WASHINGTON -- Amid complaints from allies that the U.S. military should be doing more in the Libya operation, Pentagon officials disclosed Wednesday that American fighter jets have continued airstrikes inside the country even after the United States turned the mission over to NATO last week.
The revelation came as Pentagon officials laid out U.S. participation in the Libya conflict over the past 10 days, including that Americans have flown 35 percent of all air missions.
Those missions, they said, include bombing attacks against Libyan surface-to-air missile launchers, as well as surveillance and refueling operations. It was the first time the Pentagon acknowledged that airstrikes continued after the U.S. handed over control of the Libya mission to NATO on April 4.
According to Pentagon officials, eleven U.S. fighter jets were assigned to NATO to look for and take out the air defense systems.
The revelation triggered questions because U.S. military officials have said consistently that American fighter jets would only conduct strikes in Libya if NATO makes a special request and it is approved by top Pentagon leaders.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan told reporters Wednesday that NATO has made no such requests for U.S. airstrikes since taking over the lead role in Libya.
But Lapan said that approval process applies only to airstrikes meant to protect civilians from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces. Such strikes could target regime tanks or forces moving against Libyan citizens.
The fighter jets assigned to NATO, Lapan said, are used solely for a separate mission to take out enemy air defenses, such as the truck-mounted surface-to-air missile launchers. The 11 jets are considered NATO aircraft, under separate leadership and committed to making the U.N.-approved no fly zone over Libya safer and more effective.
The distinction is slim, since the purpose of the no-fly zone is to protect civilians.
The 11 fighter jets, officials said, are based in Italy.
Asked why U.S. officials did not disclose the strikes until Wednesday, a senior defense official said the military considers them defense, not "offensive strike operations" because they are targeting missile sites in an effort to protect allied planes patrolling the no-fly zone over Libya. The official said the Pentagon does not believe it has been deceitful by not disclosing the strikes until now.