Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon, AP Photo/U.S. Air Force
BU MARIEM, Libya — The U.S. pilot who ejected from a fighter jet that crashed in eastern Libya found himself surrounded early Tuesday by curious locals who served him juice and thanked his country for bombing forces loyal to ruler Moammar Gadhafi.
The rare exchange — after locals found the pilot hiding in a pen of sheep — is likely the closest yet between Western pilots dropping bombs from high-tech aircraft and the Libyan civilians they seek to protect.
U.S. and Europeans planes have been striking sites across Libya since Saturday night, following a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing international action to stop Gadhafi from harming civilians.
Gadhafi's response to the Libyan uprising seeking his ouster has been the most violent in the revolts sweeping across the Arab world. His troops nearly succeeded in taking back rthe rebels' de-facto capital of Benghazi before the allied airstrikes began targeting his forces.
The rebels — who have more enthusiasm than organization or military might — have welcomed the allied action, though direct interaction between the international force and the rebel government in Benghazi is limited.
Which is what made Tuesday's meeting in a rocky field near this village about 24 miles (38 kilometers) east of Benghazi so remarkable.
U.S. officials said the F-15E Strike Eagle jet was hitting Gadhafi's air defenses Monday night when an apparent equipment glitch caused the plane to crash.
Local resident Mahdi el-Amruni, 30, said he saw the jet fall from the sky at around midnight.
"I saw the plane spinning round and round as it came down," he said. "I thought it had been hit by pro-Gadhafi people."
He and other villagers rushed to where the jet's remains burned in a field of winter wheat and thistles.
"It was in flames," he said. "They died away, then it burst in to flames again."
The two crewmen ejected before the jet crashed and drifted down to different locations, Africa Command spokesman Vince Crawley said. They were lightly hurt.
One of them landed in a rocky field behind the home of Hamid el-Amruni. The pilot, presumably not sure if the locals were hostile, hid in sheep's pen, where about 15 villagers came looking for him after finding his parachute.
"We started calling out to the pilot, but we only speak Arabic," el-Amruni said. "A villager came who spoke English and he called out, 'We are here! We are with the rebels!' And then the man came out."
A while later, an officer from the rebel government in Benghazi came to pick him up.
"He was very relaxed," el-Amruni said of the pilot. "We greeted him and brought him a doctor as well as water and juice, which he took with him in the car."
The villagers kept his helmet and orange, white, green and beige parachute.
The U.S. military dispatched six aircraft — two MV-22 Ospreys, two AV-8B Harrier jets to provide cover and two CH-53E helicopters carrying a 46-person "quick reaction force" — to retrieve the pilots, said a senior Marine Corps officer at the Pentagon.
The jets dropped two 500-pound bombs to provide cover while one of the Ospreys, hybrid helicopter-airplanes, landed to pick up the pilot. He was flown to the USS Kearsarge in the Mediterranean, the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the event is still under investigation.
El-Amruni's farm now bears traces of the bombs, with pockmarks from the blast marring a metal gate in the courtyard and parts of his house.
El-Amruni was hit in the blast and received shrapnel wounds in his leg and back. But he could still walk, using an old broomstick as a crutch. He said he didn't hold a grudge against the Americans, assuming the incident had been a mistake.
"They bombed us randomly to bring the mercenaries out, because they wanted to rescue the pilot. Then they pulled out the pilot but we understand (why they did this)," he said. "We thank the forces of the coalition, the United States and France."
Pauline Jelinek and Robert Burns in Washington, Cassandra Vinograd in London and Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.