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Is Fanfare Over Downed Pilot Eroding U.S. Credibility With Serbs?

June 15, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Clinton lauded Air Force Capt. Scott O’Grady’s courage. Defense Secretary William Perry declared the downed pilot had shown ``true grit.″

But O’Grady said he was simply a ``scared little bunny″ trying to survive in Serb-held territory after being shot down over Bosnia.

O’Grady’s remarks _ along with the Clinton administration’s decision to take no retaliatory action _ reinforced an image of U.S. timidity among the battle-hardened Bosnian Serbs, diplomatic analysts say.

Warren Zimmermann, the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, described the Balkans as ``a center of machismo.″

``To see the mighty U.S. falling all over itself over the rescue of one airman _ who describes himself as a scared rabbit _ can only reinforce the image of weakness that we have unfortunately conveyed throughout the Bosnian war,″ said Zimmermann, who resigned from the State Department last year to protest U.S. inaction in Bosnia and is now an analyst with the Rand Corp.

A Serb surface-to-air missile brought down O’Grady’s F-16 fighter June 2. An airborne Marine rescue team plucked him from a Serb-held area of Bosnia six days later.

A round of celebrations began as O’Grady was transferred to his base in northern Italy and climaxed with an emotional arrival in Washington. He was feted at the White House by Clinton, at the Pentagon by the top brass. He addressed an elated audience of senators and generals and made the rounds of TV news shows.

But the display left some Bosnian Serbs genuinely puzzled: Just why do the Americans make a hero of a pilot who was shot out of the sky with such ease?

O’Grady was seen across America and the world not just as a hero but as an unassuming and occasionally tearful military officer, eager to hail his rescuers _ not himself _ as the heroes.

Analysts say Serb propagandists are likely to have a field day with O’Grady’s bunny remark. Nevertheless, the rescue mission shows the Serbs are not unbeatable.

Bosnian Serbs are generally contemptuous of the courage of Western European soldiers comprising the bulk of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia. The Serbs have frequently humiliated the peacekeepers, who operate only with Serbian consent, and whom the Serbs periodically have taken hostage by the hundreds.

Serbs also are dismissive of the U.S. military, which they believe is too frightened even to set foot in Bosnia. They use a profane derogatory term to describe U.S. jets that endlessly _ and seemingly pointlessly _ patrol the sky.

In fact, many Serbs are convinced the rescue mission resulted from a secret agreement between their leaders and the Americans. A widely held attitude in the Bosnian Serb capital of Pale was summed up by Mirko Jovovic, a soldier: ``He is no hero,″ Jovovic said of O’Grady. ``We let him go.″

On June 5, Gen. Ronald Fogleman, the U.S. Air Force chief of staff, disclosed that signals from O’Grady’s transmitter were being received. For the Serbs, that was an indication that O’Grady had survived. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said at the time his forces were not ``intensively searching″ for the pilot. It left the impression that they believed they could have found the pilot had they wanted to.

O’Grady himself said the Serbs made an initial attempt to find him but in succeeding days, his concealment was threatened only by two cows and a lone shepherd.

Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic predicted the shootdown ``will lead to further erosion of American credibility among the Serbs.″

``I’m glad that young man was rescued, but I just can’t believe American pride can so easily swallow the shooting down of one of its planes,″ he said in Washington.

And Katarina Mandic, a justice on Bosnia’s Constitutional Court also visiting Washington, said she was saddened by the spectacle.

``A professional soldier was weeping after spending a few days evading the Serbs,″ she said. ``How should the civilians of Sarajevo behave after being their targets for more than three years?″

___

EDITOR’S NOTE _ Slobodan Lekic reports from Washington on international affairs for The Associated Press. He was a correspondent in the AP’s Belgrade bureau for six years.

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