FOR six days, US officials were confused and anguished over the fate of Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady. Bosnian Serbs claimed they had captured the pilot after shooting down his F-16 fighter jet with a missile on June 2.
But NATO searchers kept looking for him, spurred by intermittent signals from his rescue beacon.
In the predawn hours yesterday, all finally became clear. United States planes flying over Serb-controlled northwestern Bosnia heard Captain O'Grady's beacon, followed by his voice calling for help on his survival-kit radio. Several hours later, a US Marine helicopter swooped in and plucked the hungry but smiling flyer from a forest clearing.
So ended the most dramatic incident involving a US serviceman in the Bosnian war. It slightly eases the West's concerns over the crisis provoked by the Bosnian Serb seizure of UN troops following NATO airstrikes.
The incident gave the US public a tiny taste of the risks that full-scale US military involvement in the former Yugoslav republic would bring and provided grist for political opponents of President Clinton's handling of the Bosnian imbroglio.
But the implications of O'Grady's ordeal were quickly eclipsed by the celebration and awe that greeted the Spokane, Wash., native's stunning achievement in evading Bosnian Serb troops for six days and his recovery by an elite Marine unit that evaded Bosnian Serb small-arms and missile fire. "Captain O'Grady's bravery and skill are an inspiration. So are the bravery and skill of those who took part in the operation to rescue him," President Clinton said in a statement.
UN officials in Sarajevo also marveled over O'Grady's ability to elude capture, saying the Bosnian Serbs have the ability to pick up and trace the signals emitted by his rescue beacon and radio. "I assume he felt they were onto him and thought 'I'll move away from them and use my radio when it's safe,' " says Lt. Col. Gary Coward, the chief UN military spokesman.
Some officials were pessimistic that the 29-year-old pilot had survived. The other pilot did not see him eject before his aircraft plunged into clouds and Bosnian Serb sources began putting out the word that he had been captured. NATO aircraft launched a massive search operation, during which they picked up occasional signals from O'Grady's small locator beacon, but nothing more.
Shortly before 2:30 a.m. yesterday, NATO planes flying near Bosanski Petrovac, a Bosnian Serb-held town near the besieged Muslim enclave of Bihac, again detected O'Grady's signals. This time, however, a pilot from O'Grady's unit based in Aviano, Italy, heard his comrade calling for help on his radio.
NATO then launched a massive recovery operation, dispatching a helicopter carrying a special Marine hostage rescue team from the USS Kearsarge, an assault ship positioned in the Adriatic. The helicopter was accompanied by 40 other aircraft, including Cobra helicopter gunships, fighter jets, and AWACS radar planes.
"We had the whole shooting match up there," Adm. Leighton Smith, commander of NATO forces in southern Europe, told a news conference.
After an 85-mile flight, the rescue helicopter set down in a clearing. O'Grady ran from the nearby woods, and was hauled aboard by Col. Martin Berndt. "It won't be very soon that I'll forget the look on his face as he approached the helicopter," Colonel Berndt later told NBC TV. He said O'Grady drank water and then tore into a package of military rations.
As the aircraft took off, Serb troops loosed small arms fire. A Marine machine gunner aboard the helicopter responded, silencing the incoming fire, US officials said. The Bosnian Serbs also fired one or more surface-to-air missiles, but missed.
O'Grady was taken back to the Kearsarge, where he was reported in good condition. He was to return today to his base in Aviano. Clinton was informed of the rescue by his national security adviser, Anthony Lake, officials said. The president called O'Grady's parents as soon as he was safely aboard the Kearsarge.
US Vice Chief of Staff Adm. William Owens told a Pentagon news conference that the US has flown 69,000 missions over Bosnia as part of NATO. O'Grady was the second US pilot to have been shot down by the Bosnian Serbs. The first was a Marine whose Harrier jet was hit in the spring of 1994. That pilot was rescued.