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Marines rescue downed U.S. pilot

SARAJEVO, June 8 -- U.S. Marines flew into Bosnia-Herzegovina at daybreak Thursday and rescued a fighter pilot who was shot down last week and evaded capture by Bosnian Serb forces for five days. A Marine Corps search and rescue team flew into Bosnia in two helicopters, with NATO warplanes giving air cover, to pick up Air Force Capt. Scott Francis O'Grady in western Bosnia, not far from the town of Bihac, three hours after he made radio contact with a NATO air patrol. As the two U.S. CH-53E Super Stallion transport helicopters approached the area where O'Grady's signal had come from, a pair of Cobra attack helicopters patrolled low over the ground to provide cover. The transport helicopters landed and 40 heavily armed Marines jumped out and secured the area. The F-16 pilot O'Grady, wearing his flight helmet and jacket with a pistol in hand, ran out of the treeline and into their protective arms. O'Grady, 29, was wrapped in a blanket, quickly helped onto one of the helicopters and 'collapsed from relief with a big smile on his face,' Adm. William Owens, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon briefing. About 23 minutes after O'Grady was rescued, Bosnian Serb forces unleashed one or more ground-to-air missiles and machine gun fire at the helicopters. But the barrage whizzed by the aircraft, which flew over Bosnia toward a U.S. Navy ship off former Yugoslavia in the Adriatic Sea. No retaliation shots were known to have been fired from NATO support aircraft, the Pentagon said.

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About five minutes into the 45-mile flight to the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge, O'Grady, tired and hungry, 'wolfed down' a military prepackaged meal, a Marine general at the Pentagon said. The Brooklyn-born O'Grady was said to have suffered only minor burns, and was resting aboard the USS Kearsarge before returning Friday morning to his base in Aviano, Italy, where he will likely receive a hero's welcome. Rescue teams were only on the ground for about 2 1/2 minutes, Owens said, and did not have to fire any shots. The 2 1/2 -hour rescue operation marked the first time U.S. ground forces have been used in the Bosnian crisis. A spokesman at NATO regional headquarters in Italy said the U.S. forces were not involved in fighting and all returned safely to a U.S. ship in the Adriatic. O'Grady, who was codenamed 'Basher 52,' contacted a patrolling NATO plane at 2:08 a.m. local time. Twelve minutes later, he was positively identified by NATO personnel. A search and rescue team was launched at 5:45 a.m. from the USS Kearsarge. 'We immediately began calling forward our SAR (search-and-rescue) forces. We had Marine Corps forces, we had Air Force, we had backup Army forces. We had a lot of people involved,' said Adm. Leighton Smith, the commander of NATO forces in southern Europe. In all, 40 aircraft participated in the emergency rescue mission, the Pentagon said. The force package included EF-111 and EA-6B radar jamming planes to thwart possible surface-to-air missiles, and Harrier attack jets, A-10 Thunderbolt 'Warthogs,' and F-16 jet fighters to provide air cover. The planes made contact with O'Grady about 25 miles from his location. The pilot gave rescuers details on the terrain and a general threat assessment of the area, Owens said. O'Grady had positioned himself at the top of a hill and as rescue teams approached him they could see the yellow smoke from his emergency flare billowing into the air. 'It was a magnificent operation, very well done by all involved,'Smith said. Capt. Jim Mitchell, a NATO spokesman in Italy, said O'Grady was not injured. 'The pilot...managed to evade the Serbs for all this time. He basically managed to stay on his own in the brush,' Mitchell said. Pentagon officials said O'Grady was an exceptional student in military survival training. 'Scott O'Grady, we understand, was a fellow who paid particular attention to his survival training,' Owens said. O'Grady was equipped with a survival kit that included a radio, emergency beacon transmitter, a first aid kit, compass, knife, a small amount of food and water, a blanket, and a handgun. The rugged area near Bihac where O'Grady went down is wooded and hilly -- ideal for ducking and evading enemy forces, said Air Force Col. John Chapman, who is charged with the Air Force's survival training regimen. Chapman called the rescue operation, 'textbook.' At the White House, officials said President Clinton talked with the pilot's family about 1:45 a.m. 'Captain O'Grady's bravery and skill are an inspiration,' Clinton said in a statement. Clinton said that O'Grady told him during a phone call later Thursday that hostile Bosnian Serb troops were near him within 3-5 minutes after he was shot down and landed by parachute in western Bosnia. Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, who spent the bulk of Thursday on Capitol Hill urging legislators to unilaterally lift the international arms embargo on his country, responded to the pilot's rescue by expressing 'great satisfaction.' 'Even that one young pilot in harm's way is one too many,' Siladjzic said. 'In Bosnia, we know how to die for our country. We do not want American, French, British, or any other boys to die. We can do that. The problem is that we do not have the means to defend ourselves,' he said. Since the F-16 jet fighter was shot down while on a regular patrol of northern Bosnia last Friday, Bosnian Serbs have asserted they were holding the pilot and showed an identification card from the aircraft as evidence he was being held. The F-16 was struck by a surface-to-air missile believed fired by Bosnian Serb forces. The fighter was flying at about 21,000 feet when it was hit and broke apart. O'Grady, who lists his home as Spokane, Wash., is assigned to the 555 Fighter Squadron at Aviano. His father, Dr. Bill O'Grady of Alexandria, Va., told Cable News Network he and his family were ecstatic at the news of the pilot's rescue. 'We're just overwhelmed with joy. I got the kids up and we just started yelling. I gotta be careful because I might lose it,' a clearly emotional O'Grady said. The doctor said he'd spoken with his eldest son, who 'was just happy and didn't quite understand that they were making such a big fuss out of (his downing). He was just happy they were able to go in and get him.' Although the family had some doubts as to whether O'Grady had survived, 'We just prayed and remembered the past and we just knew Scott, if he was alive, could make it. The parents were notified of their son's situation by the pilot's wingman who called them from Aviano within 24 hours of Friday's shootdown. The pilot's father told CNN that the episode was the 'worst time in our lives.' His parents said that several of O'Grady's fellow officers had called during their tumultuous week to offer their reasurance. They said that when the pilots would call, they would tell them, ''If anybody can pull this through, Scott can.''

