Libyan civilians wounded by U.S. helicopter moving to protect downed American airmen: report

Lukas I Alpert – NY Daily News March 22, 2011

A half-dozen Libyan civilians were wounded by gunfire from a U.S. helicopter during the rescue of an American crewmember from a crashed F-15 fighter jet, London’s Daily Telegraph reports.

The shooting occurred when rescuers moved in to recover one of the two pilots stranded when their crippled plane suffered an unspecified mechanical failure, the British newspaper reported.

Both pilots suffered minor injuries but were safely back in American hands, said Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander aboard the USS Mount Whitney.

The jet was enforcing the no-fly zone when the crew ejected.

“One crew member was recovered by coalition forces,” the admiral said. “The other crew member was recovered by Libyan people. He was treated with dignity and respect.”

Vince Crawley, spokesman for the U.S. military’s Africa Command, said the crash of the F-15E Strike Eagle occurred “overnight” in a field outside the rebel-held city of Benghazi.

It was the first coalition aircraft to crash in three days of air strikes over Libya.

Pictures on the website of London’s Daily Telegraph showed locals milling around the broken and charred remains of the $43 million jet.

Witnesses told the paper one of the airmen parachuted into a field of sheep, then raised his hands and called out “OK, OK” to a crowd that gathered.

“I hugged him and said: ‘Don’t be scared, we are your friends,'” said Younis Amruni, adding that people then lined up to shake the airman’s hand.

“We are so grateful to these men who are protecting the skies,” he said. “We gave him juice and then the revolutionary military people took him away.”

A Marine Corps Osprey search and rescue aircraft picked up the pilot, while the second crew member, a weapon systems officer, was recovered by rebel forces.

Amruni said the Osprey fired shots to keep locals away, then swooped in and rescued the second crew member.

U.S. officials say the number of U.S. missions in support of a no-fly zone over the country have gone down after what they call a successful first stage.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S.’s role would lessen in coming days as the need for a large-scale offensive diminishes.

Libya’s air defense capabilities have been reduced by more than 50% in the first days of military intervention, sources said.

A cruise missile attack on Monday blasted Moammar Khadafy’s residential compound in Tripoli, after earlier attacks scattered his troops.

American authorities are now moving to hand control of the operation to its European allies.


Also see: Secrecy surrounds pilot and weapons officer in F-15 crash

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