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Stealth Pilot OK, NATO Mission Intensifies

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 28, 1999 – The American Stealth fighter pilot shot down over Yugoslavia is in good shape and in safe hands, NATO officials announced March 28.

He is "actively engaged in working through the events of last night and otherwise continuing his military duties," said SHAPE spokesman British Royal Air Force Air Commodore David Wilby. Wilby, along with NATO spokesman Jamie Shea, addressed reporters in Brussels the morning after the March 27 crash, but provided no further details on why the F-117 Stealth fighter went down.

A U.S. search and rescue team picked up the pilot several hours after the F-117 went down outside Belgrade. Shortly after the rescue, the White House released a statement saying President Clinton was pleased that the pilot was safe. "I'm tremendously proud of the skill and bravery of the pilot and of the courageous individuals who participated in this operation," the president said.

Wilby noted that the "complex, courageous and extremely professionally-orchestrated rescue serves as a wonderful example of our united capabilities. To effect such a swift rescue, deep in hostile territory, was something of which we are all justly proud."

In the opening phase of Allied Force, aimed primarily at Yugoslavia's integrated air defense system, NATO air forces conducted more than 400 sorties. During the first two night attacks, allied troops in the air and at sea struck 90 targets throughout Yugoslavia and in Kosovo. On day three, a 2,000-pound, sea-launched cruise missile struck Yugoslavia during daylight, and NATO aircraft flew 249 sorties throughout the night, attacking military targets in Belgrade suburbs and elsewhere.

More than 60 allied planes flew more than 250 sorties the fourth night. Wilby confirmed that, despite Yugoslav claims to the contrary, no other NATO aircraft or crews have been lost since the strikes first began March 24. NATO forces, on the other hand, have shot down a total of five aircraft, a third of Yugoslavia's "top of the line fighters," according to Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon.

Two U.S. F-15s shot down two MiG-29s and a Dutch F-16 shot down a third over Yugoslavia March 24, during the first wave of air attacks aimed at ending the Kosovo crisis. Two U.S. F-15C fighters shot down two MiG-29s over Bosnia at about 11:35 EST, March 26. NATO AWACs detected the Yugoslav fighters heading into Bosnia and U.S. aircraft patrolling as part of Operation Deny Flight shot down the intruders about five miles inside Bosnia. The fate of the MiG pilots was unknown.

The Yugoslav flights over Bosnia represented a serious challenge, Bacon said. "We don't know why they were flying into Bosnia," he said. "We can only speculate at this stage. One possible reason could be to attack SFOR forces in Bosnia." Although MiG fighters are primarily intended for air-to-air combat, he said, they do have a ground attack role. "We don't know what ordnance they were carrying. When we learn that, we may be able to deduce more about their mission."

American troops in Bosnia have taken measures to improve security in light of the on-going NATO air campaign, Bacon said. "Our troops have now returned to wearing body armor all the time," he said. "We have been aware for some time of the possibility that our troops might be attacked."

The day after the Stealth crash, Wilby repeat that NATO forces are dealing with strong Yugoslav air defense system. "Some people talk of a 'David and Goliath' fight," he said. "I can assure you it's not that case. We are up against a very hostile, very well trained, sophisticated environment. We have, however, done much to degrade the system."

In the coming days, Wilby said, NATO will take advantage of its high-tech equipment and every other means available "to make sure that when we go in for an attack it is as safe as possible for our air crews." Adverse weather forecast for the next few days will not disrupt NATO air strikes, Wilby added. "We are well prepared to attack in bad weather," he said. "We have contingency plans. Please don't think that bad weather is going to be President Milosevic's friend."

Poor weather conditions did force some NATO aircraft to return to base March 26 without launching munitions, however. The next morning, Shea explained that NATO pilots will abort their mission, if necessary, to avoid endangering innocent civilians. "If bad weather means the pilots cannot be certain of hitting the target with accuracy, thereby avoiding collateral damage, then the pilots are instructed not even to attempt to do so," he said.

Following the Stealth crash, both spokesmen stressed that the NATO's resolve and determination to end the Kosovo crisis remains high. NATO authorities are intensifying the mission as human distress and hardship within Kosovo escalates. British officials have announced they will add more aircraft to the NATO air campaign. Details on Britain's contribution and that of any other allied nations would be availablethe next day, Wilby said.

The alliance is adapting "extremely well" to the changing situation on the ground, Wilby noted. "There are tremendous contingency plans going on, a tremendous amount of innovative thought," he said. "We will use all the technology and the experience at our hands to make sure we adapt well to the situation that we find ourselves in."

The air campaign is now moving into its second phase, aimed at cracking down on the Yugoslav tanks, artillery, and units in the field responsible for the suffering, Shea said. "They will feel the heat as quickly as we can apply it to them, believe me."

The NATO spokesman said the situation in Kosovo is now one of "organized anarchy," and human disaster is imminent. NATO initiated air strikes when it did, he said, because the they saw this 'scorched earth' policy getting underway."

Instead of attacking Kosovo Liberation Army elements, Serb forces are now systematically burning villages, looting property, separating families and committing "wanton acts of killing," Shea said. The "truly horrible" situation now unfolding, Shea said resembles the mass ethnic cleansing that occurred in Bosnia in 1992.

NATO strikes did not cause this systematic, pre-planned violence, Shea repeatedly stressed. It began even as peace talks were underway in France, and "has been rising up to a crescendo ever since." There is now a race against time to save as many lives as possible, Shea admitted. He strongly advised Yugoslav commanders and others involved in the offensive military action to take heed. Eventually, they would be held accountable; they will not be able to escape with impunity.

Nearly a half million people are reported to have been displaced by the Kosovo violence. International news sources note that refugees now leaving Kosovo are mainly women and children. The whereabouts of Kosovar Albanian men is unknown.

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