Bu Mariem, Libya: One of the US aviators who ejected from a fighter jet that crashed in eastern Libya found himself surrounded by curious locals who served him juice and thanked his country for bombing forces loyal to ruler Moammar Gaddafi.
The rare exchange after locals found the American hiding in a pen of sheep early yesterday is likely the closest yet between Western pilots dropping bombs from high-tech aircraft and the Libyan civilians they seek to protect.
US and Europeans planes have been striking sites across Libya since Saturday night, following a UN Security Council resolution authorizing international action to stop Gaddafi from harming civilians.
Gaddafi'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 the 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 yesterday's meeting in a rocky field near this village about 38 kilometers east of Benghazi so remarkable.
US 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 had ejected from the crippled jet at high altitude and drifted down to different locations, Africa Command spokesman Vince Crawley said, adding they sustained minor injuries.
One landed in a rocky field behind el-Amruni's home. The airman, 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.