Airman's first thought was for his family

French pilots drama: General Mladic, amid rumours of a trade-off with Paris, toasts the recovery of the men he held captive

The French pilots released by rebel Serbs after more than 100 days in captivity walked tentatively to freedom at a motel in a dreary border town yesterday.

The senior French general sent to collect them drank plum brandy with the captor - the man who had for weeks refused to acknowledge their existence, the indicted war criminal, General Ratko Mladic.

Limping slightly and squinting against the barrage of television lights, Captain Frederic Chiffot and Lieutenant Jose Souvignet told reporters they had been treated "quite well".

Capt Chiffot looked the worse for wear as the pair emerged from a jeep in the car park of a motel in Zvornik, on the border with Serbia, and Lieut Souvignet did most of the talking.

"I had some pain in my leg but they had very good doctors," he said. Both men sustained leg injuries while ejecting from their Mirage 2000, shot down over the Serb mountain headquarters, Pale, during Nato bombing raids on 30 August.

"My first thought is for my family," the lieutenant said. "I would like to send them a message, but not with so many people around." General Jean-Philippe Douin, the French army chief-of-staff, was on hand to greet the pair, alongside General Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander who held them hostage for so long.

The party gathered to drink plum brandy with General Mladic, who looked jovial.

In a breath-taking, but wholly characteristic act of cheek, General Mladic wished the men well. "I wish you a fast recovery," he said, "and I wish you to be pilots again, but of planes for peace." As he offered the men apples from a bowl of fruit, the man accused by the UN War Crimes Tribunal of direct responsibility for the murder of thousands of Muslim civilians, added: "This should be a lesson for the future that all problems should be solved peacefully."

The surreal tone was echoed by Colonel Vladimir Kuljis, a Russian sent to aid the pilots' release, who praised General Mladic's "humanity". He said: "I hope the whole world will appreciate this act by the Serbs. Liberation of the French pilots was an act of humanity.

"I hope this will show what kind of people the Serbs are and that this will lead to a better situation."

The pilots, last seen as their parachutes drifted to earth as the jet plunged to the ground in flames, said little about their ordeal. Lieut Souvignet said the two were kept apart for six weeks in adjoining rooms, but were later allowed exercise.

"Our guards allowed us to speak to each other now and then," he added. They spoke to their captors in English, then learned a few words of Serbo- Croat. "Not a lot, but enough," Lieut Souvignet said. "Then we were able to ask for bread and water and our elementary needs."

There had been no news of the pilots since their capture, prompting many Nato officials to give up hope that they would resurface alive.

In September, Paris-Match published photos of the two looking bleary- eyed, held up by Bosnian Serb soldiers and with their features distorted to avoid identification.

Fears for their safety grew in October, when Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, announced they had been kidnapped by an unknown "Muslim group".

This story was supported by Russian sources who claimed their captors were not under the full control of the leadership. However, given the iron grip of the police in the "Srpska Republic", such a scenario was almost inconceivable.

In mid-November, the International Committee of the Red Cross transmitted a secret message from the Serbian government to officials in Paris, but a spokesman refused to divulge its contents.

French reaction to the loss of the pilots was muted for much of the autumn, amounting to occasional demands for information on their fate. It was only after the Dayton peace agreement that Paris began to threaten unspecified action if the men were not released. Given France's penchant for doing deals in exchange for hostages, there is much speculation about a possible trade- off.

Lieutenant-General Bernard Janvier, the French commander of UN forces in the former Yugoslavia, visited Sarajevo on Monday. But he did not visit UN headquarters, which suggests he was not on UN business. He left for Paris yesterday.

Suggestions of trade-offs include a French attempt to improve guarantees for the Serbs in areas of Sarajevo due to revert to government rule, a demand by General Mladic that the War Crimes Tribunal drop charges against him and a request that Mr Karadzic, also indicted by the tribunal, be invited to Paris for the signing of the peace treaty tomorrow.

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