A joyful hug as French pilots walk free

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President Jacques Chirac of France savoured a diplomatic triumph last night when he welcomed home two French pilots, released after more than three months of captivity in Bosnian Serb territory after Russian mediation. There had been no definite news of Captain Frederic Chiffot and Lieutenant Jose Souvignet, both 29, since their Mirage jet was shot down over the Bosnian Serb headquarters of Pale on 30 August.

Their release at Zvornik, on the Bosnia-Serbia border, only two days before France hosts the signing of the US brokered Bosnian peace agreement, gave Mr Chirac a much-needed boost on a day when more than a million people turned out on the streets of France to protest against planned welfare reforms. French television showed Mr Chirac meeting the pilots on the tarmac at a military airport outside Paris, and a tearful reunion between the pilots and their families.

Capt Chiffot and Lt Souvignet had been handed over to the chief of staff of the French armed forces in the afternoon at a short ceremony on the border of Bosnia and Serbia. They were flown to Paris and spent the night in a military hospital under observation. Both have broken bones, sustained when they ejected from their plane. Lt Souvignet was seen to walk with a slight limp.

After his release, Lt Souvignet said they had been well treated, but had been held separately for their first six weeks in captivity. The Bosnian Serbs also had recorded cassettes of their interrogation.

The fate of the pilots had become a major preoccupation of the authorities recently, with Mr Chirac facing the prospect of hosting the signing ceremony for the Dayton peace accord while their fate was unknown. The Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, warned at the London conference on Bosnia at the weekend that the peace process could be in danger if they were not released.

Yesterday, the Prime Minster, Alain Juppe, said their release had been largely due to the "personal involvement and tenacity" of the French President. Photographs published in Paris Match in September appeared to show the pilots were captured alive, but since then there had been speculation that they were dead. Announcing the pilots' release, Mr Chirac paid tribute to President Boris Yeltsin and Russia for their mediation. On the French side, negotiations were handled by a former secret service officer, Jean- Charles Marchiani.

However, questions are being asked about the terms of a possible deal. Two weeks ago, the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, said France could contribute to their release by ensuring guarantees for the safety of Serbs remaining in Sarajevo.

Yesterday, the Elysee said there had been "no negotiations with anyone". But there was speculation that Mr Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, might have bargained for a softening of the war crimes indictments pending against them.

Pilots' story, page 9