- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2011

The United States will deploy for the first time armed Predator drones over Libya to strike more accurately at Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces loyal and protect civilians, especially in urban areas, defense officials said Thursday.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters that President Obama had authorized the use of the remote-piloted aircraft, which have been used extensively by U.S. military and intelligence against al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Two of the drones will be in the air 24 hours a day, said Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“The first flights did launch today, but the weather wasn’t good enough, so they had to come back,” Gen. Cartwright said.

He said the drones, which previously had been used only for surveillance in Libya, would “be able to get better visibility on particular targets … that have started to dig themselves in” and hide among civilians.

He also noted the drones’ “extended persistence on the target.”

The MQ-1 Predator can remain airborne for 24 hours, according to its manufacturer, General Atomics, which is based in Poway, Calif.

Armed with Hellfire missiles, the Predator has become the signature weapon in the U.S.-led war on terror, especially in the rugged terrain in the Pakistani tribal areas on the Afghan border, where al Qaeda’s senior leadership, probably including Osama bin Laden, is based.

Strikes in those areas are carried out by the CIA, but the U.S. military currently has 53 drones - Predators and their larger cousins, the MQ-9 Reaper - deployed worldwide, mainly in Afghanistan and Iraq, including armed and surveillance aircraft.

“They’re uniquely suited for areas - urban areas where you can get low collateral damage,” Gen. Cartwright said, noting that as the military was trying to limit civilian casualties, “that’s the best platform to do that with.”

Meanwhile, Libyan rebels said Thursday they had control of a border-crossing post on the Tunisian border, forcing government soldiers to flee over the frontier and possibly opening a new channel for opposition forces in Col. Gadhafi’s bastion in western Libya, the Associated Press reported.

In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya, relief workers and medical teams awaited the arrival of a passenger ferry carrying about 1,000 people - mostly Libyan civilians and workers from Asia and Africa - out of the besieged city of Misrata, the main rebel holdout in Col. Gadhafi’s territory.

Also aboard the vessel were the bodies of an Oscar-nominated documentary maker from Britain and an American photographer who were killed covering clashes Wednesday, the AP reported. A day earlier, the ferry arrived in Misrata, delivering food and medical supplies to the beleaguered population.

Rebels appear to be gaining more international support, including plans by Italy, France and Britain to send combat advisers and other nations pledging communications and other equipment under the NATO mission.

*This article is based in part on wire service reports.