- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2011

Two Air Force aviators have been rescued and returned to their command after their fighter jet crashed late Monday during a mission to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, U.S. military officials said.

The F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet was not shot down but experienced “equipment malfunction” before it crashed, the Defense Department said.

“Both the pilots ejected and are safe,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Karin Burzynski, a spokeswoman for U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany, told The Washington Times.

Another spokesman, Air Force Maj. Joel Harper, said the two airmen are safe and had minor injuries. He said their identities were being withheld until their families had been informed.

Other reports said the men had been rescued by rebels from the crash site, near Benghazi.

The aircraft, based out of Royal Air Force Lakenheath in Britain, was flying out of Aviano Air Base in Italy in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn at the time of the crash.

U.S. Africa Command said the cause of the crash is under investigation.

On Monday, the U.S.-led coaltion pounded targets in Libya, extending the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone around the rebel-held town of Benghazi, as Pentagon officials insisted that they would soon hand over command of the operation to allies.

Meanwhile, an Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle jet crashed in Libya Tuesday after an equipment malfunction, according to the Associated Press. Both crew members ejected and are safe, military officials told AP.

But several Libyans told The Washington Times that the coalition’s focus on the capital, Tripoli, and Benghazi is coming at the cost of smaller cities where forces loyal to Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi have created siegelike conditions for several days.

Coalition strikes hit a command center in the Tripoli headquarters compound of Col. Gadhafi, U.S. military officials said Monday, insisting that the longtime leader is not a target. Al Jazeera news channel reported Monday that coalition forces struck radar installations at two air-defense bases belonging to Col. Gadhafi’s forces in eastern Libya. The two bases are east of the rebels’ stronghold of Benghazi, the channel said.

“I don’t know much about the location of the Libyan leader, nor have we expended any military effort in that regard,” said Army Gen. Carter Ham, chief of the recently established U.S. Africa Command, which is leading the effort in its first major operation.

He briefed Pentagon reporters via satellite from Stuttgart, Germany, site of the command’s headquarters.

In a phone interview with The Times from Cairo, Mourad Hamaima, a former Libyan Foreign Ministry official, said coalition forces need to take urgent action to protect populations in Misurata, Ajdabiya and Zintan.

“Since there are now no airstrikes [by the regime] against the pro-democracy forces, they have a level playing field. But some population centers, especially in Misurata, Zintan and Tripoli need immediate help because they are under constant attack,” Mr. Hamaima said.

Over the weekend, differences emerged between the allies about the ultimate aim of the military campaign. French officials say the goal is to drive Col. Gadhafi from power, and U.S. leaders insist that the mission is to protect civilians.

“Our mandate, again, our mission, is to protect the civilians from attack by the regime ground forces,” Gen. Ham repeated Monday. “Our mission is not to support any opposition forces.”

He added that the rebels in Benghazi and elsewhere include many civilians, who are eligible to be protected by international forces.

Libyan civilians in Misurata, about 130 miles east of Tripoli, appealed for help from the coalition. In interviews with the Times, they reported fierce fighting and said pro-Gadhafi fighters were holding civilians against their will to be used as human shields.

“Gadhafi’s forces are hitting us from east and west. The coalition needs to strike to allow us some breathing room,” said one resident, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation.

“It seems the [coalition’s] main focus has been Benghazi and Tripoli, but there are people dying in the streets here as well.”

Several sources said 11 people were confirmed dead in the city.

Phone connections, water and electricity remained disrupted in Misurata, and only those with satellite phones could be contacted. One person said they were relying on wells for water.

The regime’s forces also retained control of Ajdabiya, the first major city west of Benghazi, and Zawiyah, west of Tripoli.

A Libyan, who spoke from Benghazi on the condition of anonymity because of concern for his safety, said Libya’s second-largest city was stable again under rebel control.

Troops loyal to Col. Gadhafi fought their way into Benghazi over the weekend before the U.N. Security Council authorized the international community to impose a no-fly zone and use “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya. They retreated under coalition fire.

A spokesman for the provisional government in Benghazi said the rebels will not negotiate with Col. Gadhafi and want him put on trial, not killed.

“We are in a war of attrition this dictator has forced upon us,” Abdel Hafidh Ghoga said at a news conference.

“Because of this, we refuse to negotiate with him. We will see the end of him, rather than negotiate. He is wanted internationally as a war criminal. He will be judged for his genocidal actions against his own people.”

At his news conference, Gen. Ham said coalition protection authorized by the U.N. resolution applies only to civilians, not rebels with armor and heavy weapons.

“It’s clear to me … that many in the opposition truly are civilians, and they are trying to protect their homes, their families, their businesses. And in doing that, some of them have taken up arms, but they’re basically civilians,” he said.

“It’s not a clear distinction, because we’re not talking about a regular military force. It’s a very problematic situation.”

Gen. Ham said 12 U.S. and British cruise missiles targeted regime command-and-control facilities, a Scud surface-to-surface missile base and an air-defense site. Air forces from France, Spain, Italy, Denmark and Britain flew missions over Benghazi to protect civilians from attack, he added.

Gen. Ham said the allies were working hard to set up an international command headquarters for the operation, so that the United States can step back from its leading role.

“It’s not so simple as just having a handshake someplace and saying, ‘OK, you’re now in charge.’ There are very complex, technical things that have to occur, particularly in the management, command and control of the air campaign,” he said.

Gen. Ham added that more sorties Monday were flown by allies than by U.S. planes.

“Yesterday, I think we had about 60 sorties, about half of which, I think, were U.S. [aircraft],” he said. Monday, the coalition flew 70 to 80 sorties.

Canadian and Belgian forces arrived Monday to join the coalition and already had begun operations.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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