Pilot rescued behind lines

Special Forces
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The Independent Online
NATO WAS yesterday forced to launch a second, dramatic rescue mission into Yugoslav territory, this time to recover the pilot of an F-16 jet which the alliance said had been crippled by engine failure.

The American airman was recovered in the early hours of yesterday morning by a specialist undercover unit, after bailing out at around 1am near Metic, in north-west Serbia, on his return from a mission. He spent two hours in hiding before being picked up and taken to his base for medical treatment and debriefing.

Yesterday's mission into Serb territory is the second of its kind during the 40-day air campaign. The first involved the recovery of the pilot of a F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter.

On Saturday, a Harrier AV-8B ditched into the Adriatic near the USS Kearsarge, which sent out a rescue helicopter and crew.

The rescue of the F-16 pilot involved a number of aircraft, support teams and a unittrained for undercover recovery missions.

The pilot was equipped with radio equipment linking him to his base and identifying his location, and had been well prepared for such eventualities, Nato said. "It is a matter of routine for pilots," said a military source, "it should be almost instinct."

Although Belgrade claimed it had shot down the aircraft, Nato blamed mechanical failure and pointed out that the F-16 is a single-engine aircraft.

The incident, like the rescue of the stealth pilot, highlights the emphasis Nato places on preventing its airmen falling into enemy hands. An alliance military spokesman said: "They make the rescue of pilots a very high priority. The people who are flying these aircraft in support of Nato must be a high priority."

Since the air bombardment began, four aircraft have been lost: the two this weekend, the stealth fighter, and an Apache helicopter which crashed on a training mission in Albania. The alliance has also lost four pilotless aircraft, one American and three German, used in aerial surveillance.