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In all, 40 aircraft participated in the emergency rescue mission, the Pentagon said. The force package included EF-111 and EA-6B radar jamming planes to thwart possible surface-to-air missiles, and Harrier attack jets, A-10 Thunderbolt 'Warthogs,' and F-16 jet fighters to provide air cover. 'It was a magnificent operation, very well done by all involved,' Smith said. Capt. Jim Mitchell, a NATO spokesman in Italy, said O'Grady was not injured. 'The pilot...managed to evade the Serbs for all this time. He basically managed to stay on his own in the brush,' Mitchell said. Pentagon officials said O'Grady was an exceptional student in military survival training. 'Scott O'Grady, we understand, was a fellow who paid particular attention to his survival training,' Owens said. O'Grady was equipped with a survival kit that included a radio, emergency beacon transmitter, a first-aid kit, compass, knife, a small amount of food and water, a blanket and a handgun. The rugged area near Bihac where O'Grady went down is wooded and hilly -- ideal for ducking and evading enemy forces, said Air Force Col. John Chapman, who is charged with the Air Force's survival training regimen. Chapman called the rescue operation 'textbook.' At the White House, officials said President Bill Clinton talked with the pilot's family about 1:45 a.m. 'Capt. O'Grady's bravery and skill are an inspiration,' Clinton said in a statement. After the F-16 jet fighter was shot down while on a regular patrol of northern Bosnia last Friday, Bosnian Serbs have asserted they were holding the pilot and showed an identification card from the aircraft as evidence he was being held. But earlier this week Serb leaders acknowledged they did not have the pilot. The F-16 was struck by a surface-to-air missile believed fired by Bosnian Serb forces. The fighter was flying at about 21,000 feet (6,400 meters) when it was hit and broke apart. O'Grady, who lists his home as Spokane, Washington state, is assigned to the 555 Fighter Squadron at Aviano. His father, Dr. Bill O'Grady of Alexandria, Virginia, said the family was ecstatic when they learned of the pilot's rescue. The doctor said he had spoken with his eldest son by telephone. 'We were just yelling and screaming and damn glad just to hear his voice. And he was so glad to hear from us,' the father said. 'I wanted to make sure he was OK and he was.'

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