Shooting first – and hitting the people they came to protect
“I saw it fall down by itself, and after hitting the ground it exploded,” said Mohammed Braik, the farmer in whose field the American F15 Strike Eagle came down. “It caught fire but there was no shooting.”
By the time we arrived this morning, people were climbing all over the wreckage – there’s a perilous disregard for basic safety here, which means that rebel fighetrs constantly shoot in the air, and no-one thinks twice about prodding and poking an unexploded rocket from a crashed warplane.
The people told us that they realised early on that this was an American plane and therefore, as they see it, on their side. It seems to have malfunctioned, so the pilots ejected. A group of officers who have gone over to the rebel side took charge.
“After the plane crashed, we moved to the site. We searched for the pilots, and found the parachutes and ejection seats,” said Colonel Omar Sayid, of the Military Police. Then they found one of the pilots.I wonder what that pilot thought was going on. A US pilot ejecting during such a mission would be prepared for anyone they encounter to be hostile. Yet I suspect that a mob descended on him shouting: “Welcome, welcome Libya“, because that’s always the first phrase you hear in the rebel-held east.
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. 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.
Yet Hamad told me he wasn’t angry, just puzzled.
“The whole eastern area is under the revolution, it’s well known. Why did this happen? My car is destroyed, my home is damaged,” he said, adding: “We would have just picked the second pilot up and put him wherever he wanted in a safe place. Even the other one, we had a celebration for him.”
That’s what’s heart-breaking about the incident. The villagers did indeed shout: “Welcome, welcome Libya” and try to offer hospitality and gratitude to their American friends.
But because the American military works on the assumption that anyone around could be hostile, it may be why it all went horribly wrong. Which is how the US airforce ended up injuring some of the Libyan civilians it’s supposedly here to save.