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Recuse of Downed Pilot Gives Allies Momentum

By Paul Richter and Art Pine
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

America rejoiced Thursday at the rescue of a downed F-16 pilot from a rebel Serb-encircled hillside in Bosnia-Herzegovina as Western defense ministers gave the allied effort in the Balkans war new momentum by endorsing the creation of a multinational rapid-reaction force to protect embattled U.N. peacekeepers.

Capt. Scott F. O'Grady was hailed by President Clinton as "a true American hero," after a 40-aircraft mission eluded Bosnian Serb fire to rescue O'Grady from the fogbound forest near where his F-16 was shot down six days earlier.

Military aides described how O'Grady, 29, hid by day and traveled by night through the wind-swept forest, trying to contact NATO forces and subsisting on a diet of rations, insects and grass.

His plane, on a NATO patrol over a "no-fly" zone, was brought down by a Bosnian Serb-fired SAM-6 missile last week after earlier allied air strikes on the rebel Serb-controlled city of Pale raised tensions in the region.

After six days of trying to read sometimes-hopeful, sometimes-discouraging signs of his fate, family members and military colleagues exulted when they learned that he was safe.

"We are so grateful and so thankful," said an emotional Mary Lou Scardapone, his mother, after she and other family members spoke by telephone to the pilot, who was aboard the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, where he was being treated for hypothermia, exposure and a burn.

For the White House, lately besieged by attacks on its Bosnia policy, O'Grady's rescue was a tonic. His return laid to rest Clinton's private fears that the pilot was captured by Bosnian Serb forces, held hostage and would be paraded before television cameras in the kind of political drama that helped undo Jimmy Carter's presidency.

In other developments Thursday:

-NATO defense ministers formally endorsed a British-French plan for a 10,000-member force capable of protecting United Nations peacekeepers from military threat.

-The U.S. House of Representatives voted for a unilateral lifting of the arms embargo on Bosnia, amid continued sharp congressional criticism of the administration policy on the 3-year-old civil war. Embargo opponents have long argued that it most penalizes the Muslim-led Bosnian government and aids Bosnian Serbs, who, generally, have been better armed.

-Sniper and artillery fire rocked Sarajevo for the second consecutive day, as officials of several humanitarian relief groups met with leaders of the Bosnian Serb military forces in their Pale headquarters to discuss opening aid routes.

A newly released opinion poll had suggested that Clinton's job-approval rating was again in decline, after last week's publicity about his apparent intentions - quickly denied - to broaden the potential use of U.S. ground troops in Bosnia.

Referring to Clinton as "the commander in chief," White House aides talked about bringing the rescued pilot to Washington for a welcome-home ceremony to try to catch a little reflected glory.

Those plans remained uncertain, however.

The White House scorned earlier claims by the Bosnian Serbs that they had been holding O'Grady. Those claims were "consistent with the outrageous behavior we have seen from the Serbs throughout the Bosnian conflict," said McCurry, adding that they were "obviously lying."

Although he shared some of the credit for the wildly successful rescue operation, the mission did not win Clinton any relief from congressional criticism of his Bosnian policy.

The House decision to lift the arms embargo against Bosnia came on a 318-99 vote on an amendment to a bill that would cut foreign aid and reorganize the State Department.

The administration has disregarded other, non-binding votes on raising the embargo, but its sponsors contended that this measure would be binding if it is also approved by the Senate.

Opponents have long argued that lifting the embargo would step up the fighting and force the administration to deliver on a promise to send in 25,000 troops to assist in a U.N. pullout from Bosnia.