US Defence secretary Robert Gates testifies before the House Armed Services Committee in Washington last week. The US will hand over its lead role to Britain and France this evening. Carolyn Kaster/AP

US to withdraw strike jets from Libya mission

The United States will hand over the lead in the Libyan missions to Britain and France from 10pm Irish time tonight.

THE UNITED STATES is pulling its warplanes from front-line missions and shifting to a support role in the Libyan conflict, NATO officials have confirmed.

Britain, France and other NATO allies will now provide the fighter jets for intercept and ground-attack missions that enforce a no-fly zone over this North African country.

The hand-over is expected to take place later Monday, an unnamed NATO official said, telling AP: ”There won’t be a capabilities gap.”

Another official, who could not be named for regulatory reasons, said the US would continue to play a major role in the operation, with one of the largest national contingents. Most US planes will perform switch to support tasks, leaving offensive tasks to their NATO allies.

In Washington, Defense Department spokesman Navy Captain Darryn James said US activity will formally end at 10pm Irish time.

US aircraft currently account for 90 of the 206 planes deployed by NATO in the Libyan conflict.

Defence secretary Robert Gates told Congress last week that the US would continue to provide assets that others don’t have in sufficient numbers. These will likely include AWACS air surveillance planes, electronic reconnaissance aircraft and aerial refueling tankers.

American air power — including Air Force AC-130 gunships and A-10 Thunderbolts and Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers — will still be available to back up the allies in case of need.

Western jets have been hitting the forces of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi for more than two weeks, initially targeting anti-aircraft missile defenses and quickly crushed a government offensive by destroying a large number of tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and other vehicles advancing into rebel-held areas.

But military experts say Gadhafi’s forces have rapidly reorganised since then, shedding their heavy armour and relying on light forces to harry and repeatedly ambush the lightly-armed rebels.

- AP

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