A dramatic mission to save two downed American airmen was clouded last night with allegations that villagers had been hit by flying shrapnel during their rescue.
The scenario the coalition had been dreading since the beginning of Operation Odyssey Dawn began at around 9.30pm GMT on the third night of bombings with reports of a stricken jet.
In the first major loss for the campaign, the US F-15E Strike Eagle was on a mission to destroy a government missile site close to the eastern rebel-held city of Benghazi when it suffered a mechanical failure at high altitude and spiralled down to the ground, the US Africa Command (Africom) said yesterday, insisting it could not have been struck by enemy fire at that height.
As the plane crashed into a wheat field outside the town of Bu Mariem, 24 miles east of Benghazi, both crew managed to eject. "I saw the plane spinning round and round as it came down," said Mahdi el-Amruni, who rushed to the crash site with other villagers. "It was in flames." The two crew members were separated after ejecting from the crippled jet at high altitude and drifted to different locations, Africom spokesman Vince Crawley explained.
The weapons systems officer parachuted into a rocky field and hid in a sheep pen, a farmer, Hamid Moussa el-Amruni, told Associated Press.
"We didn't think it was an American plane. We thought it was a Gaddafi plane. We started calling out to the pilot, but we only speak Arabic. We looked for him and found the parachute. A villager came who spoke English and he called out 'we are here, we are with the rebels' and then the man came out."
Raising his hands to suggest he was OK, the weapons officer emerged to a friendly crowd, who lined up to shake his hand and hug him, professing their gratitude for the men "who are protecting the skies".
But last night there was confusion after allegations that six villagers had been shot. Using an old broomstick as a crutch to walk, Mr Amruni said he suffered shrapnel wounds in his leg and back when a second plane strafed the field. However, other eyewitnesses denied that there were any injuries. A villager suggested the second aircraft was firing on the downed plane to destroy the technology inside.
The New York Times claimed that two 500lb bombs were dropped during the rescue operation. The paper quoted an unnamed Marine Corps officer who claimed the grounded pilot – who was in contact with the airborne rescue crew – asked for the explosives to be dropped as a precaution: "My understanding is he asked for the ordnance to be delivered between where he was located and where he saw people coming towards him... to keep what he thought was a force closing in on him from closing in on him."
US Joint Task Force Commander, Admiral Sam Locklear, refused to comment on reports of civilian injuries, adding: "The recovery mission was executed as I would have expected it to be, given the circumstances."
However a US defence official confirmed to Fox News that shots were fired during the rescue.
The pilot came down in a field further away and was rescued by two Marine Corps Osprey aircraft that fired shots, according to locals, before picking up the airman. He was flown back to the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge off the coast of Libya.
The rescue came after British spy planes were scrambled to help in the search. An E-3D Sentry, airborne surveillance and command-and-control plane as well as a Sentinel R1, with target indicator radar, from 907 Expeditionary Air Wing in Cyprus, were tasked with looking for the two crew.
Africom said both crew members – who are normally based at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk but were flying out of Italy's Aviano air base – had suffered only minor injuries, but images of the plane's wreckage provided a demoralising sight. With little left but its wings and tail fins, the charred metal was being pulled apart by local people seeking souvenirs.
The latest country to offer air support to the allied campaign is the Netherlands, which will contribute six F-16s.
Qatar jets misfire
The first Qatari Air Force fighter jets flew in to join the no-fly operation yesterday - and were immediately forced to make an unscheduled stop in Cyprus after being diverted by high winds.
Cypriot authorities initially refused the request by two fighter jets and a cargo plane to land, but later granted permission after the pilots said they were running short of fuel. They refuelled and left for Crete. The planes are the first sign of military operations by Qatar to help enforce a no-fly zone over Libya.
The reaffirmation of the Gulf state's backing for the multinational force followed criticism by the Arab League's chief over the heavy missile barrages by US and European forces against Libyan air defences and tanks.