The U.S. stealth fighter that crashed in Yugoslavia in the midst of the war over Kosovo was shot down by Yugoslav forces, the Air Force has officially confirmed.

Immediately after the radar-evading F-117A fighter went down in March, Yugoslavia claimed that it had shot down the $45 million plane. But Pentagon officials initially refused to say what had caused the crash, suggesting that it might have been a mechanical failure. The Air Force also convened a board to review the incident but withheld its findings.

The pilot, whom officials still refuse to identify, was rescued by Air Force commandos in a dramatic operation after he ejected safely. He is now back with the 8th Fighter Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, N.M.

The El Paso Times reported yesterday that the Air Force had confirmed the shoot-down in response to a request filed by the newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act. But the Pentagon provided no additional information.

An Air Force spokeswoman, Capt. Laurel Schere, said the fact that the stealth fighter had been shot down by Yugoslav air defenses "has been acknowledged before," even if this was the first time that the Air Force had put it in writing.

Retired Air Force Gen. Richard Hawley, former head of the Air Combat Command headquarters at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, said in an interview with Associated Press Radio that the sophisticated plane was the wrong one for the mission.

"Before that airplane took off from Aviano [Air Base in Italy], there was better than a 50-50 chance it would be shot down," Hawley said. "Those are unacceptable odds."

Hawley, who retired from the Air Force as a four-star general on June 11, noted that "stealth" does not mean complete invisibility.

"It's a fine plane. . . . But it encountered defenses we knew it was not designed to handle, and it didn't need to get put in that situation," Hawley said.