September 18, 2011 / 3:12 PM / 8 years ago

Pilots who refused to bomb return to Libya

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - One of two air force pilots who defected to Malta with their jets in the first days of Libya’s uprising said on Sunday they had made their decision after being ordered to attack civilians with missiles designed for tanks and buildings.

Libyan air force pilot Abdullah al-Salheen (C) arrives at Mitiga airport in Tripoli September 18, 2011. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

Colonel Ali al-Rabiti spoke to reporters on his return to Tripoli along with his colleague, Colonel Abdullah Salheen, who also flew his Mirage warplane to Malta on Feb. 21.

The two received cheers, hugs and gifts from dozens of colleagues, friends and relatives at the capital city’s Mitiga airport after flying in on an Malta Armed Forces aircraft.

Rabiti told a news conference they had received instructions to kill people after their planes were loaded with missiles by a Libyan commander loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.

“He told me exactly after we loaded the plane that the missiles we had were not prepared for people, that they were prepared for tanks and buildings,” he said.

“He told me exactly that we should strike people and let them die. I told him ‘OK’ and took the information.”

He said that instead of flying to the target he then took off to the north towards Malta.

Officials in Valletta at the time said the two had told Maltese authorities they had been ordered to bomb protesters in Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi.

Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said in February Gaddafi’s government had requested the return of the jets, but Malta had refused.

Libyan rebel fighters took control of Tripoli on Aug. 23 but fighting has continued between interim government forces and soldiers loyal to Muammar Gaddafi who are holding out in the towns of Bani Walid and Sirte, the deposed leader’s birthplace.

The Libyan pilot said he was determined to carry on his air force career to protect his nation.

“I will continue to work as a pilot to protect and free Libya and the skies of Libya, not to kill Libyan people. I will continue my work, training the new generation of pilots to protect Libya and its skies, not to kill Libyan people,” he said.

British and French specialists have disarmed and rendered safe the pilots’ two Mirages, which remain in Malta.

Malta’s Gonzi in April called for Gaddafi to relinquish power. He also expressed “disgust” at attacks by pro-Gaddafi forces on Libya’s third largest city, Misrata.

Malta has stayed out of the United Nations-mandated military actions against Tripoli but sent humanitarian aid to Misrata on trawlers.

Reporting by Mohammed al-Ramahai; Editing by William Maclean and Sophie Hares

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