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Small air victory for Libyan rebels

07 March 2011, 12:57

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Ras Lanuf - The bodies of the pilots still lay in the sand, the wreckage of their Russia Sukhoi fighter scattered around them, a spectacular trophy for the rebels lined up against Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

Twisted shards of metal and engine parts were scattered in a 100m radius around the crash site.

The bodies, their skin dried by the wind and the sun, were covered with blankets held down by rocks to keep them from blowing away.

The wreckage and the dead pilots lay about 2km from the Ras Lanuf road, some 650km east of Tripoli.

Mercenary pilots

It was an impressive haul for the rebels given the uneven war they were fighting against the air power of Libya's embattled ruler.

"The plane was shot down by our air defence," proudly said Colonel Bachir Al Maghreb, one of the rebel leaders in Ras Lanuf, an oil port held by the forces fighting Gaddafi's since Friday.

One of the pilots was Serbian, he said, though others suggest he might be Lebanese or Syrian, echoing recurring fears here that Gaddafi has hired mercenaries to help keep him in power.

But in Ras Lanuf, Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch told AFP: "We were on site yesterday (Sunday). One of the pilots had a Sudanese passport."

They had not been able to determine the nationality of the other pilot, he said.

Ill-equipped against jets

This was just a small victory in an ongoing war, and despite the euphoria over their achievement the fighters know that Gaddafi still has fighter planes and helicopter gunships at his disposal to send into combat.

"Tayara, Tayara!" the rebels shout ("Plane, Plane!), when somebody gives the alert of another fighter approaching.

Then they fire off everything they have, from anti-aircraft pieces to their Kalashnikov rifles.

But they are ill-matched, ill-equipped against the speed of the jets above them: most of the fighters scatter, getting clear of the road and any ammunition dumps.

Warplanes from Gaddafi launched at least two raids against the rebel checkpoint in Ras Lanuf on Saturday, supporting a ground assault about 50km west in Bin Jawad.

Air strikes fail to hit targets

In the first attack, the plane launched a missile, and a bomb that failed to explode that landed just 50m from their checkpoint. In the second attack they dropped bombs that landed even further from the target.

Whether by luck or design, most of the air strikes have so far failed to hit their targets: it was the same story with a raid on an ammunition dump near Ajdabiya 850km east of Tripoli, a few days ago.

The other theory of course is that the Libyan airforce just is not up to the job.



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