On this day in 1986, the United States launched a series of limited air strikes against Libya.
President Ronald Reagan had ordered the aerial campaign on April 14 in retaliation for Libyan agents’ bombing of a West Berlin nightclub on April 5 that killed three people, including a U.S. serviceman, and injured 229 more.
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The main attack began at 2 a.m. Libyan time and lasted about 12 minutes, during which about 60 tons of munitions were dropped. Eighteen F-111 bombers supported by four EF-111 electronic countermeasure aircraft, flying from Britain, bombed the airfield in Tripoli, the Libyan capital; a frogman training center at a naval academy; and the Bab al-Azizia barracks in Tripoli.
During the attack, code-named “Operation El Dorado Canyon,” a Libyan missile shot down an American F-111 over the Gulf of Sidra, killing Air Force Capts. Fernando L. Ribas-Dominicci and Paul F. Lorence.
Meantime, 24 aircraft, armed with anti-radar HARM missiles — their first combat use — were launched from the aircraft carriers Coral Sea and America. They bombed radar and anti-aircraft sites as well as military barracks in and around Benghazi in eastern Libya.
France, Spain and Italy denied the U.S. Air Force overflight rights, forcing that portion of the operation to be flown over Portugal and through the Strait of Gibraltar, adding 1,300 miles each way to the mission and requiring multiple aerial refueling of the planes.
Forewarned by Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his family fled from their residence in the Bab al-Azizia compound moments before the bombs fell. Gaddafi claimed that his adopted infant daughter, Hana, was killed in the attack.
Gaddafi said a reconciliation between Libya and the United States could never occur so long as Reagan remained in the White House. Of the president, he said: “He is mad. He is foolish. He is an Israeli dog.” He also claimed that Reagan had wanted to kill him, citing as evidence that “the attack was concentrated on my house and I was in my house.”
The Libyan dictator said he had “won a spectacular military victory over the United States” and renamed the country as the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah.”
After the raid, the Kremlin canceled a planned U.S. visit by Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign affairs minister. At the same time, it signaled that negotiations to hold a summit meeting between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to seek further nuclear arms control agreements would proceed as planned.
Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general, acting for Libyan citizens who had been killed or wounded in the bombing raid, sued the United States and Britain for damages. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the suit, Saltany v. Reagan, in 1988 as “audacious.”
SOURCE: “This Day in Presidential History, by Paul Brandus (2018)