Rescued airman thanks God and the Marines

Homecoming day: Pilot given a hero's welcome at his base as Washington' s quandary over Bosnia deepens
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The Independent Online
RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Thanking God, his family and above all the US Marines, America's latest hero, Captain Scott O'Grady, returned to base and an ecstatic welcome from his comrades yesterday. Four thousand miles away in Washington, however, America's quandary over the war of which he is but a tiny footnote only deepened.

At the United States Air Force base at Aviano in Italy, it was homecoming day for the pilot from "Triple Nickel" 555 fighter squadron, exactly a week after his F-16 was shot down by the Bosnian Serbs. And 1,000 joyous well-wishers - mostly fellow airmen and their families - turned it into a yellow- ribboned, all-American spectacular, as they whooped and cheered his every word.

Without "God's love for me and my love for God I would never have got through it," Capt O'Grady started out, with tears in his eyes as applause reverberated around 555's hangar.

But he looked none the worse for his ordeal in the wild as he thanked his family, his friends, and "everyone in the US and the Nato countries" for their support.

However, the biggest heroes were the Marines who rescued him. "They are the best in the world. They say they were just doing their jobs, but they were risking their lives," the captain said.

Sooner rather than later there will be more fanfare and another homecoming - this time to the US, and very probably to the White House itself.

No one has been more relieved than President Bill Clinton at this miraculously happy ending to an affair which threatened to cast his Bosnia policy into an even more wretched light.

But the very exultation across the country over Capt O'Grady is a measure of America's frustration and impotence in the Bosnian conflict - an outpouring of joy and pride not over a military victory, nor a diplomatic breakthrough: but the retrieval of a single individual blasted insolently from the sky by a rebel army whose advance the mightiest war machine on earth has been able only to stand by and watch.

Indeed, the commander of Nato's air forces in southern Europe believes the pilot was victim of a trap set by the Bosnian Serbs, shot down in an area where they had never used such ground-to-air missiles before against Allied planes.

Lt-Gen Michael Ryan champed visibly at the bit yesterday to retaliate, "to do anything I can to protect our airmen". But, he admitted, that to destroy the missile sites would take "a political decision". And even armchair generals know that the diplomacy of Bosnia is far more complicated than the fighting.

Only hours after Capt O'Grady was being feted by his colleagues in northern Italy, Bosnia's Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic, left the White House empty-handed and bitter after failing once again to persuade Washington unilaterally to lift the arms embargo, which he said had become "an instrument of genocide".

But a one-hour meeting with Vice-President Al Gore produced little more than sympathy. "If a therapy doesn't work, you change it," Mr Silajdzic angrily complained. US policy on Bosnia had "failed", yet the arguments advanced in favour of keeping the embargo were those of three years ago.

The fact too that Mr Clinton did not meet the prime minister was widely taken as a snub that will worsen the Administration's relations both with Bosnia and with Congress, where pressure to pull out the United Nations contingent and lift the embargo has intensified since the recent hostage- taking fiasco. Almost certainly Mr Clinton will veto a foreign aid bill, containing a clause lifting the embargo and passed 318-99 by the House of Representatives.

But that showdown is for tomorrow. For the moment Americans can savour the respite offered by Capt O'Grady's derring-do.

"You look fabulous," the pilot's father, William, told him in a phone call from his Virginia home, carried live on the morning television shows here. Afterwards he remarked in awe, "He looked as if he'd taken a regular airplane trip."

Serb promise, page 10

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