March 22, 2011
Six Libyan villagers are recovering in hospital after being shot by American soldiers coming in to rescue the U.S. pilots whose plane crash-landed in a field.
The helicopter strafed the ground as it landed in a field outside Benghazi beside the downed U.S. Air Force F-15E Eagle which ran into trouble during bombing raid last night.
And a handful of locals who had come to greet the pilots were hit – among them a young boy who may have to have a leg amputated because of injuries caused by a bullet wound.
The first confirmed casualties of the allied operation, the Channel Four’s International Editor Lindsey Hilsum confirmed the civilian casualties.
The crew of the fighter plane had enjoyed a miraculous escape after suffering suspected mechanical failure during the third night of air strikes on Colonel Gaddafi’s military positions.
As one crew member was surrounded by locals, he held his arms out, calling ‘okay, okay’, according to the Evening Standard – but the grateful Libyans queued to thank him and give him juice.
Younis Amruni told the newspaper: ‘I hugged him and said “Don’t be scared, we are your friends”. We are so grateful to these men who are protecting the skies.’
The plane, based at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, had set off from Aviano in Italy but came down at Bu Mariem, some 24 miles east of Benghazi.
The jet’s wreckage is set to be recovered or destroyed by the Americans, to prevent the plant coming into Gaddafi’s hands, while the crew were seen by a doctor in the rebel stronghold before being taken to a U.S. ship.
The U.S. military confirmed an Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle crashed in Libya but it was not shot down, while Vince Crawley, a spokesman for the Africa Command, said both crew members ejected and sustained minor injuries.
Gauging the reaction of locals in the area, Hilsum said ‘the local Libyans do not seem resentful, they still want the coalition forces to keep operating’.
The incident is an embarrassment all round for the coalition, which had been met by strong anti-aircraft fire over Tripoli last night.
However, the U.S. did managed to fire 20 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Libya in the past 12 hours, a military spokeswoman confirmed today.
Details also emerged of Britain’s Tomahawk cruise missile attack on Gaddafi’s presidential compound in Tripoli, destroying a military command and control centre, while up to 800 Royal Marines were placed on standby to move to the Mediterranean.
A total of 159 Tomahawks have been fired by the United States and the United Kingdom since the mission — called Operation Odyssey Dawn — began on Saturday.
‘We think we have been very effective in degrading his ability to control his regime forces,’ said General Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command.
Gaddafi went on the offensive today on the ground in Libya. A doctor in Misarata said loyalist tanks were in the streets and snipers controlled the main roadway in Misarata, with international forces not implementing the no-fly zone in the coastal city.
The doctor, speaking anonymously, said nine people were killed this morning, including a fellow medic and his four children who were shot by snipers.
‘Snipers are everywhere in Misarata, shooting anyone who walks by while the world is still watching. There is no protection for civilians,’ he said.
Mokhtar Ali, a Libyan dissident in exile, said he was in touch with his father in the town and described increasingly dire conditions.
”Residents live on canned food and rainwater tanks,’ he said. Gaddafi’s brigades storm residential areas knowing that they won’t be bombed there. ‘People live in total darkness in terms of communications and electricity.’
In Ajdabiyah, a rebel commander who defected from the Libyan special forces said professional ex-soldiers had poured into the area and the nearby oil port city of Brega, encircling the Gaddafi forces to disrupt their supply lines under Western air cover.
‘If not for the West we would not have been able to push forward,’ said Ahmed Buseifi. ‘I’m pinpointing where their forces are and their tanks and passing it up the chain of command.’
Today, a British Government minister refused to rule out the deployment of ground troops in Libya.
Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey said there was a clear distinction between sending in a full-scale occupation force – which is banned under the terms of the United Nations mandate – and a more limited intervention.
He insisted the air strikes were aimed at military targets.
Asked on BBC Breakfast how long the conflict was likely to last, Mr Harvey answered: ‘How long is a piece of string?’.