Assault on the Serbs: Into a peasant village, falls a hi-tech enemy Serbs dance on the grave of downed US jet When the jet crashed 'all of Europe was lit by fire'

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The Independent Online
IT FELL from the sky like a meteor, this piece of 21st- century state-of-the-art technology, an invisible jet from New Mexico crashing into the carefully ploughed fields of a quiet village whose peasants pray in a delicate, domed, Baroque church and keep armies of pigeons in their cottage roofs.

Even the grey-bearded priest stood in his cassock among the bronzed-skinned villagers as they took out big, sharp-bladed agricultural knives and hacked at the midnight-black wing with its US markings and 12 bullet holes.

So, yesterday morning, while Nato spokesmen were trying to explain the loss of an F-117A Stealth Nighthawk fighter-bomber over Yugoslavia, the people of Budjanovci, 25 miles north-west of Belgrade, were stuffing pieces of wing-tip and dark-plastic fabric into the drawers of old wooden cupboards. Children danced on the wing as parents took snapshots for posterity.

For all time - in this cold, damp corner of the Vojvodina plain - the village of Budjanovci will be The Place Where The Plane Fell Out Of The Sky.

Old Milica Lalosevic will never forget it, and she told her story yesterday with the kind of passion that revealed a lot about her ancient village and about war. "Every night, we in our family hear the bombings," she told me. "When we see and hear the doors slamming and the walls moving, we get dressed. But last night we heard a plane that seemed to be turning in the sky above us.

"I wanted to open the door and go out but my husband Gavra told me not to."

Mrs Lalosevic opened her arms in front of her. "There was such a fire," she said. "When we left the yard, the plane was on fire on the ground. The whole of Europe was lit up by the fire. If a needle was on the grass, we would have found it."

The American fighter was easy to find. It burned, according to the Yugoslav air defence men, for hours - first exploding on the ground, then bursting once more into flames as its fuel ignited.

No one could explain how the pilot had escaped, although a peasant from a village 11 miles away said military equipment had been found nearby and helicopter rotor blades had been heard early in the morning. The rescue had come swiftly. It may have come from United States forces just across the border in Bosnia. However it was accomplished, the pilot is safely back at his base in Aviano.

But this did not spoil the Serb enthusiasm for their victory. All day, Belgrade radio and television were trumpeting the plane's loss - and yesterday was Serbian National Day, anniversary of the new constitution of Serbia created after the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina was rescinded, the very act which arguably began the whole terrible tragedy of the Kosovo- Serbia war.

Was it true, one of the peasants asked me, that this great plane cost $45m? If it had cost $450, his surprise would have been the same.

One old man, his white hair blowing wildly in the wind, his mouth containing only a few worn teeth, kept rubbing a sliver of steel against his coat and looking at it as if a genie would emerge from its bright, buffed exterior. Another peasant rubbed a cloth on the American star insignia, as if trying to erase its nationality.

Behind him, the village men were still carving up the wing, hacking and slashing at the dark material as if it were a piece of the True Cross, something to be brought out over the years to show what Serbia could do in its battle against overwhelming odds.

Yugoslav officials were not slow to discover its origins. Even there in the cold fields, one told me the jet's history.

It was, he said, part of a US Air Combat Command F-117A unit which belonged to the 450th Tactical Group - now the 49th Fighter Wing - at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, a fighter flown to Europe in October, now from the Nato base at Aviano. One could only be stunned by the detail. But how was it brought down? The burned fuselage lay behind a hedgerow a quarter of a mile from the village road, guarded by militiamen. The wing nearest the road had been punctured by 12 bullets, all of large calibre and apparently all penetrating the wing from above.

Either a Serb MiG had caught the Stealth above Budjanovci or anti-aircraft fire had hit the aircraft as it turned over the village, its wings visible as it banked - the only moment the plane becomes vulnerable as radar breaks through the paint on its wings.

More villagers arrived on tractors, some with rakes on their backs. An old, toothless woman emerged from a farmhouse carrying a broom made of straw. Pigeons fluttered over the fields. A farmer began to explain to us how simple it was to produce paint which makes things invisible. "I know about these things because I used to be a mechanic."

In these old Habsburg lands, nothing - not even the sudden, fiery arrival of Nato's most powerful jet - is a mystery.

Many of these men and women remembered the Second World War - there is a carefully polished memorial to the 1941-45 Partisan dead opposite Budjanovci's blue-and-white church - and recalled how villagers had hidden crashed American pilots from the Nazis until the Serbs could smuggle them across Yugoslavia to the Adriatic and freedom.

It was an odd reflection on history that the latest American pilot to land in Yugoslavia should have to be smuggled out by his own people as his former allies hunted for him in the damp fields of the Vojvodina.

It took just an hour to drive over the railway crossing and back down Tito's "Highway of Brotherhood and Unity" to Belgrade with an escort of Yugoslav army officers.

They were silent as we drove towards the Danube, passing the sealed gates of the US embassy. But I couldn't help noticing the graffiti on the American mission: a series of black swastikas painted on the locked doors.