U.S. military denies reports helicopter opened fire on Libyan civilians during rescue mission

A spokesperson for the United States military has tonight categorically denied reports of a U.S. helicopter opening fire on Libyan civilians during a rescue mission of two fighter pilots who crashed near the eastern city of Benghazi.

Conflicting reports have emerged of the mission to rescue the two U.S. fighter pilots who ejected from their aircraft. The F-15E Strike Eagle that they were flying reportedly suffered a mechanical failure on Monday night and crashed. Soon after the accident, a U.S. military helicopter landed in the area to extract the airmen and reportedly opened fire on civilians, wounding six of them.

Photograph of a V-22 Osprey.

Unconfirmed reports indicate the six civilians were taken to a hospital in the area after being fired upon by the helicopter, a V-22 Osprey. One of the wounded, a young boy, was shot in the leg, which will likely now require amputation. Another of those reported injured said the shooting caused “great panic.” Wikinews understands the Pentagon is to open an investigation into the rescue mission.

Aerial view of The Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia.

However, a U.S. military spokesperson denied the reports “one hundred percent”, and said the incident “didn’t happen”. He said the aircraft which rescued the two airman was not fitted with weapons. “The Osprey is not armed and the Marines barely came off the aircraft,” he said.

The pilot of the fighter aircraft was extracted during the rescue mission, while the weapons officer was found and cared for by Libyan rebels before later being retrieved by American forces. Both crew members suffered only minor injuries, the military said. The fighter aircraft was deployed over Libya in support of the no-fly zone approved by the United Nations Security Council over Libya as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn.

 

France calls on Libyan leader to step down

French president Nicolas Sarkozy has stated during a news conference that Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi “must leave,” calling the leader to step down. His comments were made during a press conference with the Turkish president Abdullah Gül in Ankara. Sarkozy also stated that military action to remove Gaddafi isn’t ruled out.

“Our stance is clear. Mr Gaddafi must go. The systematic violence against the Libyan people is unacceptable and will be the subject of investigations and sanctions. Regarding a military intervention … France would consider any initiative of this type with extreme caution and reserve,” said Sarkozy. The United Kingdom is also calling for an arms embargo along with an investigation into war crimes be conducted against Gaddafi.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sarkozy’s call on Gaddafi to step down comes after violence on Friday alone has left at least five people dead in Tripoli, the capitol of Libya, when security personnel fired on demonstrators. At least 500 people are suspected to have been killed in Tripoli with over 2,000 injured. Gunshots were heard in several parts of the city on Friday. Navi Pillay, head of the human rights division of the United Nations says thousands in Libya could have been killed since the uprising began. Human Rights Watch puts the death toll at 300.

“We think this needs to be brought to the International Criminal Court. We also think that people who still cooperate with Gadhafi should be punished,” added Sarkozy.

Reports say security forces loyal to Gaddafi have used rocket propelled grenades, snipers, anti aircraft guns and foreign mercenaries to repel protesters. Gaddafi blames Osama bin laden and people on hallucinogenic drugs for the mass protests in the country. “(The protesters’) ages are 17. They give them pills at night, they put hallucinatory pills in their drinks, their milk, their coffee, their Nescafe,” he said on Thursday.

In a speech that aired on Libyan State TV today, Gaddafi said to supporters in Green Square in Tripoli, “We can defeat any aggression if necessary and arm the people. Prepare to defend the nation and defend the oil. [We can] retaliate against them [the opposition]. You, the youth, be comfortable… dance, sing, stay up all night.”

Libya blocks access to Internet

The Libyan government has cut off Internet access in the country. The General Posts and Telecommunications Company, Libya’s main provider of Internet access, has ceased to function. It was shut down following citizen protests against the country’s leader, Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, who has been in power since 1969.

The government of Egypt took a similar measure last month, when it cut off Internet trying to quell public protests against the regime. Despite the government’s efforts, Egyptians who took to the streets for two weeks were able to oust the nation’s president, Hosni Mubarak, after 30 years in office.

Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, also known as Colonel Gaddafi, has been the leader of Libya since 1969. In the picture, al-Gaddafi in Dimashq, Syria. Image: James Gordon.

Limited access to the Internet makes it difficult to get information from the country. Libya is a country with a smaller population than Egypt, and has fewer service providers, which has apparently made the task of disconnecting everything a little easier.

In Egypt, the military refused to attack people protesting. The situation is different in Libya, where the armed forces attacked hundreds of demonstrators in the square of the city of Benghazi, causing many deaths.

The increasing violence in Libya has prompted the 27 European Union ministers to issue a statement protesting Libyan governmental violence toward protesters, saying it “condemns the ongoing repression against demonstrators in Libya and deplores the violence and death of civilians.” Two Libyan pilots have defected to Malta and asked for asylum, saying that they were ordered to fire on protesters, according to Maltese officials.

The violence has spread to Tripoli. Witnesses have reported that a “massacre” occurred today in suburbs of the Libyan capital with the indiscriminate shooting of women and children. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds have died over the last four days.

The escalating violence is causing turbulence in the world energy markets. The International Monetary Fund says that energy exports accounts for approximately 95% of Libya’s export earning.

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