12-minute dogfight and U.S. concerns over the chemical factory, which has been built with the help of foreign experts—and which the Libyans insist will manufacture only harmless pharmaceuticals. Said White House deputy spokesman Roman Popadiuk of the shootout: “We consider the incident closed.”

Many foreign governments, however, clearly thought otherwise. In addition to Libya’s demands for a Security Council debate—and Gadhafi’s warning that he would “meet challenge with challenge”—the Soviets hinted that the incident could sour the improving climate between the superpowers. In some of the strongest anti-U.S. rhetoric heard from the Kremlin in recent years, Soviet foreign ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov accused the Americans of “state terrorism.” Meanwhile, Arab leaders closed ranks around Gadhafi despite his widespread unpopularity among them. Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO—with which the Reagan administration opened talks last month about the IsraeliPalestinian conflict—said that the incident “will affect negatively the Middle East peace process.” And an official of the Saudi Arabian government, which has close ties with Washington, declared that he saw “no justification for this act” and affirmed the kingdom’s “solidarity with the Libyan people.”

In Western Europe, only Britain appeared initially to accept the full U.S. version of the shootout and Washington’s insistence that Gadhafi will soon have the capability to massproduce chemical weapons. But the French, Italian, Spanish and Greek governments all

expressed varying degrees of skepticism about the suspect factory—and alarm about Wednesday’s air battle. West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher insisted that there was no proof of U.S. allegations that the West German firm Imhausen-Chemie GmbH was at the centre of a web of European and Japanese firms selling chemicalweapons equipment and expertise to Libya.

But while attention was focused on Gadhafi’s chemical plant as the indirect cause of last week’s U.S.-Libyan clash, some observers saw the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103, with the loss of 270 lives, mostly American, as an equally potent motive for U.S. action. Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal has his headquarters in Libya, and terrorism experts agree that his group, the Fatah Revolutionary Council, is one of the two likeliest suspects in the bombing; the other is the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

Experts point out that the last major U.S. strike against Libya—when American jets bombed Tripoli in 1986—followed a wave of anti-American terrorist actions. Said Brian Mandell, professor of international relations at Ottawa’s Carleton University: “The American public wants to be reassured that its president is taking every step to get to the source of international trouble.” But other Middle East specialists insisted that the chemical plant was the only cause of heightened U.S. diplomatic and naval activity against Libya. Said University of Toronto political scientist Janice Stein: “I don’t think [the bombing of] the Pan Am jet is connected in any way.”

Like many other analysts, Stein maintained that stepped-up tensions caused by the U.S. warnings over the chemical factory had led to Libyan expectations of an attack—and a consequent hair-trigger reaction by U.S. pilots. And heightening such tensions, from the U.S. navy’s perspective, was the memory of the fate of the U.S. frigate Stark, which Med to respond quickly when approached by an Iraqi jet in the Persian Gulf in May, 1987. The Stark paid the price when it was crippled by an Exocet missile, killing 37 Americans. Last week, after U.S. pilots took more aggressive action against oncoming Libyan planes, the question was whether the Reagan-Gadhafi feud would erupt into further violence.

JOHN BIERMAN

PETER LEWIS

ERIC SILVER

CHRIS DRAKE

WILLIAM LOWTHER

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

MARY NEMETH