Joy in France as pilots are released

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The two French pilots missing for three months after their plane was shot down over the Bosnian Serb enclave of Pale were released yesterday after a flurry of last-minute negotiations, just two days before France hosts the signing of the Bosnian peace agreement.

The pilots, Captain Frederic Chiffot and Lieutenant Jose Souvignet, were handed over to the chief of staff of the French armed forces, at a short ceremony in Zvornik on the border of Bosnia and Serbia.

They were flown immediately back to Paris, where they were met on the tarmac by their wives and a joyous President Jacques Chirac.

The fate of the pilots had become a major preoccupation of the French authorities in recent weeks; Mr Chirac last week threatened unspecified consequences if the pilots were not released, while the foreign minister, Herve de Charette, made clear during the London conference at the weekend that the whole peace process could be in danger.

Yesterday the Prime Minster, Alain Juppe, said that their release had been due in large measure to the personal "involvement and tenacity" of the French president.

Since photographs of the two taken after their capture were published in the magazine Paris Match in September, there had been no reliable information, about their whereabouts and there was speculation that they were dead or badly injured.

Yesterday Lt Souvignet said that they had been well treated, but that they had been held separately for their first six weeks in captivity. From the air base near Nancy Captain Chiffot's wife, Isabelle, said that there was a "veritable explosion of joy in the hearts of their families and at the base", when news came of their release; "it's an extraordinary day."

Both Mr Chirac and the Bosnian Serb commander, Ratko Mladic, paid tribute to Russia's mediating role, and the Russian military attache in Belgrade, Viktor Shipilov, attended the handover ceremony yesterday. On the French side the delicate negotiations were handled by a former secret service officer, Jean-Charles Marchiani, who negotiated the release of French hostages in Lebanon and during the hijack of a French airliner at Marseilles last Christmas.

While French politicians lavished praise on Mr Chirac for obtaining the release of the pilots, questions were already being asked about the terms of a possible deal.

Two weeks ago the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, had said that the release of the pilots could be speeded up if France ensured guarantees for the safety of Serbs remaining in Sarajevo. Yesterday, the Elysee said that there had been "no negotiations with anyone" and that France had "only put pressure" on the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic.

There was speculation, however, that Mr Karadzic and Mr Mladic might have demanded a softening of the war crimes indictment pending against them in return for the pilots' release. And amid the widespread international rejoicing, there was bitterness among Serbs, with Bosnian Serb radio lamenting that "two pilots who bombed us" were "gloriously liberated because France requested it".

Pilots' story, page 9