WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama has authorized the use of unmanned drones over Libya to target forces loyal to leader Muammar Qaddafi.
The announcement comes as casualties among rebel fighters and civilians continue to mount in the besieged city of Misurata, and as government fighters have begun launching attacks from within population centers, making them elusive targets for NATO planes.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made the announcement at a news conference April 21 in Washington.
"The president has said that where we have some unique capabilities, he is willing to use those, and in fact he has approved the use of armed Predators. And I think today may, in fact, have been their first mission. So I think that will give us some precision capability," Gates said.
Precision And Remote Piloting
Predator drones are equipped with Hellfire missiles and piloted remotely from locations that can be hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. The United States has used them in military operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, and Yemen.
They can stay in the air for as long as 40 hours without being noticed from the ground and have a high success rate of hitting their targets.
Appearing with Gates at the news conference was General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Cartwright said the United States planned to maintain two patrols of armed Predators above Libya at all times.
He said the first two Predators were sent to Libya on April 21 but had to turn back because of bad weather.
The United States is the only NATO country that flies armed drones. Other countries in the alliance use unarmed planes for mainly reconnaissance missions.
The move is being seen as an attempt by White House to give a boost to NATO, which has been struggling with the mission to protect civilians since it assumed control of the operation from the United States.
Gates called the decision to deploy the drones "a modest contribution" to the NATO mission.
Rebels Welcome Decision
The announcement came the same day that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said government forces might be using cluster bombs -- which more than 100 countries have taken steps to ban -- in its attacks.
"Colonel Qaddafi's troops continue their vicious attacks, including the siege of Misurata," she said. "There are even reports that Qaddafi forces may have used cluster bombs against their own people."
Rebel spokesman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga told Al Jazeera television that the opposition fighters "welcome" the U.S. decision to send in drones.
"There's no doubt that will help protect civilians," he said.