An American fighter jet crashed in Libya's rebel held east, both crew ejecting safely as the aircraft spun from the sky during the third night of the US and European air campaign. Moammar Gaddafi's forces shelled rebels regrouping in the dunes outside a key eastern city on Tuesday, and his snipers and tanks roamed the last major opposition-held city in the west.
The crash was the first major loss for the US and European military air campaign, which over three nights appears to have hobbled Gaddafi's air defenses and artillery and rescued the rebels from impending defeat. But the opposition force, with more enthusiasm than discipline, has struggled to exploit the gains. The international alliance, too, has shown fractures as officials struggle to articulate an endgame.
China and Russia, which abstained from the UN Security Council vote authorizing the international intervention, called for a cease-fire Tuesday, after a night when international strikes hit Tripoli, destroying a military seaport in the capital.
The US Air Force F-15E came down in field of winter wheat and thistles outside the town of Bu Mariem, about 24 miles (38 kilometers) east of the rebel capital of Benghazi.
By Tuesday afternoon, the plane's body was mostly burned to ash, with only the wings and tail fins intact. US officials say both crew members were safe in American hands.
"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. They died away, then it burst in to flames again."
One of the pilots parachuted into a rocky field and hid in a sheep pen on Hamid Moussa el-Amruni's family farm.
"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," Hamid Moussa el-Amruni said.
The pilot left in a car with the Benghazi national councill, taking with him the water and juice the family provided. They kept his helmet and the parachute.
A second plane strafed the field where the pilot went down. Hamid Moussa el-Amruni himself was shot, suffered shrapnel wounds in his leg and back, but he could still walk. He used an old broomstick as a crutch and said he held no grudge, believing it was an accident.
He said the second crew member came down in a different field and was picked up by a helicopter, an account that coincided with the US explanation of the rescue.
The US Africa Command said both crew members were in American hands with minor injuries after what was believed to be a mechanical failure.
Most of eastern Libya, where the plane crashed, is in rebel hands but the force has struggled to take advantage of the gains from the international air campaign.
Meanwhile, a Government minister today refused to rule out the deployment of British ground troops in Libya.
Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey said there was a clear distinction between sending in a full-scale occupation force - which is banned under the terms of the United Nations mandate - and a more limited intervention.
He also acknowledged that Libya could be facing a prolonged stalemate - with the rebels securing the east of the country but unable to break Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's stranglehold on the capital, Tripoli.
His comments came after Prime Minister David Cameron last night tried to reassure MPs that Libya would not be "another Iraq" - with international forces "knocking over" the government and then being left responsible for the aftermath.
The Government comfortably won the Commons vote by 557 to 13, but a series of backbenchers used the six-and-a-half-hour debate to raise concerns about how the intervention would end.
Pressed on whether British ground troops could be deployed in a defensive role, protecting civilians, Mr Harvey refused to rule out the prospect - although he did not believe that any deployment would be on a "significant scale".
"I don't think we would at this stage rule anything in or rule anything out but I agree with the distinction that you draw between landing an occupying force and the use of anybody on the ground," he told BBC1's Breakfast programme.
Mr Harvey also accepted that the current conflict could end in a stalemate which left the country divided and Col Gaddafi still holding power in Tripoli.
"That is one possible outcome," he said.
"If it is, so be it, that wouldn't be desirable. But a stable outcome where they weren't killing each other would in a sense be one way of achieving the humanitarian objective."
RAF Typhoon fighters stationed at Gioia del Colle in southern Italy were patrolling the newly established no-fly zone today after a third straight night of bombing of the regime's air defences and command and control structure by coalition forces.
Witnesses said a navy base at Bussetta, six miles east of the capital, and the dictator's southern stronghold of Sebha had been hit in the latest round of missile strikes and air attacks.
After ministers yesterday appeared to be at odds with senior military commanders over whether they could legitimately target Col Gaddafi, Mr Harvey insisted the air strikes were aimed at military targets.
No 10 aides had previously sought to leave open the option that the Libyan leader could be targeted after the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, said it was "not allowed" under the terms of the UN mandate.
Mr Harvey said: "Our targets are not individuals, our targets are the military capability that runs the risk of presenting a threat to the Libyan population.
"The departure of Colonel Gaddafi is very much the political objective of the British Government.
