U.S. efforts to find and rescue a downed Air Force pilot in Bosnia were hampered Saturday by stormy weather and conflicting reports on whether he parachuted to safety.
U.N. officials said they had been told by the Bosnian Serbs that the F-16C pilot, whose identity has been withheld, was in their custody. “I hope he’ll be released,” said Japan’s Yasushi Akashi, the top U.N. envoy in the region.
But Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had no knowledge of the pilot’s fate and gave a grim assessment on whether he might have survived.
Shalikashvili said two radar-guided missiles were fired Friday morning at two F-16s on routine patrol south of the northern Bosnian Serb stronghold of Banja Luka.
The first missile detonated harmlessly between the two aircraft but “the second missile hit the underbelly of the wingman’s aircraft,” he said. Following the hit, “We believe we heard a transmission, a short transmission, from what could have been the emergency beacon” activated by the ejection of the pilot, “but we’re not sure of that,” the general said.
Pentagon officials also said they could not determine the pilot’s fate from wreckage of the plane shown by Bosnian Serb TV, since the cockpit was not visible.
If the pilot survived, Bosnian Serb leaders cast doubt on prospects for his quick release, along with more than 200 U.N. troops being held.
“We are not going to release hostages if the option of using force, air strikes precisely, is not abandoned,” said Bosnian Serb political advisor Jovan Zametica.
The F-16C downing and the U.S. role in Bosnia were expected to come under heavy criticism in congressional hearings next week.
Congressional sources said that launchers for SA-6 missiles, of the type which brought down the F-16C, were spotted last year and the United States pressed to eliminate them with airstrikes. The U.S. request through NATO was denied by U.N. ground commanders, the sources said.