Washington — The US Sixth Fleet is now steaming away from the disputed waters off Libya's coast -- but it won't be going far. Pentagon officials say the whole armada will remain in the central Mediterranean for several days. After that it will split up, with one of its three aircraft carriers heading home.
The first indications that the United States was ready to wind down the exercises came from administration officials Wednesday night, after Col. Muammar Qaddafi's forces had been quiet for several days and the US had clearly made the point that it was willing to shoot back if challenged.
The expected announcement came early Thursday morning, when the Pentagon press office released a terse statement saying ``the exercise by the Sixth Fleet in the Gulf of Sidra is ending today.'' That was confirmed by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger at an afternoon press briefing at the Pentagon.
President Reagan telephoned the Sixth Fleet's commander-in-chief, Vice-Adm. Frank B. Kelso, Thursday morning to praise the servicemen for their ``tireless response to Libyan threats'' and for serving ``as the spear and the shield of American policy in a troubled and volatile region.''
The White House also released a letter, dated March 26, that Mr. Reagan sent congressional leaders officially informing them of the fighting off Libya. The shooting by US forces was ``undertaken pursuant to my authority under the Constitution,'' said the letter.
Aides said the letter was designed to be ``consistent'' with the War Powers Act. This law, passed in 1973, among other things requires the President to report to Congress when US troops are involved in hostile actions abroad. A series of presidents, including Reagan, have held that the act is an unconstitutional encroachment on their powers as commander-in-chief of US armed forces.
Navy flights over the gulf ended at about 10:00 a.m. Eastern standard time Thursday. The fleet's three aircraft carriers and support vessels began to move toward what one spokesman called ``standby stations'' further north.
One carrier, the Saratoga, has been away from its Florida home port since last August. Its cruise is due to end soon. ``Saratoga will be returning shortly,'' says a Pentagon official.
Of the other carriers, the Coral Sea has been away from the US since October, and still has several months of duty ahead of it. The America only recently left its Norfolk, Va., port.
``The America just got there and will be around for a while,'' says the Pentagon official.
When the Sixth Fleet ends its standby status and splits up, the Coral Sea and the America will thus likely remain in the area. The US has constantly kept a carrier or two in the Mediterranean since the end of World War II. One of the carriers will head for Naples or some other close-by stop. US ships occasionally call on ports in Arab nations such as Tunisia, but in light of recent events they will probably head elsewhere.
``Typically, you'll have a rather elaborate series of port visits. They try to have the carriers spend half their time at sea, half in port,'' says retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information.
The other carrier will likely remain at sea, perhaps in the less-crowded eastern Mediterranean. It will begin again the type of flight operations it ran off the Gulf of Sidra -- constant takeoffs, landings, and practice runs, conducted from mid-afternoon until late at night so that pilots remain skilled at operating in the dark.
The US isn't the only nation that keeps its warships running in the Mediterranean. The Soviets, whose nearby Black Sea Fleet is their second largest, also maintain a constant presence there. Soviet ships kept a careful watch on the Sixth Fleet all during its sporadic gunfight with Qaddafi.
On Wednesday, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev proposed a joint withdrawal of US and USSR naval forces from the Mediterranean. The idea drew a quick and cool response from US officials. ``We have briefed the Soviet Union as to why we're there. That's well understood,'' said State Department spokesman Charles Redman.