French sources indicated yesterday that France might even delay the signing of the Bosnia peace treaty in Paris on Thursday if the demand were not met, though the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said last night the international community believed France would host the signing of the treaty on Thursday as planned.
The issue dominated backstage discussions yesterday at the Peace Implementation Conference in London. In Belgrade, the US special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, was holding talks on the airmen, Captain Frederic Chiffot and Lieutenant Jose Souvignet. "We attach the highest importance to this issue," Mr Holbrooke said after meeting President Slobodan Milosevic, who has helped win freedom for hostages held by Bosnian Serbs in the past.
The French foreign minister, Herve de Charette, is understood to have told alliance governments that he wants either a firm timetable for the release of the pilots by midnight tonight or proof that they are dead.
There has been no firm evidence of what happened to the men after they were shot down on a bombing mission on 30 August. France has also raised the prospect of military reprisal by issuing direct threats against those who may be holding the pilots and against their Serb political sponsors.
French foreign ministry sources said that President Jacques Chirac had personally telephoned President Milosevic to warn him of "multiple consequences" if the pilots were not set free.
The ministry said that these "consequences" would "hit both the people who kept the pilots captive and those people who have failed to act in accordance with their undertakings".
That was a reference to the Bosnian Serbs and to Serbia itself. Both parties agreed at the Dayton peace talks on Bosnia to use their best efforts to win the release of the pilots.
Nato and United Nations sources in Bosnia have believed for weeks now that the two pilots are dead, particularly since Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, claimed two months ago that the men had been "kidnapped" from a hospital by unknown gangsters. The officials fear the Frenchmen died from injuries sustained while ejecting from the Mirage 2000, or were killed by Serbs in revenge for Nato air strikes.
If the men were alive, the argument goes, they would have been bartered by the Serb side at the Dayton peace talks.
However, threatening to postpone the Paris peace conference is unlikely to persuade Mr Karadzic to reveal the whereabouts of the airmen, dead or alive. He, more than anyone, has an interest in aborting a deal that will end his career and possibly earn him a life sentence from the war crimes tribunal.Reuse content