Nato fighter shot down by Serb missile

Hopes raised for release of hostages
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in Sarajevo

Nato launched a search and rescue mission yesterday in the hope of finding the pilot of a US fighter shot down over northern Bosnia by a Serb missile.

The incident - and the possibility of a hostile reaction from Nato - could fan the flames of incipient war with the Bosnian Serbs, who yesterday rowed back on a promise to release more than 300 UN peacekeepers it is holding hostage.

There was no word on the fate of the American pilot who, if able to eject, would have landed in Serb-held northern Bosnia.

Franco Veltri, a Nato spokes-man in Naples, was wary of giving details for fear of prejudicing the operation, but added that another pilot saw a surface-to-air missile hit the F-16 during a routine patrol to enforce the no-fly zone over Bosnia, known as Operation Deny Flight.

President Bill Clinton, in a brief statement in Washington, expressed his "concern" over the pilot's fate, adding: "I want to reiterate and make absolutely clear, that our policy on Bosnia remains firm."

No other jets were targeted yesterday, though two Nato planes flying low near Sarajevo have been fired on in the past three days by the Serbs.

Nato's first loss came in April 1994, when a Royal Navy Sea Harrier was shot down by Serbs attacking Gorazde. The British pilot, Lt Nick Richardson, ejected and landed safely in government-held territory.

The F-16 is thought to have crashed between the Serb stronghold of Banja Luka and Bihac, a government enclave on the border with Croatia, an area of rolling green hills, woods and farmland.

In November, senior UN officials, including the then commander of UN forces in Bosnia, Lt-Gen Sir Michael Rose, dissuaded Nato from destroying the Serb's air defences for fear of antagonising them - Serb forces had taken hundreds of peace-keepers hostage, but they were eventually released unharmed.

A glimmer of hope for the latest batch of hostages - three Ukrainians captured overnight in Gorazde brought the total to 249 detained, plus 128 surrounded - came when the International Committee of the Red Cross revealed a Serb leader had reported their imminent release, only to retract the promise hours later.

Lucy Sternhall, an ICRC official in the Bosnian Serb "capital" Pale, said: "We have been informed that there is no need for the ICRC to have access to the detained UN personnel because they will be released today or tomorrow, unconditionally, as a gesture of goodwill."

However, the gesture was mostly a public relations one, it seemed: the problem, Serb officials said, was the news leaked before the planned official announcement, last night, by Radovan Karadzic, the Serb leader. "Big news like this should come from the 'president'," said one official in Pale, adding the release could be postponed for a few days.

Officials said the Serbs subsequently sought a meeting with the UN to discuss the release. "It's excellent news if it's really true," said Captain Des Williams of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who has 33 regimental comrades in Serb captivity. However, he knows the downing of the F-16 could complicate matters.

The alliance will undoubtedly hold fire until the pilot's fate is known. But under Operation Deny Flight, Nato has the right to destroy any missile sites it deems threatening to its planes, without consulting the UN.

Meanwhile, talks about recognition of Bosnia between President Slobodan Milosevic, of the Yugoslavian rump, and Robert Frasure, a US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, were stalled over Mr Milosevic's demands that UN sanctions against Serbia be lifted rather than merely eased.