US warplane hits six civilians during rescue of fighter pilots
THE wreckage of the American war plane was still smoking yesterday morning in the meadow where it had fallen.
I was the first reporter to reach the site and walked with a small crowd of local farmers to peer at the blackened cockpit filled with ash. The locals poked curiously in the wreckage for keepsakes: an F15E Strike Eagle -- backbone of the US Air Force -- had fallen from the sky.
Crashing in eastern Libya could have been the worst nightmare of American airmen.
As they stumbled out of the darkness, neither of the two-man crew would have had an idea whether the armed men coming towards them were soldiers loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi searching for infidel Western aggressors, or the opposition fighters who have cheered on allied air strikes as they pulverised the Libyan government's war machine.
The wrecked war plane erupted in a ball of flames, heightening the sense of fear.
But the first American to walk clear -- tall and with a moustache -- need not have worried. He held up his hands in submission and tried his best to surrender, calling out "OK, OK", to the advancing crowd. But his parachute had delivered him safely into a field of sheep, deep in rebel-held territory.
"I hugged him and said don't be scared we are your friends," said Younis Amruni (27) one of the first on the scene. An American rescue was meanwhile on its way, and it was to taint this touching scene of comradeship.
Witnesses said a helicopter whirred low over the treetops as a second warplane strafed the meadow in a botched attempt to collect the two men.
Six people were hurt as they scrambled for cover and US military chiefs later declined to comment or deny that the shootings had taken place.
While they did so, the injured lay in hospital, and one had to have his leg amputated.
The first flier out of the plane was a weapons control officer, according to sources in the US, and had ejected after a mechanical fault had crippled his fighter plane at high altitude during a sortie against Col Gaddafi's air defences.
Those raids have turned the tide in the desert war, helping rebels to keep the government from attacking their stronghold in Benghazi, about 25 miles away. A queue formed to shake his hand, thanking him for his role in staving off Col Gaddafi's forces.
Yesterday, standing beside the wreckage, Mohamed Breek said he had come out of his home a couple of hundred yards away to see what was happening above his flower-studded meadow. "It was on fire," he said. "We didn't hear any shots. It just fell from the sky by itself and then there was a big explosion."
Before they knew it the rescue helicopter had swept in low from the north. Shots strafed the field and the low houses dotted here and there. Bullets tore through Mr Amruni's driveway and gate.
He showed me where the rounds had ripped holes in the ironwork and pumped lead into his packed-earth driveway, narrowly missing his car.
American forces attempting the rescue seem to have assumed that anyone approaching the mangled grey mess was potentially hostile. Those nearest the wreckage were targeted.
"I am angry because I was trying to help the pilot and see if he needed any medical attention," said Ahmed Abdulati Mohamed, a 50-year-old farmer who had been woken by the crash, as he lay in a hospital ward the next day.
Bandages on his right leg, dressings on his chest and a strapped ankle showed where the bullets had ricocheted into his body. His 22-year-old son, Hamdi Ahmed Abdulati, lay unconscious in the intensive care ward after surgery to remove his left leg below the knee. One of the stranded crewmen -- the pilot -- managed to scramble into the rescue helicopter leaving the other behind, for that wary meeting with the Libyan farmers of Gult Sultan.
Mr Breek said he seemed to be in good shape. "We told him not to worry -- we are with him," he said. "He was nervous because he didn't know who we were. We gave him signs of peace."
More sightseers arrived to view the wrecked carcass of the jet as the morning wore on.
All said they recognised the value of the raids on Col Gaddafi's military muscle, in spite of the damage inflicted by the rescue party "We are so grateful to these men who are protecting the skies," Mr Amruni said.
They gave the airman fresh fruit juice until members of the rebels' military corps arrived to usher him away to safety.
Mr Breek, the farmer whose field was teeming with gawkers, said Americans should not fear the people of "free Libya". Anyone else who had the misfortune to crash in his field would be well looked after. "They are coming to protect us so we owe them a lot," he said. "Without them they would have taken Benghazi. When one falls here it is safe." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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