Two Libyan fighter pilots who defected to Malta instead of bombing their own citizens have returned to Tripoli and a hero’s welcome.
The two men have spent the last six months in exile in Malta after refusing to fire on protesters in Benghazi last February. As they stepped off a small Maltese air force plane onto the tarmac in Tripoli, their priority was the families they left behind to face the wrath of the Gaddafi regime.
Their names were given as Abdullah al Salheen and Ali al Rabti. To cheers and hugs from friends and supporters, they were led away to be reunited with their loved ones. Six months ago, the two men were scrambled in their French-built F1 Mirage planes as the demonstrations took hold in the early days of the uprising in the country’s east.
But just minutes before opening fire, they said they changed their minds and decided to defect abroad. The move, which would have been a brave one in a democratic country, could have been a fatal one under Col Gaddafi’s regime. Other pilots who defected around the same time were not so fortunate.
Two who fled to Algeria were sent back to Libya where the regime reportedly made an example of them – with a public execution. The returning heroes from the Okba Bin Nafe airbase near Tripoli chose their host country wisely. After flying just 200ft above the Mediterranean Sea to avoid radar detection, they came in to land at the main airport in Malta. When they made contact with the radio tower both pilots claimed they had run out of fuel. When they were taken into custody and questioned they revealed their true motives and requested political asylum – while staying in an air force officers’ mess.
Their bravery three days after the start of the revolution inspired thousands of fellow Libyans to raise their voices in revolt against the dictatorial regime. Colonel Gaddafi’s most high-profile son, Saif al Islam, threatened “rivers of blood” if opposition to his father was not squashed. Six months on, the fighter pilots have returned to what is being called a “free” Tripoli.
But Col Gaddafi’s supporters seem determined to make good on his son’s promise in the areas of Libya, such as their home town of Sirte, still under their control.