U.S. jet crashes in Libya, but pilots safe; Gates sees airstrikes slowing soon
TRIPOLI - Both members of a U.S. fighter jet crew were rescued in eastern Libya after their F-15E Strike Eagle malfunctioned and crashed, the U.S. military said Tuesday, as fighting between rebels and loyalist Libyan forces continued around the strategic eastern town of Ajdabiya and in two towns in western Libya.
It was the first reported mishap to befall the U.S.-led coalition seeking to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, and it came as friction intensified within the alliance over how far the campaign of airstrikes should go and who should take the lead.
China called for a cease-fire to avert "humanitarian disasters" after three nights of coalition strikes on Libyan military targets. The government of longtime leader Moammar Gaddafi claims the strikes have inflicted significant civilian casualties, a charge denied by U.S. officials.
The government has presented no evidence to reporters in Tripoli that the strikes have killed civilians. On Tuesday, officials took journalists to a Tripoli harbor to see a cluster of bombed warehouses that appeared to have contained military hardware.
In one warehouse, four mobile missile launchers had been destroyed by a direct hit, and a multiple-barreled rocket launcher outside was also destroyed. A naval captain, Abdul Bassit, told reporters no one had been killed in the attack overnight Monday because officials suspected it may have been targeted and evacuated the site.
The U.S. fighter jet crashed late Monday in a field after the pilot and navigator ejected, the U.S. military said in a statement.
U.S. Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of the joint task force enforcing the no-fly zone, told Pentagon reporters from his flagship USS Mount Whitney in the Mediterranean that both airmen were safely whisked out of the country.
"One crew member was recovered by coalition forces," he said. "The other crew member was recovered by the people of Libya. He was treated with dignity and respect [and] is now in the care of the United States."
Locklear blamed the crash on "an equipment malfunction" during a "strike mission against Gaddafi regime missile capabilities." In response to questions, he refused to comment on a British news report that a Marine Osprey aircraft opened fire on villagers approaching one of the downed airmen, killing five of them. He said there would be a "complete investigation" of the incident, adding that "the recovery mission from my perspective was executed as I would have expected it to be, given the circumstances." He added that the Libyans who recovered one of the downed airmen treated him for "minor" injuries and "ensured he had medical care."
News photographs showed Libyans clambering over the smoldering wreckage of the plane outside the town of Bu Maryam 24 miles east of the rebel capital of Benghazi.
On Tuesday, Gaddafi's forces continued to shell rebels who were trying to regroup in the desert dunes outside the strategic eastern city of Ajdabiya, the Associated Press reported.
A doctor in the western town of Misurata, 130 miles east of Tripoli, said in an e-mail that bombardments were continuing there as well.