THREE wounded Libyan fighters last night thanked the people of the North-East for the vital part they have played in helping them recover from the injuries of war.

Only weeks ago, Khalid Moussa, 30, and Mohammed Ahmed, 28, both from Benghazi, and Jasim Shampy, from Zawya, were in the thick of the fighting to drive out the dwindling forces of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya.

They had given up civilian jobs to help overthrow the dictator, who seized power in a 1969 military coup.

But after they were injured in the uprisings, they were flown to The James Cook University Hospital, in Middlesbrough, for surgery.

They were sent to the UK as part of a mercy mission agreed by the British and Libyan governments.

And last night, speaking for the first time from their hospital beds about their ordeal, they thanked the North-East for its support.

The Libyans are in good spirits, buoyed by the warmth of the welcome they have received and amazed by the number of Libyans living in the region who have visited to wish them well.

Dr Salem Burwaiss, a doctor from The Friarage Hospital in Northallerton, has been on hand to interpret their stories.

Mohammed Ahmed was studying at university until he was drafted as an anti-aircraft gunner on a pick-up truck.

He was badly injured when the truck crashed trying to avoid ambush. Mohammed has fractured his left hip and thigh in a number of places and suffered crush injuries.

He said: “I must thank the British people for their help.

"When I arrived here I found people very supportive, I felt very relaxed. I feel as if I have been cured already.”

He said be believed there was now a bond between the British and Libyan people.

“We will never forget this,” he added.

Mohammed said he had been amazed that many people from different parts of Libya and from different backgrounds had come together so quickly to overthrow Gaddafi.

“We did this for freedom,” he said, with the flag of free Libya draped across the headboard of his bed.

The youngest fighter, Jasim, who was wearing a baseball cap decorated with the pre-Gaddafi flag of the revolutionaries, was in an infantry division when he was hit by debris from a rocket-propelled grenade.

Jasim, who has a fractured pelvis and shrapnel injuries, had kept a sliver of metal removed from his injured body by a Tunisian doctor before he was flown to the UK.

“What we noticed is that everybody here is smiling. We must thank the British people and the British Government for what they have done,” he added.

Khalid was badly injured on the frontline, between Harawa and Sirte, only three weeks ago.

“I was almost ambushed, I only had an old rifle to defend myself,” he said.

Doctors suspect his injuries were also caused by a rocket propelled grenade.

Khalid has a severe injury to his left eye, which will probably need reconstruction work.

He also has severe injuries on the left side of his head.

Before being transferred to the UK, doctors in Tunisia had operated and had removed a heavy calibre machine gun bullet from his shoulder.

But Khalid, who has a reputation as a bit of a joker, was all smiles and insisted on giving a double V for victory sign.

All three fighters will need weeks of care and rehabilitation before returning to Libya.

The South Tees Hospital NHS Foundation Trust said their treatment should not have an adverse effect on treatment for local patients.

The trust said the cost of their treatment will be met by the new Libyan interim government.

Dr Burwaiss, who proudly wore a lapel badge of the revolutionary flag, said he had come to the hospital to do what he could to support the young fighters.

“They are really heroes. They fought for liberty these guys. They are hungry for democracy. They want better lives back home in Libya,” he said.

He said without the support of the UK and France there would have been “a terrible massacre” of rebels in Benghazi.

“We are very grateful to the British Government, not only for receiving some of the casualties, but for their financial and political support,” he added.