TRIPOLI, Libya — An American fighter jet crashed in Libya's rebel held east, with both crew ejecting safely as the aircraft spun from the sky during the third night of the U.S. and European air campaign.
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The crash was the first major loss for U.S. and European forces, which over three nights appear to have hobbled Gadhafi's air defenses and artillery and rescued the rebels from impending defeat.
But the opposition force, with more enthusiasm than discipline, has struggled to exploit the gains.
Moammar Gadhafi's forces shelled rebels trying to regroup in the dunes outside a key eastern city on Tuesday, and his snipers and tanks roamed the last major opposition-held city in the west.
The international alliance, too, has shown fractures as officials struggle to articulate an endgame.
The plane crashed Monday at 2130 GMT (5:30 p.m. EDT), said Vince Crawley, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command. The U.S. Air Force F-15E came down in field of winter wheat and thistles outside the town of Bu Mariem, about 24 miles east of the rebel capital of Benghazi.
A Marine Corps Osprey search and rescue aircraft retrieved the pilot, while the second crew member, a weapon's officer, was recovered by rebel forces and is now in American hands, another U.S. official said in Washington. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.Story: CNN calls Fox's human shield accusation ‘nuts’
The two were separated after ejecting from the jet at high altitude and drifting down to different locations, Crawley said, adding they sustained minor injuries.
One of the airmen landed in a field and approached a crowd of people, not knowing whether they were supporters of Moammar Gadhafi or members of the opposition, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported.
It turned out they were locals who opposed the Libyan leader, the paper said. "I hugged him and said, 'Don't be scared, we are your friends,'" witness Younis Amruni told the Telegraph.
Locals reportedly lined up to shake the airman's hands in thanks.
"We are so grateful to these men who are protecting the skies," Amruni said. "We gave him juice and then the revolutionary military people took him away."
Another witness saw the flaming plane crash into the field. "We didn't hear any shots, it just fell from the sky by itself and then there was a big explosion," said Mohamed Breek.
By Tuesday afternoon, the plane's body was mostly burned to ash, with only the wings and tail fins intact. "I saw the plane spinning round and round as it came down," said Mahdi Amrani, who rushed to the crash site with other villagers.Video: US fighter jet crashes in Libya (on this page)
Most of eastern Libya, where the plane crashed, is in rebel hands but the force has struggled to take advantage of the gains from the international air campaign.
Ajdabiya, city of 140,000 that is the gateway to the east, has been under siege for a week. Outside the city, a ragtag band of hundreds of fighters milled about on Tuesday, clutching mortars, grenades and assault rifles. Some wore khaki fatigues. One man sported a bright white studded belt.
Some men clambered up power lines in the rolling sand dunes of the desert, squinting as they tried to see Gadhafi's forces inside the city. The group periodically came under artillery attacks, some men scattering and others holding their ground.
"Gadhafi is killing civilians inside Ajdabiya," said Khaled Hamid, a rebel who said he been in Gadhafi's forces but defected to the rebels. "Today we will enter Ajdabiya, God willing."
Since the uprising began on Feb. 15, the opposition has been made up of disparate groups even as it took control of the entire east of the country. Regular army units that joined the rebellion have proven stronger and more organized, but only a few units have joined the battles while many have stayed behind as officers try to coordinate a force with often antiquated, limited equipment.
The rebels pushed into the west of the country in recent weeks, only to fall back to their eastern strongholds in the face of Gadhafi's superior firepower.
Misrata, Libya's third-largest city and the last major western redoubt for the rebels, was being bombarded by Gadhafi's forces on Tuesday, his tanks and snipers controlling the streets, according to a doctor there who said civilians were surviving on dwindling supplies of food and water, desperately in search of shelter.
Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals if the city falls to Gadhafi's troops, he accused international forces of failing to protect civilians as promised under the United Nations resolution authorizing military action in Libya.
"Snipers are everywhere in Misrata, shooting anyone who walks by while the world is still watching," he said. "The situation is going from bad to worse. We can do nothing but wait. Sometimes we depend on one meal per day."
Mokhtar Ali, a Libyan dissident in exile elsewhere in the Mideast, said he was in touch with his father in Misrata and described increasingly dire conditions.
"Residents live on canned food and rainwater tanks," Ali said. He said Gadhafi's brigades storm residential areas knowing that they won't be bombed there. "People live in total darkness in terms of communications and electricity."
Monday night, Libyan state TV said a new round of strikes had begun in Tripoli, marking the third night of bombardment. Col. Abdel-Baset Ali, operations officer in the port, said the strikes caused millions of dollars in losses, but no human casualties
Warehouses containing military equipment were hit, apparently by missiles that punched through a corrugated roof and left a crater in one building. Four trucks loaded with rocket launchers were destroyed, as was other transportation and equipment.
"My sense is that — that unless something unusual or unexpected happens, we may see a decline in the frequency of attacks," General Carter Ham, who is leading U.S. forces in the Libyan operation, told reporters in Washington.
Ham said it was possible that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi might manage to retain power.
"I don't think anyone would say that is ideal," the general said Monday, foreseeing a possible outcome that stands in contrast to President Barack Obama's declaration that Gadhafi must go.
The Libyan leader has ruled the North African nation for 42 years and was a target of American air attacks in 1986.
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Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others said the U.S. military's role will lessen in coming days as other countries take on more missions and the need declines for large-scale offensive action like the barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles fired Saturday and Sunday mainly by U.S. ships and submarines off Libya's coast.
A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified data, told The Associated Press on Monday the attacks thus far had reduced Libya's air defense capabilities by more than 50 percent. That has enabled the coalition to focus more on extending the no-fly zone, which is now mainly over the coastal waters off Libya and around the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the east, across the country to the Tripoli area this week.Video: McCain: Gadhafi should be ousted (on this page)
But Washington, wary of being drawn into another war after long campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, has ruled out specific action to overthrow Gadhafi, though France said on Monday it hoped the Libyan government would collapse from within.
Obama, facing questions at home about the United States military getting bogged down in a third Muslim country, said Washington would cede control of the Libyan operation in days.
"We anticipate this transition to take place in a matter of days and not in a matter of weeks," Obama told a news conference during a visit to Chile.Video: Obama: It is US policy that Gadhafi must go
He did not spell out which nation or organization would take charge, but Britain and France took a lead role in pushing for the intervention in Libya.
NATO officials resumed talks in Brussels on Tuesday after failing to reach agreement at fractious talks on Monday.
Some allies were now questioning whether a no-fly zone was necessary, given the damage already done by air strikes to Gadhafi's military capabilities, a NATO diplomat said, adding: "Yesterday's meeting became a little bit emotional."
Underlining the differences in the anti-Gadhafi coalition, Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said if agreement was not reached on a NATO command, Italy would resume control of the seven airbases it has made available to allied air forces.
A NATO role would require political support from all the 28 states. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, whose country is a NATO member, said on Tuesday that the United Nations should be the umbrella for a solely humanitarian operation in Libya.
In a speech in parliament, Erdogan said: "Turkey will never ever be a side pointing weapons at the Libyan people."
Obama spoke with Erdogan and they affirmed their full support for the U.N. resolution "and agreed that this will require a broad-based international effort, including Arab states," the White House said on Tuesday.
The Associated Press, Reuters, NBC News and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.