U.S. jet crashes in Libya, pilots survive, as Gaddafi's forces dig in

People look at a U.S Air Force F-15E fighter jet after it crashed near the eastern city of Benghazi March 22, 2011.
People look at a U.S Air Force F-15E fighter jet after it crashed near the eastern city of Benghazi March 22, 2011. (Reuters)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 10:04 AM

OUTSIDE AJDABIYA, LIBYA - An American fighter jet participating in the U.S.-led airstrikes in Libya malfunctioned on Monday, and both its crew members ejected safely before it crashed on Libyan soil, the U.S. military said.

The U.S. Africa Command, which is leading the international military campaign in Libya, said in a statement that the two crew members "are safe."

News service and television reports said the men encountered rebel fighters when they crashed, and were treated well by them. Both men were subsequently evacuated from Libya by the U.S.-led military coalition, according to those news reports.

The military statements said the F-15E jet "experienced equipment malfunction over northeast Libya." The cause of the malfunction, the statement said, is under investigation.

Outside this strategic eastern city on Monday, which is partly controlled by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, opposition fighters cheered and flashed victory signs as allied jets streaked overhead.

But as the rebels sped toward Ajdabiya in dozens of vehicles, many mounted with machine guns, Gaddafi's soldiers attacked. They rained mortar and tank shells that exploded like thunderclaps, spraying thick smoke and debris along the highway. The rebels quickly retreated.

Even as allied strikes hammer Gaddafi's air defenses, his ground forces have dug in within heavily populated urban areas such as Ajdabiya, and on Monday they gained ground in the western city of Misurata.

U.S. officials say the three-day-old international military intervention is intended to protect Libyan civilians, not provide support to Libya's opposition. But Monday's setbacks for the rebels revealed the degree to which the disorganized and ill-equipped force is depending on allied airstrikes to end Gaddafi's 41-year rule. It also raised questions, so far unresolved, about how far coalition members are prepared to go to help Libya's opposition.

On Monday, NATO members voiced disagreement over the goal and leadership of the international mission in Libya. The United States had hoped to turn command of the operation over to NATO, but that transition appears to have been delayed by the lack of consensus within the organization.

U.S. officials maintained Monday that they were interested only in shielding civilians from violence and that getting rid of Gaddafi would be up to the Libyan people. But rebels said more assistance was needed to avert the massacre that would inevitably come if Gaddafi was allowed to remain in power.

"We can't win without the airplanes of the international community," Farhad al-Mraibi, a 55-year-old rebel fighter, said after the retreat. "Gaddafi will kill all of us."

Top rebel officials say the internationally enforced no-fly zone has come too late to alter the military equation on the ground. Their forces, they say, are not militarily equipped to battle Gaddafi's superior arsenal of tanks, rocket launchers and other heavy land-based weaponry.

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