Two Spanish F18 Hornet fighters flew their first sortie over Libya on Monday morning, to enforce the no-fly zone decreed by the international coalition to prevent Muammar Gaddafi's forces from crushing a rebel uprising.
Spain has contributed a total of four F18s from its air force to the military effort by the international coalition, which began air strikes in the North African country on Saturday.
The two planes left their base in Sardinia accompanied by a Boeing 707 re-fuelling carrier, which also belongs to the Spanish army, and were back on the Italian island by the early afternoon.
The four F18s will ensure that no hostile aircraft enters Libyan airspace, which was declared a no-fly zone by UN resolution 1,973.
They are armed with air-to-air missiles as well as short-range Sidewinders, and are authorized to open fire if they run into difficulties on mission, which the military classified as "moderate risk".
The four F18s are now under the command of General Carter Ham, the US commander of Libyan mission who is based at Africom, with headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, the sources say.
Although they are well equipped, the Spanish F18s have not been charged as yet with destroying radars or attacking Gaddafi's defense forces. Military officials said that a CN-235 tactical transport aircraft would also be sent to help in the patrols off the Libyan coast.
Spain is one of several countries playing a supporting role in a French, British and US-led coalition to stop Gaddafi, one of the world's longest-standing dictators, from using his military capability to attack rebels seeking to oust him from power. Spain has also offered the use of its Morón and Rota airbases for the operation and is sending the F-100 Méndez Núñez frigate and S-74 submarine Tramontana to support naval operations.
Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jiménez said on Monday that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was not considered an "objective" of the attacks being carried out by the international coalition, in accordance with the United Nation's authorization of the armed action.
Jiménez added that, according to her interpretation of the Security Council's resolution 1973, foreign occupation forces were not permitted on Libyan soil, although she admitted that the wording is "loose" and that some analysts interpret the text as allowing for the temporary presence of soldiers to support the rebels, which would not mean an occupation.
Defense Minister Carme Chacón confirmed Monday that the F-100 Méndez Núñez frigate and the S-74 submarine Tramontana had also been sent to the region to support operations. According to Defense Ministry sources, the total number of troops supplied by Spain to participate in the mission is 500, 150 of whom are from the air force, with the rest from the navy
On Sunday, a Spanish government source made the case for Madrid's participation in the Odyssey Dawn mission, saying that "Spain cannot sit idly by" and not help enforce the UN resolution.
"Spain cannot turn its back on the international community and even less so when it concerns a Mediterranean country," the source told Efe news agency. Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is scheduled to update Congress on Tuesday over Spain's role and seek formal parliamentary approval of his decision. With the exception of the United Left (IU) party, most of the country's political forces are expected to back the mission.