Published: Apr 22, 2011 6:31 PM EDT
Updated: Apr 22, 2011 3:31 PM EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) - Sen. John McCain, one of the strongest proponents in Congress of the U.S. military intervention in Libya, is heading to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi for a meeting with forces fighting to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, an aide told The Associated Press.

McCain was scheduled to arrive in Benghazi on Friday, said Brooke Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the senator.

The visit by McCain was shrouded in secrecy due to heightened security for the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee in a country fiercely divided by the 2-month-old anti-Gadhafi rebellion.

McCain's trip comes as Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Thursday that President Barack Obama has authorized armed Predator drones against forces loyal to Gadhafi. It is the first time that drones will be used for airstrikes since the United States turned over control of the operation to NATO on April 4.

The rebels have complained that NATO airstrikes since then have largely been ineffective in stopping Gadhafi forces.

Invoking the humanitarian disasters in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, McCain pressed for U.S. military intervention in Libya in February, weeks before the U.N. Security Council authorized military action to protect civilians and impose a no-fly zone.

When Obama acted with limited congressional consultation, McCain defended the president, saying he couldn't wait for Congress to take even a few days to debate the use of force. If he had, "there would have been nothing left to save in Benghazi," the rebels' de-facto capital.

But as the U.S. handed operational control over to NATO - and withdrew U.S. combat aircraft - McCain criticized the administration.

"For the United States to withdraw our unique offensive capabilities at this time would send the wrong signal," McCain said. He said the U.S. must not fail in Libya and said he spoke as someone experienced in a lost conflict, a reference to his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

McCain also has pushed for arming the rebels, saying the U.S. and its partners cannot allow Gadhafi to consolidate his hold on one section of the country and create a military deadlock.

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