WASHINGTON — U.S. fighter jets struck three Libyan anti-aircraft sites overnight, U.S. military officials told NBC News on Wednesday, as the Pentagon revealed for the first time that U.S. pilots have continued to strike Libyan air defenses after turning the mission over to NATO.
The strike — on portable anti-aircraft launchers — was the third time in the past week in which U.S. fighter jets have attacked Libyan air defenses, the sources added.
Detailing Wednesday's bombings, a NATO official confirmed a strike on at least one ammunition bunker outside the Libyan capital, Tripoli. He asked that his name not be used because the military alliance was not yet releasing the information publicly.
Libya's official JANA news agency reported airstrikes Wednesday in three other places: Misrata, Libya's third-largest city; Sirte, a Gadhafi stronghold and home to the Libyan leader's tribe; and Aziziyah, about 22 miles (35 kilometers) south of Tripoli. Jana said the strike in Misrata was in an area "populated with residents."
While most of the "fixed" anti-aircraft sites have already been destroyed, many of the Libyan portable anti-aircraft rocket launchers have remained under cover until recently when Moammar Gadhafi's forces have started to reposition them, posing a potential threat to NATO aircraft.
A senior military official said the American warplanes, assigned to NATO, have remained part of the NATO mission since the handoff on April 4. According to the official, "We didn't explain that very well."
The officials insist that these American fighter jets are assigned only to enforcement of the "no-fly zone" and have not taken part in airstrikes against Libyan ground forces. The U.S. aircraft can be used when needed to take out enemy defenses as part of the enforcement of the no-fly zone.
The revelation appears to contradict President Barack Obama's claim that the combat portion of the Libyan operation would be handed over to NATO "within days, not weeks."
According to military officials, six F-16 fighter jets and five Navy EA-18G Growler electronic attack planes have been assigned to NATO. They dropped bombs on three separate days — April 4, 6 and 7, defense officials said. The targets were three mobile surface-to-air missile sites in Libya.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to provide operational details, said the 11 U.S. aircraft have flown 97 of the 134 air defense mission sorties since April 4. Italy and other nations are also participating, but defense officials said such missions are considered a unique capability that the U.S. can perform.
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.
"We do have fighter aircraft, that NATO has, that they can use ... for suppression of enemy air defense missions. And they have conducted some of those missions," Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan told reporters.
The U.S. has also said that since the Libyan mission was turned over to NATO, special requests must be made for American fighters to conduct airstrikes to protect civilians. Lapan said there have been no requests for that kind of help.
Grappling with conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has been seeking to limit its role in Libya, where poorly organized rebels have so far failed to eject Gadhafi from power.
U.S. officials have stressed that after its initial leadership of the air campaign in Libya, the United States has moved to a support role focused on aerial surveillance and refueling. Lapan said the United States remained in a support role despite Wednesday's disclosure.
"Having a few aircraft providing this strike capability on a (limited) basis doesn't change that," he said.
The comments came as world powers meeting on Libya's future called for the first time for Gadhafi to step aside, but divisions have emerged over how to achieve that political goal in Libya.
Britain and France have called for greater participation in the NATO air campaign against Gadhafi's heavy weapons and on arming the rebels.
NBC Pentagon Correspondent Jim Miklaszewski as well as The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.