Libya: US to deploy armed drones - Robert Gates

Defence Secretary Robert Gates and General James Cartwright explained the drones' "unique capabilities"

Armed US Predator drones are to carry out missions over Libya, Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said.

Mr Gates said their use had been authorised by President Barack Obama and would give "precision capability" to the military operation.

Unmanned US drones are already used to target militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Libyan rebels have been battling Col Gaddafi's troops since February but have recently made little headway.

"President Obama has said that where we have some unique capabilities, he is willing to use those," Mr Gates told a news conference.

He said two Predators were being made available to Nato as needed, and marked a "modest contribution" to the military operations.

Gen James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the first mission had taken place on Thursday but the drones had turned back because of bad weather.

He said the drones - which can fly at a lower altitude than conventional fighter jets - were "uniquely suited for urban areas", providing improved visibility of tanks and other potential targets.

Analysis

Armed US Predator drones have been used to deadly effect against militants in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Now they will be employed in similar ways in Libya, where the Pentagon says they will be able to spot Col Gaddafi's forces if they are hiding in civilian vehicles or dug in to residential areas.

Some see this as a sign the US is getting more involved again.

But more than mission creep, it is creeping concern about how events in Libya are unfolding that seems to have prompted this move.

A month since military action began, it is looking like stalemate.

As many predicted, air power is not enough for Nato to win what has become a mainly urban conflict.

That is where the Predator is better suited than high-flying warplanes.

But still the best hope for Nato may be that Col Gaddafi's supporters move against him.

But Libya's deputy foreign minister warned that they would cause more civilian casualties and would not change the outcome of the conflict in Libya.

"They [drones] will kill more civilians and this is very sad," Khaled Khaim told the BBC. "It's for the Libyans to choose their destiny - not by sending more weapons or more airstrikes, or more money and weapons to the rebels."

Mr Gates denied that the drone deployment was evidence of "mission creep" in Libya and said there were still no plans to put US "boots on the ground" in Libya.

"There's no wiggle room in that," he said.

Meanwhile, US Senator John McCain has arrived on a visit to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

A crowd of about 50 people greeted him at the courthouse in Benghazi, chanting, "The nasty Gaddafi has left and McCain came", the AFP news agency reports.

Senator McCain, a former Republican presidential candidate, is the highest-ranking US official to visit the rebel-held east of the country since the uprising began two months ago.

Post captured

On Thursday, Libyan rebels seized control of a border post on the Tunisian border after about 100 government soldiers fled, say reports.

The move marks a rare advance against government troops in the west of the country and followed intense fighting in the western mountain region.

US Predator drone (file image)

Restrictions on journalists in remote areas of Libya mean it is hard to independently verify such reports.

Fierce fighting is also continuing in the besieged western city of Misrata, with at least seven people killed on Thursday.

Medics say more than 1,000 people have died in weeks of fighting. Residents say they are being targeted in the streets by snipers.

Rebels in Misrata claim to have found remnants of cluster bombs but the Libyan government has so far denied the charge.

The BBC's Orla Guerin in Misrata says she has seen the bombs herself and that doctors have told her they are causing increasingly horrific injuries, with some civilians losing limbs.

Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim has said that if foreign troops enter Misrata, the government will "unleash hell".

"We will be a ball of fire. We will make it 10 times as bad as Iraq," he said, adding that the government was arming people in preparation.

Parents of missing US journalist Clare Gillis "want her home"

Hundreds of foreign workers, Libyans and injured people are being evacuated from Misrata by sea to the rebel-held city of Benghazi in the east.

'Vicious attacks'

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has condemned what she called the "vicious attacks" on Libyan civilians.

She also demanded that Libyan authorities immediately release US citizens they have "unjustly detained," including at least two reporters.

The parents of Clare Gillis, one of the missing journalists, said she was able to contact them on Thursday for the first time since she was detained on 5 April.

They told the Atlantic, one of the papers Ms Gillis was working for, that she was in good health but had not been allowed a visit by humanitarian or diplomatic officials.

Map of Libya

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