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.
But the arrival of the British, French, Ukrainian and Spanish detainees in Croatia was put off several times, and by early evening U.N. officials were predicting that the troops' return would be delayed until early today.
U.N. sources said the peacekeepers were being held up because the Bosnian Serbs were about to release more of the approximately 150 soldiers still being detained.
Serbian state security chief Jovica Stanisic said Wednesday night that three U.N. military officers held hostage--one each from France, Spain and Brazil--would be flown by helicopter to Belgrade to join the other released soldiers.
Earlier in the day, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic said the remaining hostages would be let go in the next few days, while the Serbian news agency BETA, which has accurately predicted other hostage developments, quoted Bosnian Serb sources as saying that as many as 50 more soldiers would soon be released.
"They are in good spirits, considering the very long journey they had," Ivor Roberts, the British charge d'affaires, told reporters after visiting the freed soldiers in Novi Sad. "They were extremely tired and extremely hungry. . . . They lived on very humble rations, soup and bread without any meat."
Manuel Cortes Mendez, a Spanish military observer who was among the released hostages, said he was kept as a human shield in a mobile armored command post on the tarmac at the Banja Luka airport in north-central Bosnia. "It was so hot inside the armored vehicle that I prayed for rain to fall," he told reporters in Novi Sad. "And luckily, it rained quite often. . . . "
In Washington, Wednesday's full day of hearings followed a week of seemingly conflicting statements by Administration officials, with top officials from the President on down voicing explanations of the new White House policy that were retracted only a few hours after they were made.
The major point of confusion came when Clinton, in a speech May 31, said U.S. ground troops might be used "temporarily" to help consolidate U.N. peacekeeping forces by moving them to more easily defensible areas such as Sarajevo--a significant expansion from previous policy.
White House, State Department and Pentagon officials spent a week explaining, clarifying and retreating from the position taken in the speech but apparently failed to clear up the controversy.
As late as Tuesday evening, the Pentagon asserted that a troop deployment it had announced on Monday was now being reviewed.
In an obvious effort at damage control, Perry conceded to the lawmakers Wednesday that "it is an expansion--I do admit it," but insisted that "it is not a part, as has been suggested [of] a routine reconfiguration or repositioning.
"We're only considering [the use of U.S. troops short of participation in a full-scale withdrawal of U.N. forces] in the event of an emergency," he said, ". . . if one of our allies needs our help." He also said there were no plans to have U.S. troops rescue hostages.
Perry and Shalikashvili also sought to cover systematically all the major issues that lawmakers raised.
Under questioning from lawmakers, Perry said the "only situation" in which U.S. troops might be sent in, short of having to cover a full withdrawal of all U.N. forces, would be a "true emergency," in which peacekeeping troops were under attack and had asked NATO for help.
But he insisted that such a prospect was not likely, and noted that it would take a substantial period of time for NATO officials to give their approval for such a rescue operation.
The Administration was not entirely bereft of supporters at Wednesday's hearings. Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, ranking Democrat on the panel, noted that Washington had played a major role in setting U.N. policy in Bosnia, and bears "some responsibility" for what has happened there.
The developments came as, separately, Russia said it will not oppose the deployment of a Western rapid-reaction force to Bosnia provided the move is solely to bolster U.N. peacekeeping forces there and does not alter their present mandate.
Pine reported from Washington and Brussels and Murphy from Zagreb. Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Moscow also contributed to this report.
* WAR POWERS ACT SURVIVES: House GOP failed to repeal curb on President's power. A4