The Bosnian Serbs shot down a U.S. F-16 fighter plane flying a NATO mission over northern Bosnia on Friday, drawing the United States more directly into the Bosnian conflict.
Only two days after President Clinton said he would consider sending ground forces into Bosnia in a limited role to help United Nations peacekeepers regroup, a missile fired in Serb-controlled territory on Friday knocked the NATO jet out of the sky.
NATO Commander Adm. Leighton Smith said Friday night that he had unconfirmed information that the single pilot of the F-16 was picked up by the Bosnian Serb army, which has promised to “guarantee his safety.”
“If they’ve got him, I want him back,” Smith told CNN from Naples, Italy. “I would hope they would understand he was flying a mission. He was not doing anybody any harm.”
Later Friday, tensions did slightly abate when Bosnian Serbs released at least 120 of 377 U.N. peacekeeper hostages. They were taken early today to the town of Mali Zvornik in Serbia and were headed to Novi Sad, 30 miles north of Belgrade, said Serbia’s chief of state security, Jovica Stanisic.
The former hostages were to be handed over to their respective governments in Belgrade today, Stanisic said. Serbia said 120 were released; Bosnia’s Serbs said 126 were freed.
Earlier, sources had said the U.N. personnel would be taken to Zagreb, Croatia, the regional center of peacekeeping operations. It was not clear why the plan had changed.
The F-16 was downed at 1 p.m. while monitoring the NATO ban on flights over Bosnia. From a support aircraft, another pilot watched a missile hit and the plane dive below the clouds. The weather conditions made it impossible to tell whether the pilot was able to land the plane or ejected and parachuted to safety, or crashed to his death.
NATO officials said an extensive search was continuing past nightfall for the pilot. The location was about 10 miles south of Banja Luka, a Serbian stronghold 90 miles northwest of Sarajevo renowned for some of the most brutal ethnic cleansing and fanatical nationalism in the Bosnian war.
“We are owners of that sky,” the Bosnian Serbs’ fiery leader, Radovan Karadzic, declared Friday night in an interview with Serb-controlled television in Pale, the Bosnian Serbs’ capital. He did not confirm, however, that his forces attacked the plane or even that it had been shot down.
American military have been virtually prohibited from setting foot in Bosnia, for fear they could be killed and ratchet up calls for American involvement, a U.S. military intelligence officer said Friday. The United States has an extremely limited presence here, committing troops only through NATO, but has resolutely stayed out of the far larger U.N. peacekeeping mission.
While White House press spokesman Mike McCurry on Friday deplored the downing of the plane as the act of “outcasts and international pariahs,” President Clinton was cautious in a brief statement.
“I want to reiterate and make absolutely clear that our policy on Bosnia remains firm,” Clinton told reporters in Washington.
The downing of a U.S. fighter jet couldn’t have come at a worse time for Clinton. In recent days, he has faced a chorus of anxious opposition from Congress and questions from critics who say he has failed to explain why American lives should be put on the line in Bosnia.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said U.S. troops should go to Bosnia only if peacekeepers suffer heavy casualties. He called on Clinton to consult with Congress before doing anything that would risk American lives.
Former Secretary of State James Baker said that the peacekeeping mission had failed and that Clinton’s consideration of sending troops to Bosnia could get the United States sucked into a ground war.
Neil Newhouse, a Republican political consultant, said, “I don’t think the White House fully understands that if American soldiers are put in harm’s way, it puts President Clinton’s foreign policy and political standing in harm’s way as well.”
NATO has been monitoring a nofly zone over Bosnia since April 1993, as well as conducting periodic airstrikes to enforce U.N. resolutions. NATO planes have frequently been targeted and hit by anti-aircraft fire and ground-to-air missiles.
In April 1994, shortly after the first airstrikes to protect the Bosnian safe haven of Gorazde, Serbian forces shot down a British Harrier. The pilot ejected and was recovered without serious injury.
After another set of airstrikes in November, the Serbs installed Soviet-made SAM-6 missiles around the Sarajevo airport and also in northern Bosnia. NATO requested permission to destroy those missile sites. But the U.N. ground commander at the time, Michael Rose, refused, saying it would only aggravate the Serbs and lead them to take U.N. personnel hostage.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WASHINGTON RESCUERS The shootdown of an Air Force F-16 fighter by Bosnian Serbs Friday has brought a Navy squadron based in Whidbey Island, Wash., to the brink of combat. Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 141, which operates four radar-jamming EA-6B Prowlers, is operating aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Adriatic. The electronic warfare squadron was likely involved in efforts Friday to rescue an American pilot shot down by a Bosnian Serb missile. Whidbey Island-based EA-6B units have been part of the NATO aerial presence over Bosnia for the past three years. - Seattle Post-Intelligencer