The aircraft carrier USS America steamed away from the coast of Libya on Sunday and suspended flights over the Gulf of Sidra just as Libya was to begin military exercises in the disputed waterway, government officials said yesterday.

Pentagon officials said the sudden withdrawal was not to avoid a confrontation with Libya, which began what the Libyan news agency Jana called large-scale "missile-firing" exercises in the gulf.

The America steamed north to the Sicilian port of Catania for a brief port call, officials said, but will return to its station north of the Gulf of Sidra before the week ends. Flight operations over the gulf are expected to resume soon.

Planes from the carrier USS Forrestal recently also had been flying over the gulf while the carrier stayed about 40 miles north of the "line of death" Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has drawn across the waterway. The Forrestal was in port yesterday at Palma on the Spanish island of Majorca.

White House spokesman Edward P. Djerejian yesterday confirmed a report Sunday in The Washington Post that Navy carrier planes have been flying intermittently over the gulf since shortly after the U.S. bombing of Libya on April 15.

Asked why the United States had not followed its past practice of notifying Libya and the international aviation community before conducting Navy flight operations in the Tripoli Flight Information Region, Djerejian replied that there was "no need to provide notification."

"We are there to underscore the freedom of navigation," he said, and the naval exercises "are in no way intended as a provocation."

The Libyan government, in announcing the naval exercises through its news agency, said: "America's recent escalation of its unjustified presence in the Mediterranean confirms Washington's hostile intentions toward the nations of the region."

Administration and military leaders say that despite such rhetoric, the April bombing of Libya and the heavy U.S. Navy presence off its coast have cooled the region and tempered Gadhafi's behavior to the point where the United States soon may be able to reduce its permanent presence in the Mediterranean from two carrier battle groups to one.