"But that is not what the United Nations resolution has provided for - the United Nations resolution has set about a military process of degrading the military threat that is presented to the Libyan population.
"So it will be politically desirable for Gaddafi to be gone but that is not the objective of the military campaign."
Coalition leaders have yet to decide who will take command of the military operation when the US relinquishes control. President Barack Obama confirmed last night that the US intended to hand over command in the coming days.
Mr Cameron said in the Commons that he favoured Nato's "tried and tested machinery" to run the operation, but France - which only recently joined Nato's command structure - is more cautious.
Turkey, the sole alliance member state which is predominantly Muslim, has also raised objections to Nato's involvement although those appeared to be softening.
Meanwhile, China called for an immediate ceasefire in Libya.
Since agreeing last week not to deploy its veto in the UN Security Council to block the imposition of a no-fly zone, Beijing has been sharply critical of the military action.
Ministers at this morning's weekly Cabinet meeting were updated on progress in Libya and asked questions about the operations in a 45-minute discussion.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman told reporters: "It was a broad discussion covering all the aspects of what is going on in the country and Government policy on Libya.
"Cabinet is completely united on this issue, but clearly people will have questions.
"Cabinet is a forum for having these kinds of discussions. That's the way we work."
General Richards was not present at Cabinet and the issue of whether Col Gaddafi is a legitimate target was not raised, said the spokesman.
Foreign Secretary William Hague updated colleagues on efforts to maintain and expand the coalition, Defence Secretary Liam Fox briefed them on the progress of the military campaign and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell explained the latest humanitarian situation.
Mr Hague was this afternoon meeting Saudi foreign minister Saud al Faisal in London for talks which will cover Libya. The Saudi minister will go on to meet Mr Cameron at Downing Street.
The PM's spokesman said Saudi Arabia was "supportive" of the coalition operation, but declined to give further details of what would be discussed.
The National Security Council was meeting to discuss Libya following Cabinet.
Mr Harvey went on to tell Today: "I think it's a question of interpretation where the deployment of ground troops becomes the landing of an occupying force, and I just don't think it's probably productive to speculate about that, but I cannot foresee it on any significant scale."
Ministry of Defence spokesman Major General John Lorimer said today that the allied operations had stopped Col Gaddafi's assault on Benghazi in its tracks.
He said that RAF Tornados yesterday flew a reconnaissance sortie to look out for signs of Col Gaddafi's ground troops threatening Libyan civilians, before joining the Typhoons at Gioia del Colle on completion of their flight.
The Typhoon patrol of the no-fly zone yesterday was the first time the RAF has used the plane in enemy airspace, he added.
Both Tornados and Typhoons were supported by Awacs surveillance aircraft and VC10 refuelling planes.
Maj Gen Lorimer told a briefing in London: "A formation of Tornado GR4 aircraft flew south from RAF Marham. Unlike their previous sorties on Saturday and Sunday, which were focused on Libyan military command and control facilities and air defence infrastructure, their mission yesterday was an armed reconnaissance sortie to protect directly the local population from attacks by Colonel Gaddafi's ground forces.
"With their state-of-the-art lightning targeting pods and a variety of precision-guided munitions, the Tornados are very well equipped to identify any emerging threats on the ground and to deliver a dynamic and effective response.
"On completion of their mission, the Tornados joined the Typhoon forward base at Gioia del Colle."
Maj Gen Lorimer confirmed that a US aircraft crashed in Libya last night and that both crew members were safe.
And he noted that Spanish F18 jets joined the coalition patrols over Libya for the first time yesterday.
Assessing the overall impact of the coalition operation, he added: "At this time, it would not be wise to disclose to Colonel Gaddafi precisely how well we believe we have performed in degrading his command and control network and his integrated air defence system.
"But on a broader level, we have the best possible indication that this operation is having a very real effect - namely, the protection of Benghazi from Colonel Gaddafi's forces.
"Last Friday, regime troops were on the outskirts of Benghazi... Colonel Gaddafi vowed that his men would be going house to house, room to room, to burn out the opposition. Libyan troops were reportedly committing atrocities in outlying areas of the city.
"The military intervention to enforce UNSCR (Security Council Resolution) 1973 has stopped that attack in its tracks.
"That is not to say that all threat to innocent life in and around Benghazi and other cities has been wholly removed. It has not."
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