Nearly two dozen former Libyan rebel fighters were carried in stretchers or limped and hobbled out of a U.S. Air Force medical evacuation jet in Massachusetts on Saturday at the end of a 13-hour flight for treatment of wounds sustained in the war that ousted slain longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi.
The envoy of Libya's National Transitional Council said the 22 fighters are the first of an estimated 200 combatants who will be flown to the United States for treatment. But Mark Ward, senior adviser on Arab transitions for the U.S. Department of State, later said several European nations have offered to treat some fighters, and the number of those who could come to this country has not been determined.
The fighters were brought to the country following a request to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her trip to the Libyan capital of Tripoli last week, Ward said shortly before their flight landed at Boston's Logan International Airport in the midst of a wintry storm.
"The United States was very proud to help the Libyan people in eight months of struggle against Qaddafi and his regime," Ward said. "We know the struggle will now continue as they rebuild their country and, in particular, we wanted to help with some of the war wounded, some of those brave, young men that fought the regime's forces and brought it to its knees."
"Libya's new freedom has come at a price in human life and suffering. Just as the United States and the international community stood with the Libyan people during the revolution, we continue to work with them now to address urgent needs," Ward said.
The wounded fighters will be treated at the Spaulding Hospital for Continuing Medical Care North Shore in Salem, Mass., a long-term care facility.
An internationally established fund used by Libya's transitional government says it will pay the fighters' hospital bills.
The fighters were met at the airport by Ward and Ali Aujali, Libya's ambassador to the U.S. The combatants did not speak to reporters. Firefighters stationed at the airport, Massachusetts state troopers and Emergency Medical Services technicians immediately helped them get into ambulances that were waiting on the tarmac in the freezing rain.
Still, Ward said the former rebel fighters had mixed reaction on arrival in the United States.
"We were just on the plane with them ... they look very excited, but also a little bit apprehensive," Ward said. "Many of them have never been on an airplane before, this is a new country, it's very cold for them. ... Tripoli was warm when they left 13 hours ago, so this is going to be quite an experience for them, but also for the wonderful staff at Spaulding Hospital."