US deploys Predator drones to attack Gaddafi's forces in Libya

A missile drops on the tightly-guarded residence of leader Muammar Gaddafi and military targets in the Tripoli suburb of Tajura. NATO-led coalition aircraft had been seen in the skies over the capital earlier in the afternoon.

U.S. Predator drones like those used to target militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are to carry out missions over Libya, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said.

Gates said use of the unmanned drones had been authorized by President Barack Obama and would give "precision capability" to the military operation.

Libyan rebels have been battling Muammar Gaddafi's troops since February but have recently made little headway despite U.N.-mandated air strikes by NATO war planes.

"The president has said that where we have some unique capabilities, he is willing to use those," Gates said. "And I think that today may in fact have been their first mission."

General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the first two Predators had been sent to Libya on Thursday but were recalled because of bad weather.

He said the United States, which initially led air strikes on Libya before handing operations over to NATO, would maintain two predator patrols above Libya at any given time.

“What they will bring that is unique to the conflict is their ability to get down lower, therefore to be able to get better visibility on targets that have started to dig themselves into defensive positions,” Cartwright said. “They are uniquely suited for urban areas.”

Gates denied the deployment was evidence of "mission creep" in Libya -- a concern already raised over British, French and Italian plans to send teams of military advisers.

Libya's deputy foreign minister Khaled Khaim said the drones would fail to swing the stalemated conflict in favor of opposition and risked creating more civilian casualties.

"They [drones] will kill more civilians and this is very sad," he told the BBC.

"It's for the Libyans to choose their destiny -- not by sending more weapons or more air strikes, or more money and weapons to the rebels."