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Marines Rescue U.S. Pilot Downed by Serbs in Bosnia : Balkans: Airman whose F-16 was shot out of sky last week is found near Bihac and taken to an American ship. Congress remains wary of President's plans.

June 08, 1995|ART PINE and DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ZAGREB, Croatia — U.S. Marines launched a daring search and rescue mission early today into northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina, finding a downed American F-16 pilot and transporting him to an aircraft carrier in the Adriatic Sea, NATO officials said.

Fighter pilot Capt. Scott O'Grady, 29, of Spokane, Wash., was found at 6:45 a.m. by a specialized U.S. Marine Corps team in a remote area southwest of Bihac, not far from where his F-16 plane was shot down by Bosnian Serb forces on Friday, the officials said.

"I am told he is well, he has a six-day beard and a small burn on the back of his neck, but otherwise he's in fine condition," Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said early today.

The rescue mission, which also involved overhead NATO air support, began about three hours after search teams received a radio transmission from O'Grady at 2:30 a.m., Lt. Cmdr. Mike Considine, a NATO official in Naples, Italy, said. NATO had been receiving electronic beeper signals from the area for several days, but the radio transmission was the first voice contact with the Air Force pilot since he was shot down.

O'Grady had been patrolling the "no-fly" zone over Bihac, one of six U.N. protected "safe areas," when his jet was downed.

The rescued pilot, a member of the 555th Fighter Squadron based at Aviano air base in northern Italy, was taken by helicopter to the amphibious assault ship Kearsage, which had been positioned off the coast of the former Yugoslav federation as part of the recent U.S. troop buildup in the region, Considine said.

"I think we have pulled off a very, very complex exercise and operation," said NATO Adm. Leighton Smith in a telephone interview on Cable News Network. "I am just delighted."

In Washington, President Clinton hailed the rescue early today, saying in a statement released by the White House: "All Americans rejoice with me at the successful rescue . . . after days of uncertainty and anguish."

"Captain O'Grady's bravery and skill are an inspiration," Clinton said. "So are the bravery and skill of those who took part in the operation to rescue him. They are all American heroes."

On Wednesday, the Clinton Administration sought to allay concern in Congress over its Bosnia policy, but many lawmakers remained firmly opposed to Clinton's plan to consider using American ground troops to help rescue United Nations forces.

In hearings before Senate and House committees, Defense Secretary William J. Perry said American troops would be used only to cover a full withdrawal of U.N. forces or to rescue U.N. peacekeepers whose lives were at risk. He called the latter prospect "extremely unlikely."

But at the same time, Perry admitted that Clinton's pledge last week to send in U.S. troops to help rescue peacekeepers who may be in danger amounted to "an expansion" of previous U.S. policy.

He warned that if Washington did not act and U.N. troops were forced to pull out of Bosnia, the Balkan combat could spread "beyond Bosnia" and ultimately "threaten our vital national interests."

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House National Security Committee, which held separate sessions, appeared unconvinced, with many calling instead for withdrawal of U.N. troops and an end to the U.N. arms embargo against Bosnia, which critics say penalizes the Muslim-led Bosnian government, not the generally better-armed Bosnian Serbs.

"I remain deeply concerned about the path the Administration appears to be taking in Bosnia," Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate panel said. "The best way to meet our obligation to our allies is to cover the withdrawal of their U.N. troops."

Later, after the House hearings, Perry and Shalikashvili, left for Brussels, where they are to take part in a meeting of NATO defense ministers called in part to help hammer out more details of what the West will do militarily to help contain the fighting in Bosnia.

In the Balkans on Wednesday, at least 108 U.N. peacekeepers were released from captivity as intense fighting resumed in and around Sarajevo.

Sniper fire and fierce battles in and around the Bosnian capital killed three people and injured at least 19 others. One man was killed by a sniper's bullet as he lay in a hospital bed recuperating from mortar blast wounds.

U.N. officials said it was the worst fighting since two air strikes by North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces last month against a Bosnian Serb ammunition dump near Sarajevo sparked heavy shelling of the city and the Bosnian Serbs' taking of the U.N. hostages.

As for the 100 or so hostage-peacekeepers reported freed early Wednesday, they were ushered across the border in blue and white buses from Bosnian Serb territory to the Serbian town of Novi Sad. From there, they were to be taken to Belgrade, the Serbian and Yugoslav capital, then flown to Zagreb, the Croatian capital and headquarters of the U.N. Protection Force.

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