9PM LIBYA LATEST: Why Marham Tornados turned back from raid to avoid harming civilians

New details have emerged tonight about the mission on which Marham Tornados turned away from targets to avoid harming civilians.

Marham aircraft were in action hours after a UN-backed no-fly zone was imposed to protect civilians from Col Gaddafi's forces on Saturday.

They took part in the longest missions the RAF has flown since the 1982 Falklands conflict, as they led the attack against the dictator's air defences.

Jets took off from the Norfolk base again last night, on their way to undisclosed targets in Libya.

But tonight Ministry of Defence spokesman Major General John Lorimer revealed how their latest attack was called off to avoid civilian casulaties.

'The plan was to fire Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles from our submarine, and Storm Shadows from our Tornado GR4s last night,' he said.

'Our targets formed part of the command and control systems of the Libyan military, including their air defence systems.'

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Maj Gen Lorimer said missiles fired from the submarine had successfully attacked their targets.

'Despite Libyan reports and claims to the contrary we are not aware of any civilian casualties.'

But intelligence about what was happening on the ground was changing fast, as the 900mph Marham jets arrived to join the second night of attacks on Col Gaddafi's air defences, after a 1,500-mile flight from Norfolk.

'Later last night, the plan was to attack other targets, with Storm Shadows, a mission undertaken by Tornados flying from RAF Marham - a return journey of some 3,000 miles,' said Maj Gen Lorimer.

'After the Tornados had taken off, we learned that there were civilians in the area. We therefore took the decision to call off the attack and the Tornado aircraft returned to base with all their missiles.

'Now this clearly demonstrates that we take all measures possible to reduce the chances of harming innocent civilians. And despite what you might see from the Libyan authorities, we have no evidence to suggest that we have caused innocent civilian casualties.'

Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, earlier welcomed the decision of the Tornados to turn back when it became clear that civilians could be at risk.

'We are very, very alert to our responsibilities to the civilian population. We don't want to fall into the propaganda trap that Mr Gaddafi is obviously trying to set us,' he said.

Former RAF Marham Tornado navigator John Nichol, who was shot down in the First Gulf War and held captive and tortured in Iraq, said there would be a 'sense of frustration' about not being able to get the job for which crews were highly trained done but the thought of civilian casualties would 'play heavily' on their minds.

'The thought of civilian casualties is uppermost for the individual crews, ' he said. 'The men and the women who fly our aircraft, none of them want to make a mistake and have civilian deaths on their hands.'

Military commanders were today assessing the results of last night's air strikes. Libya was last night rocked by a further bombardment as a Royal Navy submarine joined US forces in targeting Colonel Gaddafi's air defences.

Explosions were heard near the dictator's home in capital Tripoli and reports this morning claimed his compound had been damaged, though US authorities insisted that he was not a target.

Maj Gen Lorimer said: 'For a second time, the UK has launched guided Tomahawk land attack missiles from a Trafalgar-class submarine in the Mediterranean as part of a co-ordinated coalition plan to enforce the resolution.

'We and our international partners are continuing operations in support of the United Nations Security Council Resolution.'

Foreign Secretary William Hague said comments by the Secretary General of the Arab League, Amr Mussa, apparently expressing doubt about the international military action had been overplayed.

Arab League backing for the imposition of a no-fly over Libya was crucial in securing last week's vote in the United Nations Security Council for a resolution authorising military intervention.

But at the weekend Mr Mussa was quoted as saying that the action had gone too far and that what they wanted was 'the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians'.

Mr Hague refused to be drawn on whether the allied forces were seeking to hit Col Gaddafi himself after Defence Secretary Liam Fox suggested at the weekend that he could be a 'legitimate target'.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates cautioned against targeting the Libyan leader, warning that it could undermine international support if they went beyond the strict provisions of the Security Council resolution.

Earlier in the day, Gaddafi had threatened 'a long war', as his forces launched a fresh assault on rebels in Misrata.

Last night a number of Tornados were seen taking off from Marham in Norfolk, in apparent attempt to repeat the previous night's 3,000-mile sortie to target Gaddafi's ground forces in the north African state.

Aircraft from Marham flew the RAF's longest mission since the Falklands war on Saturday night.

Tornados were in the air within hours of the Paris summit, where world leaders agreed to use all necessary means to protect Libyan civilians from the wrath of Gaddafi's regime.

But instead of flying out to bases in the South of France or Italy as expected, the aircraft flew to within range of Libya, before firing Storm Shadow missiles.

The MoD said the missiles were launched from the aircraft against 'high value targets' in the capital Tripoli and other parts of Libya.

During the 1982 South Atlantic conflict, Victor flying tankers from Marham refulled Vulcan bombers which attacked the airfield at Port Stanley, forcing the Argentine air force to retreat to the mainland.