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Serbs Gloat Over Downed Jet

Hundreds of jubilant Serbs made their way to a wheat field Sunday to rummage through the wreckage of a high-tech U.S. fighter jet and celebrate what they saw as a victory over NATO.

"Long live our side," crowed a kerchiefed, elderly peasant woman, swinging a brandy bottle as she stood next to the wing section of the F-117A stealth fighter.

Some pulled out knives, and like hunters skinning prey, stripped away at the outer covering that was supposed to make the aircraft nearly invisible to radar. Others picked up the wing section pocked with gaping holes, and flipped it repeatedly.

The downed U.S. fighter jet near the village of Budjanovac, about 30 miles northwest of Belgrade, was one of the first events Serbs could interpret as a sign of success against the NATO bombardment that began Wednesday.

Pro-government papers equated the crash with overwhelming success. The daily Expres wrote of stealth fighters falling "like overripe pears."

That was hours before a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were strong indications the fighter was downed by a surface-to-air missile.

No matter that the jet pilot was rescued, and NATO intends to broaden its attacks aimed at forcing President Slobodan Milosevic to accept a peace plan for the province of Kosovo.

Even with sirens wailing throughout the day in Belgrade, signaling more attacks, and loud booms sounding west of the capital, it was a day of celebration for many Serbs.

"They can't touch us," gloated one man standing near the downed fighter who would not give his name.

Squinting beneath his worn hat, Costa Krstic said he saw the plane fall from the sky Saturday night.

"It was crisscrossing back and forth," he said. "Then it came overhead again, and it was hit."

Branko Ugrincic, a farmer, described hearing "thunder" moments before the plane crashed. His son, Radovan, said "a tremendous blast shook everything."

Other neighbors said Bora Bozic, the owner of the field, planned to sue NATO for scattering debris on his property.

The jet crash was clearly on the minds of some fans at a rock music festival in Belgrade, who shrugged off airstrike warnings to attend the anti-NATO protest organized by city officials.

"Sorry, we didn't know it was invisible," read one sign. Others said "NATO -- New American Terrorist Organization,".

The 15,000 fans, who ranged in age from early 20s to mid-60s, chanted and sang along with local rock groups.

Ironically, the square where the concert took place -- Trg Republike -- was the scene of months of anti-Milosevic protests in 1997 that marked the biggest threat to his rule before fading away. Several people said they attended those protests but now had to show a unified Serbian front against NATO.