'Improbable Rambo' survived on insects

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in Split

A shot-down US pilot who evaded Bosnian Serb forces for six days, surviving on berries, grass, insects and rainwater, was recovering on board an American ship in the Adriatic last night. His exploits - and daring helicopter rescue by US marines, who exchanged fire with Bosnian Serb forces on the ground - were described by President Bill Clinton as "an inspiration to all of us".

Meanwhile, in Brussels, Nato defence ministers warned that unless the Bosnian Serbs allowed the UN to fulfil its humanitarian mission, UN troops would be pulled out in the autumn. Such a withdrawal would be accompanied by a lifting of the embargo on arms sales to the Bosnian government, which could tip the scales of the conflict against the Serbs. In a non-binding 318 to 99 vote yesterday, the US House of Representatives backed a unilateral lifting of the embargo.

Captain Scott O'Grady, whose F-16 was shot down over northern Bosnia last Friday, had been privately given up for dead by the US military. But after hiding in woodland near the crash site and moving by night to evade capture, he contacted a patrolling US aircraft with a battery-powered radio in the early hours of yesterday morning.

The assault ship USS Kearsarge, cruising in the Adriatic, sent four helicopters, backed by fighters and electronic warfare planes, on a rescue mission. Minutes after two of the helicopters landed in a small woodland clearing 30 miles south-east of Bihac, the pilot came running out of the darkness, clutching a pistol. As the US marine helicopters pulled away, local Bosnian Serbs opened fire with machine guns and a surface-to-air missile. The helicopters were slightly damaged but returned safely to the Kearsarge.

Capt O'Grady, described by his overjoyed family in Spokane, Washington, as an "improbable Rambo", was dehydrated, suffering slight exposure, tired and hungry. He had a burn on the back of his neck sustained when he ejected from his cockpit, but was last night described as in "reasonable health". President Clinton telephoned his parents yesterday morning to tell them of his safe recovery.

Capt O'Grady, 29, had been flying one of two single-seat US F-16C fighters policing the no-fly zone last Friday when his plane was hit by a SA-6 surface-to-air missile. His companion saw the plane blown in two but did not see him eject.

On landing, Capt O'Grady moved far enough from the wreck of the F-16C to evade Serb searches but stayed close enough - less than six miles, according to Nato sources - to give the searching US planes a good chance of finding him.

Bosnian Serb leaders agreed last night to reopen land routes to supply humanitarian aid to Sarajevo, UN officials said. France, meanwhile, sent six heavy mortar tubes and 60 additional soldiers to reinforce peace-keepers deployed in the demilitarised zone on Mount Igman, west of Sarajevo, where vehicles heading for the city have come under Serb gunfire.