22 Mar 2011

Six Libyan villagers shot by US team rescuing pilot

EXCLUSIVE: Six villagers in a field on the outskirts of Benghazi were shot and injured when a US helicopter landed to rescue a crew member from the crashed jet, reports Lindsey Hilsum.

Libya: Gaddafi troops target west, airstrikes focus on east - Reuters

Channel 4 News International Editor, Lindsey Hilsum, says that the villagers were shot when a US helicopter picked up the pilot who had ejected from the F-15E Eagle plane after it experienced a mechanical failure.

The US aircraft crashed on Monday night and was found in a field outside Benghazi and landed in rebel-held territory.

The local Libyans who were injured in the rescue mission are currently in hospital. They are the first confirmed casualities of allied operations, almost four days after operations began. At the time of writing, no one had died as a result of the gunfire.

the local Libyans do not seem resentful, they still want the coalition forces to keep operating. Lindsey Hilsum

Lindsey Hilsum has been in the hospital where some of the injured were taken. She has spoken to the father of a young boy who expects to have his leg amputated due to a bullet wound.

Gauging the reaction of locals in the area, she said: “the local Libyans do not seem resentful, they still want the coalition forces to keep operating.”

Both crew members ejected and have now been flown out of Libya by US personel, according to a US military spokesman.

He said the crash was “not due to enemy or hostile actions.”

The pilot and a weapons officer were aboard the fighter jet, having set off from from Aviano Air Base in Italy. On experiencing the mechanical difficulties, both pilots ejected safely, but suffered minor injuries.

The pilot was rescued by the US helicopter soon after crash landing and opposition rebels recovered the weapons officer, taking “took good care of him” before coalition forces picked him up some time later.

Pilot number one, who was scarcely injured, was taken to the military authorities in Benghazi from where he was quickly handed over to the Americans, writes Lindsey Hilsum.

But a rescue mission was mounted for pilot number two, and this is where what could have been comic turned sour. Osprey aircraft came in, all guns blazing, assuming - as the American military tends to do – that this was hostile territory.

"We are disturbed about the shooting because if they'd given us a chance we would have handed over both pilots," said Colonel Sayid. "This shooting created panic."

Worse than that, several bystanders were injured, amongst them 43-year-old Hamad Abdul Ati. We found him in Jala hospital in Benghazi, with multiple shrapnel and bullet wounds, and a broken arm. He didn’t understand why the Americans had been so aggressive in their rescue mission.

"We consider that whoever is shot down or a prisoner of war, we should save him and hand him over," he told me from his hospital bed. "But another plane shot at me and Hamdy my son. I have shrapnel in my hand."

Hospital staff told us that 20-year-old Hamdy’s injuries were far worse, and he was undergoing an operation to amputate part of one leg.

Read Lindsey Hilsum's World News blog: Shooting first - and hitting the people they came to protect.

Key role for NATO

The operation has been led by the United States but President Obama has made it clear that he intends to transfer command ‘within days.’ But negotiations between coalition partners are delaying the transfer.

A NATO led operation is strongly supported by Britain and Italy but France, Turkey and Germany have spoken out against it over fears it may alienate the Arab world.

The US says a compromise has now been reached and that NATO will play a key role although he stopped short of explicitly saying NATO will take over complete control of the mission.

Turkey has warned it could not agree to a military alliance taking enforcement of the no-fly zone if their mission went outside the framework of the UN resolution.

The White House said that Obama had spoken to Tukey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and that they had agreed to a ‘broad’ global effort. But in a speech to his ruling AK party Erdogan said Turkey ‘will never point a gun at the Libyan people’ although it will support the resolution’s ‘full implementation.’

Outside of NATO the Arab league has expressed concern at some of the tactics used. China, India, and Russia- among five countries that abstained from the UN vote – have also questioned the level of force used in Libya.

Hague: history in the making

Reflecting on events Foreign Secretary William Hague predicted the Arab Spring will be seen in centuries to come as a key year in the development of human history. He told an audience in London that airstrikes in Libya had ‘saved many lives’ but that it was ‘too early’ to set a date for the ending of the mission.

Addressing the Times CEO summit Africa Mr Hague said: “It is not for us to choose the government of Libya – that is for the Libyan people themselves. But they have a far greater chance of making that choice now than they did on Saturday, when the opposition forces were on the verge of defeat.”

“With our partners we have halted the advance of Qadhafi’s troops towards Benghazi and prevented his planes from wreaking havoc from the skies, and this has undoubtedly saved many lives.”

Speaking about the wave of rebellions in the Arab world he added: “It’s very hazardous to write history when we are still taking part in it but in one or two hundred years I think 2011 will be seen as a very important year in the development of human history.”

Gaddafi troops reconcentrate efforts

Meanwhile, Muammar Gaddafi’s forces are barraging the rebel-held western cities of Misrata and Zintan, as allied air strikes continue in the east.

In the latest clashes, Gaddafi forces are using heavy artillery in an attempt to wrest control of the mountain town of Zintan, near the border with Tunisia and 120 kilometres (75 miles) southwest of Tripoli.

Residents have escaped the town centre and are seeking refuge in mountain caves.

Zintan was the first city in western Libya to join the anti-regime protests a day after the revolt against Gaddafi’s 41-year rule erupted on February 15 in the eastern coastal city of Benghazi.

In Misrata, the death toll from fighting on Monday had reached 40; among the dead were several children, according to reports.

Snipers are reportedly taking part in the operation alongside tanks and other heavy weaponry.

Libya: Photo gallery

There were reports of fierce anti-aircraft fire followed by explosions near Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli.

Witnesses said a navy base at Bussetta, 10km east of the capital, and the dictator’s southern stronghold of Sebha had been hit by a bombardment as air defences and forces were targeted.

Libyan state television reported a new round of strikes were under way.

Special Report - Libya: strike against Gaddafi

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said that the matter of the US fighter plane crash was for the US authorities to comment, but said Operation Ellamy was a continuing success.

Major Gen John Lorimer said: “You’ll be aware that a US aircraft crashed last night. Clearly this is a matter for the US authorities to comment on. My understanding is that both crewmembers are, thankfully, safe.”

He added: “We have the best possible indication that this operation is having a very real effect, namely the protection of Benghazi from Col Gaddafi’s forces. Last Friday you will recall that regime troops were on the outskirts of Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya and home to more than 670,000 civilians.”

Maj Gen Lorimer added that the number of countries conducting military operations to enforce the resolution “continues to grow.”

“US, French, Danish, Italian and British aircraft were yesterday joined on patrol over Libya by Spanish F-18s for the first time.”