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Harrier pilot safe

THE PILOT of a Royal Navy Sea Harrier shot down over Gorazde yesterday was safe and unharmed last night after ejecting from his crashing warplane.

Lieutenant Nick Richardson, a married man in his thirties who lives in Somerset, landed in Muslim-held territory and was later rescued by a Nato helicopter flying out of the Italian port of Brindisi. A Nato spokesman said he had suffered only 'minor scratches'.

Lt Richardson was praised by the commanding officer of HMS Ark Royal, Captain Terry Loughran, for his bravery in the face of heavy fire from Serb troops besieging the Bosnian town. The Harrier was one of a pair from Ark Royal, stationed in the Adriatic, which had been supporting Nato troops on the ground in bad weather conditions which forced them to fly low. They were authorised to attack Serb targets responsible for the bombardment of Gorazde and were zeroing in on a tank position when they came under surface-to-air missile (SAM) fire.

'The tank was in a wood, which made it a difficult target,' said Captain Loughran, speaking from Ark Royal. 'They were on a further manoeuvre to identify it, which they did, when the wing man heard a SAM fired at him. He didn't get any warning until it shot by him and he saw the plume of smoke. They both fired flares to distract any further fire.

'As the Unprofor ground controllers were speaking to them and directing them to where the fire was coming from they could actually hear them coming under fire. By any yardstick this was a pretty brave act.'

They made a second run at the target and this time Lt Richardson's plane was hit. 'His tail burst into flames and he ejected,' said Capt Loughran. The second aircraft, flown by Lieutenant Oz Philips, peeled away, watching his comrade drifting to earth. Neither aircraft managed to drop any bombs. Capt Loughran said Lt Richardson had phoned home from the ground in Bosnia.

The whole incident was watched from the ground by a doctor in Gorazde hospital, who described it live on Sarajevo radio: 'They have just hit a Nato plane . . . flames . . . the plane is falling, the Chetniks (Serbs) are shooting.'

The Bosnian Serb army command confirmed last night that its soldiers had fired on Nato jets. 'The command said it had no concrete data about the results of the anti-aircraft action', the Tanjug news agency said.

The Sea Harrier was the first British combat aircraft to be shot down since the Gulf war in 1991, when seven planes were lost. In the Falklands war of 1982, Britain lost 10 aircraft.

It was also the first Nato aircraft downed in the Bosnian conflict. Nato officers had said a French Etendard reconnaissance aircraft was hit on Friday over Gorazde by ground fire, but it returned safely with minor damage to the aircraft carrier Clemenceau in the Adriatic.

Ark Royal spent seven months in the Adriatic last year and her Harriers have been providing close air support since July. The vessel was relieved by HMS Invincible last August but returned to the region in January.

(Photograph omitted)