In the first known mishap for the U.S. military in the operation in Libya, an American fighter jet crashed during the third night of coalition airstrikes against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s air defense systems and ground forces. Adm. Samuel Locklear, briefing reporters on Tuesday, said coalition attacks have been very effective but there has not been a political decision to transfer control of the operation to allies rather than a U.S. leader.
Locklear, the tactical commander of the operation in Libya and commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa, said the Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle jet crashed in eastern Libya on Monday night, but both crew members are safe after sustaining minor injuries. The crew members ejected after the jet "encountered an equipment malfunction," he said.
Earlier Tuesday, U.S. Africom spokeswoman Nicole Dalrymple told National Journal there were no indications the plane was brought down by "any hostile action."
London's Telegraph, which first reported the story, said the crashed plane was found in a field near the rebel-held city of Benghazi. The first crew member was found by rebels and was understood to be safe, the newspaper reported, and the other crew member was found later. The Telegraph has photos of Libyans examining the wreckage.
Locklear said one crew member was recovered by coalition forces and the other was recovered by the Libyan people, who ensured the crew member was given medical attention and was "treated with dignity and respect." The crew member is now in the care of the United States, he added.
Gen. Carter Ham, commander of the operation in Libya, made it clear on Monday that the coalition was not communicating with the Libya opposition or providing close-air or other support to opposition forces battling Qaddafi's troops, but rather focusing on the mission to protect civilians. Locklear also said that during the recovery operation for the downed crew members, he had no communication with anyone from the Libyan rebel forces.
Asked if coalition forces needed to open fire to retrieve the fallen crew members or if there was any other collateral damage, Locklear said only that the military is "doing an investigation" but the recovery operation was "executed as I would have expected it to be given the circumstances."
"We are only hours away from having that incident occur," he said. "We are in the middle of a major operation out here; this investigation will take time and it will be looked at very carefully."
The crew members were assigned to conduct a strike mission against Qaddafi's air defense systems as coalition forces work to degrade the embattled Libyan leader's military capabilities. As authorized by the United Nations Security Council resolution, the coalition has pledged to continue the mission until Qaddafi enacts a cease-fire on the ground and pulls his troops away from rebel-held cities.
Locklear said Qaddafi's attacks on civilians are still continuing and he is not complying with the resolution's mandate -- or President Obama's direction -- to stop advancing on Benghazi and pull back from Zawiyah and Adjabiyeh and Misurata. "They have not done that. We have basically forced him out of Benghazi. In the other three places they have not complied," he said.