French officers accused of extreme pro-Serb bias

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France said yesterday that it was shocked to be accused of harbouring war criminals in Bosnia. But John Lichfield in Paris says the newspaper `Le Monde' has reported extreme pro-Serb sentiments among French officers in the country.

"Scandalous", "unspeakable", "profoundly shocking". The French foreign ministry is expert at hinting its displeasure but all diplomatic language went out of the window yesterday.

The foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, furiously protested in person to Louise Arbour, the chief prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunals in The Hague. It was Ms Arbour, a French-Canadian judge, who accused France at the weekend of, in effect, providing a safe haven for indicted Serb war criminals in the south-east part of Bosnia which is patrolled by French troops. She protested that France alone was refusing to allow its military officers to testify before the Bosnian, and Rwandan, war crimes tribunals.

After the meeting yesterday afternoon, the ministry spokeswoman said Mr Vedrine had told Ms Arbour that he was "deeply shocked" by these "scandalous allegations". He said France would co-operate with the international tribunals "in its own way". But it would refuse to allow the tribunals to be turned into a media circus in which witnesses became indistinguishable from the accused.

Ms Arbour, by all accounts, stood her ground. She told Mr Vedrine that France was failing in its duty to co-operate with the formal international inquiries which it had itself helped to create.

In the meantime, further fuel was poured on the controversy by the influential newspaper Le Monde (the first to carry Ms Arbour's allegations). The newspaper's correspondent in Sarajevo reported widespread pro-Serb sentiment among senior French officers serving in Bosnia.

Christian Lecomte quoted one colonel at the French headquarters as saying that the Serbs had been "sacrificed" by the Dayton accords of November 1995 which ended the Bosnian civil war. The re-arming of the Muslims by the United States would lead to an "Islamic resurgence in the region", he said, which would "destabilise Europe".

To justify his remarks, the officer claimed that Serbian schoolgirls in Sarajevo were being forced to wear Islamic head scarves. This, Le Monde said, was a totally false allegation, peddled by extremist Serbs.

In interviews with the French press, Ms Arbour claimed that most of the indicted Serb war criminals sought by the Hague tribunal - and all the most important ones - were living in impunity in the French sector of Bosnia.

The French defence ministry retorted yesterday that there were only "six to eight" wanted people in the French zone, compared to 10 in the US sector and "nearly 25 in the British sector". Le Monde complained that these figures were out of date; there had been a movement of indicted Serbs into the French zone since the arrest of one Serb and the killing of another by British troops in the north-western town of Prijedor last July.

The newspaper said that indicted Serbs were "parading" through Foca, in eastern Bosnia, one of the principal towns in the French zone. They included Dragan Gagovic and Janko Janjic, two of the Bosnian Serb officials accused of organising the systematic rape of Muslim women in 1992.