NAVAL AIR STATION SIGONELLA, Italy (AP) — On the last leg of an overseas trip, U.S Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met Friday with troops at a naval air station that has played a key role in Libya.
From this base on Sicily, NATO allies have launched thousands of air missions, including flights by the Global Hawk surveillance drone.
Panetta spoke to a gathering of international troops while standing in front of one of the sophisticated aircraft.
He noted that when the Libya operation began, critics questioned whether it was the right mission, the right time and the right force. He said that critics have now been proved wrong by the coalition's success in supporting the revolutionary forces that mounted a successful campaign to oust Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
Commanders say the Global Hawk provides critical surveillance and intelligence from its flights over Libya. The aircraft is capable of flying around-the-clock patrols at high altitudes and sending back broad pictures of what's happening on the ground.
While Panetta spoke, F-16 fighter jets took off from the base, as well as an Air Force Predator, an armed drone.
Earlier Friday, Panetta met with officers at the U.S. naval base in Naples, including Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, the commander of NATO's Libya operation.
Panetta traveled to Naples after a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, where officials said they agreed to continue the bombing mission in Libya as long as serious fighting and threats to the population continue.
Panetta's nearly weeklong trip included stops in Israel, Egypt, Belgium and Italy. He was scheduled to return to Washington later Friday.